Theater people recall the moment vividly: Mark Rylance wins the 2008 Best Actor Tony for his performance in Boeing-Boeing, makes his way to the stage, looks out at the audience, bewildered, and launches into a hilariously unexpected speech in which he describes what makes up the proper attire for particular occasions. Three years later, Rylance won the 2011 Best Actor Tony for his performance in Jerusalem; this time, he launches into another unusual monologue, about how to properly walk through a wall.

Those speeches were actually prose poems, written by a largely unfamiliar author named Louis Jenkins. Rylance discovered Jenkins' work in a collection called The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. "Brad Whitford and I used to read them and laugh about them," says Rylance. At the same time, he started to think of how these very particular, very Midwestern poems, could be shaped into a play.

That's how Nice Fish, a work about two Minnesota ice fishermen searching for answers to life's big questions, was born. Coauthored with Jenkins and directed by Rylance's wife, Claire Van Kampen, the work premiered in 2013 at the Guthrie Theater, and is about to finish up a run at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The show is now on its way to St. Ann's Warehouse, where it begins performances February 14.

It's a busy time for Rylance. While developing the work for A.R.T., he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Soviet intelligence officer Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg's film Bridge of Spies. Also in the pipeline is the forthcoming release of Spielberg's screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved story The BFG (in which Rylance plays the title role), as well as a potential New York transfer of his most recent West End production, Farinelli and the King. But all that is par for the course.

Mark Rylance as Ron in the American Repertory Theater production of Nice Fish, a play he wrote with Louis Jenkins.
Mark Rylance as Ron in the American Repertory Theater production of Nice Fish, a play he wrote with Louis Jenkins.
(© Evgenia Eliseeva)

How did you first see a play in Louis Jenkins' poems?
I didn't see a play in them at first. I saw them as having something that was humorous and surprising. They started in very mundane details of some situation, usually a Midwestern situation, and then, he would spin on a word or an image, and the poem would transcend into something else, something surreal. I guess they had a liberating quality in them, a very imaginative quality in them that wasn't disconnected from reality. That's what attracted me to them.

I started to use them if I was asked to speak at a birthday party. What really surprised me was that people thought I was just speaking my own thoughts. People didn't realize they were written down. I think even when I used them at the Tony Awards, some people thought it was just me speaking my own thoughts. And so I realized they had a soliloquy-type quality that they could fit in a play.

Jenkins himself is in your cast. What is it like to hear him speak his own words?
It's like having the Creator enter the play. He's like God; he created all our thoughts. He plays a character called Wayne, kind of an Old Man Winter character. It's a real help to hear the author speak what he's written, the way he intones it and the rhythm he gives it. It's [also] always quite nice to work with someone who's not a highly trained professional actor.

When you delivered his poems as two of your Tony speeches, were they cognizant choices, or did you pick them out of your repertoire on the spot?
No, I chose those two. Those two were very particular to the occasion and had meaning to me. It took some nerve, I'll tell you. When I got up [I] saw how many people were out there and how serious they all looked. [laughs] I knew that it would be unexpected and therefore the audience wouldn't be guarded. So their minds should be quite open to hearing something strange. It was an interesting theatrical experiment, I suppose.

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan in the 2015 Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies.
Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan in the 2015 Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies.

You're going through Hollywood's award season now for your performance in Bridge of Spies. How is it compared with Tonys season?
It takes a lot more work. There are a lot more tickets to sell and many, many more writers and journalists all over the world, with the Spielberg film, who want to have a word with you. Our interview would be concluded by now, because [the journalist] would have someone else waiting on the line. People in film…I don't think theater people are quite the same. People in film forget that there's anything else going on in the world, because they have to focus so intensely on it. Whereas the theater is always pretty close to a street. Somewhere nearby there's a fire exit into the street.

Your next major film is a live-action, 3-D adaptation of Roald Dahl's great young adult book The BFG.
Isn't it a wonderful book? It's such a lovely book. And dear Melissa Mathison, who has passed away since, did a marvelous, very faithful job on the book. The trip to Dream Country, and going through the palace, and the whole relationship between the BFG and Sophie is, from what I've experienced, true to the book.

Do you have any updates you can share about a potential New York engagement of Farinelli and the King, now that you've completed two acclaimed runs of the play in London?
Yes. I believe [producer] Sonia Friedman is very keen to do that. We're talking about 2017. I don't think a theater's been decided. We're waiting that long because the wonderful Iestyn Davies, who's one of the three countertenors required to sing the part of the castrato Farinelli, is booked up that far ahead. He created the role and we want him to be part of it.

As for now, there's Nice Fish at the brand-new St. Ann's.
We're all thrilled to come to the new St. Ann's. I've been in it during construction because I'm a friend of [artistic director] Susan [Feldman], and a kind of patron of that theater as well as an artist who plays there. They've really worked hard to keep the marvelous spirit and dynamics of the original in this old Tobacco Warehouse. We're very proud to be going there.

Mark Rylance as Philippe V and Iestyn Davies as Farinelli in the 2015 West End production of Farinelli and the King.
Mark Rylance as Philippe V and Iestyn Davies as Farinelli in the 2015 West End production of Farinelli and the King.
(© Simon Annand)