The actor talks about his latest project, starring in and directing a film version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus.
Ralph Fiennes on playing the bad guy again, in Shakespeare's Coriolanus
Always one to take on a challenge, Ralph Fiennes tells David Gritten that having financial comfort allows him to pursue the work that truly inspires him, such as his latest project, starring in and directing a modern-day version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus.
Ralph Fiennes, it's fair to say, is not one of those actors who loves talking about himself. He'll put himself through the ordeal of being interviewed, but only in order to help promote a film or play in which he's involved. Chatting about his private life or revealing his deepest thoughts and fears? That isn't him.
This is no recent affectation on Fiennes's part. I've been meeting him for two decades now, before he became famous; and even as a promising stage actor in his late 20s, he was reserved. He's not unfriendly, and certainly never less than affable. But there's a measured calm about him, which makes him faintly unknowable; over the years he's been most at ease talking coolly and analytically about his roles.
Until now, that is. Having spent all his career as an actor, Fiennes, 49, has now directed a film - a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. It's tempting to say he's finally stepped behind the cameras, but in truth he's both behind and in front of them: as well as directing Coriolanus, he plays the title role.
Clearly the experience of making the film has changed him. When we met recently at a London hotel, it was Fiennes as I'd never seen him before. He was passionate, engaged, with a glint in his eye. He gesticulated wildly while making his points, and raised his voice frequently to express emotion. There seemed to be a flush of real excitement in his cheeks.
Obviously, when you direct a film, you assume a sense of ownership about it. You protect, defend and take pride in it, like one of your children. In the case of Coriolanus, completing it may have given Fiennes a sense of giddy triumph. As he recalls now, it was an uphill struggle.
"I'm just relieved we managed to get the film done, because trying to make it happen financially was really hard," he said. "This was in 2008 and 2009, the worst possible time to pull it all together."
But given that Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare's best-known, or indeed best-loved plays, why would he want to put himself through all this grief?
"I played the role on stage in London about 20 years ago," he says. "It was fine, but I felt there was something missing. It wasn't connecting with the audience. Somehow it felt like unfinished business."
It was in short, a labour of love, and Fiennes tried to stay detached from all the worrying talk about money: "Like so many independent productions, you take a gamble - you start preparing, but you haven't fully secured your financing. I knew I had to detach and focus on my work. Finally, three or four weeks in, our producers said: 'We've closed.'"
By that time, he had assembled an impressive cast of acting peers who admired his work, and who were eager to take part in this adventure.
It was always clear Fiennes would play Coriolanus, the prickly Roman warrior hero who wants to advance his political career, but cares nothing for what the public thinks of him. Proud and arrogant, he will not compromise to win their approval. As Fiennes concedes, Coriolanus is not an easy man.
"But I hate it when people complain that he's not likeable!" he says, almost shouting. "He's complex! He's interesting! And he has a weird kind of integrity."
Still, a first-rate supporting cast was essential. Fiennes persuaded Vanessa Redgrave to take the key role of Volumnia, Coriolanus's strong-willed mother. He chose the veteran actor Brian Cox to play Menenius, an influential Roman senator: "Brian has a natural male charisma. He's one of those people who can convey authority with ease."
Fiennes took a chance on Gerard Butler, better known as a Hollywood action hero, to play Coriolanus's deadly rival, the warrior Tullus Aufidius: "You believe in Gerry as a soldier." And while visiting New York, he discovered a then-unknown stage actress named Jessica Chastain to play Coriolanus's wife, Virgilia: "She can portray goodness so well. There's a lot of horror in this story, and she's like a silent witness to it."
The film is a bold venture. The screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo, The Aviator) cut vast amounts of Shakespeare's lengthy play to make it fit a two-hour film. Logan and Fiennes decided to update the action from ancient Rome to the present day - we see TV newscasts reporting the exploits of Coriolanus, and characters using mobile phones. And Fiennes plays the title character like an arrogant Balkan warlord.
"We shot the film in Belgrade, mainly because it was affordable," he says. "It's also a capital city, so it has a weight to it, a certain scale. And it has a mix of architectural styles. It was a good equivalent for ancient Rome."
No one expects Coriolanus to break any box-office records, but it's a gutsy achievement, and critics have been almost unanimous in praising it. Beyond question, it marks an intriguing turning point in Fiennes's career.
It's been clear from the start that he is one of Britain's most talented actors, whether on screen or stage. But he has played his career shrewdly. On the one hand, he has stayed away from leading parts if he finds them uninteresting.
"I can see the ingredients that go into a star role, but one has to be really careful," he says. "I like psychologically intriguing characters and the challenge that goes with playing them."
Yet at the same time Fiennes has made himself financially comfortable by appearing in several hugely commercial films, though almost always in supporting parts; the success or failure of a blockbuster never depends on him. The best example of this policy is his recurring role in six Harry Potter films as the malevolent (and nose-free) Lord Voldemort. Fiennes will also be playing an agent in the next James Bond movie, Skyfall ("I've always loved Bond films and books," he says.) But Daniel Craig will get the star billing. This gives Fiennes the freedom to pursue the work that truly inspires him - like directing and starring in Coriolanus.
