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'Mum hid nothing, it makes you responsible as a child'

His performances in The Master Builder and Richard III enraptured the critics. Off stage, Ralph Fiennes is no less intriguing. He tells Charlotte Edwardes why his need to control comes from growing up in a turbulent family in Ireland and about his fear of disappointing people

If Ralph Fiennes was a character in a play, these tiny details would have weight: his iPhone screensaver is the graveyard where his father is buried, his bedroom walls are exposed brick, he orders a plate of spinach with his burger and chips but leaves it, the first three buttons of his shirt are undone. When he enters the room, dressed for the weather in a smart check coat, he stands stock-still so that I'm forced to walk all the way to him to shake his hand. On stage, would that indicate shyness or control?

Of course, the complicated Fiennes is not a character, he is an actor and so who knows if these quirks have bearing. Although one thing is telling: when he first sits, it's all the way down at the other end of a long sofa and it's only with coaxing ('Closer. Little bit closer still') that I persuade him to bump up. Even then he mumbles so that some words are lost on the tape.

Interviews make him "uncomfortable", "reluctant", "guarded" and "wary". So why not act? But he doesn't. He's hunched, eyes roving, hands constantly in motion, whether massaging his great shag of beard or meeting each other in a papery fondle. His silences would make Pinter fidget (the longest between question and answer is 37 drawn-out seconds).

On stage or on screen, he can be anyone, anything. He has a range so elastic it goes to the psychopathic reaches of Commandant Amon Göth in Schindler's List (for which he was Oscar-nominated) to the tripping-foppish romantic lead Christopher Marshall in Maid in Manhattan (in which he starred opposite Jennifer Lopez).

Then three years ago, Wes Anderson cast him as a camp and moustached Monsieur Gustave H. in the sumptuous farce The Grand Budapest Hotel. "And people said: 'He can be funny!'" Fiennes says dryly, "and parts such as Laurence Laurentz in Hail, Caesar! and Harry Hawkes in A Bigger Splash were offered. Lovely parts." Which surprised Fiennes as much as anyone "because before that, I was not exactly bombarded with comedies".

The tempo change in his work is timely. Fiennes "didn't much want to" inhabit the mindless violence of his darker characters any more. "You have to go to weird places in your head and - well you can never say never - but after an SS commandant, a serial killer in Red Dragon and Voldemort (in Harry Potter), I decided I didn't want to be that definition of evil any more. If you play those parts, I feel you have to put your head in the place of that person. And it f**ks with your head." (After a bit, he concedes that if "Voldemort came round again, I would feel possessive... protective. I would like to not let that go.")

His character in A Bigger Splash is a boundary-less music producer chasing Tilda Swinton's portrayal of a Chrissie Hynde-like rock chick to an Italian island where she is recovering from a throat operation with her new boyfriend. Filming was "fun" he says, before confiding that Sir Elton John complimented his performance, "and he knows those types of music producers. So I felt that was… good. Because it's not a world I really know. My brother Magnus is a composer and gave me some insights. It's a specific world. Those long recording sessions, people taking all kinds of substances." What Fiennes (53) plans is more directing - he both acted in and directed Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman - which he describes as "more than fulfilling, I found it answered some part of me".

"Another part of my brain opened up, another part of my spirit. Someone described directing as being pecked to death by questions," he says. "But I liked being in the driving seat. It's stressful but I do enjoy it."

His current project ("I am still trying to pull together the finances to make it") is about Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian ballet dancer, and his defection from the USSR in 1961. He won't act in this, he says, because it makes it easier if you're concentrating on one thing. "But I don't want to stop being an actor," he adds. "I loved being in the plays recently I feel that - it's a cliché - but my roots are there on stage. I feel rooted."

I ask Fiennes if he leads an unconventional life and he says he does, but also checks to see what I mean. "I do not want a picture-postcard family life, no. Definitely not." He lives in bachelor-pad splendour in a converted upholsterer's workshop "down the road" from where we're sitting in Shoreditch. "It's finished," he insists, "but it's exposed brick. The bathroom has white plaster."

There's a gym nearby, and he stays "fit generally, with various different things, including yoga". He's not particularly vain about having to strip naked for a role, he says, although, "I guess if you know that the camera is going to be on you, a bit of you likes to feel you look okay, but there's a point where you have to accept that's who you are".

He is known to be utterly absorbed by his work and he confirms that his extra-curricular stuff revolves around it. He goes to the theatre. He prefers to see friends "one to one", he's not a particular fan of parties, and holidays in Italy and the South of France. For a bit, he learned Russian and he reacts to a question about whether he still paints (he went to Chelsea College of Arts before transferring to RADA) as if he's suddenly been reminded of something he's been meaning to do for ages. "I've stopped painting. Drawing. I sort of think I should... I don't know why I've neglected it."

