CAMBRIDGE — Everyone says it: that it’s an honor just to be nominated. The British actor Mark Rylance added his own twist the other day when he suggested it might be better simply to be nominated, not to win.
In town rehearsing the play “Nice Fish,” which begins performances Jan. 17 at the American Repertory Theater, Rylance is amply decorated as a stage actor. He has three Tony Awards to his name, for the Broadway productions of “Boeing-Boeing” (2008), “Jerusalem” (2011), and “Twelfth Night” (2014), and two Olivier Awards for his work in London.
Now there’s heavy Oscar buzz around his delicate turn as the unflappable Soviet agent Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” which stars Tom Hanks as Abel’s defiantly idealistic lawyer. Rylance’s performance has already gotten him nominated for a Golden Globe — one of two categories in which he’s competing for the awards to be handed out on Sunday. He also got a nod for starring as Thomas Cromwell in the television miniseries “Wolf Hall.”
Upstairs at the Loeb Drama Center in the quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the actor, 55, spoke softly and thoughtfully about his discomfort with awards. Twice — in 2008, when his fellow nominees included Patrick Stewart, and in 2011, when he was nominated alongside Al Pacino — he accepted a Tony by reciting prose poetry by Louis Jenkins, whose work forms the basis for “Nice Fish.” The audience didn’t know quite what to make of the gesture.
Q. Why did that seem like a response to an honor?
A. ’Cause that whole honor thing baffles me, I guess. And just actually having a moment in that ceremony that is baffling and makes you wonder, that in itself was a relief, I felt. ’Cause those rooms — they gradually fill up with people who have lost. [Laughs] More than people who have won.
Q. That’s why I hate awards ceremonies.
A. Well, exactly. I remember at one of them, I was profoundly depressed afterwards and couldn’t hide it. They were all saying, “God, don’t you feel great?” and I was saying no, I felt really lonely, that it was much nicer being a nominee.
I think it’d be much better, really, to just elect a spokesman from the nominees, rather than a winner. All the nominees are winners, and then one person — because of their longer-term work in the profession, or maybe because of the particular nature of their performance — they have the honor of being the spokesman for the nominees, and the nominees meet together and say, “This is what we’d like to say.”
Like in a category that’s coming up for me at the Golden Globes, of best supporting actor in a film, I was thinking, there’s a limited number of actors who can lead a film in the way Tom Hanks can, because of his experience and his ability. But there are thousands of actors who give incredible supporting roles in film. So to be, five or six of us, nominated as the best supporting actors of the year, you’re on top of a huge pile of great performances, and there’s probably like 50 or 25 who are really just as good, and the judges have had to select. So it’s kind of ridiculous, really, to insist that that pile gets reduced to one.
Q. I keep having this mental image of four people with a knife in their hand. I guess maybe it would be five people with a knife in their hand, trying to stab each other in the back to get the honor of being spokesman.
A. You must meet different people than I do. I understand that people do have campaigns, and they fight to win these things. I’ve just always been very lucky in my life, and things have come to me. I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been ambitious to do things, but — I think I have a faith that there’s enough to go around. I remember my mother saying to me that was a big difference she felt, that you could divide people into two groups: those that feel that there’s enough love to go around and those that feel that there isn’t.
Q. When you said that you were profoundly depressed, it was after winning, yes?
A. Yeah! And I thought about it a lot. The thing is, I came into the theater because of the group, the community. For me, when I first entered, I entered just as a kid, taking the rubbish bins from the theater to the janitor’s room and pounding nails and, you know, intensely shy, and doing crew work. I’d acted since I was a kid, but only for my own pleasure, and with friends, never for an audience. A part of me still thinks that’s nuts, but —
Q. Thinks what’s nuts?
A. Getting up in front of people and acting. [Laughs] Because we just should be doing it in the basement, or in the woods, you know, or for ourselves. There’s a certain kind of prostitution to be doing it for other people, for a living. But I came into it for the community, for the friendship. I think for shy people, it’s nice to have something you’re doing together. To just be sitting together talking is a bit frightening.
And when you’re a nominee, you are in a group, and it’s fun, you know. It’s really fun! Boy. I was part of a group of actors with Al Pacino. And then suddenly I wasn’t. I was on my own. And I don’t want to be better than Al Pacino. I don’t want to be on my own. I don’t want to have to walk past him, as I did — him and his friends, sitting there, and me go up and accept an award. I hated it. It was worse than being not a nominated actor, and not being in a group. But to be in a group with those actors — that’s all I ever wanted, was to be in a company.
Q. And that’s why you felt lonely.
A. It was, yeah, profoundly lonely. Anyway [laughs], there are many worse things. Don’t think I’m complaining. But, I mean, I can’t help how I feel. And it was interesting to me that that’s how I felt. I think I’ve always been slightly nervous, too, that you’re putting your head above the trenches when you get awards like that, that people will be gunning for you or jealous or whatever. And to a certain degree also, it’s a little bit like being awarded the award for the best thief of the year. [Laughs]
Q. What do you mean?
A. Well, the best thief, no one even knows he’s a thief. If you’re being awarded for the best thief of the year, you’ve probably been caught thieving by people who know.
Interview was edited and condensed. Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@