In La Bete, Mark Rylance not only has the difficult task of performing a script written entirely in rhyming verse, but as the buffoonish street clown Valere, he delivers a nearly 40-minute-long comic monologue, offending the intellectually esteemed playwright Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) by vulgarly stripping and drunkenly burping throughout. The British actor, who served as artistic director of London’s Globe Theatre for a decade until 2005, recently spoke to Broadway.com about delivering La Bete’s mammoth speech, his notorious 2008 Tony Awards acceptance speech for Boeing-Boeing and his plans for yet another Broadway star turn in the spring of 2011.
You’re practically the only actor who speaks during the first 40 minutes of La Bete. Are you able to keep the speech fresh each night?
It stays fresh. Valere’s need for Elomire’s approval and to have him think he's a great writer and worthy to be part of his theater company is always unresolved. I know that situation very well—of meeting your heroes and trying to impress them and let them know you’d make a good friend or collaborator. David, of course, can’t help but be different every night in the way he listens and responds. It’s the same as sport, in a way, because I’m just trying to win. And I lose every night [laughs]. My attempt to win is what entertains everyone.
Is maintaining your stamina the hardest part about that scene?
Not the stamina. The most difficult part of it is just constantly letting go and daring to try something different. Live art is not like film where you try to nail something that’s the optimum. [On stage] there isn’t any optimum except that you’re in the same room with the current audience and not people who were there last Saturday night. Not holding on to things that worked really well in the past is difficult.
Was it difficult rehearsing the scene not knowing how audiences would react to listening to you for 40 minutes?
I laugh a lot in rehearsal. In England we call it corpsing, which is when you fall out of character and laugh. I’m very wild in rehearsal because with a director like Matthew Warchus, I know he’ll help me make decisions in the end. I just throw in everything I can, and learn through being chaotic and childlike. I find playing with a live audience is a little bit like surfing or [hang gliding] because they have an unpredictable nature. Sometimes they’re so loud with their laughter you literally can’t speak the next line. So you have to wait, but you can’t just wait, so you invent more things to do and that just makes them laugh even more. Sometimes I’ll say to the other players "Surf’s up!" or "There are lots of waves today," so they know there’s lots of fun to be had.
It must be enjoyable to drive David Hyde Pierce crazy every night.
It is a lot of fun acting with him. He is so witty and his eyes are so expressive. He has this Buster Keaton type straight face, and he’s such a clown. I really admire him. He’s very cultured, charitable, intelligent and generous and just makes us laugh all the time. I don’t think I’ve succeeded in driving him mad, but I could because I’m very wild and reckless sometimes and he’s marvelous at understanding that and where [my character] is coming from.
At one point, your character even goes to the bathroom on stage. Did you ever have a feeling that maybe you were making him too crude?
There were some ideas proposed to me that I haven’t gone to. But that was a true story about a close friend of mine who likes to talk a lot. We were talking for about a half hour without me getting a word in, and he suddenly went into the bathroom and just kept carrying on talking. I realized I could probably leave the room and it wouldn’t even make any difference—he’d still keep talking. In rehearsal, we all enjoyed using things we remembered from people who like to talk a lot.
So that wasn’t even in the script?
None of the stuff, like how I’m often spitting out the melon in my mouth, is in the script. There were stage directions, but we ignored them mostly because they were for another production. You always need to find your own way of manifesting what’s in the script. In this script, we know Valere talks and talks and talks, but how you get it to manifest is similar to the particular way Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone or the Beatles sing a standard song.
Elomire truly despises Valere. Are there any public figures that make your skin crawl?
Most of the commentators on television. These talking heads, particularly on Fox News, the real right-wing ones, just make my head boil. I just think they’re so arrogant and ignorant and cruel, really repulsive. The other day one was saying the guy who created Wiki [leaks] should be assassinated. It’s unbelievable. Democracy is so dependent on a free press and people having accurate information to support or not support the government. To have someone go on TV and say that this guy should be assassinated—that person should be banned from speaking in public.
What are your memories of serving as artistic director of London's Globe Theatre?
The re-opening of the Globe is really a highlight of my life. That kind of opportunity just doesn’t come along often in any theater person’s life. What really intrigued me was when we were really trying to understand how these plays were originally staged, with all male actors playing women’s roles. That was a lot of fun.
Even with your extensive Shakespeare background, American audiences know you best for your wild Broadway turns in La Bete and Boeing-Boeing.
It’s funny, because I always wanted to play the fool at the Globe. I tried to cast myself in those roles and eventually I would need to do something else. My position of authority was better suited for leaders like the king or duke in plays, so I rarely got to play the fool. In [Jez Butterworth's play] Jerusalem, I’ll be playing a very different king [a woods-dwelling Pied Piper-type character who may or may not lead young followers astray], but he’s got a bit of fool to him.
What can you tell us about Jerusalem? It’s definitely coming to Broadway in the spring?
I'm planning to be back here in April. [Co-star] Mackenzie Crook is coming, and about 80% of the original company is, as well. I’m hoping the play will have meaning with American audiences. It’s about freedom and the clash of individuals and society and how a society becomes more and more fearful of nature. This path we’ve been on, of dominating the natural world for the past 1,000 years or so, comes with an attempt to dominate our own [inner] nature. It’s set in England, but I think the story is very lively in America as well. This is the land of freedom. You can be whoever you want to be, yet there’s still a great clash of harming people who want to be who they are, and those who are terrified of their own nature and try to suppress others.
You received an Olivier Award for Jerusalem and critical acclaim for La Bete. Should you find yourself winning a second Tony in June, do you think you’ll give another non-traditional acceptance speech?
I find all award ceremonies so surreal. I just don’t understand what they’re about other than a showcase to sell things. It’s a funny thing—the need to quantify. It’s wonderful to celebrate theater, but there are so many great performers who aren’t celebrated. It’s always felt a little odd to me how it’s all turned into a competition. It’s a problem to figure out what to say, but I’ll figure out something if I happen to end up there.
With Jerusalem on your plate, you’ll have been in New York for nearly a year. Do you feel at home here?
I do feel very much at home. I love the city, especially the bike paths. They’re fantastic. In London, the streets are very narrow, but these new bike paths down the avenues are wonderful. I have lots of friends here and the depth of the theater community and all the stuff that goes on in this city is very exciting.
See Mark Rylance in La Bete at the Music Box Theatre.