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‘The BFG’: Mark Rylance reunites with Steven Spielberg and astonishes anew

‘The BFG’
Mark Rylance as “The BFG.”
(Walt Disney Pictures)

By his own admission, Steven Spielberg doesn’t become personal friends with many of the actors he works with.

“I have a lot of acquaintances over 44 years [as a filmmaker],” he told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival Saturday. “And I haven’t brought a lot of people into my life from the movies ... “

He has, however, made an exception for Mark Rylance. The director said he’s become close with the actor, a fact that runs parallel to their professional lives, with two collaborations under their belts and a third on the way.

Audiences should be glad for the relationship. Rylance, who played the simmering spy Rudolf Abel in Spielberg’s 2015 hit “Bridge of Spies,” returns, in a remarkably different guise, in Spielberg’s latest, the adaptation of Roald Dahl children’s fantasy “The BFG” that premieres here Saturday. The 56-year-old British-born Tony and Oscar winner (and Emmy and Golden Globe nominee) stars as said title character -- it stands for “big friendly giant.” He gives a performance in motion-capture as rich and subtle as his turn in the Soviet-era espionage drama.

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Rylance is a standout in “BFG,” which follows a British orphan (Ruby Barnhill) as she begins a friendship with the friendly giant in a faraway land, the pair dodging threats from even larger barbarians in the process. There will be mixed opinions on the Spielberg throwback, as there were doubts for this writer. But there will be almost no ambivalence about Rylance’s performance, which manages to steer between the cliches of the gentle giant and the fetishized other. Rylance’s BFG is different, but he’s different in how he’s different.

Some of this, of course, could be chalked up to digital rendering. But all the computers in the world probably couldn’t do what Rylance pulls off: make BFG seem frighteningly imposing one minute and quaveringly small the next. The voice is a key part of this too, jumping with playful inflection through Dahl’s coinages like “delumptious fizzy frobscottle,” but settling into a more fearful register when danger lurks. If anyone is still grumbling about Rylance winning the Oscar over Stallone a few months ago, this should hopefully put an end to it.

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Rylance said the motion-capture aspects actually helped him play the part. “It’s not unlike being in a rehearsal room of a theater,” he said of the green-screen setting, which lacks audience or marks."You just have to use imagination.”

(Side note, possibly relevant: I saw Rylance as Rooster in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” on Broadway a number of years ago. Watching him perform the climactic scene while bloodied on his back was an experience to remember, and gave literal expression to the idea that a select few can do lying down what almost everyone else can’t do standing up.)

Rylance, seated next to Spielberg wearing his trademark hat, also said that he channeled older working-class types he witnessed as a child in Kent, England -- the kind of personalities who could seem larger-than-life even as they were also probably quite vulnerable.

The actor was also able here to make the adjustment from the character he played in “Bridge of Spies,” where the full range of body motion was available, but less of it was used. Abel’s self-contained, almost enigmatic self was light years away from the expressive, externalized performance Rylance gives here as BFG.

“Just to see that transformation before my eyes was [the most astonishing] thing I’ve ever seen in my life, with these two films back to back,” Spielberg said.

There will be at least a third film, and another transformation. Rylance and Spielberg will join up again for the futuristic adaptation “Ready Player One.” Rylance stars as James Halliday, the entrepreneur who created the OASIS utopia in the book by Ernest Cline. The character is certainly an eccentric. Knowing Rylance, he will be eccentric in a whole different way.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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