Ralph Fiennes on Bond, political correctness, and his timely Soviet thriller

Ralph Fiennes isn’t like other A-listers. In a stellar 25-year film career he’s barely played a traditional lead role. And, contrary to popular opinion, he’s willing to speak his mind

Ralph Fiennes has a talent for dark, complicated characters. As well as a reputation for being a difficult man to get close to. Maybe the two things are related. People who work with him talk more than anything about his commitment and his need to push the limits. They use words like ‘intense’, ‘dedicated’ and ‘demanding’.

They also say that, after 25 years in the game, he can still be reluctant to engage in the cycle of personal revelation that often comes with promoting a movie. Today, that’s for his latest effort as director and actor, The White Crow, a psychological thriller about the Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West at the height of the Cold War.

Some people might approach an interview with someone they don’t know by making sure they are pleasant above all else. Fiennes is not rude, but nor is he a fan of being nice for the sake of being nice. There’s an anxiousness about him. His eyes – once likened to ‘blue sky shining through the empty sockets of a skull’ – never stop roving. His hands are constantly in motion. He’s happy to talk, but he has little time for gossip. There was a plan to go to the pub. And then there wasn’t. The pub might be noisy and it wouldn’t help me get to know him, and that’s the whole point of this, right? No, he’d rather talk somewhere we won’t be interrupted.

‘When I’m put on the spot, I feel myself clench internally with a sort of discomfort’

So here we are – two guys drinking bottled water in a large and empty photographic studio in East London. Everyone else involved in the cover shoot has gone home except for the photographer’s assistant, who is still packing up. It’s stark, like a Beckett play, and Fiennes is cool with that.

‘I try not to give too many interviews now,’ he says as he settles on a leather sofa, looking relaxed and tanned in an all-blue outfit of cardigan, crisp blue shirt and jeans. (Indeed, it’s a couple of years since he gave an interview for the cover story of a major British or American magazine.) ‘One thing I learned at the start of my acting career is that, if someone has a story in their mind that they want to write, nothing will stop them from writing it.’

Does he worry that I’ve come with some kind of agenda?

‘I’ll reserve judgment,’ he laughs. ‘But from early on, I’ve been aware of how a journalist will just pluck out a quote and then run with it. Of course it makes you cautious.’

Reflecting on whether he enjoys giving interviews, he says: ‘It depends on the situation. When I’m put on the spot, I feel myself clench internally with a sort of discomfort. And…’

He pauses mid-answer, the sudden silence a reminder of his capacity for stagecraft.

Grey checked wool overcoat, £3,960, by Brunello Cucinelli; Navy merino long sleeved polo, £395, by Gieves & Hawkes; Blue pleated cotton trousers, £195, by The GiGi at Matches Fashion; Black leather Chelsea boots, Ralph’s own

‘I guess I don’t know. I’m interested in reading in-depth profiles – not just of actors. The New Yorker magazine’s great for that. I like reading about other people. So I do appreciate the value of proper interviews.’

That’s reassuring, I say, before reading back to him a quote he once gave to a journalist who’d been frustrated by his refusal to discuss his private life: ‘I don’t want to tell you everything, open up my heart. Why should I?’

‘Yes, well,’ he says, ‘there will always be a debate around actors, or anyone in the public eye in fact, who want to promote their product and at the same time complain about losing their privacy. I get it. Your job as a journalist is to probe a bit. Mine is to flirt back. But in a world where everyone is put under a microscope, with every opinion and behaviour held up for all to see, knowing how far to push it can be something of a mind-fuck.’

‘I think I’m getting better at being more open these days, but let’s see’

Still, he goes on, ‘That’s the nature of the beast. I think I’m getting better at being more open these days, but let’s see.’

Now 55, Fiennes is deep into a remarkable run of movies, with credits including The English Patient (1996), The Constant Gardener (2005), In Bruges (2008), five Harry Potters and a couple of Bonds. In his latest, The White Crow, he brings the kind of natural intensity we first saw in Schindler’s List (1993), his breakout role, to the stern and creepy character of Alexander Pushkin – St Petersburg’s most respected ballet instructor who sees something in Nureyev’s passion, in addition to his pure technical skill.

Fiennes delivers the role impeccably – and entirely in Russian, which he’s been learning on and off for years as part of his ‘infatuation’ with the country’s literature and culture. ‘I’m not fluent but I can get by in basic conversation,’ he says. ‘I’ve been told I sound pretty good in the film. But the Russians themselves will decide.’

Initially, Fiennes didn’t even want to act in the film. Directing is stressful enough. I remind him that, shortly after the other two films he directed and acted in, Coriolanus in 2011 and The Invisible Woman in 2013, he said he’d never go behind the camera again.

‘Did I say that?’ he laughs. ‘I feel the same way now. The stress of it… It sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? But as an actor, your responsibility is your role. Outside of that, you don’t have to worry about staging, lighting and whatever else. But the financial uncertainty throughout getting The White Crow filmed and finished was pretty horrendous. Right up to the last minute, we were moving forwards but not knowing if we’d be able to continue the next week, because the finance wasn’t locked in. It’s like setting a train out but not knowing if there’s enough rail to get to the destination. But once I’m on the floor, as it were, I find it thrilling to direct.’

Nureyev was a famously difficult personality, with a big ego and a fondness for partying at cabarets and beatnik clubs. He had AIDS, a diagnosis kept secret until the morning after his death in 1993. He was an explosively powerful dancer whose grace and beauty revolutionised ballet. But it was the moment he defected to the West, turning his back on his home and the dance company that trained him, that led to his name being blazed across the front pages. ‘I love all the things that made Nureyev difficult,’ says Fiennes. ‘That’s attractive to me, in an artistic sense. He was a real force.’

