Mark Rylance: Spielberg creates a sense of community I thought only theatre had

The acting juggernaut talks about working with Spielberg, playing the BFG and bringing his play ”Nice Fish” to the West End

"Do you think people will recognise me on the street?" asks Mark Rylance. Despite winning an Academy Award, two Olivier Awards and three Tony Awards, the legendary stage actor has taken his time to become a Hollywood household name. But after winning an Oscar for his role in 2015's Bridge of Spies, he now takes on the title character in Steven Spielberg's live-action adaptation of The BFG. Using motion capture technology, Rylance has been transformed into the giant which looks so much like him, he wonders whether he will begin to be stopped on his way to buy milk.

Rylance describes filming The BFG as a lot more like being in the rehearsal room for a play than on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster. With no sets or costume, he has to "rely just on the situation and the character". The result is a charmingly ditsy character who fits perfectly into the magical world Spielberg has created in the film.

In the '80s Rylance was faced with the choice between a role in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, or take part in a season at the National. In the end, the actor turned the director down after deciding that theatre felt more like a "community". Nearly 30 years on, his stance is changing, and in 2015 he said yes to Spielberg when he came knocking for Bridge of Spies.

A bromance has now blossomed between the two (the director says he is "one of the best actors I have ever experienced"). Rylance describes the set of The BFG as having the same sense of community he thought cinema lacked all those years ago; "Steven has ‘father’ written on the back of his chair rather than director," Rylance explains. "There’s a real language of family and in theatre I’ve always found that, but in film I hadn't."

The BFG opens in cinemas on 22 July
The BFG opens in cinemas on 22 July

Working with family is something Rylance is quite used to; his wife, composer and director Claire van Kampen, wrote Farinelli and the King which opened at The Globe, where Rylance was the first artistic director for 10 years until 2005.

"I very much enjoy working with her – I’m happiest with her. I’ve collaborated with her for a long time – her on the music side and me on the theatre side – it’s very exciting for us."

Van Kampen will direct his new surreal comedy Nice Fish, which is about two men fishing on a frozen lake in Minnesota, and transfers to the West End this winter. The play ran in New York earlier this year, and The New York Times described the play as a "quirky charmer".

Rylance grew up in the Midwest, and the prospect of bringing the production to London, complete with cast of Minnesotan actors, delights him. He briefly breaks his intense yet amiable demeanour to grin: "I can't wait. I’ve taken so many things over to Broadway [Boeing Boeing, Jerusalem, Richard III], but this is the first time I’ve made something in the culture where I grew up."

Whenever signing up to a play, Rylance makes sure his contract stipulates that the boxes in the theatre are free of any lighting or sound rigs. For Nice Fish, he has insisted the boxes are filled with members of the audience dressed as fish, and will even give tickets away to make sure it happens.

Melody Grove (Isabella Farnese), Mark Rylance (Philippe V) and Sam Crane (Farinelli)
Mark Rylance in Farinelli and the King
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Why? He demonstrates, delicately using his teacup and saucer, how most great theatres ("like The Globe") are based on a circle in the ceiling. This makes its way down around the auditorium, and reaches a point where the audience meet the stage. "The boxes are a very important conduit between the reality of the stage and the reality of the audience," he says. "They’re like little stages, and yet they have audience in them.

"I’m interested to see some of those people being dressed as fishermen or fish so that there’s a kind of marriage that it’s happening in one room" he says. "The Globe taught me that the most powerful thing is that we all feel we’re in the same room together. When Cassius and Brutus are killing Julius Caesar, we’re there. We see it and we feel it."

Despite forays into writing and directing, he insists acting is still at the core of everything he does. He wants to be centre stage, but not for the limelight; for the enjoyment of the play. He sees himself as a "captain on the field."

In many ways, it would have been almost impossible to cast anyone else as the Big Friendly Giant. He can play characters as powerful or eccentric as they get, but Rylance the giant has more than a smidgen of Rylance the man. Both humble and cordial, it's clear that Rylance's motives aren't wealth or fame, but to enjoy "playing the great parts I'm lucky enough to be offered".

The BFG opens in cinemas on 22 July. Nice Fish runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 25 November 2016 to 21 January 2017, with previews from 15 November.