Ralph Fiennes: ‘It’s quite daunting being a director’
The actor cum director on watching himself act, his Rudolf Nureyev film and feeling at home in Ireland
Ralph Fiennes: ‘With the films I’ve directed, I have to watch. It’s often uncomfortable and embarrassing, but it’s very informative.’ Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty
It’s not just a Daniel Radcliffe problem. In tabloid and internet parlance, all of the Harry Potter players, regardless of their larger body of work, are reduced to smaller components of JK Rowling’s empire. See recent reports on Netflix’s Dark Crystal reboot for references to “Harry Potter’s Helena Bonham Carter”. Despite essaying the young wizard’s primary nemesis, Ralph Fiennes remains unattached to a possessive apostrophe of any kind.
There have been too many honours: two Academy Award nominations, five Golden Globe nods and a Bafta. Hours after we meet at a Dublin hotel, Fiennes is presented with the Volta at the Dublin International Film Festival by Irish actor John Kavanagh, who he directed in The Invisible Woman.There have been too many competing ironic roles: his East End villain in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, his tightly wound concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel, his ruined Hungarian aristocrat in The English Patient. Having gained 13kg and poured over newsreels featuring Amon Göth, Fiennes’s approximation of the Nazi war criminal left Mila Pfefferberg, a survivor of the events depicted in Schindler’s List, trembling in the actor’s presence.
And then there’s The Bard. Having graduated from Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1985, Fiennes quickly became a star at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has subsequently worked through the catalogue, most recently Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre in London last year.
Steven Spielberg brings a wonderful energy. That was one of the most successful film sets I’ve ever experienced in terms of the momentum
Over the past decade the actor who made a brooding screen debut as Heathcliff in the 1992 version of Wuthering Heights has alternated between lighter, glossier roles – M in the James Bond films, Professor Moriarty in Holmes & Watson, Alfred in the Lego Movies – and directorial projects.
The White Crow, a dramatisation of the defection of Rudolf Nureyev from the Soviet Union in 1961, is Fiennes’s third film behind the camera. And in front. He had not intended to appear in the film, but sales agents and producing partners were keen. He has, accordingly, had to get used to watching himself on screen, as Pushkin, Nureyev’s accommodating ballet teacher.
“With the films I’ve directed, I have to watch,” says Fiennes. “There’s no other option. It’s often uncomfortable and embarrassing, but it’s very informative once you get over the vanity issue and thinking: Oh, I look horrible. I was fascinated in the role that the editor [Barney Pilling] plays in shaping the performance. It’s very interesting to take one bit from here and another bit from there and to put them together and see what makes the performance work best.”
The White Crow, titled from the nickname Nureyev was given as boy, is based on the 2007 biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh. The author was acquainted with Fiennes and gifted him an early draft of the book. The film was developed by BBC Films and producer Gabrielle Tana and written by David Hare. Bringing it to the screen has been an epic and sometimes fraught process. It took 18 months and two Russian casting directors to find a suitable Nureyev in Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian-born soloist with the Tatar State Ballet.
“It’s quite daunting being a director,” says Fiennes. “When we first started shooting I was so stressed by the finance and those aspects, I felt like a bit like a rabbit in the headlights. Luckily, we were very well prepared and as times goes on, you find your groove and others do, too. It’s exciting when things go to plan but it’s even better when something happens that brings you somewhere else. The thing that drives me is getting performances. I’m fascinated by squeezing every possibility in the time available.”
He smiles and shakes his head: “You can’t take the actor out of the actor.”
Every time I come back to Dublin and I feel that whole Proustian thing. It’s very far from west Cork. But just coming here, I feel immediately the spirit of the place
Fiennes the film-maker, meanwhile, speaks particularly highly of the Hungarian auteur István Szábo, whom he worked with on Sunshine. The 56-year-old has, to date, been directed by Robert Redford (Quiz Show), Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days), Gillian Armstrong (Oscar and Lucinda), Neil Jordan (The End of the Affair), David Cronenberg (Spider), James Ivory (The White Countess), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash), and the Coen Brothers (Hail, Caesar!) He has picked up a few tips along the way.
“I don’t feel that I’ve copied them but I’ve learned things,” he says. “Anthony Minghella, I remember, was incredibly collaborative. He wanted to talk to every head of department. He wanted their ideas. He believed that whatever he was doing, it could only get better if you incorporated the talent and ideas of other people. Steven Spielberg brings a wonderful energy. He knows exactly what he wants. He knows every lens, every technical aspect. That was one of the most successful film sets I’ve ever experienced in terms of the momentum. It was the authority of someone absolutely, whether or not they got what they needed. That was thrilling.”
This is not Fiennes’s first dalliance with Russian culture. In the 1990s he read Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin and was taken enough with the enigmatic hero to pass along a copy of the book to his sister, Martha Fiennes. She, in turn, directed her brother in the screen 1999 adaptation. In 2016 he learned the language from scratch in order to essay Mikhail Rakitin in Two Women, a film adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. He has previously expressed dismay at the “unhealthy status” of Britain’s relationship with Russia.
“I have a kind of cultural crush on Russia, particularly on classical Russian literature, perhaps more than Soviet literature,” says Fiennes. “And having gone there a few times I feel very befriended and embraced in Russia. I feel a part of me is opened up or answered. In going there, you hear other perspectives from people and see the social complexities instead of conflating the country with the current regime. I find that quite offensive.”
The feeling may be mutual. The White Crow is the first film to be allowed access to the State Hermitage Museum since Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, shot in 2002. Indeed, Fiennes has fostered meaningful relations across the former USSR and Eastern bloc. A Unicef UK ambassador for Kyrgyzstan and Romania, the actor was granted a Serbian passport in 2017, as signed off by Ana Brnabic, the first female and openly gay prime minister of the country. The White Crow was shot between St Petersburg, Croatia and Serbia.
“Serbia has been very very supportive and they offered me a passport and I said: Yes, okay, thank you,” says Fiennes. “it felt like a strong gesture of solidarity. Serbia has been demonised for things that only concerned a tiny section of Serbia. God knows, all countries have a demonic history. My country certainly has. But all I know is that the experiences I had in Serbia are fantastic. The people I’ve met there are wonderful and incredibly hard-working and they’ve helped make my films.”
Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes was born in 1962, the first of seven children. His brother Joseph is also an actor; his sisters Sophie and Martha are both film directors and producers.
The family are vaguely aristocratic – Fiennes is an eighth cousin of Prince Charles and he’s a third cousin of explorer Ranulph Fiennes – but they were not moneyed. The Fiennes clan moved to west Cork in 1973 and then, 18 months later, to Kilkenny, mostly at the behest of their half-Irish, Catholic matriarch, the writer Jennifer Lash.
“Every time I come back to Dublin and I feel that whole Proustian thing,” he says. “Dublin wasn’t actually where we lived. Kilkenny is not far away. And it’s very far from west Cork. But just coming here, I feel immediately the spirit of the place, in the city, and the people. And at some level it’s very emotional because I think of my mother or father. I think of them going to live in west Cork and uprooting us with very little financial resources to do this quite mad plan to build a house in west Cork. My mother was particularly keen on the idea that they must give the children a different kind of upbringing. Arguably, it didn’t completely work because the money was an issue and schooling was an issue. But the impact on all six of us was intense. Now I can see what a totally extraordinary thing it was.”
The White Crow is released on March 22nd