For Christmas, he "usually - often" goes to New York, where he has an apartment. Three years ago was his last family Christmas. "Mostly because my brother Joseph (also an actor) generously invited us all. It was great." Has he not been invited back since? He laughs. "There's not been an invitation forthcoming since, no." They didn't have turkey, he assures me, "but a less conventional ham".

"Anxiety-slash-fear-of-failure" and "of disappointing people" is a major spur in his life, as well as his desire to control. "I try not to be, but I'm very controlling. I don't like it, but I am." He happily admits to lining up possessions and turning labels on jars in his cupboards outwards. "I can't help it. It's almost a fault to be always so precise," he says. Luckily he has a cleaner.

"I function better if I think everything seems to be in order. I know," he adds, "it doesn't really have order. I guess the surface quality has its absolute equal in the other side, so there's a bit of me that craves chaos and disorder." He says this "absolutely" derives from growing up in a turbulent household (he has five siblings and the family moved 14 times in 15 years). "It's a way of protecting myself from chaos and the threat of mess, spillage, s**t."

The Fiennes children - as has been well-documented - had a rather wonderful, imaginative, active upbringing that was both rural, free and disciplined, with an emphasis on arts. Ralph was the eldest and his siblings include Martha (a director), Magnus (who is in the music business), Sophie (a film-maker) and twins Joseph and Jacob (a conservationist). They have a fostered brother - Michael Emery - who is an archaeologist. When they moved to rural Ireland in 1973, their father Mark - a farmer and later photographer - built a house and they were home-schooled by their mother 'Jini', the author and painter Jennifer Lash. She enlisted a retired army captain to teach them Latin. Arithmetic was taught by an American banker from Washington State, who was living "off-grid" with his wife nearby. "It felt like an exciting time because we weren't at school," he reflects. "But then it got too much for my mother." Could she cope with six children? "No. It was hard for her. She wanted to write, and before she married my dad, she published two books, two novels."

He has talked about being "in the frontline of her pain" as the first born, and also of her "emotional fragility". "She was always someone who was quite volatile emotionally. She'd cry. She'd raise her voice. But I can also see her being full of laughter, giggling, teasing, and being incredibly supportive and loving. I have a sense now - I'm a bit more grown up - of the frustration she must've had: you want to paint, you want to write a book, but the children, their cares, their presence their needs and desires have to be met. I can see it's a big issue for many women who want to be mothers who also have the thing they want to do. It is very hard.

"My mother never hid anything. In a way, it makes you quite responsible (as a child). Their problems were our problems: 'We have no money, we don't know what to do, we'll have to sell this, we'll have to go there.' Or in those explosive moments, when it's all too much, she would say: 'Why do we have so many children?' in front of us.'

His parents, who are both now deceased, weren't keen on television, but "going to the cinema was always a treat". The first film he watched was Bambi followed by Olivier's Henry V. "My father took me to James Bond. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rollerball. It was fun. You could smoke in the cinema in those days and I remember the stony-faced lady in a booth who sold tickets."

He unquestionably holds his mother up as a guiding light in his life, and his father "who smelt of the earth and the outside" and was "very good with his hands".

Clothes-wise, he was 'punk-ish' but didn't conform to any real trend. At art school, he was more of a purist in paint-splattered trousers and lace-up boots than someone who expressed themselves through fashion.

The impression he gives is of an awkward, shy, gauche boy with a quiet confidence, although not always around women. "I was definitely interested in girls. And like many other boys, you grope and fumble your way to sexual confidence and an ability to express those feeling, urges and passions - having them but not always being able to know how to follow through on them."

He chuckles at the memory of the "brilliant awkwardness, that moment of elation when someone likes you and then your self doubt! But it's not just sexual intimacy, emotional, human intimacy too: how to talk to people, how to listen, how to be".

And then apropos of nothing, he describes his perfect woman: "This sounds a bit clunky but I'm always attracted to... I like being with women who are quite strong and seem to come from a sense of knowing themselves, that sit in who they are with confidence, and can be quite confrontational - even aggressive. I've always found that very attractive. It's confidence. Their sense of their purpose."

He trails off. Fiennes doesn't liked to be probed on his "personal life", perhaps because he spent a good chunk of his early career being ogled for having an older girlfriend (Francesca Annis) for whom he'd left a younger wife (Alex Kingston). For a while, he was 'papped' with women who may or may not have been girlfriends.

My understanding is that he indulges in a bit of advanced dating, but he has stated in the past that he doesn't want to be in a relationship again. Does he get lonely? "I think loneliness is quite good for people. To confront who you are; time for thinking and confronting and accepting. I don't feel I'm lonely. I like being alone."

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