It would be virtually impossible to invent Mark Ryan. In his life he has been a singer,
soldier, a TV star, a Hollywood actor, a private investigator and an advisor to a
variety of intelligence and law enforcement organisations. He has written two books
about the Tarot and a best-selling comic, taught soldiers how to uncover secrets and
actors how to fight, as well as working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
All this time he has followed a code of living, and a philosophy, which have enabled
him to survive many different kinds of danger.
When Mark first approached me to help him write this book – “a kind of long
rambling story,” as he called it – we had been friends for over twenty years, and had
worked together on blockbuster epics like King Arthur (2003), but I knew very little
of the “other” Mark Ryan, or of the secret life behind that of the screen and TV actor.
To me he was a friend with whom I could be sure of a great conversation, more than a
few beers and a lot of laughs. I also knew he had a more profound side and that he
lived his life according to an unusual set of beliefs.
The story told here, for the most part in Mark’s own voice, begins with his
journey from Doncaster, Yorkshire, to his work in musical theatre in the London
production of Evita, branching out into TV in the global hit series, Robin of
Sherwood. It takes us though adventures wilder than most of us can imagine to the
often bizarre world of Hollywood, the ending of a disastrous marriage and beyond, as
Mark found himself drawn back into a world he thought he had left behind when he
resigned from a unique position as a highly vetted operator in the British Army’s
Intelligence Corps and Special Operations community in 1997.
Invited to help an old friend and veteran SWAT team police officer, now
running a private investigation company and dealing with a complex international
extortion case, Mark soon found himself risking life and limb in the hunt for South
American money launderers, threatened by lethal corporate blackmailers, searching
for murdered Israelis in the vast deserts of Nevada, consulting with various US
agencies engaged in “state-of-the-art” counter-terror operations in the wake of 9/11,
and helping some of the best-known names in Hollywood deal with a variety of
At the same time Mark continued to pursue a career as an actor, singer and
swordmaster, working on such blockbuster movies as The Prestige, First Knight and
King Arthur. Few knew of his secret other life and the dangers and thrills it brought in
its wake. Yet the two strands continued to overlap, enabling him to bring his acting
skills to the art of detection, and his military training to teach actors to fight better on
screen. Recently he became a familiar name as the voice of Bumblebee – the best loved
robot in the Transformers movie franchise, and found himself travelling the
world, signing toy replicas of the famous yellow car. In the past year, he has been
filming in South Africa as a leading character in executive producer Michael Bay’s
TV series Black Sails from Starz. As I write this, Mark is voicing the latest addition to
the Transformers stable as “Lockdown,” the most popular villain in the fourth film of
Writing this book with him, listening to many hours of taped conversations
and gradually editing Mark’s wonderful anecdotal words into written prose has taught
me a lot about him that I might never have known. It’s an amazing story by any
measure, full of danger, tragedy, laughter and heart. It was a privilege to work on and
it remains a privilege for me to know the man who has been called, rightly in my
view, ‘an angel in the dark,’ and who I am proud to call my friend.
Oxford – Los Angeles, 2015
Currently on our TV screens in the UK as a pirate in the series ‘Black Sails’, the actor Mark Ryan’s own life has been something of an adventure on the metaphorical high seas. The title of his autobiography ‘Hold Fast’ were words he asked the make-up department to put on his hands for his role as Gates in the production, and they sum up his roller-coaster life well.
The introduction of this book begins with the words by co-author John Matthews:
“It would be virtually impossible to invent Mark Ryan. In his life he has been a singer, soldier, a TV star, a Hollywood actor, a private investigator and an advisor to a variety of intelligence and law enforcement organisations. He has written two books about the Tarot and a best-selling comic, taught soldiers how to uncover secrets and actors how to fight, as well as working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. All this time he has followed a code of living, and a philosophy, which have enabled him to survive many different kinds of danger.”
If a film was made about this man’s life it would be perceived as ridiculously far-fetched. A sort of eclectic pagan James Bond undercover Spiderman hero, his life’s strands are reminiscent of a strong, sailor’s rope, intertwining the worlds of Hollywood, TV, the British Army’s Military Intelligence and Special Operations Unit, Private Investigator and celebrity A list counsellor, and a very tough rope it is at that.
From the first page the reader is catapulted into a non-stop, page-turning adventure. This book is as much a self-help book for the reader as much as it is an autobiography, because along with all the tough guy action roles, his expert swordmanship and stunt work making him the go-to man for training other actors, and the sheer grit and nerve of facing several near death experiences in his military and spook undertakings, all of this is underlined by a zen-like Jungian philosophy, a spiritual alchemy that turns all crises into lessons for furthering and developing the strength of human character. His father seems to be the source of this teaching: everything has a purpose and a meaning and all catastrophes and mistakes take you onto the next step of the ladder of learning.
A dreamer who scribbled fantasy adventure stories in his bedroom in a back to back terraced house in Doncaster, the precocious young Mark Ryan seemed to know no fear, firstly treading the notoriously hard boards of Yorkshire’s Working Men’s Clubs as a singer, before driving to London, walking in off the street to the famous Italia Conti Stage School and introducing himself. Taken aback, and despite the high fees which were somehow waived, the family running the school generously agreed to let him do lessons there.
