Juliet Rylance on playing a moll in McMafia: ‘The Russians taught us how to kiss’

She’s the star of the BBC’s flagship New Year drama about ruthless Russian gangsters exiled in Britain. Juliet Rylance talks about blind love, working with her stepdad Mark – and how she helped bring peace to two billion people

For far too long, mob dramas have focused almost entirely on the Italian mafia, from The Sopranos right back to The Godfather. What has not been adequately explored is the rise of their Russian counterparts. True, TV has teemed in recent years with Russian baddie stereotypes, most notably Galina “Red” Reznikov in Orange Is the New Black, but they’ve tended to be racist creations, psychopaths-by-numbers, generally played by non-Russians.

Juliet Rylance is hoping the new BBC drama series she is starring in can change all that. In McMafia, freely adapted from Misha Glenny’s mordant bestselling analysis of the new globalised world of organised crime, she plays Rebecca Harper, a woman who is waking up to the fact that Alex Goodman, the love of her life, may be losing his idealistic soul to his crime family’s values, turning into the sort of thug who gets his goons to whack foes by poisoning them with polonium. This, she realises, would leave her little more than a mobster’s moll.

The rounded Russia that emerges from McMafia is not just a land of sharpsuited goons or Putineseque hard men, but also the civilised home of Chekhov and Dostoevsky. And the Russians, Rylance points out, are actually played by Russians. “That kept us honest,” she says. “The two wonderful actors who played Alex’s parents would say, ‘You know, in Russia we would never say it like this’; or, ‘I would give him two kisses here.’ And the director would take all that on board.”

Does this have polonium in it? … Rylance as Rebecca Harper and James Norton as Alex Goodman in McMafia. Photograph: BBC/Cuba Productions/Nick Wall

Will lovely Alex, the English-raised son of Russian gangsters exiled to London, take over the family firm from his ailing dad? Can it be true that this banker at Goldman Sachs, played by James Norton, is going to infuse his hedge fund with laundered heroin money? Is he becoming like Al Pacino in The Godfather III (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in)?” And, please God no, is Rylance destined to suffer the same fate as Diane Keaton?

Rylance is torn about her character. “When I first read the script, I thought, ‘Come on, Rebecca. You’ve got to see something’s going awry and he’s not telling you the truth.’ Then I thought, ‘How amazing to have a character who has such confidence and feels so secure in her relationship.’”

Good grief, I say to the 38-year-old, as we chat over coffee in London. While it’s true that Norton incarnates his character just as stirringly as he did hunky Prince Andrei in the BBC’s War and Peace last year, isn’t Rebecca nuts to trust Alex? “I don’t think so. It takes amazing strength of character to go, ‘I really trust this person. I’m going to believe what they tell me is true.’” Or stupid? Rylance giggles. “I think that’s a large part of who Rebecca is. She will give someone the benefit of the doubt. I like that about her.”

Although she is a Rada graduate, Rylance cut her teeth in the US. “I went out for six months to see what was happening,” she says, “and ended up staying for six years. I love the theatre scene in New York, and became part of it. It’s very tight-knit community full of wonderful people. I’ve always loved that.”

Juliet with her mother Claire van Kampen and the latter’s husband, Mark Rylance. Photograph: John Stillwell/AFP/Getty

There was more to Rylance’s Atlantic crossing than that, though. One lure was Christian Camargo, the American actor she met in 1997, at the inaugural season of the Globe theatre in London, where she was working with her stepfather, the actor and director Mark Rylance. (She was born Juliet van Kampen to composer Claire and architect Chris, but the couple divorced when she was seven and her mother married Mark.) “Back then,” Camargo told the New York Times, “Juliet was the boss’s untouchable daughter.”

Not for long. Rylance married Camargo in New York in 2008. Two years later, they performed together there as Rosalind and Orlando in As You Like It, one critic describing their on-stage courtship as “an elaborate, gender-bending masquerade”. And in 2012, she starred in and produced the film Days and Nights directed by Camargo and based on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The couple now have homes in Manhattan, London and Joshua Tree, California.

McMafia was created for TV by Hossein Amini, who wrote 2011’s existential thriller Drive, and James Watkins, who directed The Woman in Black in 2012. According to Watkins, the drama is about the protagonist finding “the Russian bear under the bowler hat”, while Amini – a Tehran-born British-raised screenwriter – poured into Alex his own experience of exile and being an outsider at an English public school. “I was always getting called wog and darkie,” he says. “I imagined Alex used to get called yid or Russkie.”

Near the end of episode one, Rebecca delivers a showpiece speech to a room full of wealthy philanthropists. She is now working for a foundation set up by a tycoon who made his billions unethically but now wants to do something good. “We live in a globalised hyperconnected world,” says Rebecca, as guests sip cocktails and rattle their jewellery. “A system designed to create wealth for all has been exploited by a few to create unparalleled inequality. The problem doesn’t lie with capitalism but with those who have put short-term gain above the good of the people.”

Does Rylance believe all this dubious guff Amini wrote for her character? Does she truly believe in ethical capitalism? “I really do!” she says. “I feel, like Rebecca, ethical capitalism is really possible. And more than possible – I think it’s necessary, otherwise it’s all going down.” But, to put it mildly, a banker claiming that capitalism can give itself an ethical makeover is quite a stretch, financial greed having destroyed the global economy nearly a decade ago. “It is a stretch,” she says, “but it is possible. That said, I would also call myself a socialist. Rebecca wouldn’t. I think the only bad thing is having a fundamentalist viewpoint.”

give a sense of where she’s coming from politically, Rylance tells me that she has recently become an ambassador for Peace One Day, the non-profit organisation set up by her friend and fellow actor Jeremy Gilley to increase awareness of World Peace Day, which is on 21 September every year. “Why I’m bringing it up is because last year these studies found that Peace Day is the day when there was least violence around the world.”

‘The boss’s untouchable daughter’ … Rylance with her husband, Christian Camargo, in New York this year. Photograph: Theo Wargo/Getty

Why would that be? “Because two billion people were aware of Peace Day. That’s quite incredible. That tells me that wonderful Margaret Mead quote is right.” What the late American anthropologist said was: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Perhaps, Rylance’s argument goes, good citizens can make capitalism work better for the worst off.

After McMafia, we will see her again in spring – alongside Andie MacDowell and Chris O’Dowd in Love After Love, the directorial debut of Russell Harbaugh that is already being compared to Woody Allen’s Bergmanesque Interiors for its melancholy portrayal of an American family dramatically unravelling. She’s cast as another Rebecca, this time one whose father-in-law, a writer played by O’Dowd, is dying of an unspecified illness. “Russ made a beautiful book of paintings and images and films to watch and stories to read. He gave them to the whole cast. He was especially eager that we watched the films of Maurice Pialat.”

Pialat is the French long-take, seedy-atmospherics merchant who gave us, among other gems, an early sighting of Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu in Loulou. “So the whole cast were immersed in that world,” adds Rylance. “That was a real gift. I hope to have that on every film.”

I take a sidelong glance at Rylance. Soignée, glamorous and enviably content, she admits she’s looking forward to leaving dirty old London for the Californian desert. “The weather’s so amazing at this time of year in Joshua Tree,” she says. “We get flash floods and all these wild plants emerge. Some of the plants that are coming up right now haven’t been seen in the desert for 150 years.”

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