He was born in Suffolk, England, the eldest of six children; his full name, remarkably, is Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. His father, Mark, was a farmer turned landscape photographer, while his mother, Jini, wrote novels and travel books. The Fiennes family, who spent years living in Ireland, were a genteel, artistic crowd; Ralph's brother Joseph is also an actor (he starred in Shakespeare in Love), while his sisters, Martha and Sophie, have both directed and produced films.
As a young man, Fiennes swiftly chose acting as a career, and after drama school joined Britain's National Theatre before becoming a lead with the Royal Shakespeare Company. There, his performance as Troilus in Troilus and Cressida marked him as a talent to watch. His first role in front of a camera was for a British television film, as TE Lawrence in A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia in 1990.
That was where I first met him, rehearsing for the role, and learning to ride a horse at a London military barracks. Even then, he was an intense character: "My girlfriend teases me for being over-serious," he sighed. "I think she's probably right."
He added, rather touchingly: "I just want to do work that has some thought and integrity behind it, rather than pleasing audience expectations or always trying to be successful."
Among the people who saw A Dangerous Man was Steven Spielberg, who plucked Fiennes from relative obscurity to play the sadistic Nazi officer Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. "Ralph has a charm which can cut off and become deadly calm," Spielberg told me later. "Goeth was such a nasty man - and playing him Ralph [pictured below] looks you in the eye and makes your blood run cold."
Fiennes gained 25 pounds to play Goeth; his face was puffy, his hair was slicked back and he strutted around with a large paunch.
"Powerful men often carry a paunch around with them in a way that demonstrates that power," he said. His steely-eyed Coriolanus, though slimmer and fitter than Goeth, shares something of that quality.
Playing Goeth led to an Oscar nomination. It launched him and enabled him to mix and match his career - lead roles in interesting, thoughtful movies such as Quiz Show, The English Patient (another Oscar nomination) and The Constant Gardener - and smaller roles in quirky, independent films, some of which sank without trace.
Still, throughout all this, there's always been something of the loner about Fiennes, although he has had two significant relationships with actresses. He married Alex Kingston (best known for her role in TV's ER) in the mid-1990s, but their marriage ended after four years.
By then Fiennes was with Francesca Annis, whom he met in a stage role; 17 years his senior, she was cast as Gertrude, mother to his Hamlet. They stayed together for 11 years, but broke up in 2006. Recently Fiennes has been quoted as saying: "I've almost resigned myself to being alone for good."
That lets him devote time to his career, which he does single-mindedly. Fiennes will remain busy either as an actor or director into the foreseeable future. He will again play Hades, the sinister god of the underworld, in Wrath of the Titans, the 3-D sequel to Clash of the Titans from 2010 - though again he'll be supporting its stars, Liam Neeson and Sam Worthington. And then there's the Bond film.
But Fiennes is now also embroiled in the world of Charles Dickens. He has just completed a BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, playing the convict Magwitch (yet another interesting support role) opposite Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and War Horse's young star, Jeremy Irvine, as Pip.
His second effort as film director deals with Dickens's private life. The Invisible Woman, adapted from Clare Tomalin's story, is about Nellie Ternan, an actress who was Dickens's secret mistress in the later years of his life. When they met, he was 45, and she was just 18. It's hoped the film will be released this year, which marks the bicentenary of Dickens's birth.
I came away from talking to Fiennes reflecting that he seemed as fulfilled and happy as I'd ever seen him. For all the talk about him being alone, he's a driven, passionate, serious-minded man - and maybe he's living a life that suits him best.
Consider that earnest comment of his 20 years ago - that he wanted to do work that involved thought and integrity above popularity or the pursuit of success.
You'd have to say he has got what he wished for.
Coriolanus is scheduled to open in UAE cinemas on February 2.
The Fiennes file
BORN December 22, 1962, Ipswich, Suffolk, England
SCHOOLING St Kieran's College, County Kilkenny, Ireland; Newtown School, County Waterford, Ireland; Bishop Wordsworth's School, Salisbury, England; Chelsea College of Art; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London
FAMILY Three brothers, two sisters; is an eighth cousin to the Prince of Wales
BIG-SCREEN DEBUT As a smouldering Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1992)
ON BROADWAY Of the dozen actors to have played Hamlet on Broadway, is the only one to have won a Tony Award (1995)
TRADEMARKS Steely glaze and mellifluous voice
ANOTHER LEADING ROLE As Unicef UK ambassador
QUIRKY FACT ONE His tattoo in Red Dragon (2002) took eight hours to apply
QUIRKY FACT TWO Good friends with Jay-Z
QUIRKY FACT THREE Huge fan of professional wrestling
The quotable Fiennes
"It's 'Rafe', actually."
"When children were introduced to Lord Voldemort, they looked suitably terrified. Which gave me great gratification."
"As an actor, a part of you expects to be looked at. A part of you wants to be looked at. But when I'm playing a part, in my imagined world, I feel I'm not me. I may be using bits of me, but I love the sense that I'm being someone else."
"Awards are like applause, and every actor likes to hear applause."
"The process of making a film is a mad lottery. Whenever you get the feeling that you're making something special, you have to quickly squash it because you are so often proved wrong."
"I think it's a badge of honour to have a real flop on your résumé" (about The Avengers).
"I veer away from trying to understand why I act. I just know I need to do it."
"My parents were very financially challenged. All of us children have the memory of being told that there was no money, we have to sell this, there's no presents for Christmas."
Source: Internet Movie Database