Empire Magazine Interview

April 1996

Are You Feeling Lucky, Cyberpunk?
Standoffish, reserved, unfriendly, reluctant -- and just a touch strange. All these words and more have been used to describe Ralph Fiennes, the latest classically English thesp to be courted by Hollywood. His current film it the futuristic thriller Strange Days and Chris Heath has just 30 minute to ascertain whether any of the above things are, in fact, true.

You wait, first at the other end of a very long hotel corridor, then -- when your precious time is near -- perched pertly on a chair outside his room. Inside, a man from the BBC is being told that his few minutes are over, and then (a further delay) you are told you must wait a few moments longer because Ralph Fiennes is visiting the bathroom.

So you think about the pieces you have read about Ralph Fiennes.

"I did not become and actor because I wanted to be in *magazines*," he witheringly commented to Vanity Fair, who nonetheless put him on the cover of their American edition, his hair ludicrously back- combed, his torso bare. There aren't too many other pieces (he has not been famous long) and they are not too long or intimate, but they have a pattern.

They explain about his name: Ralph being pronounced "Rafe' which he will, under duress, explain is the proper old English pronunciation; Fiennes being pronounced "Fines". His middle name is Nathaniel, which is rarely pronounced at all. They explain that he is related to the famous frost-bitten explorer Ranulph, but only distantly -- they are second cousins and have only met once.

They explain about his background: the eldest child of a landscape photographer and a novelist-cum-travel writer, who briefly studied art at Chelsea Art College then switched to RADA. After RADA he joined the National Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company before David Puttnam cast him in the TV drama A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia, in 1992. Soon he appeared in Wuthering Heights and the BBC drama The Cormorant. (Although these performances led to his discovery by Hollywood, these were also the days in which his reviews were less reliable. In the former he was said to communicate Heathcliff's pain "as though he had permanent indigestion". In the latter it was cruelly said that "Fiennes, if anything, is upstaged by the bird"). There followed Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Macon and then the swift ascent to stardom and Oscar nominee-ville -- Schindler's List, Quiz Show and his new film, Strange Days. After completing Strange Days he appeared in Hackney and then on Broadway as Hamlet.

These pieces tend to paint a picture of him as, at best, stand-offish and reserved to the point of unfriendliness. "Maybe and infinitesimal bit of charm perhaps," Vanity Fair complained. "Would that be too much to ask?"

Possibly he has been hard done by, possibly he has jollied himself up or possibly he is simply trying very hard, but today he seems perfectly affable in a quiet, English way. He wrings his hands a lot, and he prefers to avoid eye contact most of the time as he quietly answers questions; that aside, he seems rather charming. He is supposed to be reluctant to talk about anything, but today he seems quite happy to talk about everything -- were there time, of course. But there is not. There are only 30 minutes which is, officially, just enough time to discuss precisely 14 subjects. And in this case the 14 subjects that come to mind are: his birth, farming, nudity, cowboy songs, The Stranglers, moving around, Sir Cliff Richard, fattening up, Hamlet tickets, Damon Hill, coming 33rd, sexual evil, burn victims and The New Film. As follows. . .

1. His birth: "Joseph Stalin was a Capricorn . . ."

Ralph Fiennes took three days to be born. Reminded of this, he laughs wryly and strokes his chin.

"I'm not actually sure of the details of my birth, except that I did take a long time and was probably very tough on my mum. But if I'd been shorter, I would have been a Sagittarius, and not a Capricorn."

And does Mr. Fiennes believe in such astrological malarkey? That answer in full: "Um . . . no . . . well . . . I don't know . . . I'm on the fence about it." Nonetheless he is familiar with one version of the archetypal Capricorn character.

"Capricorns are ambitious, solitary, moody," he states, adding mysteriously, "Joseph Staling was a Capricorn."

Sorry?

"Capricorns are meant to be obsessive and ambitious, I think."

Ambitious, solitary, moody, obsessive . . . these rather fit the official Ralph Fiennes description, don't they?

He smiles.

"Do they?"

2. Farming: "I watched a cow being born . . ."

For his first six years, Ralph Fiennes was raised in the Suffolk countryside where his father was a tenant farmer.

Did he ever milk a cow?

"No," he concedes. "I think I watched a cow being born once. I watched my father help a cow give birth. He covered himself with oily stuff and put his hand inside and helped bring this calf out."

Quite an eye-opening experience, I would have thought.

"Yes. And I remember watching the crop-spraying aeroplane come down. That was a big excitement."

How posh. You didn't get crop-spraying planes in the Midlands.

"I don't think it was a big deal."

The grotesque cow experience -- it rather reminds one of The Baby of Macon, doesn't it?

"Yes," he nods. "It does, doesn't it?"

