Ralph Fiennes: 'There are plenty of virile 56-year-old men'
Ralph Fiennes does Ralph Fiennes so well. During our interview he delivers everything one might hope for: sensitive introspection, charm, pathos, a touch of mystery and even a (partial) defence of late Soviet Russia. ‘A lot of people didn’t experience it as repressive…’
This in the context of the stunning new film he has directed, called The White Crow, about the defection of Rudolf Nureyev from the Soviet Union in 1961. Oh, and he also impersonates a horse for me. Beautiful whinny. Sensitive nostrils.
‘It’s how I feel as the house lights go down and I can feel the expectation from the audience. You can see it in horses before a race.’
As we begin, in a Shoreditch loft studio not far from his home, he seems professorial, in a woolly cardigan, neatly arranging his spectacles, notebook and copy of the latest London Review of Books. When he is ready he gives me that trademark encouraging smile – half little boy, half crocodile.
Career-wise, he has it all. Family life, not so much. His greatest luxury? ‘My independence. I lead quite a solitary life.’ When I ask him if he’s a good uncle to his siblings’ progeny – Mercy, Titan and Hero, to name a few – he says flatly, ‘I could be better.’
His sister, the film-maker Sophie Fiennes, says her son Horace, now eight, really enjoyed the sword fighting in his Richard III, which is, if you think about it, a good outcome for a small boy going to see his uncle play Richard III.
His presence is a mark of quality in a film. Both the Bond and Harry Potter franchises, where he plays M and Voldemort respectively, brought him in for gravitas. Since Rada, he has run the gamut of Shakespeare, from Romeo in 1986 to his award-winning Antony & Cleopatra last year at the National, opposite Sophie Okonedo.
‘She was spectacular. I miss Antony. I found him very moving in his brokenness; his masculinity falling away and him trying to cling on to it. He’s male and middle-aged, and he keeps saying, “I’ve still got it, haven’t I? Haven’t I?”’
Does he recognise that? ‘I am 56 and I try to stay fitter’ – he does cardio and morning yoga – ‘but I can feel myself getting… old. Little shifts of energy and ambition, little impulses. You get tired more, you want to take it easy more.’ Then summoning mercurial energy in that actorly way, he explodes, ‘But I can feel myself fighting that, like, “I’m not gonna let go! Come on, come on. Yeah!” There are plenty of virile 56-year-old men.’
When I ask if he’s got a motorbike yet, like Ralph Richardson, he isn’t impressed. ‘No, my brother Joseph rides a motorbike. He can do fast cars and handle boats.’ Joseph, now 48, will for ever be the young Bard wooing Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, just as Ralph single-handedly made Herodotus hot, that spring of 1997 when we all went to see The English Patient and wept.
Antony gives everything up for sex. ‘Yes, he does, that’s a very real erotic connection, and it’s very emasculating for him.’ Does sex make the world go round? ‘Erm, sex produces more human beings, mostly.’ Nice deflection.
Fiennes married Alex Kingston, his great love from Rada, in 1993. Their marriage ended when he left her in 1995 for the actor who was playing Gertrude to his Hamlet, Francesca Annis, 17 years older than him. Although the relationship broke down in early 2006 amid reports of his alleged infidelity, they still talk, have a deep, mutual professional respect and go to each other’s first nights.
Kingston has since gone on to have a daughter, Salome, with her second husband and Annis already had three children; Fiennes has never wanted his own family. ‘Never say never,’ he demurs. ‘But I don’t feel that’s imminent at all. I love the family and community of plays or the cast and crew of a film.’
He recollects his lines from Man and Superman, the Bernard Shaw play, ‘where Jack Tanner [whom he played] rather brilliantly pours scorn on the idea of happiness: “No family, no marriage, spread your seed, but no marriage!” I love the mischief in that.’
He says, ‘I am the eldest of six,’ as if it explains everything. The Fiennes children were born within seven years. Martha and Sophie make films; Magnus is a composer; Joseph is an actor and his twin Jacob is a gamekeeper in Norfolk. Their foster brother, Michael, now an archaeologist, came to live with them when he was 11, Ralph was two and their mother Jini was only 24.
‘My wonderful parents [Mark Fiennes, a farmer, and Jini Lash, a writer] were pressured by tough financial situations and a very erratic income,’ says Fiennes quietly. ‘They were extraordinarily courageous in giving us love and a sense of home, but also a feeling, early on, of what it is to be a burden on your parents – somewhere I think that’s affected my choices.’
‘We experienced family life with bells on,’ says sister Sophie, who’s currently working on a new series of the brilliant Pervert’s Guide to… documentaries with philosopher Slavoj Zižek. ‘You have lived that and you don’t need to replicate it.’ She remembers that as a child Ralph ‘really liked getting away from us all and being alone’.
He adored his Pollock’s toy theatre and insisted his siblings formed an audience, ‘furious’ if they didn’t comply. He set up footlights in matchboxes. ‘It was magical, very Fanny and Alexander,’ says Sophie, referencing the Bergman paean to childhood.
Ralph always had ‘a love of practical jokes’, she remembers. When they lived by the sea, on the Sheep’s Head peninsula in Ireland, he stood on a rock at high tide and pretended to be drowning.
‘Gave our mother a fit.’ He also called their neighbour to say his wife had been changing a light bulb and was now hanging from the ceiling, twitching. ‘It was April Fool’s. Our neighbour was furious.’
