Interview Ralph Fiennes

He’s one of cinema’s finest actors – now, if only Ralph Fiennes can stop landing himself in the gossip columns. lends a sympathetic ear.

You wouldn’t think it, to look at him.

Those searing blue eyes, the loyal servant smile, the impeccable manners. Oh, and the ability to quietly act everyone around him off the screen.

Yep, Ralph Fiennes is perhaps cinema’s greatest living English gent.

Sure, he can play the psycho pretty darn well (think Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort; In Bruges’ Harry Waters; Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List; eh, Victor Quartermaine in Wallace & Gromit In The Curse of The Were-Rabbit), but you always felt Ralph Fiennes was merely flexing his considerable acting muscles in such roles. Having just scared the bejasus out of the boy wizard, you imagined Fiennes would invite that little wooden actor, Daniel Radcliffe, round his trailer for some tea and hot, piping scones.

On the other hand, it was always easier to believe that playing the likes of Count Laszio de Almasy in The English Patient, Charles Von Doren in Quiz Show, Maurice Bendrix in The End Of The Affair or Justin Quayle in The Constant Gardener wasn’t exactly a stretch. That these good eggs were far closer in spirit to the real Ralph Fiennes. Cinema’s Greatest Living English Gent.

So, what’s all this about getting it on in the lav with a Quantas stewardess on a long-haul flight last year? Or the, eh, reported fivesome in a Belgium hotel swimming pool last summer? In Bruges, of course.

As my mum always says, it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to look out for.

“It is funny how people have a perception about you as an actor, based on the roles you’ve played on screen,” nods the 45-year old actor, when I dared to mention his recent tabloid woes. “Worse, it’s the perception people can get about you as an actor by the nonsense they read in the press. I’ve always tried to keep myself to myself, but, you know, that’s something that has become increasingly difficult in these times…”

These times being the Age Of Celebrity, when every little thing they do is magic. At least, as far as the media world is concerned. Stars are wonderful, because they are people we can look up to, and down on, often at the same time.

If the great philosopher and chesticle-jiggler Jordan goes out to buy a banana, it’ll make the morning papers. That’s the kind of world Ralph Fiennes has to live in now.

Of course, the morning papers prefer it when a celebrity – let’s say, ooh, Amy Winehouse – actually goes bananas. Or wiles away a long-haul flight by getting it on with a sexy stewardess in the crapper.

Randy old Ralph is right though – these are increasingly difficult times for your damn fine actors. There was a time, not too long ago, when the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino could go about their daily business without having a jigsaw of that day appear – courtesy of a thousand paparazzi snaps – on the internet the following day.

What’s a great actor to do? Well, just get on with acting seems like an obvious choice, and so it proves with dear Ralph. The man’s got five movies headed our way this year. Six, if the latest Potter outing, The Half-Blood Prince, hadn’t just been moved from November 2007 to July 2008.

Earlier this year, Fiennes was the East End gangster kingpin out to shoot a little sense into foot soldiers Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. Now, he’s stealing the show once again in The Duchess, the big-screen adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s book, Georgiana, Duchess Of Devonshire.

Fiennes plays the Duke Of Devonshire to Keira Knightley’s Georgiana, and he’s blessed with all the best lines. Maybe it’s just the way he says ’em?

“I think Keira does a remarkable job here,” says Fiennes. “She’s one of our best young actresses, but, probably because she’s so pretty, she tends to get dragged down by the media. Who would rather concentrate on how she smiles. Or where she eats at the weekend.”

Or whether or not she does actually eat at the weekend.

If you look closely at The Duchess, you’ll spot Ralph’s niece, Mercy Fiennes Tiffin, daughter of the actor’s filmmaking sister, Martha, and her hubby, cinematographer George Tiffin. Unfortunately, Mercy’s brothers, Titan and Hero, didn’t get a role, but the latter does turn up as the young Tom Riddle (aka the young Voldermort) in The Half-Blood Prince. Throw in former Hollywood hopeful, Joseph (star of Shakespeare In Love, and most recently seen in the Dublin-shot thriller, The Escapist), and you’ve got yourself an acting dynasty.

“It’s fun to have various members of the family join the trade,” smiles Ralph, the eldest of six siblings, “but it’s not like we sit around plotting how to get work for one another. It’s a very natural process, and, thankfully, some are smart enough not to get involved in filmmaking at all.”

Others such as Jacob, who’s a conservationist, and foster brother Michael, who’s an archaeologist. Magnus Fiennes is a composer, whilst Sophie is, yep, a filmmaker. All six spent some time living in West Cork and County Kilkenny, farmer and photographer dad, Mark Fiennes, and writer mum, Jennifer Lash, moving the family to Ireland in 1973. The fuse had been lit when Pa Fiennes got a job photographing a house here.

“We lived in Ireland for three years,” explains Ralph, “living for about eighteen months in West Cork, and then we moved to Kilkenny. I have very strong memories of swimming in Dunmanus Bay, and going out in the boat with my father, fishing for mackarel. And building our house there. And also in Kilkenny; I went to St. Kieran’s College for a year…”

Fiennes has been back to Ireland many times since those childhood years, recently taking the lead in Brian Friel’s The Faith Healer at the Gate. Currently rehearsing for the stage, is that where Ralph Fiennes feels most comfortable?

“I don’t think it’s a case of feeling more comfortable in one arena or the next,” he answers. “Each job, each location, each setting, has its own particular challenges, and its own particular rewards. I couldn’t say that one was better than the other.”

Either way, there’s no denying that Ralph Fiennes the actor has to take into consideration that he’s now Ralph Fiennes the star. People’s expectations shift when an actor is famous. The turning point for this particular actor was Schindler’s List, Fiennes’ portrayal of the Nazi concentration camp commandent earning him an Academy Award nomination, and a BAFTA win back in 1994. His Amon Goeth also made it onto the American Film Institute’s Top 50 Movie Villains. Did Fiennes know at the time that this was a role that would change his life?

“It was a very weird time, because that film, the response was extraordinary,” he answers. “Everyone involved – the key cast, and obviously, Steven – got swept up in this very emotional whirlwind of attention, and positive response, enthusiastic response to the film. It was extraordinary, and a little scary, as well as being uplifting and exciting.


“But I think twelve, fourteen years down the line, I know a little bit about the way Hollywood shifts and changes, and the incoming wave and the outgoing wave. You know, when you’re hot, you’re hot, and when you’re not, you’re not, all that.

“I wanted to be an actor because I love theatre. Actually, I love Shakespeare. I just think the language of Shakespeare, and the characters of Shakespeare – the pyschology of the characters – are so continuously fascinating and exciting, and I love what theatre can be at its best. I think it’s extraordinary, and when I go back to the theatre, it’s very grounding, and it’s also being up in front of an audience, there’s something very real about it.”


Words : Paul Byrne


The Duchess’ is at Irish Cinemas from September 5th