3. Nudity: "Most people haven't seen it. . ."

In The Baby of Macon, Peter Greenaway's visually rich but baffling allegory, Fiennes finds himself in a straw-strewn stable with some farmyard animals and Julia Ormond. What begins as a seduction -- Fiennes is naked -- ends in a bloody, fatal mess as Fiennes is impaled in his midriff by a cow.

"That was a funny scene to shoot," he reflects. "We didn't really have any special effects for that. We had a cow's head and somehow they were going to pass the cow's head rapidly through the frame, with enough rapidity that you wouldn't notice there wasn't any real goring going on -- and the horns of the cow were very beautifully made out of polystyrene covered wax, which was absolutely useless."

And presumably you had to spend the whole day . . .

". . . more than a whole day, covered in blood, naked, on straw, which of course itches and irritates your skin, in the sort of nativity set-up withe real pigs, sheep, hens and cows around. It was rather wonderful . . ."

I think I would have had that rather primal fear, being naked, with lots of farmyard animals around . . .

"No," he says. "Maybe I felt at home there, because I'd spent some time on a farm."

It may, I suggest, surprise people who only know about your more mainstream work, to see your penis flying about with such abandon.

"Maybe. Most people haven't seen it."

The film or the penis?

"The film."

It's quite often written out of your story.

"Yes," he nods. "Not through me. People just didn't know about it. I liked it. It's a difficult film to watch, but I loved working with Peter. I don't think he'd say he was interested in the actor's process, but it's wonderful to see his vision become reality. Extraordinary to see. Like being in a live painting, really."

4. Cowboy songs: "I used to think Frankie Laine was inside the speaker . . ."

One of the few personal glimpses previously offered into Ralph Fiennes' childhood is that he once jumped up at a birthday party in a frilly white shirt and began to holler out the theme to Rawhide. He nods, and digresses slightly.

"My mother endlessly told this story of how I never joined in any games, always took a jigsaw puzzle of my own to any other party and did it on my own. I loved jigsaw puzzles. And then the other mothers got very irritated that my mother wouldn't force me to mix in."

What were the jigsaws of?

"I was obsessed with animals, so they were usually African animals."

The youngster who hollered Rawhide doesn't sound so reclusive.

"Well, it was only because my father had an LP of Frankie Laine singing Western cowboy songs, really classic Western themes, like The Gunfight At The OK Corral. And there was one called Bowie Knife. And Rawhide was the opening on the A-side and we had this big speaker -- it was a mono record player -- and there was this one big speaker about four foot high. And I used to think Frankie Laine was inside the speaker."

5. The Stranglers: "Blatant sort of pulsating bass sound . . ."

The first pop record that obsessed Ralph Fiennes was the first Stranglers album, Rattus Norvegicus.

"I just loved its aggression he recalls, "and its blatant sort of pulsating bass sound."

Were you a mental punk?

"A *mental* punk, yes. Sartorially, it didn't go very far. I remember taking my jeans in extremely tightly and my mother cutting my hair extremely badly, deliberately, to make it look really crap. I wasn't really a punk, but I liked it."

Before that he went through "a David Bowie phase".

Really?

"Ziggy Stardust," he says. "Great album. Actually that was the first LP that I bought. I loved that. All the tracks. Spaceman."

Starman.

He nods.

"Starman. And my sister had a Lou Reed album which I liked a lot."

Did you realise that these were the icons of the new bisexuality?

He smiles. "It all passed me by. Actually, it's funny. I remember going to discos and everyone innocently singing along with Tom Robinson's Glad To Be Gay and now one . . ." He restarts the thought -- ". . . it was the power of the song actually. Everyone joined in even though they were all these aggressively hetero guys."

6. Moving around: "Improving the interior infrastructure . . ."

It is part of the Ralph Fiennes legend, such as it is, that he moved around constantly as a child -- the implications being that (along with the solitary jigsaw-making) this encouraged him to be a self-contained, introspective child who thus -- *shazam!* -- became an actor. So . . .

"It's something I've reflected upon in retrospect," he reflects in retrospect. "At the time it was all about my father, moving towards London where he has been working now for 15 years." (His parents were never rich, and they would keep afloat by buying properties, doing them up and reselling them at a profit.)

"My father's brilliant with his hands, and by working on a property he would increase the value of it substantially just simply by giving it a garden and improving the interior infrastructure. It never felt unstable, somehow. The moves were always exciting. I don't know. In hindsight, of course, you talk about it in a way that makes it sound rather wonderful, but it was fully of a lot of strain, living in rented accommodations while a house was being prepared to move into."

Under his breath he list all the place they lived -- "the first house in Suffolk, then one in Dorset, then two in Ireland, so that's four . . ." and so on -- until he reaches a total of about ten. But he didn't move around that much, however. When he was 13 he started at a grammar school in Salisbury and stayed there until he finished his A-levels.

