Shortly after this series of epiphanies, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and, two years after graduation, joined the National Theatre. A stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company followed, which led to a small part on the BBC’s Prime Suspect and, in 1992, his feature film debut as Heathcliff to Juliette Binoche’s Catherine in Wuthering Heights. With his RADA training and a face that, moment to moment, switches between stuffy Englishman and smoldering hero, Fiennes could easily have made a career out of playing assorted Prince Charmings in these sorts of costume dramas, but his list of credits in the decade and a half since is admirably all over the map. He’s covered family film (appearing as the evil Voldemort in the past two Harry Potter installments), romantic comedy (the 2002 Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid in Manhattan) and a host of odd and interesting little gems (most recently In Bruges).
His next slate of projects is no less diverse. The coming months will see the debut of The Reader, Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of the Bernhard Schlink novel in which Fiennes stars as a German man confronting the fact that his first love (Kate Winslet) had been a concentration camp guard; The Hurt Locker, an Iraq War film in which he plays the leader of a team of mercenaries; and Kent’s Oedipus. “I rush crazily from one job to the next,” he says. “I think people who know me well wonder when I’m going to stop, but I have a hard time saying no to things I want to do.”
Part of what drives him, Fiennes says, is the desire to be in environments where “the asking of questions and the realizing of characters just seems layered and complicated and rich.” On the other hand, he admits, acting is also an escape. “On a film schedule your life is marked out. You’re picked up at six in the morning, in makeup by seven, on set by eight, finish, learn your lines for the next day and go to bed. It means your life is on hold. You don’t have to think about the responsibilities of real life. And you’re also escaping into the mind of someone else,” he says, and then stares off into space for a moment. “Although, that’s not true, is it? It’s always a bit of your mind that you’re turning into the character.”