Ralph Fi­ennes talks to Kevin Maher about his ver­sion of up­dated to here and now

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

RALPH Fi­ennes has im­pec­ca­ble tim­ing. It’s hard to think of a more apt mo­ment fol­low­ing the pop­u­lar tur­moil of 2011 — the Arab Spring and the Oc­cupy move­ments — to di­rect and star in a film of Shake­speare’s most stri­dently po­lit­i­cal play, Co­ri­olanus.

And just a few days af­ter our in­ter­view, the 49-year-old pow­er­house of stage and screen is set to ap­pear along­side Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron on The An­drew Marr Show. As it turns out, Fi­ennes’s stint will be low-key, and all but dwarfed by the pres­ence of Cameron and a flurry of in­ter­est in big bonuses for peo­ple work­ing in the City. But for now, over a shared pot of tea, pol­i­tics is high on the agenda.

As you might rea­son­ably ex­pect, Fi­ennes has never voted Tory. And he’s not about to start. ‘‘ I al­ways feel in­nately dis­ap­pointed by politi­cians. I mean, I’ve never voted Con­ser­va­tive. I’ve voted Labour, and in the last elec­tion I voted Lib Dem.’’ He says the lat­ter bal­lot was a re­ac­tion against for­mer prime min­is­ter Tony Blair and the war in Iraq, and then he adds, ‘‘ I think the coali­tion is good for the en­ergy of Bri­tish pol­i­tics. It’s bro­ken the two-party ping-pong, and it’s good to have this kind of ten­sion to it.’’

Fi­ennes, who is famed for play­ing the in­ten­sity in char­ac­ters as var­ied as Volde­mort in the Harry Pot­ter fran­chise, Al­masy in The English Pa­tient and Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, sips his tea thought­fully. He is dressed in a brown zippy cardy, in blue den­ims, and in ex­pen­sive-look­ing brown leather an­kle boots. I will later ask him if he ever splurges his block­bust­ing earn­ings on him­self.

He flinches at the thought, and then says dead­pan that he doesn’t own a Har­ley David­son, and that cars don’t in­ter­est him, but that he does have an ipad, only his ipad — and this is very Ralph Fi­ennes — has no apps. ‘‘ I use it just for cross-ref­er­enc­ing sched­ul­ing, for ad­dresses and for the con­stant flow of emails,’’ he says, be­fore adding that hav­ing money means he can ‘‘ eat out in restau­rants, and go on a hol­i­day that might be on the higher end of the price range, and not have the anx­i­ety of, ‘ F. . .! I’ve got to pay this off’ ’’. In­stinc­tively shy, his de­fault set­ting is a tor­tured, kind of, hand­some anx­i­ety (think The Con­stant Gar­dener). Yet this is not to be con­fused, as many pro­fil­ers do, with froideur. In­stead, Fi­ennes gives ev­ery ques­tion, no mat­ter how triv­ial, his com­plete and sear­ing at­ten­tion (the full Fi­ennes, if you like).

I have in­ter­viewed him three times, and have found that he’ll dis­cuss any­thing, with open­ness and se­ri­ous­ness, as long as it’s not the in­ti­mate de­tails of his sex life. For in­stance, when I ask him about the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing chil­dren, he re­sponds, chuck­ling and teas­ing, ‘‘ Well, it might hap­pen! But it’s not some­thing that I’m con­sid­er­ing right now [he is cur­rently sin­gle]. But, never say never!’’ Or on turn­ing 50 later this year he grins and says, ‘‘ I like get­ting old. It’s kind of cu­ri­ous to see that you’re head­ing to all the places you’ve seen peo­ple go be­fore you. I’ll be at that place where when I saw so-and-so hit­ting 50 I thought, ‘ God, they’re get­ting on a bit’.’’

For now though, it’s all about Co­ri­olanus. The film is some­thing close to a triumph. Mus­cu­lar and propul­sive, it takes the core Shake­spearean tale — a gen­eral (Fi­ennes) is per­suaded to en­ter pol­i­tics by his mother Vo­lum­nia (Vanessa Red­grave) against his bet­ter in­stincts, when he’d much rather be out bat­tling his mor­tal en­emy Au­fid­ius — and re­boots it into the mod­ern day Balkans, and shoots it with a jit­tery Hurt Locker- style en­ergy (both films use Barry Ack­royd as cin­e­matog­ra­pher). It’s po­lit­i­cally res­o­nant, visu­ally stylish, and brim­ful of peer­less per­for­mances. Even Ger­ard ( 300) But­ler does proper act­ing here as Au­fid­ius.

