Oscar-winner Mark Rylance talks about his everyman role in 'Dunkirk'

Oscar-winner Mark Rylance didn’t need to method-act his way into Dunkirk and his role as a civilian volunteer who crosses the English Channel in his own boat to rescue stranded soldiers.

Rylance could look to his own extended family — the firefighter cousin, for instance, who rushed into the burning Grenfell Tower on June 14 to rescue stranded residents. And the actor has always immersed himself in the stories of ordinary men who find strength and purpose in helping each other.

Rylance, on that note, was just in Pennsylvania — the town of Homestead this month — to mark the 125th anniversary of a 1892 steelworker uprising pitting striking workers against armed Pinkerton detectives. Rylance, former director of the Globe Theater in London, is turning the clash into a play.

This week, he’ll be in London at the British Film Institute for a screening of Dunkirk and has invited his rescue-worker cousin to attend.

The film, he said, captures the spirit of such people.

“When people talk about the Second World War, they talk about collective spirit, when the frictions of class broke down. You would see the king and queen come out to a bombing site, and everyone was in it together. We fought and we won because we were in it together. We didn’t separate and splinter, and Dunkirk is the most dramatic example of that,” said Rylance, whose character is based on the thousands of civilian boat captains who crossed the channel to rescue stranded British troops — more than 400,000.

“Men were saved by the small, humble actions of many individuals going over and joining with military and helping everyone else, at great risk to their own lives. My father was only 6 years old at the time, but he remembers the sense of unity, he remembers hearing that we got the men back, and he remembers the power of that collective spirit.”

The country felt it again, he said, when the Grenfell Tower block caught fire, and “everybody became very aware of the civilian rescue service. My cousin was among the firemen who went into that tower, and represents the kind of selfless bravery involved in going into that building to save people,” said Rylance, who noted the decisive actions of first-responders has put enormous pressure on politicians to reverse cuts to such services.

For every recent act of terror, he said, there is another example of common folks responding with uncommon courage.

“The bravery of civilians who stood up to those who were attacking people with knives in London. The policeman who held off three of them with just a truncheon,” he said. “Because this film is a rescue story, it’s going to touch that nerve. It’s a hot topic in England at the moment.”

Rylance has long been regarded as one of the world’s great stage actors, but didn’t really find a defining on-camera role until his star turn in BBC’s Wolf Hall. That led to his role as a Soviet agent in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and to an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Has life changed for him since the Academy Award?

“I think people can now sell my picture for 60 quid. That means I have to sign more pictures,” he said, “but I certainly don’t mind.”

He sees award shows as “a crafty way of drawing people’s attention to films,” even if the awards themselves are not always properly distributed.

“I grew up watching and emulating Robert Mitchum, who is one of my favorites. I don’t think he ever won an Oscar. I’m glad to have one, but if you take it too seriously, and you think you are a great actor because you have one, you’ve got the wrong idea.”