Master of the tortured mind
The man who's played a Nazi, a liar and an
ill-fated lover talks to GAYLE MacDONALD
about his strange new role in David Cronenberg's Spider
By GAYLE MACDONALD, The Globe and Mail
September 11, 2002
A few years ago, shortly after the critical and commercial success of the film The English Patient, Ralph Fiennes was asked what motivates him to act. The British actor was stumped, saying he tends to veer away from trying to understand why he acts, and adding, "I just know I need to do it."
'Who Spider is, the very fact that's it hard for him to talk, gives the character the grounding he needs. It kind of suggests the fear of engaging fully with other people, of being open to other people. In a way, it helped define Spider. And as soon as I could define him, and I knew who he was, I was free to be him.'
This week, Fiennes, in Toronto to promote his latest film, David Cronenberg's multilayered, deranged drama Spider, still finds it difficult to articulate why he is driven to ply his craft.
"It's just not something that I can articulate," says the slimly built Fiennes, clad in khakis and Birkenstocks. Ever circumspect, the actor presses his fingertips to his temple and stares out the window. "It's just instinctive," the Academy Award-nominated actor reflects. "I just feel I would like to try it, to delve into the psychology of another human being. I just feel the pull of the screenplay, the writing, the character."
In the case of the Cronenberg film, which had its North American premiere earlier this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, Fiennes explores, yet again, an extraordinarily complex personality. This time, he plays the eponymous schizophrenic, Spider, who is convinced that his father (Gabriel Byrne) murdered his mother (Miranda Richardson) to get his sluttish girlfriend into his house.
Deliciously Freudian, the story is dark, twisted and psychologically wearing. Fiennes's character is intense, troubled and lost. He wears four shirts, scribbles hieroglyphics fanatically in a diary, bathes in mud-coloured water, and does not utter a single intelligible word throughout the entire 98 minutes of the film.
Fiennes, whose first name is pronounced Rafe, loved the deliberate, near-muteness of this character. In fact, he says, he found the constraint of not speaking to be "liberating, freeing."
As he puts it, "In this movie, I just express things physically or through looks. It started off that Spider was a voice-over, but he explained himself in an overly articulate and literary way. And I couldn't believe in that. I knew Spider could not have access to language like that."
Once he and Cronenberg agreed to press the mute button, Fiennes says he slipped easily into Spider's tortured mind, wrapping himself in the character. "Who Spider is, the very fact that's it hard for him to talk, gives the character the grounding he needs. It kind of suggests the fear of engaging fully with other people, of being open to other people. In a way, it helped define Spider. And as soon as I could define him, and I knew who he was, I was free to be him."
Cronenberg agrees that Fiennes was dying to sink his teeth into a role that is the flip side of anything remotely normal -- to explore the B-side of people. "He was desperate to play it, and we knew he'd be great. We were desperate for Spider to be alive."
For his part, Fiennes explains that he was drawn to the character's complexity. "I like Spider's loneliness, his fears, his stubborness. This is a journey through a man's troubled mind. And I was attached to the screenplay for a long time, in fact even before David read it. Spider is deeply confused. Some people would say he's sick.
"But I didn't want to take that kind of judgmental position," he continues, his green eyes unblinking. "Out of his eyes, the world seems a certain way that makes sense to him. He's made a complex web of memories to protect himself from a childhood trauma . . . So he's hedged himself in with these memories to protect himself. And that makes him terribly lonely but also very removed. He's locked away in his own imaginings, a fascinating place to be."
Fiennes, who turns 40 at the end of the year, was born in Suffolk County, England, the eldest of six kids. His father, Mark, was a farmer turned photographer; his mother, Jini, who died not long after the release of Fiennes's breakout film, Schindler's List, was a poet and novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Jennifer Lash.
Fiennes first thought he wanted to be an artist, and studied at the Chelsea College of Art & Design. But he soon realized his real love was acting, and he switched gears, appearing in productions mounted by the National Theatre, as well as in New Shakespeare Company productions. In 1988, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, an experience he says entrenched in him a deep-seated love of dramatic language.
It was several years, though, before he became a household name. In the early 1990s, Fiennes was still a little-known British stage actor. Then, in 1993, Steven Spielberg picked him to play the sadistic Nazi commandant, Amon Goeth, of the Plaszow labour camp near Krakow, Poland. His chilling portrayal in Schindler's List -- which earned him an Oscar nod -- drew raves from critics and audiences alike.
Fiennes cemented his place in superstardom the following year when he made an equally impressive appearance in Robert Redford's Quiz Show as Charles Van Doren, the Columbia University English prof at the heart of a scandal on the 1950s NBC game show, Twenty-One.
Those roles, and others, including a turn as a burn victim in the film version of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, proved, as a writeup on the actor in Current Biography notes, that Fiennes could "capture the dark side of heroic characters and the tortured humanity of villains." His next role, as a murderous psychopath in the film Red Dragon, will no doubt only confirm that notion.
Divorced from his first wife, the British actress Alex Kingston (of NBC hospital drama ER), Fiennes is now in a relationship with actress Francesca Annis (18 years his senior). Although he works almost non-stop, he's currently enjoying a brief break between jobs, and says he's trying to relax and regroup.
"I'm not doing anything at the moment, and it's kind of nice," says the soft-spoken star. "I'm at home [in London], doing publicity for this movie and for Red Dragon. I'm starting a play in London at the end of October, which I'm quite excited about."
Fiennes just wrapped in July a romantic comedy shot in New York called Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez. That film was made as Lopez's marriage collapsed, and the press hinted that Fiennes and Lopez were romantically linked -- rumours that Fiennes dismissed as nonsense.
In early October, Red Dragon, based on Thomas Harris's 1981 novel, which first introduced the serial killer Hannibal Lecter, will be released in theatres. In that movie, Fiennes plays the heinous Francis Dollarhyde, a.k.a. the Tooth Fairy, who murders whole families. He co-stars with Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins.
When he was approached to take on the role, Fiennes said he almost turned it down. "When I was first handed the screenplay of Red Dragon, I was very skeptical that I'd want to be in it," he recalls. "I could see a lot of actors might want to do it, but I just didn't think it would be for me. Then I read the novel, and it was a great read. And I saw the part they wanted me to do would be a juicy role. So I took it."
The actor says he has no guidelines when choosing what work to accept or reject -- that it comes down to whether he feels he will get to be a key element in the drama.
"I chose Red Dragon because it was fascinating, and I knew I'd be in the middle of the story, that I'd get to work with some brilliant actors," he says. "Plus," he adds with a demonic grin, "I get to jump on Philip Seymour Hoffman and chew his face." Then he reverts back to his usual, sedate self. "I love what I do," he says. "I've always had a love of language, dramatic language. . . . At one point in my life I wanted to be a painter, but I realized I don't want to be on the outside, designing. I want to be in the thick of things that are being designed."