Mak­ing it, how­ever, was a dif­fer­ent story. Im­pos­si­bly am­bi­tious for a de­but di­rec­tor, it was shot in and around Bel­grade, on a bud­get of £5.2 mil­lion ($7.7m) and over 10 hel­ter-skel­ter weeks. Fi­ennes, who had been mulling the idea of di­rect­ing for nearly a decade, says the film­ing process was a case of daily prac­ti­cal­i­ties wrestling with over­whelm­ing self-doubt. ‘‘ There were days when I thought, ‘ I haven’t got the right per­for­mance that I should be giv­ing but I haven’t got time, and I have to move on!’ And then, the pres­sure on the head.’’ (He presses his skull dra­mat­i­cally from both sides, as if try­ing to squeeze it like a pim­ple.) ‘‘ Got to move on! And even if you think, ‘ F. . .! F. . .! F. . .! you can’t af­ford to show it . . . And then later, you look at the rushes and you think that it’s all shit. And then, thank­fully, you learn the magic of edit­ing.’’

The pri­mal al­lure of the film, though, is in Fi­ennes’s ful­mi­nat­ing cen­tral turn as the man who re­fuses to bend to the base urges of the peo­ple. Isn’t there some­thing au­to­bio- graph­i­cal in that? Some­one ded­i­cated to his craft who nonethe­less has to play the pub­lic­ity game for the sake of that craft? ‘‘ I think there’s a bit of me in there, sure,’’ he be­gins, be­fore ex­plain­ing that it’s all about masks, and that Co­ri­olanus re­sents hav­ing to wear one, and that masks are strange, be­cause he wears one all the time as an ac­tor, and that, ‘‘ some­times, with act­ing, you re­veal more about your­self in per­for­mance than you do in real life’’.

So what mask are you wear­ing right now? ‘‘ Ugh,’’ he groans. ‘‘ I don’t want to an­a­lyse the mask I’m wear­ing now! I try not to have them in real life, but you know?’’

The real-life Fi­ennes be­gan wear­ing masks, one sus­pects, at a young age. The el­dest of six chil­dren born to writer Jen­nifer Lash and farmer-turned-pho­tog­ra­pher Mark Fi­ennes, he is the prod­uct of a bo­hemian and fa­mously peri­patetic child­hood — from Dorset to Suf­folk to West Cork to Sal­is­bury to Wilt­shire to London, mov­ing house 14 times in 15 years. This creative yet cash-strapped child­hood is some­thing Fi­ennes and his sib­lings (in­clud­ing ac­tor brother Joseph and di­rec­tor sis­ters So­phie and Martha) con­sis­tently re­turn to, but his are of­ten the tough­est and least sen­ti­men­tal re­flec­tions. To­day, for in­stance, he re­calls, ‘‘ My par­ents were very open about what wor­ried them. And I can still hear my mother say­ing, ‘ You don’t un­der­stand, your fa­ther is so over­drawn!’ And you get that a few times and you start tak­ing on the anx­i­ety of the par­ents.’’

His mother, in­evitably, was the big in­flu­ence, and nudged him to­wards act­ing with a love of Shake­speare that would even­tu­ally lead him to the Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art and be­yond. But she also re­vealed to him the tor­tured na­ture of the truly artis­tic life.

‘‘ She was of­ten frus­trated and couldn’t write,’’ he says. ‘‘ And when she did write it was a huge strug­gle for her. She car­ried her own demons from her own child­hood. As her chil­dren we were in the front­line of her pain.’’

Fi­ennes says that be­ing the el­dest made things dif­fer­ent for him, per­haps more angsty. And cer­tainly his younger brother Joseph (and Joseph’s twin Ja­cob, now a game­keeper) had a ‘‘ dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence al­to­gether’’ of fam­ily life. And maybe it’s be­ing too lit­eral, but it’s in­struc­tive nonethe­less to watch the dif­fer­ences be­tween Joseph and Ralph on screen to­day, and to recog­nise in one the care­free mien of the youngest and in the other the life­long sim­mer­ings of front­line pain.

But back to re­al­ity, and to masks, and to Fi­ennes’s lat­est top-se­cret role, in the new Bond movie Sky­fall. I’ve heard that he’s

Ralph Fi­ennes as Al­masy in The English Pa­tient, 1997

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