Interview: Mark Rylance on ‘Bridge of Spies’

The British actor won this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Russian spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which is released on DVD on 28th March.

Tell us about the character you play?

I play Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy who was captured and arrested in America. We don’t really know all that much about him, other than the fact that he received and passed on messages at various drop sites throughout New York using a hollow coin. He was hiding out in a kind of bohemian artists’ warehouse in Brooklyn with all of these young guys who were what you would call, “left of center.” Eventually, the New York Bar Association gets an insurance lawyer, James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, to agree to represent Abel, knowing that he was involved in the Nuremburg Trials and had some knowledge of foreign matters like this.

Did you find it liberating to play a real person?

Playing a real person can help you draw out a particular side of yourself, but Abel is a mysterious character. There are not any actual recordings of his voice, so I based his accent on other people’s descriptions, but there is a brief clip on YouTube of him being led from a truck into a courtroom which provided me with some nice physical aspects to play with, like his

stance, which was almost hawk-like. Unfortunately, I don’t have his wonderful nose and I’m not quite as thin as he was.

Tell us about the time period in which the story takes place, as well as the political climate of the time.

This is a true story, and the events that open the film took place in 1957. It was a dangerous time when the U.S. government thrived on frightening its citizens. When Abel was captured, the country was in a frenzy and everyone was convinced he should be executed for his crimes, and, in fact, there is a scene in the film where members of the public present at Abel’s trial become very angry when his sentence is read. But Donovan’s argument had always been that this was not treason, because Abel was never an American citizen, but a professional spy doing his patriotic duty for his country, and it is Donovan’s brilliant assertion that no matter who the enemy is or what they have done, everyone needs to be treated equally under that law. We can’t change the law simply because the public is outraged.

How would you describe the film?

It is a Cold War thriller with the psychology of James Donovan’s actions at its heart. It’s fascinating to see how an honest, hard-working lawyer like Donovan gets drawn into the powerful corridors of the CIA and the FBI and the subtleties of international relations between America and the Soviet Union at that time.

Tell us about the look of the film.

The sets are all incredibly beautiful with an amazing amount of detail. And the props on set were extraordinary and so completely accurate for that time, things like jars of peanut butter…stuff you just assumed didn’t exist anymore. As an actor, we are working amongst crafts people, and just being surrounded by these people with such skill and love for what they do is very inspiring. It is the combination of all these crafts which make a great film, and Steven leads so creatively.

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