What makes Mark Rylance a great actor?

This question assumes that two Tonys, two Oliviers, BAFTA and Critics' Circle awards mean Rylance is, in fact, a great actor.

Rylance recalled Ruth Bly asking her husband, Minnesota poet Robert, that question at a social event.

"Robert looked up and said, 'Because he doesn't know who he is,' " Rylance said. "He was brilliant! He absolutely nailed it."

Whoever he is, Rylance is back at the Guthrie Theater, acting in a new play that he helped write and direct. "Nice Fish," written with Duluth poet Louis Jenkins, puts a man on a frozen lake — where ice meets sky and a man is left to create his own universe. It opens Friday.

"It is such a blessing that it is being born in the Midwest, its natural cradle," Rylance said during a rehearsal break.

How this British Shakespearean actor came to such a genuine affection for the Midwest is an interesting story — and it says something about who Mark Rylance is.

"I have a sense that my psyche or soul encouraged me in odd directions, but which later made sense," Rylance said.

Born in England 53 years ago, Rylance and his family moved to the United States when he was quite young, and Mark spent nearly 10 years of his youth in Milwaukee — a cheesehead who cheered the Green Bay Packers, played youth sports and vacationed in Door County. In an interview, he talked with great fondness about ice hockey tournaments ("bantam or peewee, I can't remember") that he played in at Duluth and Superior, Wis.

Perhaps this history explains why Rylance was so good — Tony Award good — playing a role he described as "a Midwestern Wisconsin's farmer son" in the 2008 Broadway production of "Boeing Boeing."

Alongside his youthful zest for athletics, Rylance plunged into high school theater in Milwaukee, and returned to England in 1978 to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

"It took me a while to get a proper British accent when I got back to England," he said. "I still sound more Welsh or Irish. My O's sound Midwestern."

In 1995, Rylance became the first artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe in London. He renewed his relationship with the Midwest when the troupe visited the Guthrie in 2003 and 2005. Rylance returned to Minneapolis three years later to work on a new adaptation of "Peer Gynt" with a script by his friend Bly. A vast and sprawling farrago, the production was nonetheless driven by Rylance's playfulness in the role of a naif who slides through life.

"He's unbelievably inventive and theatrical," said actor Sally Wingert, who worked with Rylance in "La Bête," both in London and New York. "He has an astonishing sense of his physical self, and he doesn't mind looking foolish."

That fearlessness marked Rylance's other Tony-winning performance, in 2011's "Jerusalem." New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that Rylance played the central character "as one of the last of the titans, a man who taps our lust for life lived large and excessively, without social restraints."

Minnesota poetry

Louis Jenkins remembers the e-mail from a friend. Rylance was reciting one of Jenkins' poems during his acceptance speech at the 2008 Tony Awards. "I was totally caught off guard, and I had to look it up on YouTube," said Jenkins, who has been writing for decades. (Rylance repeated the trick when he won for "Jerusalem.")

The connection between Jenkins and Rylance runs through Bly and James Hillman, the psychologist and author. Jenkins saw Rylance in "Peer Gynt," and soon afterward the two talked about the idea of using Jenkins' poems as the basis for a new play.

"Two ice fishermen are having a kind of non-conversation in which one will say a poem and the other will respond," said Jenkins. "Giants and goddesses show up, and it's loosely based on Norse mythology."

Jenkins said he's never had much luck with "hard water fishing" as it is called. But it wasn't so much about the lunkers as it was the rare experience of tempting hypothermia and staring into space.

"Your mind can go anywhere," he said. "You have this ice and sky background that is your theater, and you can project what you want on that screen."

Rylance and his "Nice Fish" co-star Jim Lichtscheidl recently went out on Silver Lake in North St. Paul to test their skills. Rylance caught three perch.

"The wild thing was, we had been there a while and Jim and I started acting out a scene," Rylance said. "Every time we recited one of Louis' poems, at the end of the line, we would get a fish, like the poems went down the wire to the fish. That's the deep effect of poetry in Minnesota."

Diving into myth

Rylance started to form "Nice Fish" in his head while he was performing "Boeing Boeing" in New York. He regularly visited his friend Hillman, who would psychoanalyze the characters and discuss the energy within the play's universe. Hillman, who died in 2011, was a devotee of Carl Jung and a cohort with Bly in the men's movement of the 1990s.

Rylance considered Hillman a mentor and has adapted passages of his book "The Terrible Love of War" in "Nice Fish."

"He wrote about the intimacy that men find in war, the self-discovery," Rylance wrote. "There's some of that on the ice."

Getting "Nice Fish" on its feet at the Guthrie has been an exercise in play. Rylance encouraged road trips and nine-square games — taping off a court in the rehearsal room.

"I don't want my mind to get in the way of the process," he said. "It's not a lecture, it's an experience."

This emphasis on getting out of one's head helps Rylance understand the mystery of existence and the archetypes that mark the way.

"When you feel free to change your work, to adapt, that's when you get the collective unconscious coming up," he said. "More ideas are possible when actors follow their instincts. You want actors who search, who dig, who get into that cave with me."