Don't worry, Ralph, you'll be all right : ARTS

That was what Robert Butler said to a former colleague when they last met. It was two years ago, and Ralph Fiennes, like so many actors, was out of work. Now he's on the verge of superstardom
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THIS SPRING, at a multiplex near you, Ralph Fiennes will play the central character in Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford. At the same time, on stage at the Hackney Empire, Ralph Fiennes will play the central character in Hamlet, directed by Jo nathanKent. A Hollywood lead and a Shakespeare lead: Fiennes has the dream ticket. At 32, he is making a strong claim to be the leading actor of his generation.

I knew Fiennes when he was at the National Theatre in 1987. He was 24. ln those days a number of directors ran their own companies. Fiennes was one of the actors in Michael Rudman's company, and I was Rudman's assistant. We were doing three plays.

It was in the first week of rehearsals for the first of the three - Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author - that Rudman told me Ralph Fiennes was "going to go all the way". It wasn't his talent that prompted the remark so much as his homework. Most people had got as far as running the highlighter over their lines and looking at the costume designs pinned up on the wall. Fiennes had read Six Characters in four different versions.

He was a private, willowy figure, rather like a young priest. His hair fell either side of his deep-set eyes and he had a quick, anxious smile. He was not one of the boys, but his shy polite manner could give way to sudden bursts of earnestness. Unsually, he could talk about the whole play, not just his own part. One night in the Green Room bar he leant across the table and told me how much he had been thinking about God.

He'd been to schools in Kilkenny and Salisbury, then gone on a Found-ation Course at Chelsea Art School. He gave that up to go to Rada. There was nothing academic in his ap-proach - none of the knowingness of the graduate. If you made a flip remark, he looked worried. At Rada his contemporaries included Jane Horrocks and Iain Glen. In a way, he was very Rada. He won the Kendal award, the Forbes-Robertson award, the Emile Littler award, and a reputation, in the words of one contemporary, as "

The Voice Beautiful".

It would be lovely now to have seen him in the parts he did before the National: running around in the vicar farce See How They Run at Theatr Clywd or performing in Me Mam Sez, Don Quixote and Cloud Nine at Oldham. He'd played Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. It was standard juve-lead stuff.

At the National the parts were more unusual. He was the tortured recalcitrant Son in Six Characters In Search of an Author, boiling over with petulance. He was Arkady, the innocent enthusiastic friend of the revolutionary Bazarov in Brian Friel's adaptation of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. And he was Lisha Ball, a slow, suspicious Cornish tin-miner in Nick Darke's Ting Tang Mine. It was a good range and by the end of the year you felt you had seen what Fiennes could do.

Fast forward seven years. Schind-ler's List opens and Fiennes is de-scribed as "a discovery as exciting as the young Brando". lt's an odd aspect of talent that it can be "discovered" at any stage of an actor's career. In 1987 there were eight or 10 actors in the company as skilful as Fiennes and the company was only one of seven in the building. He had the looks, the voice and the intelligence. But so did others. And they didn't all have the same tendency to overdo the emotion. To pull the choke out toofar. At times you knew he was acting.

To watch him, then, early last year, when Schindler's List was released - with his new podgy cheeks and roll of fat round his stomach, lifting a cigarette off the balcony ledge with his mouth, then taking a pot-shot at a Jew in the labour camp, and then using the same rifle to do back exercises - was to find him unrecognisable. The tremulous emotionalism had gone. There wasn't a moment when the actor peeked through from behind the character. It would have been horribly easy to mess up playing a SS commandant. But Fiennes's character was soaked through with understated detail. Whether he was sneezing, sneering, pissing, stretching, swearing or merely clicking his fingers, he was always personally preoccupied. His human traits kept pulling us in just ashis inhuman ones repelled us. He had gone all the way.

He did it in stages, of course. His first film was a flop. He was Heath-cliff (opposite Juliette Binoche) in a remake of Wuthering Heights. He was Lawrence of Arabia in a TV film about the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. There were chatty articles in thepress asking if he was the new Olivier or the new O'Toole. Then he was up for James Bond. Was he the new Roger Moore? It was second-hand, second-rate publicity.

Four years at the RSC gave him the roles and the time to mature: Henry VI in Adrian Noble's Plantagenets, Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost, Troilus in Troilus and Cressida and Edmund in King Lear. Here he gave a new twist to an old story by marrying Cordelia (Alex Kingston). On past form his Hamlet may be stronger on sexual revulsion and the pale cast of thought than wit.

I saw him again a couple of years ago, when he had finished with the RSC. He was sitting in a cafe at World's End, Chelsea. He'd just been to the matinee of Six Degrees of Separation at the Royal Court. After a couple of minutes' gossip there was the crunch question. What was he doing next? He didn't know. Come on, he must be doing something? No, he said, he wasn't. His eyes darted uncomfortably. It was that familiar uncertainty. The look of anyone whose tax return is Schedule D.

"Don't worry," I said, "something will turn up." He shrugged and ummed and erred. He didn't know about that. There was a moment of embarrassment. "Course it will," I said, "You'll be all right."

Walking down the King's Road, I thought, maybe he won't. Maybe he's just another good-looking actor with a nice voice. But too English. Too pale. Too posh. Maybe he'll be waiting at table, seeing mates in other shows and writing "remember me?" letters toOldham and Clywd.

Next thing I heard he was in the new Spielberg.

`Hamlet' opens 17 Feb, Hackney Empire, 071-312 1995. `Quiz Show' opens 24 Feb.