Several stage and TV shows followed, including the role as all the baddies in a stage production in Dean about the life of doomed actor James Dean, before Mark set off to work with a six piece band in Zambia. It’s the ‘70s and during the time of President Kenneth Kaunda, and it’s Mark’s introduction and education into a political hotbed involving the Soviet Cold War, the CIA, MI6, the KGB, BOSS (South African Intelligence Service), Cuban forces, the Chinese, the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement. It’s here that his keen intelligence skills were honed, mixing in various circles with all these differing factions who all seemed to hang out together in the hotel bars. Zambia back then was, in his words “the hub of …vicious and deadly undercover activity”. He offers a fascinating insight into the political world map at the time, whilst being seemingly politically impartial himself. A survival skill, no doubt, which serves him well from here on in, especially in his future roles in military intelligence and as a Spook. On his return to Britain he lands a part in the West End musical Evita.
Whichever role Mark Ryan is in you believe him when he says he always tries to do the right thing, the moral thing. There is much darkness we don’t get to hear about of course: reading between the lines, much of this book you suspect is the tip of the iceberg in many ways, and his discretion is clearly what has gained him access to many inaccessible places, be they war zones, government and military power houses or the minds of Hollywood’s troubled entertainment elite. War torn areas such as South Africa, Ireland and the unbelievable atrocities in Bosnia are written about with a brutal frankness and explicitness that makes us question human evil. Again Mark’s philosophy kicks in and takes the soul to an ascended level of understanding. Another attribute he mentions throughout the book is his ability to step outside and observe any given situation and evaluate it with a cool head. It’s a recurring theme, as is his love of nature and trees, from which he gains his solace, therapy and answers. Having seen so much evil and destruction in the name of all the religions, his beliefs are more in line with the natural world and Quantum physics:
I…don’t believe the universe understands the concept of money or wealth or credit cards. I would suggest it understands abundance, generosity, and fecundity.
It’s a beautiful thought.
An acting role in the acclaimed ‘80s UK TV series Robin of Sherwood follows and forms lifelong bonds with, among others, actor Ray Winstone, who writes the affectionate Foreword to the book. As mentioned earlier, Mark’s life is like a ship’s rope that intertwines all his disciplines at once, at any given time. Attaining his Green Beret, then Int. Corp training, becoming a private investigator in the US, he has a wide remit and various clientele: rescuing model L’Wren Scott from a death threat situation in London and getting her safely out of the country, investigating the death of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme and owning the piece of pavement he is said to have died on – every paragraph in this book leaps from one thrilling and intriguing scenario to the next at rapid pace.
Magic and synchronicity, our interaction and personal relationship with the Universe are themes that are also ever present throughout the book. It makes me think a man without these convictions and observations could not have had such a multifarious existence and succeeded in such varied occupations. On this he says:
Real magic consists of taking an idea, a concept that comes out of the back of your head, and changing it into a material and living thing. To borrow an example from science – the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that the way you view particles in matter changes them, making them no longer fixed and irrevocable. I try, on a daily basis, to practice changing the particles around me by pushing them the way I want them to go, rather than letting them channel me down a predicable path. I don’t believe in fate, but I do accept the principles of the possible and the probable, the practical and the appropriate. I also put energy into the intuitive, the innovative and the honourable.
Happenstance, luck and synchronicity – and a dialogue with the Universe – are expressed in an amazing and moving story about him losing the treasured signet ring of his beloved deceased uncle, and retracing his steps through the countryside and woods in a seemingly impossible effort to find it. It’s a turning point in Mark’s outlook on life and philosophy.
Outside of the horrors of war, the tensions of espionage and the ongoing Mafia-style posturing of world politics, much of this book is just great fun with lots of gossip and behind the scenes anecdotes you’d expect from Mark’s numerous TV and Hollywood experiences. Always gracious, again Mark is the soul of discretion and tells mainly upbeat and complementary stories of stars like Richard Gere, Sean Connery (First Knight), and his son Jason, a good friend of Mark’s; Keira Knightley and Clive Owen (King Arthur) and Toby Stephens and others on the current fantastic swashbuckling Black Sails of which he says:
These [the pirates] were not nice people, and it was made clear from the start that this show was never going to be Pirates of the Caribbean. No peg-legs, no “Arrr, matey!” I love the way one of the critics reviewing the show said that Captain Jack Sparrow, memorably played by Johnny Depp, would have not survived five minutes with the Black Sails pirates. This is a historical look at the way these people functioned, the spirit of the age if you like, how that spirit of rebellion echoed through that period and how these people lived and what they would do to live that life.
This kind of understanding fuelled a lot of the scenes Toby and I did.
He also articulates the often difficult tensions, egos and hostilities of being on some film sets, but again he appeases most situations and shows his affable ability to make friends in the end. Mentoring troubled stars through luxury rehab in California show his compassion and patience and that again, he’s a man to be trusted with the secrets, though there are glimpses into that world – driving rock star Courtney Love home, accompanied by her daughter, is a touching vignette.
Mark dedicates this book to his children and there is the feeling this book is cathartic for him, as way of explanation to them – the life of an actor and a secret life in military intelligence could not have been condusive to a typical family life.
The book is co-written by John Matthews, an author who has penned many books over the last 50 years, primarily about King Arthur and the Grail Legend, druidism and other aspects of English folk lore. John was brought in as an adviser and expert on King Arthur. The question “Whom does the Grail serve?” is Mark’s mantra. Olde England and Albion, and the soul and spirit of the rebel are engrained in many of the roles he has played, and these themes swirl through the book.
A life lived part in the limelight, part behind the scenes, part in shadow and part in darkness. A fascinating, tough and likeable man with an astonishing life story to tell, and, as he points out, this is only part of it. A man who generously takes you with him every step of the way, eager to impart the lessons he has learned. Highly recommended, but you’d be advised on reading this book to take his advice in the title of the book, and hold fast!
Hold Fast was published on June 15th 2015
Some photos from the book