Ralph Fiennes doesn't mind being 40, a milestone he reached in December - he's not about to go mad with Lamborghinis. Anyway, he doesn't see people in terms of their age.
His girlfriend, Francesca Annis, is 58 and this matters not a jot. "I have always found older women very sexy. Francesca is amazing. I love to see a woman's life experience in her face and I find it sexy, not in a tabloid way, but it is exotic, it has allure."
He goes to the gym, does yoga, will have a facial if a director suggests it, but he is not unduly worried about physical disrepair, no more than any other actor, anyway. You have to look in the mirror a lot, he says, an hour every day, at least, when the make-up is going on. "Your face, your body, that is who you are and of course you watch it. Sometimes you hate it, sometimes you feel quite pleased with it."
In some ways, Ralph Fiennes has always had the wisdom of middle age and that is why he was always different. Sometimes inaccessible, sometimes pompous, he was once described as having a "grumpy public demeanour".
He knows he has been "precious" about the press in the past. "I have been criticised for being too guarded," he says. Then there was the public break-up of his marriage to the actress Alex Kingston, which was not at all easy.
Nowadays, he thinks he is settling into himself. He has managed to combat the feeling of physical gaucheness which meant that, despite being fabulous looking, he was often uncomfortable in his skin, a characteristic that he has used to effect in the creation of some of his characters - Oscar of Oscar and Lucinda, for instance, who was always saying, "I just don't fit." This gangly unco-ordination meant that, when he was young, he was useless at sport and a "terrible dancer, terrible".
Does he dance when drunk, I wonder?
"I'm better now at just getting up and dancing. I got really mad with someone the other day when he said, 'Oh, that's white-boy dancing', because it had taken me so long to get to that point. I think everyone should feel they can sing and dance without being laughed at. It's an energy that should be allowed to be played out and we should be able to do it not drunk. But if I do, it's, 'There's Ralph. He's so serious and intense and ohmygod, look - he's dancing. How embarrassing!' "
So there won't be a midlife crisis? "I feel released by it," he says. "Before you are 40, as an actor, my experience has been 'leading man' and that is a terrible cul-de-sac. I'm ambitious still and I want to do certain things, but as your awareness of mortality crystalises, in a funny way I take comfort from it. I take comfort from the cycle of life going on, seeing your parents' generation getting old, your friends' children getting really grown up."
Does he want children? "No," he says. "I am pretty certain that that is something that is not going to happen. I remember from my own parents that strain of responsibility, the worry etched onto their faces, and though I don't have that financial worry, something in me at some level knows I don't want to go down that road."
It should be mentioned at this point that we are conducting all this in the backroom of a West London brasserie. There is an army of waiters, a cantilevered crab cake and Ralph, understated, with a glass of pink champagne and a brown moustache, not for decoration, but because he is in a play about Jung. You can't have a false one because God knows it might drop off in the middle of things. And it's not a comedy.
The director, Howard Davies, says the role needed someone with Fiennes's "intellectual zeal" and one could expect to find the good doctor imbued with a sexual charisma that one might not otherwise have imagined.
So Fiennes is reading Psychology of the Unconscious and moving slowly towards the character of the visionary psychoanalyst. You can see why he would like the ideas of a man who was not concerned with statistical normality, or with adaptation to society's expectations.
It is no coincidence that Fiennes - who was described as having a mother complex after his affair with Annis started when she was playing his mother in Hamlet - is involved with Jung's writing about individuation and, in particular, is interested by "the leap of faith that is required to discard parental figures and, by breaking the incestuous tie, become your own person".
His own mother, Jini, died of cancer in 1993, but two weeks before her death, she was conveyed in a wheelchair to see her son play Untersturmfuhrer Amon Goeth in Schindler's List - the portrayal during which Fiennes moved to a realm where sagacious complexity becomes instinct and can be described as genius.
Jini recognised her eldest son's abilities. After seeing him at a very young age in one school play, she told him: "You know, Ralph, if you want to, you could be an actor."
In fact, he went to Chelsea Art School before the decision finally gelled and he was accepted by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
With seven children (one adopted), the Fiennes parents often struggled. Jini, though full of love for her brood, was desperate to write and had to organise nannies if she was to find the seclusion she needed. His father, Mark Fiennes, a photographer, once told me: "I could not feed, clothe and educate seven children by photography. I did up houses and when they were finished we had to move so that we could sell them for a profit. I don't think the children suffered. Variety is the spice of life."
Ralph, Martha, Magnus and Sophie were born on a farm in Suffolk from where, after nine years, they moved to a house in Dorset and then to Ireland. Ralph attended a Quaker school and then, when there was no money for fees, a Catholic college in Kilkenny. After this came Wiltshire, where the girls went to convents and Ralph to Bishop Wordsworth's, a grammar school in Salisbury.
