What Makes Ralph Fiennes an Actor, Not Simply a Star, is that He is Always Working to be Someone Other than Himself
By Dina Rabinovitch
Ralph Fiennes, the Hamlet of the '90s and a Schindler's List Oscar nominee, could be spoiled rotten, but he wears his prodigious talent lightly. The thirty-three-year-old actor was in the bathroom when several PR folk and I barged into his London hotel suite, and he walked out into a crowd of people hovering on his flush of the toilet. O.K., he grew up one of six children. But you can see he's the type who needs space and privacy. No matter: He shrugged his shoulders at our intrusiveness, then started shaking hands all round.
A few minutes later, I was fretting over my tape recorder, not trusting it to pick up the interview, and Fiennes, until then cool and contained, was suddenly nervous. "I'm picking up your anxiety here," he said. It was a snapshot off the kind of actor he is. He's porous, you realize. He absorbs another's personality through his gills. Halfway through the interview, I committed the big one, calling him "Ralph" instead of "Rafe" (his surname is pronounced "Fines"). He froze for a split second, but it was wariness, not a tantrum. He was checking that I didn't do it simply to wind him up. Then he laughed it off.
We met during Fiennes's first break since leaping from Schindler's List (1993), to Quiz Show (1994), to Hamlet in London and on Broadway, to Strange Days (1995), to his latest movie, The English Patient. Over that same period, his mother, Jini, died, and he married his long-standing actress girlfriend, Alex Kingston, and subsequently separated from her. He was using his time out to think things over, and he talked readily and openly. Short vacation, though: He marched straight on to two more movies, Oscar and Lucinda and The New Avengers (in which he'll play John Steed), with a return to the London stage, in Chekhov's Ivanov, sandwiched in between.
Dina Rabinovitch: The character you played in Schindler's List [Plaszow labor-camp commandant] Amon Goeth, left all of us with tainted feelings. I wondered how it affected you playing the part. Did it leave a mark?
Ralph Fiennes: There's a funny thing that happens. I've never thought I live in a character twenty-four hours a day, but I always find there's a point in acting a part when you suddenly find, Ah, I'm behaving differently. Your energy starts to coalesce with (that of) the person you're trying to play, and it catches you by surprise. Making Schindler's List, I was aware I was behaving very differently from normal-not actually behaving like Amon Goeth, but just being more sociable, more open, and more confident.
Dina Rabinovitch: Was it Goeth having that effect on you?
Ralph Fiennes: I don't know, but it was new behavior for me. I suppose what I'm saying is that you do change. That can be down to a number of things: the tensions of the working conditions, the people you're working with, the things you are thinking about, things going on in your life. They are all part of the mix. I had a particular emergence with Schindler's List because straight afterward I went to New York to do Quiz Show. The natural process of finishing a tough assignment is that you have time out, but I went directly into preproduction in New York with a group of people hyped up to do their new film, and they were all nervous because I was this new actor coming in from England. It was really weird.
Dina Rabinovitch: So you didn't have time to get rid of Goeth?
Ralph Fiennes: No. He was literally still with me because of the weight I'd put on to play him. I was in the gym an hour and a half every day shedding him.
Dina Rabinovitch: Your mother's death (from cancer) came just before the release of Schindler's List, so it must have been an overwhelming time for you.
Ralph Fiennes: It's a hard period to talk about. You can never quite comprehend the loss of a parent. Apart from the initial grief you feel, there's a whole other area of coming to terms with the absence of that person.
Dina Rabinovitch: Realizing it afresh?
Ralph Fiennes: Yes. all the time. Even though you may think you've gotten over the raw grief, you're left with a kind of bemusement. Because when you're young, your mother's there if you fall over, or if you have a problem, or she's there to praise you if you achieve something, and suddenly she's not there, it's an odd momentary sense of why isn't she here? She should be here.
Dina Rabinovitch: Was she very involved with you and your brothers and sisters?
Ralph Fiennes: Yes, she was very involved. She had her own trials and tribulations about her own journey in life and not being recognized as a writer or painter, but she put a lot into all of us. She could be almost too perceptive. If you have a parent who is so incredibly alert to your development, as my mother was, you feel that nothing is private, that she'll even intuit experiences you have away from home somehow. My mother had frightening intuitive powers, and she could be quite mischievous with them, too. Suddenly, you'd have a brother or sister saying to you, "Oh, Mummy thinks you did such and such," and while we loved that alertness in her, we also wanted the distance.
