Actress JULIET RYLANCE practically grew up in London’s Globe Theatre, and is thrilled to have landed a starring role opposite James Norton in the hotly anticipated BBC thriller McMafia. She explains how her famous family and personal tragedy have informed her life and her work
Actress Juliet Rylance is set to be the envy of many women. Although she comes from a British acting dynasty – her stepfather is actor, director and national treasure Mark Rylance – she has so far focused her thespian energies across the pond, where she has spent most of the past eight years with her American actor husband Christian Camargo.
All that is set to change, however, when she hits our screens playing heart-throb James Norton’s girlfriend in the much-anticipated new BBC miniseries McMafia, about a man trying to escape his Russian family’s links to the underworld but, inevitably, getting sucked in. The premise is, says Juliet, ‘that organised crime has become as prevalent as McDonald’s – part of the fabric of our lives, like fast food’.
Having previewed the first episode, I can confirm that it is eerily realistic – with a cast as international as London itself featuring two of Russia’s most revered actors – and totally terrifying (a scene involving a panic button left me trembling). Juliet shines, perfectly cast as the principled Rebecca who is in denial that her boyfriend is going over to the dark side. James was ‘a joy’ to work with, she says. ‘I absolutely see why everyone fancies him, but to me he is just lovely James. He does an incredible mouth trumpet, which is his party trick. But, most importantly, he is a genuinely good person, and when you have a leading man who is gracious and supportive of everyone, it’s gold.’
And, for Juliet, this was crucial because, she says, ‘The stage has always been my comfort zone – I feed off that relationship between actor and audience. I am excited to be widening into more screen acting now, but I do get rehearsal jitters.’
On first impression, Juliet, 38, seems totally self-assured. She has a hearty laugh and exudes warmth and openness as she jumps up to greet me. We are meeting on a bright winter’s day in the bar of London’s Tate Modern, a stone’s throw from the house she is renovating (with the help of her father, who handily happens to be an architect) in Borough, the South London enclave famous for its food market and, sadly, for being the site of last summer’s terrorist attack. Juliet had planned to dine in the market on the night of the atrocity in which eight people were killed, but cancelled at the last minute owing to an ‘overwhelming urge’ to see a friend in the country.
She is ensconced at a corner table when I arrive, her blonde hair plaited wreath-like around her crown. There is something faintly old-fashioned about her, with her considered intelligence and enunciation befitting a proper thespian (she trained at Rada and uses the Shakespeare canon as bedtime reading).
Her role in McMafia, an eight-parter based on the book of the same name by journalist Misha Glenny, marks Juliet’s return to working in this country for the first time since she appeared on stage in 2010 at the Old Vic, playing Rosalind in As You Like It, directed by Sam Mendes. ‘Shakespeare is sacrosanct to me,’ she says. ‘My introduction to storytelling was through him: the words, the meter, the rhythm absorbed me.’
Juliet virtually grew up in the Globe, the Thames-side modern replica of the theatre built for Shakespeare in 1599, where her stepfather Mark was artistic director for a decade. She acted in her first play by the bard aged 11 and has since appeared in productions of Othello, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale and Romeo and Juliet, to name a few. It was also at the Globe that she met Christian (whose acting credits include The Hurt Locker and House of Cards), when he was performing in Henry V with Mark back in 1997.
The two were friends for years, ‘until it felt right to be more. I was young when we met, and my dad was the boss, so for a long time we just went to see plays.’ They married in 2008 and now split their time between Borough and their home in the stark landscape of Joshua Tree in California’s Mojave Desert. ‘We love each other profoundly and embrace our unconventional life split between two such different places.’
Juliet’s childhood was also far from conventional. When she was seven, her mother, musical composer Claire van Kampen, split from her biological father Chris van Kampen, and started seeing Mark who, as well as playing the BFG in the recent film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s much-loved book, starred as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and won an Oscar and a Bafta for his role in the Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies.
Juliet and her late sister Nataasha – who died in 2012, aged 28, from a brain haemorrhage – grew up calling both men ‘dad’ and divided their time between their parents’ homes on opposite sides of London, always meeting up for a meal on Sundays. ‘At Dad’s house in Hampstead we had structure, while at Mum and Mark’s house in Brixton it was wild and unstructured. They were often in rehearsals; Tash and I would sit in the corner drawing and taking it all in.’
The split was amicable from day one. ‘Everyone decided to embrace the challenge; there was something about the combination of people invested in our family unit that worked. I don’t have step- or half-siblings, but I don’t think that would have made a difference. The first time I met Mark, he picked me up and carried me on to the stage at the National [theatre], where he and Mum were working together. We could feel that Mark was Mum’s boyfriend, and it felt right. Chris was there too, and we were fine with it because he was. Having three parents – three role models – has, in hindsight, been the greatest blessing.’
