Earlier this week I had the great honor of sitting down with legendary director Steven Spielberg to discuss his latest film, Disney’s “The BFG.” At the same media event I also had the pleasure of interacting with several stars of the movie: Ruby Barnhill (who plays the young protagonist Sophie), recent Oscar-winner Mark Rylance (the titular Big Friendly Giant), and Penelope Wilton (as the movie’s ever-so-slightly fictionalized take on the Queen of England).
The three actors, who come from a wide spectrum of different backgrounds and experience, discussed their time working on the movie, the unique process of motion-capture technology, and the sheer excitement that accompanies working with Spielberg himself.
Q: What was it like playing an independent, strong young woman character like Sophie?
Ruby Barnhill (Sophie): “It was very fun to play a character like that. I think she’s very independent because she’s come from somewhere where she’s not been looked after properly, it’s not really your ideal home. I think you can see throughout the film that she’s actually quite sad about everything because she thinks, ‘Oh, I could be cared for in a loving home with a loving family, but I’m stuck here.’ And so I think she’s very strong minded, but behind it all she’s got a very big heart and she’s quite sensitive, so it was really nice to play her because it was a mix of different emotions.”
Q: What did you learn from working with Steven Spielberg?
Ruby: “I think I’ve mainly just learned a little bit more [about acting], like one of the things that I learned was concentration. I started acting when I was quite young and I did a drama group, and things like that, but I’ve never really learned properly about concentration. I learned from Mark and Steven about that, and I think I’ve just learned from Steven also that it’s okay to make mistakes. I was at Parents’ Evening [at school] and my art teacher said, ‘every time you make a mistake in lessons, you start panicking, and you need to stop doing that because everybody makes mistakes and it’s absolutely fine,’ and [on this film] I learned that making mistakes is okay. Everybody does it, and you learn from them, and it’s fine.”
Q: What was it like working with Steven Spielberg on two films in a row?
Mark Rylance (The BFG): “He says he’s never offered a subsequent film to the same actor, and now I’m going to be doing four films with him. I thought initially, it was just to do with the fact that the BFG was so different [from] Abel [in ‘Bridge of Spies’], that it was easy for him to forget the one [before]. Because I think that he immerses himself so much in the characters that the actors create in his films, that it’s probably difficult for him to imagine that actor being another character. But BFG was obviously going to be so different than Abel. But now it’s carried on, now he’s offered me two more, so… I’d do any film with him, just to hang out with him and talk with him about films. I don’t know how he has the time in the day to experience as much as he experiences.”
Q: How does Spielberg’s process change from one film to the next?
Mark: “I think he changes his technical processes very much. With ‘Bridge of Spies,’ I was very aware of that steady moving camera, and the influence of old films. ‘The BFG’ was a technical front line for him. No one else was advancing motion-capture and scale as much as ‘BFG’ at that moment. No one had made a film where a real character captured by a camera and a character in motion-capture were in the same shot, and the whole story depended on the two of them connecting. And then add the difficulty that one of them was twenty-four foot high, and one of them’s six, and there are others that are fifty foot high, that have to sometimes be in the same shot.”
“So he took on a lot of risk and challenge. But maybe that isn’t different. Maybe he’s always been someone who likes to be at the cutting edge of technologies. I’m a bit of a luddite. I’m not against technology, but I can’t keep up. I’ve given up. But he really likes to be where it’s happening, where there’s danger of failure, I guess.”
Q: Why do you think you and Steven make such a great team?
Mark: “I don’t really know [why we connect so well]. I know we’re happy when we’re together, so that’s nice. It’s hard for me to know exactly what I do, or what I am. The best I can guess is that I don’t mind a bit of chaos as an actor. I don’t mind jumping in and having a go, and I’m quite interested in playing, and what happens unconsciously rather than in what my mind can plan. I’m a little bored by what my mind can plan. I prefer to take a risk. Steven, as with most directors, needs to be in control and he’s very very ordered and plans things out– [he] has to. And so he’s very excited when things happen spontaneously. He has something that’s the A-plan, but when another plan comes up that works, he enjoys that. And maybe I offer that to him, I don’t know.”
Q: How did you approach the BFG’s made-up language of Gobblefunk, and make it your own?