Dina Rabinovitch: With all this intuiting going on, your early dating experiences must have been a bit fraught. Did you have the normal adolescent fumblings and gropings, then go home to a mum who knew all about them?
Ralph Fiennes: I certainly had a sense that she knew about them. With my first long-term girlfriend -- it lasted about six months-we wrote each other letters, and I'd bicycle twenty miles to see her. I was infatuated with her. Then, at a party, she gave me the elbow -- told me it was nothing anymore. It was a weekend when we were all staying at a friend's house, so it wasn't that I was told this news and could then go home. I had to sleep there, and get up, and face everyone at breakfast. When I did get home, my mother seemed to know all about it, and it was a case where I was glad that she knew what had gone on because of my pain and feelings of inadequacy. I'd kept my mother at a distance when the relationship was happening, because I was a grown up and because of the intimacies involved. But then, of course, at the moment I was vulnerable, I wanted her, and she was wonderfully there. She was really understanding, which is all you can hope for, isn't it? When I decided to be an actor, my mother was the first person I told, and it was almost as if she'd expected it, even though I was halfway through art school, studying to be a painter. She had actually said to me the one time I acted in a school play, "You know that if you wanted to be an actor, it's something you could do." She just said that to me knowing that I had never thought about it or talked about it.
Dina Rabinovitch: In your latest film, The English Patient, you play Almasy, and explorer in the Sahara who is critically burned at the end of World War II. When you are acting, your face expresses extraordinary nuances of emotion, but was that difficult wearing so much burn makeup?
Ralph Fiennes: In the book [The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje], Almasy's face is described as blackened. In the film, it's like scar tissue, a weird sort of skin tone that's gone wrong, stained and yellowy pale, bluey. But I don't think I should be talking about the makup...
Dina Rabinovitch: Because it comes between the audience and the experience?
Ralph Fiennes: Yes. They read something and they think, "Oh, that's what it's like." I want to keep the innocence. But did it affect my ability to act? When very bad burns heal, the scar tissue is so thick and heavy and keloidal that you don't have the expressive ability that you'd otherwise have, but when you see an expression trying to come through all this stuff, it has added power. I imagine that the tight, pressured feeling of heavy scar tissue is very close to the feeling I had wearing latex all over my face and head when I was playing the role.
Dina Rabinovitch: You have crucial scenes in the film with Juliette Binoche, who plays the nurse looking after Almasy. You've worked with her before, of course, in Wuthering Heights , which was badly received in Britain and dumped by Paramount in America. Were you concerned that that disappointment would affect your chemistry with her in The English Patient?
Ralph Fiennes: This movie, The English Patient, is everything that Wuthering Heights wasn't. For me, Wuthering Heights was a real baptism by fire in how not to make a film; it was unhappy in every department. Juliette and I talked about it quite a bit at the time. In hindsight, I think it suffered from not being nursed well by the studio. Maybe this is talking pretentiously, but a studio can dislike the child it's created and want to be shot of it. Personally, I was quite anxious on Wuthering Heights because I had been plucked from the theater to play Heathcliff. Juliette was acting in English, a foreign tongue, so we both came to the project with a lot of heebie-jeebies, and there was a sense of panic pervading the set. But since then she's had a lot of international recognition, and I feel much more experienced on film.
Dina Rabinovitch: So, on The English Patient, you and she got a chance to make amends?
Ralph Fiennes: Yes. [Writer/director] Anthony Minghella was instrumental in that. He's great at nourishing. He had a very good rapport with Juliette and understood her very well, and I had a good relationship with him. I felt very dependent on him.
Dina Rabinovitch: The passion of the man you play is often violent. Certainly the love affair between Almasy and Katharine [played by Kristin Scott Thomas] is violent in The English Patient -- at least in the novel.