Juliet opted to use Mark’s stage name – his real surname is Waters – because she wanted ‘to have both a public and a private identity’. She likens it to when a son joins his father’s company, ‘and the company name becomes so-and-so & Son. I felt as though I was joining Mark’s trade and should take his name.’ She uses both van Kampen (her mum’s surname) and Camargo privately. None of this has been an issue or caused any sensitivity, because her two fathers are the best of friends; they go hiking and are thinking of buying a boat together. ‘Having Mark cast in The BFG was so special, because Chris read it to us as children. He was always the one who seemed like the BFG: he is super-tall and has this wonderful loping walk. Mark modelled his portrayal on Chris, and now The BFG feels like a composite of both my dads.’
While Juliet is happy to talk about her happily unconventional clan – who just celebrated Christmas together in New York – the topic that is more difficult for her to discuss is the sudden loss of her sister five years ago. Nataasha, who was five years younger than Juliet, was ‘a brilliant woman: a filmmaker, an artist, a production designer, a director – wonderfully talented. As children, we shared a bedroom, as teens a flat, and in our 20s we both made our homes in Borough. I feel connected to her being here. I think that when you lose someone…’ she trails off, searching for the right words. ‘I think who they were in their life comes into sharper focus. I now feel Tash’s presence in such a joyful way. She gives me gifts every day and teaches me. Pain is an opportunity to grow, and we are never given more than we can handle.’
Her already-close family became even closer following this tragedy, which prompted a grieving Mark to withdraw from performing in the London Olympics opening ceremony. ‘We are all now aware of each other in a more heightened way. It has made me more focused on being in the moment. Sadly, it seems that we have to experience loss to be present; it’s a shame that we can’t just be born that way. I see so clearly now that life is a precious spot of time.
‘I often think about the Second World War in London. My grandmother used to talk about the Blitz, and how they would go to bed at night with blackout curtains and wonder if they’d be there in the morning. And then, when they did wake up, there might be bomb craters outside, but they would run out and play among them. All that mattered was that you were there. We saw the same thing after the attacks in Borough last summer, the way everything falls away but the community rallies around; it was so heartening.’
Living in the desert is another thing that has given Juliet perspective. ‘That harsh, beautiful, expansive landscape – where you can see the stars so clearly and have true silence – has shown me how small and fragile we are in the great scheme of things.’
Juliet also experienced loss, and the learning that comes with it, when volunteering for a hospice between leaving school and starting at Rada. ‘I look back and think it was an interesting choice for an 18-year-old, but I took so much from it. I was teaching art classes to people with cancer and Aids. It was hard, getting attached to them and knowing they only had three or four weeks left to live. But I think it was helpful for my acting – to see what comes into people’s consciousness when they’re that close to the end.’
Juliet’s character in McMafia is hugely believable and full of intelligence, no doubt a by-product of all she has experienced. Not a total screen beginner, she appeared opposite Clive Owen in the US medical period drama The Knick (directed by Steven Soderbergh) for two seasons; and she produced and acted in Days and Nights, a film adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, which Christian wrote and directed, her mum wrote the music for and Mark acted in, alongside a starry cast including William Hurt, Ben Whishaw and Katie Holmes.
But working for the BBC for the first time has been a dream come true for Juliet. ‘They were just brilliant and gave us all so much freedom to interpret our roles.’ James is stunning as Alex Godman, the British-raised son of wealthy Russian exiles, who runs his own finance business and tries to make an honest living away from his parents’ mafia connections, with the support of his upstanding British girlfriend.
There is something of The Godfather about it, and Juliet agrees: ‘That is one of my favourite films. What I think McMafia shares with it is that sense of how, when someone first enters the underworld, they tell themselves they are doing it to protect their family, but then their base nature comes out and they start to enjoy it and become corrupted. For most of the story, Alex is living a double life. James plays the man carrying a secret so well.’
Juliet’s character Rebecca ‘has strong values and works for a foundation devoted to supporting ethical businesses. She believes capitalism should be transparent and work for everyone. At the beginning of the series, she and Alex have built a life forged on those values, but then you see their paths diverging. She genuinely trusts him. She was an interesting character to play because, on one level, she is intelligent and strong and makes great choices, but she’s also a victim. You look at her and think, “Why can’t she see what he’s up to?” But so often when you’re inside something you don’t see it clearly.’
Juliet and I catch up again a week after our first meeting, when she invites me to an exhibition, again at the Tate Modern. Her schedule is packed with acting and producing projects, but ‘It’s so important to carve out space where you don’t work,’ she insists. ‘You have nothing to draw on in acting if you haven’t made time for real life – to be in a gallery, observing people looking at art. The more you can just be, the more you bring into your work. Mark’s advice to me has always been that you can be as big or as small as you want in a production as long as you are truthful, and experiencing life is vital to that.
‘The key is to be ever evolving and responding, not to make too many decisions or hold opinions that box you in. Far better to be soft and moldable like the wax from a lit candle.’
And with that, a truly bright light in her own right disappears off into the Southeast London dusk to meet her family.
- Styling: Chloe Beeney
- Hair: Peter Lux at Wall Group using Bumble and Bumble
- Make-up: Mary Jane Frost at CLM using YSL Beauté
- Producer: Ester Malloy