Ralph Fiennes – 20 years ago approachable, forthcoming, who knew?

                             September 2002   By Philip Berk

Ralph Fiennes hasn’t been in a movie for three years.

Not since End of the Affair.

Now suddenly he’s in three movies.

Red Dragon, in which he gives Hannibal Lecter a run for his money, is the fist out of the gate. Next month he’ll be seen in David Cronenberger’s Spider, and then at Christmas he’ll have Jennifer Lopez as his “Pretty Woman” in Maid in Manhattan.

Quite a turnaround for the screen’s most inscrutable actor, considered by many the finest Shakespearian actor of our time.

Movie audiences, of course, discovered him when Spielberg cast him as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List

He followed that with two Best Picture award winners, Quiz Show and The English Patient.

But since then he’s been on a downward slide

Even surpassing performances in End of the Affair and Sunshine were dismissed by  both critics and audiences.

But now he’s back with a vengeance, and watch out! I predict Red Dragon will do for him what Silence of the Lambs did for Anthony Hopkins.

And Anthony didn’t have Jennifer Lopez waiting in the wings.

At his press conference for Red Dragon in New York, he’s surprisingly charming, forthcoming, and relaxed. And he’s never looked more glamorous. 

Kristin Scott Thomas once told me that on the set of The English Patient she was painfully aware that he was much more beautiful than she was.

A couple of years ago he would have dismissed that comment with a sneer.

This time he can joke about it.

He and Hopkins share no scenes in the film which was just as well since they hold such disparate views of the theatre.

Hopkins isn’t interested in acting on stage. He considers it a bore.

Fiennes on the other thrives on it.

“I became an actor because I love the theatre. I love classical theatre. I was teased in drama school, benignly, because I was always wanting to do Shakespeare. I haven’t lost that passion. I keep in touch with myself better if I work in the theatre. It’s something I never want to lose touch with.” 

The one thing they have in common is striving for Hollywood stardom.

Is that true? I ask him.

“Not at all.’ he replies. “All I’ve done is follow my gut instinct and take what fate throws my way.”

But why two highly commercial movies in a row?

“When I was offered Red Dragon, I thought it would be good making something main stream. After I picked up the script I was a bit skeptical, but Ted Tally who adapted Silence of the Lamb had written a very good screenplay and the cast already attached meant working alongside people like Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman. So I would be stupid to say no. Unfortunately I don’t have any scenes with Anthony Hopkins, which is a disappointment.”

Jokingly I ask him, Why did he choose Jennifer Lopez over Angelina Jolie?

“There was never such a choice,” he answers. “I’d love to work with Angelina. What happened was Oliver Stone dropped out of the  project. I had wanted to work with him very much, but he had problems with the financing and in fact it was his suggestion that I look for something else.”

Which is what he did, choosing Maid in Manhattan over Beyond Borders. 

(Eventually Beyond Borders found a new director, Martin Campbell, and Clive Owen replaced him as Angelina’s costar.)

What was it like working with Jennifer Lopez?

“Jennifer’s a great actress. I love acting with her. She’s a very generous actor who loves to play around with the text and improvise. I find her very freeing to work with.” 

Professionally he may be caught between two divas, Angelina and Jennifer, but  off screen the woman in his life is actress Francesca Annis, who’s seventeen years older than him.

The two of them met seven years ago when she played his mother (Gertrude) in a production of Hamlet. Their affair caused a major scandal in England because at the time he was married to Alex Kingston (of E.R. fame.)

He’s never talked about their age difference. 

When asked, “Sorry,” would be his blunt reply.

But this time he opens up.

“People create stereotypes about relationships,” he replies. “They did the same thing with Maid in Manhattan. Everyone said to me, ‘You and JayLo, I can’t see that.’ They want to see similar types together. But I think if two people have a strong connection and a strong bond, that’s all that’s important. Certainly in my case, age difference has not been a problem. People like to create comforting cliches that don’t demand too much questioning. They focus on the age difference and immediately think of what happens as people get older. What they don’t see is the perfect match, the cultural connection, the similar personality.”

Did he learn anything from Jennifer about handling the paparazzi?

“It was a new experience for me shooting in public places like Central Park and Park Avenue and having all those photographers around. You can’t move them away because it’s a public place. But her manager has a very good policy. Let them take pictures, and then ask them to print something nice. It doesn’t always work but I guess it’s hard for her to take a bad picture. Of course at her birthday party they took a picture of me eating cake and the Post published this big picture of me putting a great big piece of cake in my mouth.”

Did he have a problem with that?

“I don’t usually have problems with the press. If you go to places where people expect actors and celebrities to turn up, you will be noticed. But if you go to places that’s not the scene, then you won’t have a problem. You develop a sixth sense about who has a camera or who’s around. Sometimes it’s got to me, but not all the time.” 

Another important woman in his life was his mother.

She had six children, including Ralph, Joseph, Martha, and Magnus, and then she adopted an unhappy eleven year old in need of a home.

She died of cancer ten years ago.

I once asked him if she had any imperfections? 

“Oh yes, she was thwarted because she wanted to write, and her energies were divided by having to look after six children, and often times when there was not a lot of income coming from my father, her depression or frustration at not having time or space to write was palpable and it was very difficult for her, very distressing. She had moments of volatility and she would express her frustration in quite extreme ways vocally, but it was never permanent.”

Yet she inspired  them all to become world renowned artists. What was her special gift?

“She encouraged us to use language. She had a love of painting and music. We had a lot of books in our house. Above all she encouraged us to put 200 percent into whatever we did, not to be dilettante.”

Did she influence his politics?

“My mother was what we call liberal, to the left of centre, my father more to the right, and he has got progressively more so. I would call myself a liberal, taking left wing positions on most issues, which I guess I got from her.”

Did he inherit any of her maternal instincts? 

Would he like to have children?

“No, I don’t think so. I have no plans to have a family. I’ve got nephews and nieces.That keeps me occupied”

What type of woman does he find attractive?

“The woman I live with.”

And her special qualities?

“Humour, intelligence and understanding. Patience with me.”

With four films under his belt, he’s now returning to the theatre to play the Swiss psychoanalyst Karl Jung in a new  play by Christopher Hampton about Jung’s relationship with his mentor, Sigmund Freud. He’ll be doing the play at London’s National Theatre.

How did he manage that?       

“I always make sure to set aside a chunk of time for the theatre  because films come up and unless you’ve made the commitment to the theatre, it’s easy to keep putting it aside.” 

In Red Dragon he plays a ritualistic serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy whose entire body is tattooed with a giant Red Dragon.

How time consuming was it applying the tattoo, and how many days was he required do so?

“It wasn’t that many days, maybe three or four of the entire shoot. But it took a while to put on. It was painted with pens to a prescribed design. Each day I was picked up at 2 a.m. and taken through an eight hour process.”

Was it like wearing a costume, or did he feel naked?

“No, I felt pretty naked with it?” 

People who’ve work with him have called him a workaholic.

Does he agree?

“I guess I am a workaholic. I tend to fill my day with so much stuff that I wonder why I’ve done it, whether it’s meeting people or talking about future things. I think I take after my father who’s a workaholic. On my father’s side they’re all sort of obsessive workers. They feel they have to be doing something all the time.”

And growing up, was he good at any sport?

“Not at all. I was never any good at it, and at a boys’ school it helps if you are. I remember trying to be good at rugby and initially I pulled if off, but then I found I didn’t really enjoy it. It was a pretense. So I found friends in other parts of the school with other interests. I always feel happy being on my own really.”  

Maybe he’s changed.