Martha went on to direct Onegin, Magnus is a composer, Sophie recently made a documentary. The youngest, twins, are Jacob, a gamekeeper working in Norfolk, and Joseph, who has enjoyed memorable success as an actor after the success of Shakespeare in Love. Michael Emery, now 50, was adopted by the family in 1963. An eminent archaeologist, he is overseeing the Poulton Research Project, an excavation site in Chester, in the west of England, for which Ralph has helped raise funds.
Asked how he felt about the rise of his younger brother Joseph, Ralph says he doesn't feel competitive, but he did have to adjust.
"Families are odd, aren't they? There is a paradox going on. We're all quite close, but at the same time, we're all desperately trying to be independent. One of the things we laugh about when we are together is the fact that we can't bear being called 'the Fiennes children'. We all of us have pretty big egos and we want to say, 'I'm not a Fiennes, I'm Ralph, or I'm Sophie'.
"I think when I decided to be an actor and I went to acting school and everything, that was a passport away from the family in that it was a beginning of the stamp of 'yes, someone thinks you're talented, and here you are'. It was quite odd when suddenly another member of the family was doing exactly the same thing. I did an internal double-take, but actually we are completely different and it is only a state of mind that makes it a problem.
"If you feel your tail being chased it is your own insecurity that is doing it to you; but nobody can take what I am away from me - it is only stupid paranoia that makes you think your shadow is going to be stolen."
There's a strange logic in the fact that Fiennes is playing a psychoanalyst on stage, as his body of work has embraced many eccentrics and more than one serious maniac. Red Dragon, the third instalment of the Hannibal series, saw him as serial killer Francis Dolarhyde.
He is more wary of big studio films since The Avengers ignited howls of derision. "You are tarnished by the crash," he says. "Even if your agents are telling you you are not, you are." But he liked the script for Red Dragon and the cast, including Anthony Hopkins and Edward Norton, was stellar.
Next month he'll be seen playing a schizophrenic in Spider, a film that came his way in 1995 via the producer Catherine Bailey, with whom he was working at the time. He read the script and immediately said he wanted to play the man who returns to the East End of his childhood and, memories awakened, is confronted by past traumas in the form of the realistic hallucinations of paranoid delusion. "It was his journey that intrigued me," he says, "what's going on inside his head and his perception of the world."
The director, David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, The Fly), has admitted he read the script mainly because Fiennes was attached to it. He realised the actor was perfect to play a lonely, mad person who is "essentially in hell".
Cronenberg saw Spider as "neither pathetic nor psychotic" and it is his clear scrutiny, aided by Patrick McGrath (who wrote both the screenplay and the novel on which it is based), that elevates the film from a freakshow about loonies to an illuminating statement about a man who has been discharged from an institution too early. McGrath, who drew his material from a childhood spent at Broadmoor [a psychiatric hospital that houses some of the UK's most dangerous people] where his father was the medical superintendent, observes that the character in Spider is "like many of those men who we see wandering around our cities mumbling to themselves, and who we tend to shun".
The project was difficult to finance. At one point, the backers dropped out and Miramax turned down distribution. "No one was going to compromise," says Fiennes. "Everyone who had put money into it had to swallow hard and say, 'This is a Cronenberg film, and we have to accept it for what it is'. The onus to make money is so crippling, but there are [films] in the middle ground that can make money and I think we're losing that."
Fiennes likes things that "engage the mind and spirit" and he views contemporary culture as something that only purveys the quick laugh or the quick idea to create a meaningless fix. When pressed he will admit to reading Hello!, but only in the gym and he recently bought CDs by Coldplay and Moby.
He has a good choice of scripts now, of course, and can weave between Hollywood, art house cinema and theatre with the enviable nerve of an artist funded by his own "very generous pay cheque". And, anyway, he's not flash. He lives with Annis in an unpretentious London suburb, drives, but doesn't have a car, travels a lot, but usually for work.
Over the years he has worked with the best people, not to mention the most beautiful - an incandescent array including Uma Thurman (The Avengers), Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient), Cate Blanchett (Oscar and Lucinda), Julianne Moore (The End of the Affair) and Liv Tyler (Onegin). Most recently he appeared with Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan, a romantic comedy that he took because he wanted to do something lighter.
It is easy to think that his life must be an orgy of sensuality, but he points out that we, the public, see the red carpet and the evening dresses and hair and believe a myth that doesn't exist. Are beautiful women different in some way, I wonder. Are there universal characteristics that they share?
"Every woman is completely different," he says. "I couldn't make a generalisation about
that. There are some actresses who you think are very beautiful, about whom the world is
saying, 'They are so lucky', but who have vulnerabilities and neuroses to do with acting.
What interests me is the flesh and blood, the person who has arrived looking frazzled,
who grabs her lines, needs a coffee, needs a cigarette. A person who says, 'God, I'm
sweating, I must change my shirt', is more attractive than a person being a mask of
glamour, which is just scary."
© EL STEPHO
Added to the RF Reading Room on May 3, 2003