In Fiennes’s opinion, the Duke was “more overtly sadistic” in the screenplay than in Foreman’s book, so he made a point of trying to soften him up, insisting, for instance, that he be seen with his two beloved dogs at all times to demonstrate that while his people skills weren’t exactly stellar, he was at least kind to animals. His affection for the character is so great, in fact, that when I mention having had the urge, at several points while viewing the film, to slap the Duke, Fiennes looks as if he’s been slapped himself. “But why?” he asks, looking up from the floor for a moment with a shocked expression. “Well,” I answer, “there was that rape....” Fiennes allows that he “didn’t like that scene, and in another life, I wouldn’t have had it in,” but somehow doesn’t see it as damning. “It comes out of a need to possess, to say, ‘You’re mine, and I can have you,’” he argues, pointing out that “it isn’t a scene where he hits her or pushes her. We tried to do it so that it wasn’t violent.
“The Duke wanted things to be a certain way, but I don’t think he was cruel,” he continues, carefully choosing each word and wringing his hands as he speaks. “I think it’s really a mistake to put glib modern values onto this other time. And relationships even now are so complicated. People accept that maybe an affair is something that has to happen because there’s something they can’t offer. There are all sorts of complicated ways that people find of staying together.” (Although Fiennes makes a policy of not talking publicly about his personal life, it warrants mentioning that he’s had some experience with complicated relationships himself. In 1996 he left his wife, actress Alex Kingston, for Francesca Annis, an actress 18 years his senior whom he met when she played his mother in a London production of Hamlet. Ten years later, he and Annis split after Romanian singer Cornelia Crisan went public with their affair. There were rumors of a reconciliation, but in an interview with The Times of London this past July, Annis denied them and couldn’t resist getting in a little dig: “He is somewhere in Romania, probably,” she said of her ex.)
Still, Fiennes’s need to understand his characters, to see things from their point of view, doesn’t end with 18th-century adulterers. Whether he’s playing a serial killer (in Red Dragon), a doomed mapmaker (in The English Patient) or a Nazi (in Schindler’s List), the “baseline for any part,” he says, “is trying to figure out what the world is like through that person’s eyes.” To effectively portray someone like Nazi Amon Goeth, he says, “you sort of have to put your judgment on the shelf. They have a lot of conflict, I’m guessing. So you might think, If I’ve ever been cruel, what was is it that made me say that nasty thing to that person? It’s some kind of nervous, anxious, defensive little thing. And when someone is being horrifically cruel, presumably that nervous thing comes from something complicated. So the question is, where does that come from?”