The year has barely begun before we are into our stride with a slice of truly fascinating costume drama airing soon on BBC-2 based on the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by the booker prize winning Hilary Mantel. Amongst an all star cast Mark Rylance stands out as the scheming Thomas Cromwell. Here he talks about the process of finding his character and how the books allowed him to add an extra layer of depth to Cromwell.
How did you prepare for a role of this magnitude?
Well, you read the books. When you have such fantastic detailed books behind the script, it makes sense to use them and I read them twice. I’d check each scene in the script with the book. Sometimes it’s a few different scenes in the books that have been put together to make a scene. The book in particular is so much about what Cromwell is thinking, so I really made a study of that. I tend to try and make lists of everything the characters say about themselves, and about the others. Where the lists are too big and too long, I marked particularly eloquent passages – there’s a beautiful passage where Cromwell describes what it is to serve Henry. So, I put those aside, so that I could keep referring to them. And try and figure out what he wants as a person. I was very struck by him being a runaway. The few runaway kids I know have grown up with a certain pragmatism. The image I have is, runaways knowing how to determine whether the road they’re looking at is a dead end alley, or something that has a few openings. So, you’re always trying to keep possibilities ahead. Not to close down your options if you have to make a getaway. I suppose I thought that perhaps unconsciously, maybe, or consciously, with the things that have happened to him that he seeks security.
But, as soon as I say that, it’s true, as soon as you say one thing, the opposite is immediately borne. It must be thought that he also enjoys a certain amount of risk. And, I guess you would get addicted to risk if you were a runaway kid, at that time in France and Italy. It would be hard to settle down. And, yet, you would always be seeking some security.
You are known primarily as a theatre and film actor. What made you want to be part of this television drama?
My wife had read the books and said they were very good. And the scripts that I saw initially were very good. So, I hadn’t read the books, but the scripts were the things that inspired me. I didn’t really know about the depth of the character at that point. But there was a lot of change in it. I like stories where people change, where the characters that I play change. And, this character changes a lot. I think that was it.
So much in the novel is concerned with what Cromwell is thinking but not saying. How do you translate that into a performance on screen?
You just think he’s a very private man, and people don’t really know what is fact and what is myth about him. I think that’s the best you can do, really.
What is Cromwell’s goal?
He’s always playing to win, playing to win what he feels will be the most beneficial outcome of the situation. He chooses to serve the top dog, in a very violent pack. So, he has to be thinking, “What’s the best outcome for the King?”
But, at certain times, I think, probably his best outcome, personally, would be not to kill Anne Boleyn. Indeed, not to have to do a lot of the things he does. But, like a hired protector, or guard for a mafia man, he knows that if he doesn’t do it, someone else will.
This was a time when hierarchy was all-pervasive. What was it about Cromwell that enabled him to rise?
He was obviously gifted with an incredible memory. And Hilary [Mantel] writes about that – that’s a particular form of intelligence. He’s also gifted with – or, maybe he learned it through experience – a canny sense for judging whether people are honest or not, by looking in their eyes. And so he’s a very good judge of people. He rarely misjudges characters. Sometimes he’s surprised by characters, but usually Hilary makes a big point, and says this is one of the few moments he was surprised. He probably would have been a champion chess player in that he’s usually seven or eight moves ahead of the other players around him.
Also personal tragedy in his life has a certain determining effect on his own emotions. It gives him a certain kind of recklessness, or nihilism, about his own fate. He’s not particularly attached to anything, or anyone. He knows everything can be lost at any moment. And he was just lucky, wasn’t he? At the time that the mercantile class was rising in power, and starting to really be the funders of the aristocracy, he knew all about that – he knew about bankers and trade. And also, it’s a great piece of luck that he apprentices himself to Wolsey, and learns Wolsey’s particular form of laissez faire-type pragmatism. It’s almost like managing a football team of millionaire players; you have to know when to be firm and when to be liberal, which battles to fight and when. All these things, I think he learns from Wolsey. We talk about his mental abilities: he’s also physically not frightened. He’s a soldier, and he knows how to deal with himself physically.
What was his relationship with authority – did he understand how to be mastered, as well as how to be a master?
I think he’s able to see authority as a game. It’s a game where you can play the rules, and you can call people on the rules. Wolsey teaches him that. I think he’s pretty suspicious of authority. He’s a heretic, isn’t he? He certainly sees that the present situation has been repressive of intelligent people, like himself, who would like to read the Bible in English. And, who would like to not be judged by some system of judgement, but judged on their own merits. Peter Kosminsky is always remarking to me that Cromwell divides people into two groups; those who judge him on his own merits, and those who judge him because of his background.
Do you ever think of him as a brilliant actor? Someone who plays the role that’s required in front of whoever is the audience?
That’s a good point. He’s different when he goes back to see his father than when he’s talking to Norfolk, or when he’s talking to Anne Boleyn, or to his children. I think Hilary has remarked that he’s very gentle with women and young children. And he’s a very, very tough prosecuting attorney with men.
What has it been like spending 85 days filming as one character?
I was very tightly sprung in the first weeks, feeling very anxious indeed, about decisions that were being made, and I felt I didn’t know anything. Gradually, over the period of time I became so familiar with the character, I would often forget we’re about to do a take, and then I hear, “Action!” And, we’re off. So, it becomes second nature, in a way, to be on a set filming. That aspect is very helpful.
In terms of the character, it’s so confusing you can’t keep track of it because we film out of order. So you have to give up on that. You give up on a lot of ideals. And, that’s probably good.
Did you come out of the process liking Cromwell or loathing him?
I try not to judge characters I play, negatively or positively. They judge themselves. I didn’t set out to display anything with the character, I just tried to be the character, and the stories made a certain judgement of what things to include, (or not) about him.
Why do we find this period so endlessly fascinating?
It must be something to do with the very human nature of the King, I think. He’s a very human character, he has a lot of human frailties, a lot of situations that many of us face – of the conflict between our relationship to society, our public role. Whether that society’s just our family, our extended family, our workplace, our country, international… It’s the whole idea of divine Kings, or of these rulers who lead us, we’re fascinated, aren’t we?
When we find out actually what was going on with Kennedy, or Clinton, or eventually find out what was going on in Obama’s mind, it’s riveting. We may know more, eventually, about Queen Elizabeth II. Right now she keeps her cards very close to her chest!
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