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Mark Rylance & Hollywood and The Reluctant Shakespearean Jason O’Connell | Bard in Multimedia

By June 16, 2014 No Comments

This week’s Bard in Multimedia looks at two Shakespearean actors: Mark Rylance and his newly won Tony Award and his latest connection to Hollywood’s Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks; and the lesser known but talented comedian Jason O’Connell and his reluctant road to Shakespeare.

Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance perform in the all-male version of Twelfth Night. Photo by Tristram Kenton, The Guardian.

Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance perform in the
all-male version of Twelfth Night.
Photo by Tristram Kenton, The Guardian.

Mark Rylance has had a very good week. Immediately following his win at the Tony’s for his Broadway performance of Olivia in Twelfth Night, he has been chatting up Steven Spielberg. According to a report from the show-business daily Variety, the two are negotiating the British actor’s first major studio deal to star in Spielberg’s cold war thriller (unnamed) with Tom Hanks.

His character hasn’t been disclosed, but this DreamWorks production is based on the real-life American attorney James Donovan, who negotiated with the Soviet Union the release of CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down behind enemy lines while on a reconnaissance mission to gather data on Russian military bases. The Academy-Award winning Spielberg will direct and Joel and Ethan Coen, who have won Oscars for writing Fargo and No Country for Old Men, have been brought in to doctor the script.

This is Rylance’s third Tony, but the first for a Shakespearean production. The other two were for leading roles in Boeing Boeing (2008) and Jerusalem (2011).

The Reluctant Shakespearean:

In The State of Shakespeare’s latest podcast has a charming audio interview with Shakespearean actor and stand-up comedian Jason O’Connell.

O’Connell didn’t exactly start out liking the Bard. In fact, he was “dragged kicking and screaming” to Shakespeare. As a theater major at Hofstra University in New York, O’Connell thought he could avoid the terrible Bard, but when auditions for Othello began, the year’s first production, he was the only freshman who didn’t sign up.

He simply refused, but it soon became evident that auditions were not optional. He was to prepare a monologue, which one he didn’t have a clue, but he did remember the “To be or not to be” line. Frustrated and being a “jerk,” he shamefully confides, he went to the library and tore the monologue out of a Shakespeare book. Still, he refused to memorize it and just “read” it.

Ultimately, he was the only freshman to be cast. Classmates were appalled that this philistine had received such an honor, while O’Connell was equally horrified. “It never ceased to be frightening. I don’t have a romantic story where once the words were in my mouth, I felt the connection. I sweated through [the performances] every night.”

It wasn’t until the next production that O’Connell had a “bit of a break through.” During auditions for Hamlet, the director suggested he try a new way to connect with the characters.

The director knew he had a stand-up comedy background, so he suggested that O’Connell play Claudius as a modern-day “smooth politician.” That clicked for him. Claudius became Ronald Reagan; the gravedigger became Bill Murray in Caddyshack.

Ultimately, “that broke it open for me. Applying my sensibility, a contemporary sensibility” to Shakespeare made his words real. Something apparently worked for the director too. O’Connell was cast as Hamlet’s ghostly father.

Still O’Connell’s love grew slowly, but he did learn what turned him off to Shakespeare. It was how the Bard’s words were being performed, haughty, highbrow, rather than just spoken as one man speaks to another.

It shouldn’t “matter if the language is 400 years old…I respond best when it sounds and feels real and alive and I can understand” the words because they are being delivered in an “accessible manner.”

This and many other Internet audio interviews can be heard on The State of Shakespeare, hosted by James Elliott and Gerritt VanderMeer. They interview Shakespearean actors and directors around the U.S. several times a year such as Lisa Wolpe, founder and Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, who discusses her all female production of Hamlet, and Kelley Curran, who talks about her role as Lady Percy in Henry IV at the Shakespeare Theater of DC.

This weekly column publishes each Monday and covers books, films, recordings, web content, videos, video games, radio, television, and all emerging mediums. Send all press releases and comments to the Associate Editor for Multimedia, Deborah Voorhees at

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