It’s an unusually bright summer morning in New York, and the sun streaming through the windows of Soho House makes it hard to tell whether Ralph Fiennes, who is sitting on a velvet sofa in the lounge, is staring at the ground because the light is too strong for his famously pale blue-green eyes or because, as he admits several times during the course of an hour’s sit-down, interviews make him squirm. The problem with “these kinds of situations,” as he calls them, is that pesky journalists always want answers, and Fiennes doesn’t really believe in answers. He’s especially wary of what he calls “the pat response,” and so the replies he dispenses often end with him pointing out that their opposites could just as easily be true. Life, as the actor sees it, is enormously complicated, and, he says, “the human need to know and quantify and put labels on things and make language control and give shape to our lives, in the end, is useless.”
Fiennes as the Duke of Devonshire in The Duchess.
If Fiennes’s nihilistic musings make him sound more like a tramp in a Beckett play than a movie star, that’s no accident. The 46-year-old British actor, who has successfully shifted between stage and screen for most of his career, is in town for a limited run of First Love, an hour-long monologue adapted from a Beckett novella in which he plays a dejected homeless man. “He’s stripped to nothing and has to confront the pointlessness of everything,” Fiennes says with an odd burst of laughter. “And there’s an honesty in that which I find makes me very happy.”
He’s kept the monologue “on the boil,” he says, since first performing it in Sydney, Australia, last year, carrying it on tiny bits of paper everywhere he goes and rereading it during free moments. But long before Beckett’s bleakness was seared into his brain, say those who know him well, Fiennes was unwilling to embrace platitudes or gloss over life’s contradictions. “He’s a very complicated man,” says Jonathan Kent, who has directed Fiennes in five plays, including the much lauded 2006 production of Faith Healer, and recently cast him as Oedipus in a new translation of the classic, opening in October at London’s National Theatre. “Audiences come to him; they want to know his secrets. And somehow you’re always aware of the two sides of his characters, the dark and the light in them.”
Indeed, painting a multidimensional portrait was a major goal for Fiennes on his latest film project, The Duchess, opening in late September. Based on a 1999 biography by Amanda Foreman, the film tells the story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), a glamorous 18th-century society swan whose already loveless marriage to the icy Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes) turns even uglier when he takes up with her best friend. It’s hard to sympathize with Fiennes’s Duke: He berates his wife for failing to bear a son, rubs his extramarital dalliances in her face and, in one chilling scene, rapes her as their children and his mistress stand outside the bedroom door, listening to her scream. But Fiennes is unwilling to see his character as a villain—quite the opposite, in fact. “Oh, I love him!” he says between sips of espresso. “He knows who he is, he knows what he wants, and it’s great to play people with that sort of certainty because I don’t have it in my own life.”
Fiennes and Keira Knightley in a scene from The Duchess.
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?”
To figure that out, Fiennes painstakingly—some might say obsessively—researches his roles. On The Duchess, says director Saul Dibb, “he wanted to know not just everything about the character but everything about the time: the music, the social manners, even the posture. He would study paintings from the period again and again and spent a lot of time with the costume and wig designers to absolutely be sure that the way he was presented was true to the time.”
“Everything that he could have possibly researched about his character, he researched,” concurs Bob Balaban, who directed Fiennes in this year’s Bernard and Doris, the fantastically strange HBO movie based loosely on the relationship between Doris Duke and her gay Irish butler, for which Fiennes received an Emmy nomination. “He learned how to do needlepoint for the mere seconds when he’s doing needlepoint in the movie. We had a needlepoint coach!”
Sometimes, this need to know gets a bit out of hand. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Charles Van Doren, the man on whom Fiennes’s role in the 1994 film Quiz Show was based, recounts that, after he’d turned down a request to be a consultant on the movie, a car pulled up to his home in Connecticut and a man got out and asked for directions. “I realized later that he was Ralph Fiennes,” Van Doren writes. “He told a reporter that he had driven by my house and had seen me looking ‘sad.’”
Ask most actors how they came to their careers, and you’ll often get the standard line about loving movies as a kid. Ask Fiennes, however, and he offers a highly detailed, predictably complex yarn. Growing up in England and Ireland, the eldest of six children and the son of a novelist mother and photographer father, Fiennes acted in school plays, but by the time he finished the English equivalent of high school, he had set his mind on being a painter. In his first year at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, a teacher asked him, as an exercise, to do his own version of Diego Velázquez’s masterwork Las Meninas, a painting of the artist and members of the Spanish royal court milling about a palace chamber. In doing so, Fiennes realized that he was looking at the figures as if they were characters on a stage. “And I had always played with toy stages when I was a child,” he recounts, “so then that came back, and I thought, Oh, maybe what I should do is stage design.” His teacher sent him off to meet with a former pupil who was working on sets at Central Saint Martins, and remembers Fiennes, “that brought back another, stronger feeling: Actually I want to be on that stage. I should be acting.”
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.”
Photos: The Dutchess: Nick Wall/Paramount Vantage