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Mark Rylance in the action thriller Dunkirk.

It is a funny business, being the greatest actor of your generation. You can enjoy praise from Al Pacino ("Speaks Shakespeare as if it was written for him the night before"), kudos from Steven Spielberg ("I really think this actor can do anything") and be placed on the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. But you still may be a bit unfamiliar to the largest audience in the world: blockbuster moviegoers.

That, at least, is the reality for Mark Rylance, the British actor beloved by the theatre thanks to his work as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe in London and by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work in Bridge of Spies, but only vaguely familiar to most moviegoers. That, however, should change this weekend with the release of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, a Second World War epic that puts Rylance front and centre.

On the eve of the film's massive release – literally, the film will have the biggest 70-mm release in 25 years – the 57-year-old Rylance spoke with The Globe and Mail about taking his time, navigating the awards circuit, and the need to preserve theatre for theatregoers.

Your character here, a civilian on a mission to rescue British soldiers staving off the enemy in Dunkirk, is fairly front and centre, yet part of an intriguing triple-thread ensemble. Is that mix what drew you to the project?

I was very drawn to working with Chris, mostly. I love his writing, so even if he wasn't a director, I'd be looking to get involved with one of his scripts. With this one, there's such an interesting relationship to time. It was lovely to be able to play with that and treat it so carefully.

The tick-tock nature of the script does push the story forward with an urgency.

And everyone experiences that time in different paces. In life, even in much more mundane experiences than a battle or a retreat like this, we assume everyone is on the same time because we have clocks all around us, people telling us the time. But our own sense of time is so different. When I was a child, Sunday afternoons felt like they could last a week or a month. Increasingly, as I get older, time is going so, so fast.

Do you have time, then, to savour the moment your career is currently in?

Well, I'm a very fortunate man. I did find last year quite overwhelming, though. I got pneumonia by the end of it, I was so exhausted. You don't realize that when you get hired and come onto larger films how much media is required, with the awards and the promotion of the film. It's much bigger than theatre, of course. This year, I'm trying to catch my breath.

I imagine being on the awards circuit for Bridge of Spies must have been its own intense experience. Was it worth it in the end?

Steven [Spielberg] said the Oscar nomination did help keep the film in cinemas, so it's all a marketing device. I don't think anyone believes all that stuff about awards, but it helps people because … there's so much out there, isn't there? It's hard for people to decide what they want to see, so they're dependent on awards shows and critics to say which things have had the good luck to come together well. Often, the films I like best are not represented in awards ceremonies.

What films do you gravitate toward?

I like to learn about people who I don't know, places I don't know about. One hears so many stories, doesn't one? Off the top of my head, Son of Saul, oh, my gosh, a film like that comes along and you're shaking at the end of it. It changes you forever. Television has also gotten so good, where you can live with one character for a long time and get that psychological depth and detail.

Is this, then, one of the better times to be a working actor?

The young actors, they have the access to all this media. When I was a young person, I could only to go the local cinema or watch three TV channels. Every year, the channels would show Ben-Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told at the same time, so you had to vote with the family over which film you were going to watch, because there was no other way else. Now, young people are able to watch Mexican films and Korean films and films from all over the world, so the young actors are so sophisticated. It's a time when the talent has just as much ability to get noticed as the salespeople who make studios a lot of money. The more original artists, you can find them more easily. The whole craft is benefiting from this wider communication.

Would you include the wave of broadcasting live theatre performances in that?

I don't go for that much. I never watch plays that way. I've experienced so many amazing moments in the theatre. To be in the presence of live actors discovering truthful moments in a Shakespeare play or in any play, that's so precious to me. I'm lucky enough to live in a city [London] with a lot of access to theatre, but I would encourage those who don't to still seek out their local theatres and support their local actors, rather than experiencing that on film.

Your colleague Mike Alfreds once called you "a great chameleon." But how do you burrow so deeply into a role for a project such as Dunkirk, where audiences aren't privy to much back story to your character?

You imagine it. I'm actually quite a shy and unconfident person, so I have a need to imagine the back story, to convince myself on a set surrounded by master technicians and someone as smart as Chris. If I'm not imagining I'm someone else, I'm going to be terrified.

This interview has been condensed and edited

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