As a young man Fiennes became, after Schindler’s List, the intellectual’s pin-up. Is ageing harder when you’ve been a heart-throb? ‘Look, there’s lots of heart-throbs out there. You see it in younger actors who are having their moment, there’s a new one and they’re written up, how beautiful they are… You see the waves and the breaks, that person had that moment, or that opportunity. There are a handful of actors and directors who stay [the course], but mostly it’s ups and downs.’ In other words, the challenge is to convert being a heart-throb into something more meaningful and lasting.
Such as directing. He directed himself in 2011’s Bafta-nominated Coriolanus with Vanessa Redgrave as his mother Volumnia; in 2013 he directed and appeared as a passion-struck Dickens opposite Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman.
His latest is The White Crow, based on Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Nureyev. He spent months touring Russian ballet schools before finding Oleg Ivenko, a young unknown from the Tatar State Ballet company, who is devastatingly good as the dancer. Fiennes plays his mentor Pushkin.
‘I didn’t really want to be in it,’ he says. ‘But I felt this creeping pressure and although I had a cast of wonderful Russian actors and dancers, the Russian producer said to me, “If you want Russian investment then we need Western names, why aren’t you in it?”’
He will dig deep to make the films he wants to make: has he put his own money in? ‘I have done, yes.’ Would you again? ‘No! I’ve had to put money into all the films I’ve made. They don’t sparkle with commercial appeal.’ Did the money come back? ‘No.’ Harry Potter helps? ‘Definitely. I don’t regret doing it. I have the resources and I believe in the project. You get one life, so f— it.’
The script of The White Crow is by David Hare, who questions the view of Nureyev’s defection as a ‘leap to freedom’, showing instead a certain nostalgia for the Nikita Khrushchev era.
Hare and Fiennes spoke to friends of Nureyev from 1950s Leningrad, twin dancers Leonid and Liuba Romankov, now in their 80s, who appear in a lunch party scene alongside actors playing their younger selves. ‘Liuba said, “I felt free, I felt happy inside myself at that time.” Nureyev was so nurtured and nourished by the dance school.’
The film doesn’t have anything to say about the propaganda and food shortages. ‘If you say I should have laid out a history lesson of the regime, I say no, I think that would have been heavy-handed. I think an audience is smart. You see the ideological pressure of the regime and the constant surveillance Nureyev was under.’
Do you feel the Soviet approach to the arts got something right? ‘I do, because that was, as I understand it, the philosophy of “we’re all a group”, though of course the individual is stifled. I’ve always been moved by what I feel to be the dedication of the Russian arts ethos, the discipline, the intense seriousness with which people take it.’
His love of Russia began in his early 20s, with him performing Chekhov and reading Dostoyevsky; he is now fluent in Russian, has ‘a lingering fantasy of buying a flat in St Petersburg’ and has been presented to Putin. ‘At the St Petersburg International Cultural Forum, which they hold every year. He was very quiet and listening.’
This was before the Salisbury poisoning. Does Fiennes believe Russia was responsible? Briskly, ‘Yes, yes. It seems to me like it was. Clearly there are problematic things with the current regime to our eyes and I do feel it’s been a tricky time since Salisbury, and that’s a shame and sad.’ Oddly enough he knows the town well, having been to Bishop Wordsworth’s grammar school.
‘I had a mostly happy time there. It was an extraordinarily shocking, cack-handed event, unacceptable and wrong in every way. And in reaction the Brits have made things harder with visas and it becomes tit for tat, and the Russians have closed down the British Council, which was a wonderful enabler of cultural interaction. I don’t know if the British Council is a cover for espionage, maybe it is…’ Bond bells are ringing. But you’re M, you must know! He replies, curtly, ‘But I’m not M, am I?’
We return to the topic of growing older. ‘There are pluses to ageing, you know? You can let go of some shit. The competition falls away. You can see the cycles of your own mistakes, hopefully you’re learning… All the things that have caused you upset: I hurt that person, I got a bad review. You start to feel: did that really matter? The things you were so concerned about just drift away on the current of life. And your idealism is tempered and your vanity gets knocked…’
He brings up, as an example, the 2002 film he made with Jennifer Lopez called Maid in Manhattan, a comedy fairy tale in which he plays a US senatorial candidate who falls for his chambermaid. ‘I saw in the newspaper they had J Lo’s most successful films and’ – big smile – ‘Maid in Manhattan was there, and it came quite near the top’ – bigger smile – ‘and then I read: “Let down by the fact that Ralph Fiennes seems like a serial killer.” Ha ha ha! I had to laugh.
’Cos my vanity scrolled it and then… bam!’ He gives a proper belly laugh. Didn’t he get together with J Lo while they were filming? ‘No. No. I was set up by her manager and the producer. So a picture was taken of us saying goodnight after dinner and sold to the New York Post. It was a decoy, to take the focus away from the fact that she was going out with Ben Affleck.’ You didn’t mind? ‘I did, actually. I thought it was really crap.’ He shrugs, smiles. The things fame brings.
‘I give my agent all these neurotic phone calls, asking about reviews, who said this, who said that, but then, glass of wine, laugh it off.’
I feel I’ve had a flash of the blazing, naughty, fun side of Fiennes; we have known it’s there ever since we saw his suavely clownish Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and his irrepressible Harry in A Bigger Splash (complete with gyrating dance routine). There is a fun side to him, then? He smiles enigmatically as we say goodbye. ‘You won’t ever see that in an interview situation.’
The White Crow is released on 22 March