In late 1993 his mother died, aged 54, from cancer. The Fiennes family buried her themselves in a coffin painted electric blue. Before she was laid to rest, Ralph brushed her hair. It doesn't seem like the sort of topic one can simply bring up and then move swiftly along, so I decide to talk about something simpler. Sir Cliff Richard, perhaps . . .

7. Sir Cliff Richard: "Can you sing it . . .?"

One of the stepping stones in Ralph Fiennes' career -- the part that Steven Spielberg saw -- was playing Heathcliff in an otherwise ill-fated version of Wuthering Heights. Now, of course, others are daring to tread in his shoes. Are you following Sir Cliff Richard's attempt at the Heathcliff role?

"I heard that he had," he begins diplomatically. "Someone said that he'd looked at the version we did. I'm not following it. When does it come out?"

The record's already out.

"Is it?"

And the stage show will follow shortly.

"Oh. I must see it."

You've missed his top I-Am-Heathcliff single, Misunderstood Man?

"Is that what it is? Have you hear it?"

Of course.

"Can you sing it?"

I certainly can't. Even Cliff has trouble.

He shakes his head.

"It's and intriguing idea."

8. Fattening up: "I don't give a fuck . . ."

The role that elevated Ralph Fiennes in Hollywood's eyes from being another one of those nice, good-looking English actors who know so much about theatre, to being a star was, of course, Schindler's List in which he played, mesmerisingly, the SS officer overseeing the concentration camp where Schindler labourer lived. The Ralph Fiennes in front of me is decidedly trim, but to play Amon Goeth he had to put on some bulk. Amon Goeth was, they decided and indulgent man, so Ralph Fiennes stuffed himself with rapid weight-gain powders, "just having to force-feed myself." It was an odd experience, waking up to find himself fat, and it affected him strangely. Being fat made him care less about other people.

"I remember, sometimes, hating myself," he says. "When I was not thinking about playing Amon Goeth, I'd just see myself in the mirror. Maybe not hating -- that's too obvious -- but it was sort of, 'Is that really me?' I got to a weird point of it making me sort of peculiarly confident, sort of 'I don't give a fuck'."

Because of the physical bulk?

"Yeah. 'I don't give a shit.' A sense of inner presence. 'I don't give a shit if you think I'm fat, this is who I am, I am here.' Almost perversly enjoying it. I don't know if it was particularly pleasant, actually."

Indeed.

9. Hamlet tickets: "The usual backstage superlatives . . ."

His next role was Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show, playing the clean-cut, charismatic quiz show contestant who confessed, too late, that he had been lying to the nation. Famously, against advice, as Ralph Fiennes prepared for the role, he drove to Van Doren's neighbourhood and, without declaring who he was, asked him for directions.

Did Van Doren never get in touch, even after the film opened?

"No, he didn't. In fact, when I was doing Hamlet I tried to offer him two tickets. He's in the phone book. I got Becky, who's my assistant, to ring him up. Because his father was a literature scholar, I wondered whether he would be interested. I wasn't even actually trying to meet him. He didn't do it. He wasn't available. I don't know. I think anything to do with the Quiz Show scandal he's still not that interested in. I think his wife is particularly firm about him not exposing himself to the press in any way whatsoever."

It must have been surreal for you to be playing Hamlet each night and having people like Keanu Reeves and Tom Hanks proffering small talk backstage.

"Yeah, it was. I rather wish I'd kept a book; people could have signed it. A lot of people came backstage. I was gobsmacked. I became a fan. Liza Minelli came. Very thrilling. Kirk Douglas came backstage."

What did they say?

"You know." He smiles. "The usual backstage . . ." -- the pause lasts for a couple seconds, just long enough to show the required irony -- " . . . superlatives."

10. Damon Hill: "Someone said to me, 'You've got a nose like . . ."

Do people ever tell you you look like Damon Hill?

"Forgive my ignorance, but who is Damon Hill?"

He's a racing driver.

"The one that died? No?"

No. He's the top British racing driver.

"I've heard of Nigel Mansell."

He's retired.

"Damon Hill." He considers this. "Someone said to me my nose reminded them of . . . who's the famous dashing one who died?"

Oh, I see. You mean Graham Hill.

"Yeah."

Well, Damon is his son.

"Oh well, someone said to me 'You've got a nose like Graham Hill.'"

Does anyone ever tell you you look like anyone else?

"No."

11. Coming 33rd: "Who was number one . . .?" According to an issue of Empire, you are the moviegoer's 33rd most sexy star. (The gushing words offered by way of qualification: "Those eyes! That voice! That square- jawed stoicism!") He keeps a straight face.

"What was the lowest?"

100th. You're ten below Brad Pitt, eight above Tom Cruise.

