Bridge of Spies: Mark Rylance as the Soviet Spy

Just as crucial as casting Tom Hanks in the lead was finding an actor to play a captured Soviet spy with divergent loyalties and surprising depth who was interesting enough that the audience would be able to feel his humanity and thoughtfulness…and someone who could hold his own opposite Hanks, as well.

Spielberg has always appreciated actors who portray their characters in an honest and truthful way, and as a result, was drawn to Mark Rylance.

For years he had been following the career of the British actor and was eager to work with him, just looking for the right part. “Mark is one of the most extraordinary actors working anywhere,” Spielberg says. “I saw him in ‘Twelfth Night’ and that pretty much cinched it for me.”

For Rylance, an actor best known for his acclaimed stage work in “Jerusalem” and “Boeing-Boeing” and the recent PBS miniseries “Wolf Hall,” the opportunity to work with Spielberg was incredibly humbling.

And while Rudolf Abel was a divisive figure, his selfless patriotism earns the respect and admiration of Donovan, which Rylance found tremendously appealing.

Rylance also found the story moving and incredibly entertaining, and he appreciated the fact that it had the potential to really cause people to think. “This is a film about a man who does the right thing at the right time in the right place, and it’s an important story.”

“What Mark brings to the role is a completely-realized self-assuredness.  Mark will not take a moment and throw it completely out and come in and completely redo it,” says Hanks. “What Mark will do instead is construct the character in the scene that show little motions of feint, either one way or the next, will bring a new jolt of energy to, but is still the same character he built.”

Abel, whose real name was Vilyam Fisher, passed away in 1971 and was rarely photographed or interviewed while alive.

According to Rylance, “We don’t really know all that much about him, other than the fact that he received and passed on messages at various drop sites throughout New York using a hollow coin. He was, what you call, a sleeper spy. Abel had been in the United States for several years before he began these clandestine activities, and he wasn’t the chief organizer of the spy-ring, he just carried out the mission. But when he was caught, the U.S. government made him out to be a little more important than he actually was.”

In Brooklyn, where he had created a simple existence for himself as a painter, Abel is captured and doesn’t try to hide his past. He remains tight-lipped and reveals no information about his activities in the U.S. or connections to anyone in Moscow, frustrating the FBI to no end. Says Hanks, “Abel was just a guy doing his job.  He’s a spy, and we have guys over there doing the same thing for our country.  I believe that Abel was surprised to hear this argument from a man who was his advocate…it was not just some sort of legalistic ploy on his part, it was what he believed. It was an irrefutable fact, and that played itself out through the relationship.”


The real Abel was, in fact, a very-skilled artist, something Spielberg chose to focus on in the film’s opening scene.  He explains, “How we see ourselves and how other people see us, what we hide in order for others to discover something hidden…that was all part of this idea I had to start the film on Mark Rylance’s face playing Rudolf Abel, then to pull back and discover that he’s actually studying his face because he’s doing a self-portrait.”

Spielberg continues, “It gave me a kind of stylistic theme to continue to think about, like how do we see ourselves…is that actually who we are when we paint what we look like, or is that our idea of somebody we want others to see, which is what spies do. They have to go into disguise and blend in and actually disappear to be successful.  I just thought that was a good way of starting the story on the right thematic note.”

Rylance had nothing but praise for Hanks. “Tom saw me in ‘Twelfth Night’ in Los Angeles in 2003 before the production was famous and he was one of the first actors to come to it and to come backstage afterward and talk to the cast, which was very exciting for everyone,” he says. “But what surprised me the most about Tom is that he loves to make people laugh and has this very goofy sense of humor, which immediately puts people at ease.”