Mark: “The language is written to be heard. The consonants and the vowels are made with love for the sound of them. In fact, [with] Gobblefunk, there isn’t any reason to it at all. It’s just for the pleasure, and I think that’s how children learn words, first of all, through the sensation of making the resonant sounds in their mouths. So much of our [real] language is dominated, it feels to me, by functional, unattractive information words, scientifically put together, with little love for the nature of words themselves– the beauty of words, the resonance and elegance of words. So maybe that kind of thinking, which you can clearly hear is in my head, helped me have fun with the Gobblefunk.”
“The book [was] written [by Roald Dahl] to be read to children by fathers. I’m only slightly sad that my performance may limit the performance that many fathers have given. Their kids may say, ‘Why aren’t you like the real BFG?’ And what’s wonderful is that fathers and mothers from all over the world have read this and interpreted the BFG themselves. And I hope my performance just encourages them to be wilder with it.”
Q: What did you think of the BFG as a character?
Mark: “I like the fact that, here’s a man in a very difficult family. It’s his brothers who are doing [bad things]. They’ve gotten very degraded; they weren’t always like this. And he’s kind of given up on it, and he goes around to blow dreams [into children’s windows], like we might give money to peaceful charities or something, to compensate. But the young girl comes in, and she’s so marvelous, and she says, ‘No, we can do better. We can change this. It doesn’t have to be like this.’ I was very impressed with that. The younger generation always comes through with either foolishness or hope that things can change. And in this case, she actually does succeed and change the situation. At least until they do a sequel.”
Q: What did you learn from working with Ruby Barnhill?
Mark: “Presence, really, which is the most important thing. And by that I mean being present, being spontaneous. Going for the simplest, truest way to get what you want in a scene– not the cleverest or most complicated or subtle, but just saying things as they are. She got tired, it was [a] long [shoot] and there were days that she felt she hadn’t pleased Steven as much as other days, just because he was distracted by something else. So it was interesting to see her encountering the emotional territory of being an actor, that side of the profession. I learned a lot… it reminded me of what a particular profession it is.”
Q: Did you have fun making “The BFG”?
Penelope Wilton (The Queen): “I did have fun doing the movie. It was wonderful. I’m only in the last quarter of the movie when the BFG comes with Sophie to get help, because, in her little girl’s mind the only person who can save them is the Queen. But I enjoyed playing the Queen immensely, and I loved working with Steven Spielberg, who is just the best. He was everything a great director should be, which is very hands-on, gives very straightforward notes, tells you when it’s wrong, tells you when it’s right, and you know where you are. He works very quickly. He has enormous energy.”
“Steven has done an extraordinary thing [for an American director], because ‘The BFG’ is a very British story. [The original story was written by] Roald Dahl, who has, of course, a very British take on things. I recognize it as being very English– its whole feeling, [its] temperament, and [the] time it takes to tell. With ‘The BFG’ you get one great story writer meeting one great film storyteller. And when you get the mixture of the two, and they really do work well [together]. I have to say that one of the heroines of this was poor Melissa Matheson [who passed away in November] who wrote the script, and she [wrote] ‘E.T.’ as well. But she [kept] very closely to the book and it was a marvelously written screenplay.”
Q: What was your approach to playing the Queen?
Penelope: “I was doing Roald Dahl’s version of the Queen, and a child’s view of the Queen. So you were seeing the Queen in a very domestic situation, and also dealing with fantasy. To make it so that children can recognize it, she is the Queen of England. But she says extraordinary things, and extraordinary things happen to her, too. It was partly fantasy and partly reality. I based her on the real Queen– you have to, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. It’s much better to have the real Queen say extraordinary things than for me to make up a pretend queen and then say extraordinary things, because the two [realities] complement one another.”
Q: Is there a difference between acting in a straight drama and a fantasy or science fiction role?
Penelope: “I don’t see any difference. You have to find a reality in what you’re doing. If you don’t believe what you’re doing, then no one else will. And they won’t believe the fantasy either. When you’re doing fantasy, and I haven’t done very much, but I have done ‘Doctor Who,’ you have to live in that world. But it’s like anything, if you go outside that world, or you say ‘this isn’t real,’ then the magic goes out the window. So you have to enter into the world you’re living in and play it for what it’s worth. So that’s what I try and do with everything I do.”
Disney’s “The BFG” hits theaters nationwide on Friday, July 1st.
All images Copyright 2016 Disney.