"Who was number one?"

Johnny Depp.

"Really?" The eyebrows lift. "It's interesting, isn't it? What face is, what person is . . . I mean, with women. With what is sexy and what thought to be sexy. I'm just talking to the guy just before you came in (the man from the BBC) and being asked a question about sex appeal or being a sex symbol always makes me feel uncomfortable, though I realise that sex appeal, certainly with film, is a huge . . ." -- this sentence is, inevitably, destined to trail away. "You know, I've talked about: 'Oh, I find that person sexy' . . ."

And I daresay it works to your benefit.

"Hmmm. Possibly. I don't know how I feel about it really. I suppose I should be glad I figure somewhere

12. Sexual evil: "I don't really know how to respond to that . . ."

Famously, Steven Spielberg referred to Ralph Fiennes' "sexual evil". Naturally, the phase is endlessly recycled in every profile, as it suggest something mischievous and calculating and rather sinister behind his strong-faced English reserve. So what are we supposed to make of the comment?

"Um, I think he was talking about when I did the test for the part. I think he was talking about the quality he saw when I was suggesting how I might play the role. How a quality he saw in me *per se*. And that was that. They're the words he chose. I have no comment to make."

It seems kind of disturbing. There is a long pause.

"I don't really know how to respond to that, to be honest."

Do you mind that it is endlessly quoted?

"I don't object to it. I don't feel upset or hurt."

13. Burn victims: "Scar tissue would just tighten up . . ." Ralph Fiennes is currently filming The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje's co-Booker Prize winning novel, in Italy under the direction of Anthony Minghella. He plays the patient of the title, a bomb expert who has been terribly burned. He went to a Dr. Goodman in New York for advice.

"If you've been badly burned and you've healed," he explains, "your tissue doesn't have the elasticity. It can't breathe like skin. Now they do very radical physiotherapy, but before they really understood the way burns heal, scar tissue would just tighten up and people would become crippled. And the internal organs, you lose huge amounts of fluid, and your internal organs get very badly damaged. And internally your skin's trying to sweat, so constantly you can have all kinds of shooting pains and irritation underneath the surface . . ."

14. The New Film: "I wasn't and obvious contemporary action hero . . ." His publicist is hovering, politely but firmly. The time is all but up. I suggest we should briefly discuss The New Film and there is some uncertain quiet laughter. (I suppose that what we're supposed to have been doing.)

The New Film is, in this instance, the Kathryn Bigelow-directed Strange Days, a film set in the run-up to New Year's Eve 1999, in a Los Angeles where all the current problems are the same but worse (racial tension, a police force running out of control), and where the new equivalent of drugs are illegally-traded computer discs which carry memories, called "clips". Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, and ex-cop who deals clips and who -- as is the way with these things -- finds himself caught up in something much bigger.

Were you looking for a more mainstream action hero role?

"Yes. I was looking for something very contemporary that had a more . . ." He breaks off. Clearly he was about to imply that he wanted something more obviously commercial.

"It's funny, really, because in America it hasn't done particularly well, box-office wise. Because it isn't actually . . . it sort of has the structure of being a formulaic thriller in a loose way, but is actually isn't at all. And I think I was attracted to the fact that maybe I wasn't an obvious contemporary action hero. But also I was interested in Lenny; he's weak, he's emotionally screwed-up, he's a bit of a jerk -- but likeable. He's not particularly brave, and somehow he comes through the shit and is okay. And Kathryn's work, when you've seen her work, I knew it would be something. I knew that it would be a very unusual thing to be a part of."

To research it, he went driving with he LAPD.

"I must say, the LAPD officers I met, and black LAPD officers, and a black woman LAPD officer I met, didn't strike me . . ."

This sentence, too, doesn't finish, though what he means is that they didn't particularly strike him as the sort of LAPD officers to which the O.J. Simpson case introduced us.

"I met men and women who were very practical and very well-trained who had a very particular mind-set, and were eager to help me an actor. What I did meet, I suppose, was a particular weird sort of friendliness that exists between the people on the street -- the prostitutes, the drug dealers -- and the police. A peculiar rapport. The police have that rather paternal attitude of 'We're here, we can make your life a problem if we want' . . ."

Was it scary?

"No. I didn't find it scary. I think there is so much hype about the scary nature of it, and actually I didn't find it so. I'm sure if I had been the victim of violence, that would change me completely. I haven't -- touch wood -- been."

He reaches out and touches the posh wooden hotel room table.

"I was with these big guys with no shortage of . . ." He cocks his right hand, as though it were a pistol. "And the guys on the street have no shortage of . . ." He cocks his hand again. "It's sort of like the Wild West in a way."

Rawhide, I suggest, pointlessly.

He nods, and I am led away . . .


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