Ralph Fiennes: It isn't in the film. There was a spikiness in the script. I can think of one moment where it was written that Katharine slaps Almasy, but when it came to doing it, it felt way too much. We knew it would be a much stronger statement if she left him at that point. The relationship we portrayed felt very true, in essence, to the one Michael [Ondaatje] had written about, but whereas the scratching and biting in the book works on the page, we had to find different ways of showing their passion when we were acting it, or it would have been incredibly wrong.
Dina Rabinovitch: Do you read your critics?
Ralph Fiennes: No, I've stopped. I hate reading bad things. Maybe it's cowardly, maybe I should read everything and be able to take it, but I can't...I can't. I picked up a magazine in New York that had listings of plays and there was a rather uncomplimentary summary of what it thought of Hamlet, it really upset me. I don't want to start getting into this, but I was happier when I hadn't read it. I knew what I was doing, every decision I made in the play had been thought through-no decision was taken lightly or done on a whim, and so I just didn't find this review helpful. I have only found reading reviews-especially about live performance-destructive. You put so much into a part and then....
Dina Rabinovitch: Your journey from acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company to film stardom has been an alarmingly fast one. Is celebrity worth the candle?
Ralph Fiennes: I think it's overrated. I suppose one could exploit it and probably quite enjoy it, whereas for me it has as many pitfalls as it has high spots. The thing that's wonderful is to be offered work-it's the best feeling. When someone asks me to work for them, I always get the same kick and thrill that I had when I started. What is dangerous about being known is that people have expectations of you. They develop their own sense of who you are and what you should be doing, and that can breed very destructive fears or anxieties. You can start saying to yourself, "Oh, I shouldn't do this," or "If I do this film, they'll think I'm selling out or going Hollywood," or, "If I do this one, they'll think I'm being all art house and trying to be precious and different." So you have to tell that voice in your head, "Shut up. I'll do what I want to do."
Dina Rabinovitch: Does celebrity change relationships within the family?
Ralph Fiennes: It can, a little bit, but I think my relationship with my family is the thing that has changed least. Your family knows you beyond, quote, your success, unquote, in the world, and they recognize your pretensions and your aspirations, and above all, your vulnerabilities. My sisters [Martha and Sophie] know me especially-I've confided in them a lot, and my relationship with them are very important to me.
Dina Rabinovitch: How much has celebrity changed your relationships with other women?
Ralph Fiennes: I've come out of a marriage that's had to finish, sadly, for a number of reasons, which I'm not going to talk about. At the moment, I find myself just keeping myself to myself and being very selective about who I share my time with. It's not about whether they're women or men, it's just... there're somethings where the door is closed. I don't feel I am a celebrity, although, of course, I can sometimes get the press's attention when I don't want it more easily than I might like. But there are parts of my life that I am making and have made safe, and my family's a big part of that, and so are one or two friendships, people I really trust.
Dina Rabinovitch: You have something of a reputation as a Don Juan. Is it true?
Ralph Fiennes: I think that, like a lot of reputations, it's built on flimsy evidence.
Dina Rabinovitch: What's in your world beyond being an actor?
Ralph Fiennes: I've taken some time off since I came back from shooting The English Patient in Tunisia. I wanted to be here in London because I was homesick, probably for the first time in my life. I'm not a great beer drinker, but I was dying to have a pint of bitter, and I had a terrible craving for digestive biscuits-I actually had people bring me them in the desert. Since I've got back, I've started carrying a journal round with me to write down my thoughts and to put sketches in. And I've begun to feel the importance of having time away from the pressure of work. What happens is, it all builds up in my head-the phone calls, the people wanting meetings, the commitments. It seems churlish talking about it like this, because I know this is a privileged position for an actor to be in-people wanting you-but there is a point when your spirit is suffocating, because you are giving out the whole time and you become like a carcass emotionally.
Dina Rabinovitch: Have you only just learned that now? Didn't you know before about the importance of an artist preserving self?
Ralph Fiennes: I think I knew it intellectually, but now I have come to realize it emotionally and spiritually. It's about preserving who I am, for my own well-being as a person. As an actor, you have to have times when you lie fallow. You know, it's hard fielding questions about who I am, and I find I'm not entirely comfortable with it, although this has been good. [a publicist enters, makes "time to finish" gestures]
Rabinovitch: Well, I think, they want me
to leave now, so I guess you're about to get some fallow time. [RF laughs]
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