As was Fiennes himself, when he started out. For Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, he prepared meticulously for his role as a concentration camp commander, spending endless hours at the Imperial War Museum and buying protein shakes from the chemist to help him put on weight. ‘I was determined to avoid the usual Nazi caricatures,’ he says.

‘We puzzle over what we are made up of. Many different feelings and possibilities, even ones we are not sure about’

He did – and then some. He was nominated for an Oscar, which several prominent critics suggested he should have won. Somehow, he managed to portray the commander not as a monster but as a man, whose sociopathic savagery was interspersed with moments of – whisper it – kindness.

He has never looked back. Three years later, in the war drama The English Patient, he would get about as close as he ever would to playing the archetypal leading man, through his portrayal of a badly wounded Hungarian haunted by a tragic love affair. But more often he has appeared as twisted, marginalised characters like the demented 19th-century vicar in Oscar and Lucinda (1997), and Pushkin’s doomed lover in his sister Martha’s 1999 film Onegin. And he was chillingly convincing as a morbidly sensitive serial killer in the Silence of the Lambs prequel Red Dragon (2002).

Of the kinds of roles he takes on, Fiennes says: ‘They have within them anxieties and vulnerabilities that will at some point be broken open. Like in life, we puzzle over what we are made up of. Many different feelings and possibilities, even ones we are not sure about.’

Fiennes worries that television is increasingly stealing the mantle from cinema in terms of sophisticated storytelling. ‘At one end,’ he says of the increasingly divergent paths he thinks the film industry is taking, ‘you have more of a Hollywood based film culture – “Who are we rooting for? Who do we like?” At the other end, maybe there’s a more European-based kind of sensibility – with characters that tease us or provoke us with the changes they are capable of. We don’t know if we like them. Or we may only like them momentarily. And we have a dance of affection with them.’

Unsurprisingly, he sides with the latter. ‘I try and go to my local cinema in Shoreditch around five or six times a month, but you won’t ever catch me watching a Marvel.’

In recent years, the more laid-back aspect to his character that’s evident today has begun to emerge on the big screen. With an impeccable answer for every question and a lighter for every cigarette, he delivers a masterclass in comic acting as Monsieur Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Director Wes Anderson’s gamble to offer him any part he liked to ensure he appeared in the film paid off, handsomely.

Growing up in Dorset, Fiennes remembers his father, a distant relation of Prince Charles, taking him to see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when he was just six or seven. ‘Bond opened me up to this amazing world. I hadn’t seen a hero like that – the  erotic sexual dynamic he had with women. Stuff that probably isn’t politically correct anymore, but was entertaining and arousing for a young boy to see back then.’

A year into the #MeToo movement, the film industry is necessarily facing growing pressure to clean up its act. But, at this sensitive time, it doesn’t stop Fiennes declaring that ‘political correctness is getting weirdly extreme and bizarre’.

‘Being an actor means asking people to look at you. I guess I accept that more than I used to’

‘I’m aware you can’t say this, you can’t say that,’ he says, before letting out a long ‘pfffftttttt’. ‘How you use language to describe sexuality, people, political opinions – it’s getting sort of ridiculous. The thought police are out in force, which I don’t remember happening as much when I was growing up. “Ohhhhh Ralph, don’t say that!” I get it all the time now!’

Would the Bond franchise benefit from modernising at all? In the past couple, Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), directed by Sam Mendes, Fiennes plays M, the head of MI6. He will do so again in the next instalment. Though, surprisingly for someone with a reputation for being uptight, he cannot remember how many more Bonds he is contracted to be in, nor the name of the new director following Danny Boyle’s abrupt recent exit. ‘Let me look it up,’ he says picking up my iPhone from the table and, unsurprisingly, failing to unlock it. ‘Whoops! We have the same phone!’

After locating his own phone and declaring Cary Fukunaga, Boyle’s successor, ‘very good’, Fiennes says he thinks the previous few Bonds have signalled a return to form: ‘I like what Sam’s done with the last two. He brought some weight back to the franchise while keeping it fun. But while some may want to see it reimagined further, you expect a certain meal when it’s put in front of you.’

Down the years, Fiennes has talked about his all-or-nothing approach to his films, and how it has taken its toll on him. After all, playing the hunchbacked Richard III with his spine out of alignment for three hours a day left him needing medical treatment, while Schindler’s List features some of the most harrowing scenes ever filmed.

‘Despite the horrendous subject matter, filming with Steven [Spielberg on Schindler’s List] was inspiring,’ he says now. ‘The creative exuberance and energy I get from being on sets is truly amazing. Looking back I think, “Is it that stressful? How stressful is it, really?”’

Perhaps this is down to the freedom that comes with growing older, a newfound confidence and comfort in his own skin? ‘Being an actor means asking people to look at you,’ he says. ‘And I guess I accept that more than I used to.’

Most stressful has been the unrelenting obsession the tabloid press has with the status of his relationships. He lived for 12 years with the actress Alex Kingston, to whom he was married for four years, but Fiennes left her in 1995 for actress Francesa Annis, 17 years his senior. Their relationship ended in 2006. Since then, any public appearances with women have been pored over by the press.

By the time the interview winds up, even the photographer’s assistant has gone home. Fiennes polishes off the bottle of water, clips on a bicycle helmet (‘it’s always been my way of getting around’) and leaves with a final thought. ‘We often form opinions and create entire life stories about an actor based solely on the roles they’ve played,’ he says. ‘But there’s more.’

The White Crow is in cinemas from March 2019