Interview: Ralph Fiennes, actor and director

Charismatic, reticent, animated, tortured and charming, Ralph Fiennes brings an intensity to everything he does. Be it an interview, or his directoral debut, Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes is hovering by the door of a London hotel suite. The 49-year-old actor, one of the greatest of his generation and possibly the most intense, sees me approaching, walks towards me and does something unexpected. His thin lips, once memorably described as having “the sheen of rolled silk stockings”, part. And he smiles. Not a Ralph-Fiennes-the-actor smile, the kind that usually curls into a snarl. Or withers into irony. Or darkens into pain. Or purses with lust. No, a 100-watt, best-of-British beamer, complete with crinkly eyes. He is even wearing a cardigan. This from an actor who has been described as an arrogant genius, our generation’s Laurence Olivier, a master of the withering look and a very complicated man. It’s a disarming start.

It gets more so. Fiennes addresses me by name and shakes my hand warmly. Yes, warmly. He tells me he has been talking all day but will try to “mint” his sentences freshly for me. “You’ll inspire me,” he says congenially and then he says it again, which makes it sound more like an order. Another twinkly smile as he meets and holds my gaze, giving me time enough (before awkwardness sets in) for a good gawp.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

His hair is short, neat and slicked back in that driven, slightly oily way. It’s a haircut only Ralph Fiennes and perhaps Lord Byron could pull off. His forehead is high and expressive. Harry Potter fans take note: the real Dark Lord has a nose. His eyes are the colour of the North Sea, though much less cold. For a moment I entertain the possibility that he’s wearing guyliner (he’s not, his eyes are just very startling, like headlamps on full beam). To put all this into context, Fiennes once talked to a journalist for two hours without looking at her, not even to snarl. That man – the one who feels about interviews the way the rest of us do about heart surgery – is thankfully absent today.

Not that he is all sweetness and light. No actor does agonising quite like Fiennes and even in raffish mode, the struggle is palpable. He is an intriguing mix of A-list charisma, getting up to throw actorly shapes when telling me about his recent turn as Prospero in The Tempest on stage, and fragility, searching for words with his head in his hands, often to no avail. The effect is electrifying, like he’s performing a Beckett monologue for an audience of one. There are a lot of sentences that never get their ending, RSC-sized exhalations, and pauses big enough to require stage directions. He’s not one for glossing over, for faking it. One thing becomes clear: Ralph Fiennes and his characters are impossible to separate, torn between passion and restraint, in thrall to their own intensity.

A typical exchange: I ask him about his first experience of Shakespeare, aged eight, when his mother read him Hamlet. “No,” he begins, in lofty, corrective mode. “I should stop telling this story because it never gets reported accurately. She told it to me, in her own words. She did not read it.” OK, I concede, but then what happened? “Then I think she sensed how intrigued I was so she played me a record. Someone said it was the radio. People don’t listen.” He laughs in exasperation, taken away from the story again by others’ deficiencies. What record? “A vinyl record of Laurence Olivier,” he goes on. “On one side was speeches from Hamlet with the William Walton score interwoven. The other side was Henry V. I used to love listening to the Agincourt battle. Every time I hear it now it’s very emotional. There is a Proustian nostalgia going on.

“My parents had an old record player, a big wooden box on legs. I think it was a wedding present from my paternal grandfather. I remember all the fuss that was made about cleaning the thing. Anyway, I would play it again and again. This voice of Laurence Olivier coming out at me ... the voice was thrilling. And it did something thrilling to me, those words.”

Some say Fiennes is becoming the go-to British actor for bad guys (next up, the Bond villain in Sam Mendes’ upcoming Skyfall). But this misses the point. His characters are much more interesting than villains. In fact, it’s isolation that Fiennes does beautifully. All of his greatest characters – Count Almasy in The English Patient, Justin Quayle avenging his wife’s death in The Constant Gardener, even Voldemort in Harry Potter – are loners. And now, in his directorial debut, he gives us another tortured and alienated protagonist: Coriolanus, often described as Shakespeare’s least-sympathetic hero and in Fiennes’ hands a tightly coiled, thick-necked, scar-faced mass of rage.

