Sunday Telegraph Interview

April 13, 2003

Versatile Ralph Fiennes has struggles to escape his most famous role, Chris Hewitt in Los Angeles reports.

The English Patient was Ralph Fiennes' biggest hit. It has also proved to be his curse.

Sure, the movie snagged him an Oscar nomination and huge box office, but it also fixed his image, at least in the money-grubbing minds of movie studio heads, as a guy who looks good mourning a lost love.

"That's why I loved Spider," Fiennes laughs, referring to his lead role in his latest release.

"I loved this lonely figure who hardly speaks and is totally isolated. It has this spare, weird atmosphere, not at all the sort of romantic parts I'm usually offered."

Fiennes had already signed up for the drama a creepy affair about a man who revisits the scenes of his childhood, attempting to make sense of the tragedies that befell him there when David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, Crash) came aboard. Luckily, he and Fiennes were totally simpatico about the direction Fiennes' character, nicknamed Spider because of his affection for the creatures, should take.

"On the first day, I asked David if he thought I was moving too cautiously, if that was going to create too slow a rhythm for the film. I was anxious about that," Fiennes recalls.

"But David was very insistent. He said, `No, the slowness feels right. I don't want you to push it just because you're worried about the pace of the movie. I will find ways in which I can move it along.'"

Fiennes gives another memorable performance in Spider, adding to what may be the most interesting body of work of any actor working today, ranging from the creepy thrills of Red Dragon and the twisted spirituality of The End of the Affair to the electrifying energy of the under-seen Strange Days.

Fiennes says he wants to work with the world's best directors and, given the depth of his talent, it's no surprise that they return the favour.

His directing collaborators have included the Hungarian Istvan Szabo (Sunshine), British Peter Greenaway (The Baby of Macon rent that one if you want to see a lot of Fiennes), Aussie Gillian Armstrong (Oscar and Lucinda), Irish Neil Jordan (the upcoming The Good Thief) and American-as-they-come Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) and Robert Redford (Quiz Show).

Fiennes says he learns something new from each of them: "On Quiz Show, you couldn't learn the dialogue even a day ahead of time because it was constantly being altered. On The English Patient, Anthony Minghella kept fiddling with the scenes, but I had learned how to adapt to that from Spielberg."

While making Schindler's List, Spielberg constantly rewrote, sometimes even directing the writer to come up with two vastly different versions of some scenes.

"When it happened, I remember thinking, `Which is it, then? Which scene should I do?' But now, I tend to be more flexible and think it's interesting to be able to try it another way. I've learned to like that looseness."

Not that looseness enters much into his portrayal of Spider, a man who is caught in the past like a spider trapped in a web. But, even on Spider, Fiennes found that the other elements of the movie his drab costumes, the wasted landscape of the abandoned industrial areas where it was shot helped him figure out what to do.

"That's why I love collaborating with directors. It's wonderful to marry what I want to do with what they're trying to achieve," Fiennes says.

"The truly great directors always have more questions than answers. I'm always wary if someone says, `This is the way I see it,' because in doing that he or she is excluding all kinds of possibilities."

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Added to the RF Reading Room on April 18, 2003