Mark Rylance unwittingly auditioned for the lead role in Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy—as a bartender who leaves his wife and sons for a dank flat and weekly anonymous sex with a married woman—by playing the Queen of the Nile. “Patrice came to see me in Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe, and just after that he said, ‘Look, I would prefer you to play Jay,’ ” says Rylance, whom Chéreau had already offered a supporting part. “He thought it was very committed, the Cleopatra, or perhaps that I was willing to take risks, and he imagined there were risks ahead.” The 41-year-old actor kindly accedes to demands for an itemized toilette. “I wore a selection of period dresses with corsets—she likes clothes,” explains Rylance, who is also the Globe Theatre’s artistic director. “I plucked a lot of hair off my body, waxed my legs. I had the makeup. By Act V I wore nothing but a cotton shift and some underwear, pulled off the wig, and came down to very little.”
Much of Intimacy‘s raw, desolate force comes down to the hurried grapplings on a grimy floor between two strangers (Rylance and Kerry Fox) who barely speak to each other. “Patrice said, I don’t want these scenes to be romantic; I don’t want you to be concerned with masking parts of your body or your genitals. I want to capture something that’s as real as possible.” As Rylance points out, the movie’s title is somewhat ironic. “The love scenes are odd in that usually they would come at the end of a buildup of desire and courtship. But we didn’t have to act like we were in love. These are basic appetite scenes.”
Intimacy gathers together stories by Hanif Kureishi into a single narrative, and according to Rylance, the wrenching conversational disconnect that frays the characters’ attempts to communicate was, in part, the product of language barriers. “Patrice had taken Hanif’s stories, written his film script in French, and then retranslated it into English. A few friends in England who have seen the film have said, you know, the dialogue didn’t feel completely natural. And when I saw the film I thought that maybe I should have been more strong about making changes. But Patrice has very forceful ideas about how he wants things to be.”
Rylance—like Jay a resident of south London—recalls that during production, “I would tell people I was making Last Tango at Elephant and Castle, which is this horrible little roundabout, quite bleak, and about 15 years ago they decided to cheer things up and paint the shopping center this hideous shade of pink.” Still, he reports, “If you’re moving through the area with your eyes closed, it can seem very gray, but if you go with your eyes open you can pick up on the color. You have to be in a certain frame of mind—maybe a French frame of mind. Late in the film, there’s a beautiful scene in a park very early in the morning where Kerry and Marianne [Faithfull] are having a beer together, and that’s very London to me—the way the dense nature of the housing and the streets can suddenly open up into these wide green areas.”
Rylance’s tenure as the Globe’s first artistic director has been no less unpredictable—at the time of his appointment in 1995, he was in rehearsals as actor and director for the infamous Hare Krishna Macbeth, in which the robed, besandaled actors spoke their lines with American accents and Lady Macbeth peed during the sleepwalking scene. Right now, Rylance is preparing an all-male Twelfth Night to mark the 400th anniversary of its first recorded performance, and in March he brings the Globe’s pomo staging of Cymbeline—seven actors in matching pajamas juggling multiple roles—to BAM.
Born in Kent, Rylance lived with his parents in Milwaukee from age nine to 18. “I returned because I wanted to be a live-theater actor. It’s funny, because a lot of my generation of actors, Gary Oldman and Ken Branagh and all of them, started in the theater in London and went to America to make films. I grew up in the Midwest of America and went to London to be in the theater.” In fact, Intimacy marks the first—and so far only—movie role Rylance has accepted since assuming his post at the Globe, though he previously worked with Peter Greenaway, Michael Winterbottom, and the Quay brothers (whom he adores—Rylance calls Institute Benjamenta, in which he played a lovelorn house-servant-in-training, “the happiest film I’ve ever made”).
The infrequency of Rylance’s appearances on the big screen is “a matter of time and priorities. In the theater you get much more time acting; in film you spend a lot of time waiting. But I have nothing but the greatest respect for film actors, because in the theater you’re in control of the story—you’re adjusting every night according to what the audience is like. In film, you’ve got no relationship with the audience, and you’re very vulnerable in that sense, because you’re completely dependent on the director’s skills as a storyteller. I always marvel at Bill Murray—how he has the confidence and courage that his comedy is going to work, something so low-key and droll and wonderful. How can he tell?”
Click here to read J. Hoberman’s review of Intimacy.