“I think I respond to characters like that,” he says, and stops, his eyes darting away. Why? “I don’t know ...” He starts raking his hands through his hair as though he’s looking for dead leaves. He takes some deep breaths. “Probably ... maybe ... well... there is an ambivalence. I can understand the ... sort of ... It has something to do with a reluctance in them.”

I laugh because his answer is the textbook definition of reluctance. He laughs too, in self-awareness, and we try again. Fiennes’ first screen role was Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, the quintessential outsider. He came to Hollywood’s attention playing a Nazi officer in Schindler’s List to chilling perfection. Even when Fiennes is the romantic hero, his passion tends to be consumed by pain (except for Maid in Manhattan, which was just painful). Picture him in The English Patient, carrying an expiring Kristin Scott Thomas across the desert, wailing in lustful despair. This is Fiennes’ talent: to make you feel for his characters even when you don’t entirely get them. Or like them.

Why does he like to become unlikeable people? More hair-raking. “Yes, I’m very interested in that,” he admits. “I love it.” And again, why? “I like that audiences are challenged to find a way in. I like to play what I call high definition characters. I’m allergic to anything cosy where the audience is signalled that it will be all right in the end.” He shudders at the thought. “I’m very suspicious of that. I think it’s a kind of lie. And I think that heroes can be heroic whilst being bloody-minded and difficult. We all want to talk the language of making sense of people. But I don’t think we can. Look at Churchill: he was belligerent and difficult and moody. Or Dickens, who wrote extraordinary books with very clear moral centres but behaved terribly during the separation with his wife. People are capable of all kinds of extremes; goodnesses and cruelties. People who are complicated interest me.”

Coriolanus is another complicated man: a great warrior toppled by his own pride, contempt and the hawkish mother who made him. Fiennes has played him already, in 2000 at London’s Almeida Theatre and the part of the exiled Roman general has consumed him ever since. “It’s never happened to me before,” he says. “I think it’s sort of because ... he doesn’t want to explain himself. He just wants ... I mean ... there is an anger in him that is thrilling to play. He says all sorts of terrible things, which is exciting.” He laughs. “There is something visceral in him that I respond to even though my rational head doesn’t and couldn’t embrace his set of beliefs. It’s the spirit of isolation which I ... well, I don’t like it ... but I respond to it.”

Coriolanus is a thrilling directorial debut. A searing, violent, beautifully acted adaptation of a notoriously problematic Shakespeare play, it’s as close to a thriller as Shakespeare gets, with the action updated from Rome to present day Belgrade and given a grainy, handheld, newsy feel. What kind of director is Fiennes? “I like to be organised. I like to have control and order and I like to be prepared. But I also like looseness. And because I was acting I had to quickly be in character too.” How did he go from one to the other? “It’s part of the skill,” he says. “You’re half in, half out anyway. You have it here, whatever it is, the thing, the person.”

Fiennes has yielded thundering performances from his cast, which includes Brian Cox, Gerard Butler andVanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’s awesome mother. “At the centre of it is this mother/son dynamic and every strand of the story leads to what I call the umbilical moment,” he says. “The confrontation of mother and son, which is defining of who you are. Everyone has the mark, even if you’ve never known your mother.” Fiennes slaps his belly button. “We all have the mark,” he goes on, eyeballing my middle now. “Your connection is right there. It’s in you. And so the rejection of the mother is terrible.” He giggles nervously.

This is unexpected territory. Mothers and sons are a major theme in Shakespeare’s work and perhaps in Fiennes’s life too, but he is notoriously private and usually shuts down any questions about his personal life. Not that the tabloids have left him alone. Most recently, in 2007, he was dragged back into the spotlight when an air stewardess claimed she had had a fling with him (headline: “How I Led Ralph Fiennes astray at 35,000ft”). Before that, the obsession started when he ended his marriage to actress Alex Kingston to start a relationship with Francesca Annis, 18 years his senior and playing the mother to his Hamlet on stage at the time. The tabloids had a field day spinning Oedipal puns, but then, much to their dismay, the relationship went and lasted 11 years. It has now ended, but Fiennes is forever branded the actor with mother issues.

