Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller The Bridge of Spies earned the British-born actor an Oscar in 2015. Rylance recently attended 76th Venice Film Festival to present his latest film Waiting for the Barbarians.
Adapted from the 1980 novel by South African author J.M. Coetzee and directed by Academy Award-nominated Colombian director Ciro Guerra, the film sees Rylance portray “the Magistrate”, a well-liked administrator of an isolated border outpost in an unnamed fictional empire who is on the brink of early retirement. The arrival of co-star Johnny Depp’s Colonel Joll, a cruel officer who is fond of using torture during interrogations changes the Magistrate. Joll’s investigation of potential attacks by “the Barbarians” shock Rylance’s character which leads him into a deep inner crisis and later rebellion.
New Europe’s Federico Grandesso sat down with Rylance while in Venice for an exclusive discussion about The Barbarians and the latter’s views on cinema’s role in the portrayal of reality and the world’s indigenous populations.
NEW EUROPE (NE): What is your view about J.M. Coetzee’s namesake novel, which served as the basis for the film?
Mark Rylance (MR): The essential thing I like is that it’s the story of any person who believes in a certain truth and then discovers that the truth isn’t true and how that person tries to reestablish some sense of feeling good about themselves and about the world. When you discover you’re complicit with a very violent way of living that is happening to everyone in the world at the moment, unless they’re asleep we’re not going to last very long. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that we’re maybe in the last years before actual extinction. That’s the reality. We’re certainly within a few decades of the total collapse of society. That’s what I’m reading. And who’s to blame? You can blame refugees. You can blame Donald Trump. You can blame all kinds of things, but actually it’s us. So the poke felt very awful that it’d become more resonant than it was in the 1980s.
NE: Considering the way things are in the world, do you think your role is a reflection of a mission to bring hope back to humanity?
MR: I do think there’s hope for this world. And I think a lot of hope is actually amongst the indigenous and tribal people, hundreds of millions whom still live in dangerous places on the planet as we search for more trees and more resources. When I’ve been with these people, they have an incredibly strong sense of community and great joy. I think a lot of this technology (we have) promises to give you a lot of happiness and connect you, but it’s actually separating us. So I think we are moving to a time of being much more connected, realising that what we do affects everyone else and we should live more closely together. Perhaps it should be like when we had to live in bunkers…we were still close together. As things become as they do in disasters, the essential things become more important, more clear. Love between us…love and friendship is much more valuable than owning a car or anything else. I think it’s a good thing that came out of the past situations.
NE: There’s an interesting connection between film and your real life, do you think by doing this film it could change your perspective on the issues?
MR: Yes, I’m very much perfected by stories. I grew up like you…being obsessed and going to lots and lots of films and lots of places. Yes, they shaped my culture. I was supposed to be raised religiously to some degree – that was another story. So I began to resort to some things like reading a book as a child and going to films. So, yes, they very much shaped my thinking. Now I’m in a position where I choose which films I want to be involved in or not. When a project like this comes along, which was started four years ago and took a long time to get up and running because people were busy or not available and also because of scheduling issues when I had to drop out because I didn’t think it was going to happen, I decided to stay in touch because the story has a lot of meaning for me. Of course, you’re right that acting it, playing it, is so much more powerful than seeing it. I think we all have a memory of being a child when we believe what’s in films. We don’t see it as just a fantasy that we shouldn’t try to live. We do have to live it so intensely on set when you have to repeat some things like the beating (and torture) scenes…you got through that six or seven times on a day. It affects you and quickly becomes a call for you as well. It certainly made me think a lot the assumptions I have about being a good person and how I’m maybe deceiving myself about just how much violence it took to create that particular scene.
NE: What do you think of the depiction of the ‘barbaric world’ as its portrayed in Western cinema?
MR: It’s an easy way to say these people over there aren’t like us and they’re bad and they’re dangerous. It’s used very frequently by leaders to appear strong and to create some sort of identity by saying what we’re not, what we’re against. We’re lucky to have Ciro (Guerra) because his films have been very much about the (misguided) projections of indigenous people that show them as barbaric and that they don’t have any culture because their culture is often full of violence and because of that, they have to either modernise or die. Ciro made a lot of films like that and used a lot indigenous actors. I was connected to the film even before Ciro came on board, and I looked around and took part in the conversation about who could be a good director for this film.
NE: Based on the history of the Western World, many of its most powerful nations were invaders and colonisers often used violence against indigenous population. So do you think that in the end we’re ‘the barbarians’ and not them?
MR: Exactly. And I think it is within ourselves to be able to consider certain parts of our own behavior that we think is not right. Our parents told it’s not right. Our society told it’s not right. We tried to eradicate being barbaric with drugs, drinking, therapies, belief systems or trying to be connected to a political leader. It seems to me that we’re often doing to ourselves what we’re doing to other parts of the world and it goes hand-in-hand. It was interesting what Johnny (Depp) said in a press conference that his character, Colonel Joll, is so full of contempt that at his core, he’s a ghost with an enormous amount of self-hate that manifested itself in the way he treats other people. I think these are pitiful values. As the title suggest, he’s waiting for the barbarians.