Ralph Fiennes spent two years battling to direct his first film. Julie Kavanagh followed him through that time, and interviewed his friends and his sisters, to track down the source of his gifts—and his demons

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010

The beautiful face is gaunt, with fatigue-bruised eyes. A sideways glance, barely discernible, and the minutest curl of the upper lip let you know that an amusing private memory has been triggered. This is Ralph Fiennes, aged 29, as Lawrence of Arabia, watching newsreel footage of himself with guerrillas in the desert. His look seems to check if the moment has resonated with anyone else—though just putting it into words destroys the speed and subtlety of the execution. Then a stage actor with hardly any screen experience, Fiennes announces himself in a single close-up as a born movie star, able to seduce the camera while holding back a hinterland of mystery.

The BBC film “A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia” (1992) gave Fiennes the first of many signature roles as torment personified. Lawrence was a shattered personality, so shamed by his illegitimacy and homosexuality that his back was criss-crossed with self-inflicted weals. His eyes are likened in the film to “the blue sky shining through the empty sockets of a skull”, an effect captured by the turquoise irises of Peter O’Toole 30 years earlier. Fiennes’s eyes are even more eloquent, revealing a netherworld behind the façade. It’s an astonishing performance, and when it reached America two months later the New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter were ecstatic. “That day”, says the producer, Colin Vaines, “we had calls from Ridley Scott, Robert Redford and Spielberg.” The calls led to “Schindler’s List”, which made Fiennes’s name, and “Quiz Show”, his first leading role in a film, and then came “The English Patient”, which turned him into a heart-throb—Lawrence with a whiff of Rhett Butler. In four years he had made three major movies: a Shakespearean actor, known only to the cognoscenti, was now an international star.

Today, aged 47, Fiennes is no longer considered A-list by Hollywood. “He’s not hot,” says one studio executive. “Someone like Liam Neeson has a far more commercial sensibility in the films he takes on. Fiennes is a thesp.” The occasional shot at the mass market has backfired on him: “I felt completely lost as that Cary Grant type in ‘Maid in Manhattan’,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do.” But in roles that call for a transformation Fiennes is superb—never more so than as the disconcertingly fleshy, sadistic SS officer in “Schindler’s List”. “It freed him,” says Peter Eyre, who played Polonius to Fiennes’s Hamlet. “He wasn’t a romantic lead: he had to find something else. Olivier was said to be a character actor in the body of a matinée idol, and the same may be true of Ralph.”

To watch Fiennes’s films back to back is to be struck by his range, whether as the tatterdemalion clergyman in “Oscar and Lucinda” or the murmuring vagrant in David Cronenberg’s “Spider”. In 2008 he was both a foul-mouthed East End villain (“In Bruges”) and an 18th-century duke in “The Duchess”—an unforgettable depiction of an aristocrat whose chilly reserve masked a core of compassion. In “Bernard and Doris” (2006), an HBO film little-known outside America, he was a transvestite, alcoholic Irish butler. It would have been easy to ham, but Fiennes gave Bernard a quiet dignity, edging to decadence in tentative gradations.

“Ralph has made very specific choices,” says Juliette Binoche, his co-star in his first film, “Wuthering Heights”, and again in “The English Patient”. “He’s not part of the system, he hasn’t moved to Hollywood. He’s decided to follow his soul.” That soul keeps leading Fiennes back to the theatre. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” he says. “Theatre gives you an arena for emoting that film ultimately can’t compete with—that sense of something connecting in the room.”

In spring 2008, when I began shadowing him for this profile, Fiennes was appearing in Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage”, which brought out his seldom-seen comedic side, and one afternoon, on the play’s suburban-sitting-room set, I watched him rehearse a Beckett monologue, “First Love”, for a show in New York. The director was Michael Colgan of the Gate, Dublin, a self-proclaimed “Beckett missionary” who became friends with Fiennes through this shared enthusiasm. “Beckett has a strong sense of irony and self-deprecation, and Ralph gets  that,” says Colgan, who often chuckled at a wry twist of a line. With his Irish lilt and intimate, sometimes daringly sotto delivery, Fiennes made an unfamiliar text enthralling. It was like overhearing his thoughts. But his next role was Oedipus at the National Theatre—the most daunting challenge of his career—and I was intrigued to see whether this master of understatement could make Sophocles’s eruptions of horror work for an audience today.

When Olivier was Oedipus, his “vast anguish” resounded, Kenneth Tynan said, in the dome of the theatre (“Some stick of wood must still, I feel, be throbbing from it”). Fiennes, who can be too analytical in his approach, knew he would have to “find the courage to take the lid off”. Juliette Binoche, then appearing at the National in an uncompromising dance piece, could identify with this. “You have to reach a no-limit area. If he doesn’t go that far, I’ll be disappointed.”

Fiennes’s director on “Oedipus” was Jonathan Kent, a close friend, who had already directed his Hamlet, Coriolanus and Richard II. “What’s interesting about Ralph is Ralph, and these plays are examinations of him. What they elicit —'Oedipus’ in particular—is a savage and pitiless look at the self.” It took years of getting to know each other, Kent says, for their artistic relationship to flourish. “The first rehearsals were like fences coming down, and then a shorthand, a trust just grew.” Fiennes values the freedom Kent gives him, though pinning him down to a definitive delivery of a line can be a challenge. “You have to let him play, but Ralph can be quite contrary: if you say ‘That’s terrific!’ he’ll never do it again. To repeat it would seem like cheating.”