Later, though, he brings up the subject again, albeit in the guise of one of his characters. “I once played Jung in the theatre. I remember trying to get my head around this Jungian thing, what he calls the incest taboo. He doesn’t mean it literally, in the physical sense. It’s the unconscious tie to the mother and it’s incredibly strong. It’s to do with the impossibility of that tie ever really breaking. You go through patterns of trying to break it, but it never does. And these patterns are unconscious. They can often be experienced with another woman, even, a version of the mother figure. You break away and you’re compelled back.”

We talk about his own mother. Fiennes is the eldest of six children (he also has an older foster brother) and the family led a peripatetic life, moving all over England and Ireland. His father was a farmer-turned-photographer who worked for years on cattle ranches in Australia and Texas, his mother was a novelist, and money was tight. But the Fiennes children were bright, and their mother wanted great things for them. Her motto was “you’ve got to put your guts into it”, which you could say is a perfect description of Fiennes’ acting method. “My mother had a difficult childhood,” he says. “She also, herself, could be quite challenging. She was a one-off and quite emotionally volatile. She also had a thing about enabling all her children, loving them but also encouraging them to be as open to experience and engaged with life as possible. That was her thing with us. I think what she offered was very potent.

“My mother was very upfront about talking to us as adults,” he continues. “That meant sharing anxieties with us and expecting us to take responsibility. Everything had to be clean, and there were lots of chores. Responsibility in the family was a big deal. And I think there was a lot of stress in being the parents of six children with such uncertain means. If we didn’t pull our weight my father would get loud-voiced and assertive but my mother ... she would easily fly off the handle at an apparently small thing. A mouldy vegetable in the refrigerator or washing left out on the line would tripwire something ...” What kind of boy was he? “A bit of a loner,” replies Fiennes with a smile.

His mother died in 1993, just before Schindler’s List came out. “She came, I remember, to an early screening of Schindler’s List, in Hammersmith. She was quite frail. That was in October and she died just before New Year.” But she must have been delighted, after introducing him to Hamlet, that he became an actor. “She would have been,” he replies. “I know.”

His father died suddenly in 2004 at the age of 71. “He wasn’t young but he was a vigorous man and it was a huge shock,” he says. “If parents are alive they have an anchoring effect. If you’re connected to them and then they’re not there any longer ... the memory of them is very strong. It’s funny. You miss them massively when they’re gone but when they’re there you’re often defined by how much you need to separate from them.”

Fiennes is resolutely unknowable: open one moment, closed the next. He tells me his biggest motivation as an actor is a need to connect with people. As Jonathan Kent, who directed him in Coriolanus on stage, once noted, “audiences want to know his secrets”. This is probably because he puts his guts into a role. When you’re watching Fiennes act, you never forget it’s him but somehow that only heightens it. He doesn’t just become his characters. He is them. I wonder, though, what it costs him. “I really feel in a way that Coriolanus was the last … I don’t really want to do that again,” he sighs. Why? He pauses for a monumental amount of time and then, eventually, turns his gaze back on me. “I think there are people who watch and take in lots of stuff. People who think and feel things very strongly,” he says, rather cryptically. “Like Coriolanus. He has a huge suspicion towards ordinary people, for their... changeability. I think I’ve exorcised whatever Coriolanus was about now. That sort of extreme, isolated figure, whatever that was, I was very compelled by him.” And now? Fiennes flashes me another surprise smile. “I would like to find a lightness,” he says. “A character who has some ability to ... well ... if not express joy, but ... someone who has, I suppose, an openness to life.” And he laughs.

Coriolanus (15) is released Thursday