Meeting with journalists recently to discuss his new movie The BFG, director Steven Spielberg estimated that the cast of the film was “in the top five of my favorite ensembles that I’ve ever worked with.” That’s no small amount of praise coming from one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, but it’s also safe to say that the stars of Spielberg’s gentle and often lovely adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel live up to their billing. Mark Rylance, the British actor who Spielberg directed to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in last year’s Bridge of Spies, plays the title character – the Big Friendly Giant – while newcomer Ruby Barnhill essays the role of Sophie, the orphan who becomes friends with the BFG.
For Rylance, the movie represented his first foray into the realm of motion capture, and seeing his character onscreen after playing him in digital “pajamas” on set was a hallucinatory experience. “Normally you can see yourself,” the soft-spoken actor explains in a roundtable discussion with reporters. “I never watch rushes, but normally as an actor, you see yourself in the mirror before you go on set. But I had no idea what this would look like. I thought a lot about whether I should ask Steven to be involved in the input. But I thought, ‘Well, he’ll know what’s right.’ But it wasn’t as uncomfortable as seeing myself normally on film, which I usually just can’t bear. I can’t see what other people can see. This was different enough that it was a little more distanced, and actually it was more comfortable watching it.”
Rylance revealed that he tried to get in touch with other actors who had more experience in motion capture, but ended up with nothing to show for it. “I tried to, but they’re all so busy you can’t get through to them,” he says. “I tried to get through to Andy Serkis, but it’s obviously such a big thing now, that he literally is so busy, even his friend, who was trying to get through to him for me, Bernard Hill, said, ‘He never calls me back.’ So I couldn’t get through. That’s all right. It all made sense after a while.”
One of the other aspects of playing the BFG was creating a walk for the giant, whom Sophie first spies lumbering through the deserted London streets in the wee hours of the morning. “I think Steven asked me, ‘Have you got the walk?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what’s the walk?’” recalls Rylance. “I didn’t know what the walk was for a week or so. And then — I’m a stepfather, and the biological father of my daughter, Chris, he’s a runner. A wonderful runner. But when he walks, Chris, he doesn’t do the cross swing that most of us do. He does this wonderful kind of a lovely walk. And I realized, this walk would be good for BFG. My daughter, Juliette, hasn’t seen the film yet, but I’m looking forward to her recognizing her dad — who I think read the story to her, before I came on the scene.”
Perhaps being a father himself, Rylance was already naturally equipped to work with 11-year-old Ruby Barnhill. “W.C. Fields advises against it,” says Rylance, recalling the great comedian’s warning not to act opposite children. “I find kids inspiring, because for me, the work is to be spontaneous, you know, to appear that nothing’s been written down, no one knows what’s going to happen next. That’s the job. And she’s just a natural. She’s just gifted at that. She’s not a trained actress, but she just really brought herself. I don’t know how to explain it, but she just keeps reminding you of how simple it is, really, and how natural it can be.
“The relationship between Steven and her was much more important, really, than my relationship with her,” continues Rylance. “The person she really needed on the set was Steven. Every morning, she would run and jump into his arms, and he was the one who had cast her, and was helping her with the emotional scenes, and with the different things. I was just her tennis batting partner, in a way. I was just the person she was hitting the ball to. But Steven was the — I mean, of all directors you might work with, working with children — he must be the most fascinating one to watch. So I was a close-up witness of how he works with children; how much he truly adores the imagination of a child, of a young person.”
For Barnhill, whose career consisted of a handful of TV appearances before landing the lead role in The BFG, meeting and working with Spielberg – who she knew of mainly through the Indiana Jones movies – was a momentous event in her life. “I remember being on the plane with my dad, and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m going to meet Steven Spielberg,’” says the young actress. “But at the time, I didn’t really know how famous Steven was…I’d only seen, like, the Indiana Jones films, and E.T. — they were kind of like my main ones that I’d seen, and I hadn’t really, like, experienced any others at the time. But I was still really excited to like, meet someone like that.”
Barnhill met with Spielberg’s wife, actress Kate Capshaw, first; Spielberg says that Capshaw was immediately smitten with the girl, who came in near the end of a search during which the director had viewed hundreds of audition tapes. “When I met Steven, the great thing was that he made me feel so comfortable, and so relaxed,” says Barnhill. “I’m sure most of you know, like, when you’re feeling nervous, it’s really nice to have someone there to calm you down and help you stop feeling nervous. And so it was really nice to have that sort of a feeling. It kind of felt like when I met him, like I’d known him for a long time, which was quite nice, because it was like, just completely relaxed by the end of everything.”
By the time she met with Rylance – the two got to spend some time together before filming started – Barnhill was feeling at ease. “When I walked in, first of all, I was quite surprised to see that there was a table in the middle of the room, with some plants and vegetables on it,” says Barnhill. “And then Mark came up to me and said, ‘Hi. It’s really nice to meet you.’ And I actually thought to myself, ‘Oh, whoever gets to work with him is going to be so lucky, because he’s such a nice and gentle guy.’ Then we did some improvisation, and we did some scenes from the book.” They also ate the veggies Rylance had brought, which were meant to be props. “He really, again, like Steven did, made me feel really comfortable, because I was also really nervous meeting him. I had loads of fun.”
Although filming started with Rylance acting opposite a stand-in actress for part of the day before doing scenes with Barnhill – over concerns that the latter would quickly get tired – it soon became apparent to both the actor and his director that they were getting the best stuff when the two stars were in the room together (they shot from the giant’s perspective in the morning, and would then move onto Barnhill’s point of view in the afternoon, complete with Rylance on a ladder and Barnhill on a scale set, then match the eyelines). Despite all the technological innovations available for the movie and its always groundbreaking director, Rylance says that in the end, The BFG comes down to the simple, moving relationship at its core.
“I worry that the technology needs to make sure, still, that the people are connecting in the way Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn did, and (that) so many of those great, old films had to do with the actual connection — the space between,” muses the actor. “Steven’s interest in this film, underneath all the technological challenges for himself, was a friendship, over a great distance of mortality, immortality, youth, age…a friendship between beings who are very different. So he was always very attentive that we were connecting, and there was a space between us.”
The BFG is out in theaters today (Friday, July 1).