In a National rehearsal room in August, Fiennes was called with Jasper Britton, cast as Creon, and the Chorus, a group of veteran actors, half-singing their lines. He and Kent discussed what they represent to Oedipus. “He appeals to them, he cajoles them,” Fiennes said. “It’s as if they’re a sounding board for his soul.” Even on the side, waiting his turn, he was magnetic. Everyone else in the room looked ordinary—I could imagine Jasper Britton mowing the lawn on a Sunday—but Fiennes, with a shaven head and the remnants of an Umbrian tan, prowled like a predator. He broke into weird, slow-motion exercises learnt from a girlfriend, an Israeli dancer. “I get very tense and this is good for me,” he told me in the bar afterwards. “Everything has to be very loose,” he said, arms flailing like boiling spaghetti.

Three weeks later, rehearsing with Claire Higgins (playing Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta), Fiennes began in film mode—rigorously natural, voicing confidences that make the listener feel voyeuristic. The volume rose with Oedipus’s fears, the line “Not yet, not yet” acquiring a chilling, hysterical edge. A second attempt was toned down a few shades, and a third was almost euphoric. His sister Sophie Fiennes, a film-maker, says he was still experimenting three days before “Oedipus” opened. “Over dinner, Ralph recited from the beginning of the final act, and it was shattering.” But at the preview I saw in October, he was not sustaining the climax. Blinded and bloodied, Oedipus demands raw, almost expressionistic emotion from an actor, and offers no props to hide behind. Fiennes, crawling on a table, was like a primordial creature, and yet somehow histrionic, unmoving. I wondered later whether the gauze and red paint covering those eyes—his most powerful instrument—were shackling him. His delivery was uncharacteristic: it came from the page, not from the heart.

In his dressing-room afterwards, wrapped from the waist down in a red towel and pouring Krug for his guests but not for himself, Fiennes was downcast about his performance and the response from what his agent called a “Mondayish” audience. “The Olivier’s an intimidating theatre for a standing ovation,” the agent ventured. Fiennes looked unconvinced.

The reviews were mostly complimentary, but Fiennes read only one, which wasn’t —the Observer, which found his portrayal empty and external, “Oedipus simple” rather than complex. “He’s been in a depression ever since,” Jonathan Kent told me. And yet Fiennes was aware of what he calls “the curse” of a first night, which is rarely the ultimate interpretation. “It moves and mutates,” he had written in Areté magazine in 2000. “Some nights it’s flat, uninspired; the next night too energised, too relentless, other nights everything is in harmony.” This proved true when I returned late in the run. Now Fiennes’s fear was palpable, with a physical language of agony, like a Bacon painting; his barely audible “Not yet, not yet” sparking the ineffable shiver released by a great performance. The audience was silent, drawn into the moment, but at the end let rip with whoops and whistles, recalling the cast on stage again and again. Sophie Fiennes went twice and said that one performance was the most extraordinary she had ever seen. “It was not acting, it was being. It was a leap of faith, like jumping from one building to another. Ralph had dared to enter that state. Afterwards I told him, ‘Jini’s certainly gone to heaven now!’ Because she would have loved the play, she would have loved his courage on that night.”

Jini was their mother. Jennifer Lash was the driving force of the family, a motivator for each of her seven children as well as a novelist in her own right. For Sophie, her presence was too powerful, and it was only after her death that she started making films: “I felt I wasn’t being watched.” For Ralph, Jini was a twin soul, a huge influence, the person who instilled a passion for language and inspired him to be an actor. Three of his signature roles—Hamlet, Oedipus and Coriolanus—are all, a family friend says, “reprises of his relationship with Jini”.

Jini grew up in India, where her father was stationed, and Ralph remembers being shown photograph albums “full of Raj things like tiger hunts and polo matches”. His grandfather was an army officer with a typical colonial wife, who never fully adjusted to the letdown of their return to England, declaring, “I clapped my hands for the first half of my life and used them for the second!” They had four children, all highly intelligent; one son became a theologian. Jennifer, although clever, felt at odds with her siblings, having what Ralph calls “the plunging imagination of the artist, with no analysis”. She was prone to histrionic outbursts and was nicknamed “Sarah Bernhardt” by her mother—who Jennifer said was incapable of love. But there may have been a more sinister explanation for the hysteria. An unfinished play, drawing on her upbringing, includes an incestuous episode between a father and daughter, which Ralph believes is based on fact. “My mother never discussed it, but she would infer it. The story goes that she had a meltdown one day, and a Catholic priest was brought in, and finally they took her away.” Jennifer, who was 16, never went back home. Years later, when she met the writer Dodie Smith, she said she rarely heard a telephone ring without hoping it would bring news of her parents’ death.

At 17, she took a job as an au pair in Suffolk, to the three adopted sons of Iris Birtwistle, a grande dame who had been a literary It Girl, writing lyric poetry and developing a passion for art. Her gallery was an incubator for young talent, and she sold drawings by David Hockney when he was unknown. Spotting Jennifer’s potential, Birtwistle took it upon herself to heal and educate her; she renamed her Jini and sent her to a Jungian analyst, who said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.” This instilled a tangible confidence, and Iris saw “a beauty come through”, along with a hunger for anything creative. Jini devoured the books in Iris’s library, and, while working in the gallery, discovered a talent of her own for painting. At 21, she wrote her first novel, “The Burial”, a cathartic interior monologue about her childhood, dedicated to Iris.