Ralph Fiennes: I like to play tortured souls

In person, is charming, easy-going and every inch the perfect English gentleman. But put him on stage and it's all hellfire, searing intensity and funny foreign accents. So where does that come from? Brian Viner meets the enigmatic actor
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The Independent Culture

The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Row F. It is 7.32pm on a balmy evening in May. Ralph Fiennes is making his entrance in the Ibsen play, Brand, and a middle-aged woman, who has previously been relaxedly chatting to her neighbour, sits forward and visibly stiffens. She remains like this until the interval, when she becomes sufficiently limp to consume a tub of strawberry ice cream. But when the lights go down for Act II, she stiffens again, as though electrified.

The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Row F. It is 7.32pm on a balmy evening in May. Ralph Fiennes is making his entrance in the Ibsen play, Brand, and a middle-aged woman, who has previously been relaxedly chatting to her neighbour, sits forward and visibly stiffens. She remains like this until the interval, when she becomes sufficiently limp to consume a tub of strawberry ice cream. But when the lights go down for Act II, she stiffens again, as though electrified.

There are several possible explanations for this. One: she is a fan of the comedian Jo Brand, and thought that a show called Brand would be a one-woman performance of jokes about premenstrual tension and what bastards men are.

Two: she is an Ibsen devotee.

Three: she is a Ralph Fiennes devotee. As keen as I am to entertain the first possibility, the second or third, or a combination of the two, seem more likely. Not that Fiennes is at his dishiest as Brand, the fiercely moralistic Lutheran pastor. It is not a dishy part. But he is very, very good in it.

Across the road from the Swan Theatre, in the Royal Shakespeare Company press office. It is 5.30pm several days later, and Fiennes, slighter than he appears on stage and screen, is sitting opposite me in a small room. Having interviewed lots of actors, I, of course, know better than to confuse the frankly terrifying Brand with Fiennes himself, but, all the same, it comes as a surprise, especially knowing that the metamorphosis is just a couple of hours away, to find an engagingly gentle, genial sort of chap.

I tell him that I have read him quoted in a previous interview as saying that unlike some actors, he does not "take his characters home". As he has recently played a schizophrenic in the David Cronenberg film Spider, and a cannibalistic serial killer in the film Red Dragon, to say nothing of Brand, this, I venture, is just as well.

He smiles. "Well, no, I'm not Brand 24 hours a day. But I do think a lot about the parts I play while I'm scrambling eggs. And I am preoccupied with this one, which is a huge part. The danger of it is that he could become a ranting, finger-wagging pedagogue. I have tried to find a sense of vulnerability."

We'll come back to Brand, a little-performed but intriguing play, written in 1865 and provoked, in part, by Ibsen's anger at the failure of Norway and Sweden to support Denmark in its 1864 war with Germany over Schleswig-Holstein. But first things first. Biting the face of a tabloid journalist, as his character did in Red Dragon... was it satisfying?

After all, the tabloids took a prurient delight in his affair with the actress Francesca Annis, which finished off his marriage to the actress Alex Kingston, their interest further inflamed by the fact that Annis is 18 years his senior and that they met when she played his mother – Gertrude to his Hamlet. Moreover, tabloid speculation has dogged him since, most recently when he was seen dining with Jennifer Lopez, his co-star in Maid in Manhattan. He must have sometimes felt like, if not biting their faces off, at least punching their lights out?

"Well, actually no, I didn't find it satisfying. It was an unpleasant scene, and Philip Seymour Hoffman [who played the luckless hack] was so brilliant at being terrified. But I do despise the tabloid press, I really do, both here and in New York, although the British tabloids were particularly unpleasant when my relationship with Francesca became public six or seven years ago.

"But, of course, I don't get nearly as much attention as some, the Beckhams, for example. And these things pass. Really, the worst thing to do is get defensive or self-justifying, because it only serves their purposes. The thing to do is to treat them with contempt and move on, because there are more important things... and it's only one's vanity and ego that's been affected. I might read something I don't like, but then I find that other people haven't even read it. I pick up the phone to one of my brothers or sisters and say, 'I'm really upset about this', and they say, 'What's that? I haven't read it'.''

Fiennes, 40, is the eldest of six. Martha is a film and video director, Magnus a composer, Sophie a photographer, Joseph an actor (best known for playing the title role in Shakespeare In Love), and Jacob a gamekeeper. Their father Mark is a photographer, and their late mother Jini was a painter, novelist and travel writer. A cousin, Sir Ranulph, is an explorer. They are quite a bunch, and yet frightfully English and middle class about it all, at least if Ralph – pronounced in the old English way, of course, to rhyme with "chafe" – is anything to go by.

The sheer Englishness of him is ironic when you consider that his most celebrated performances, on screen at any rate, have been as foreigners: the Hungarian Count Laszlo de Almasy in The English Patient; the American patrician Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show; and the monstrous commandant Amon Goeth in Schindler's List, the 1993 film that propelled him to an Oscar nomination and stardom.

I ask him whether he was worried, when Schindler's List was released, that his life was about to change.

"I was actually very naive about it. I knew that a Spielberg film would have an enormous public profile, but it was a very strange time, because the success of the film coincided with the death of my mother. It was a time of distress and grief, and then there was this other thing happening, the Oscar buzz. Quite disorienting."

Although very ill, Jini Fiennes lived to see Schindler's List, and perhaps died knowing that her eldest child, already a whizz with the RSC, was on the verge of becoming a movie star. Not that it would have mattered to her. By all accounts, it was effort rather than achievement that she tried to foster in her children: "Put your guts into it," was her constant refrain, however trivial the exercise.

She would be proud of his performance in Brand, to which he commits both his guts and his soul. I ask him whether he is religious. "No, no, I'm not a practising anything. But my mother's side of the family includes priests and professors of theology, so I grew up with God being a subject that no one was frightened to talk about, even if they didn't believe in him.

"My mother's uncle is a Benedictine monk, actually, and a theologian and a poet. He's called Sebastian Moore, and is quite well known, and gives wonderful sermons at christenings, weddings and funerals. He's unpredictable, cutting-edge. I'm dying for him to see this."

During the rehearsals for Brand, another theologian was drafted in to talk Lutheranism to the cast. But Fiennes used the biography of Ibsen by Michael Meyer (whose translation this production uses) as his main source of reference.

"And I came to realise that Brand really is a version of Ibsen, repressed, but with huge compassion under this taut, not instinctively generous nature. Brand gives these big speeches, and Ibsen did that, too, but in his cups, late at night. He certainly felt great anger over Schleswig-Holstein."

Can he relate to that, I wonder. I can't imagine that he was gung-ho for the invasion of Iraq. Does he perhaps feel betrayed by the leader of his country, as Ibsen did?

A long pause. "I have never," he says, "felt so unnerved by anything as I did by this war. I found it very unsettling. I don't trust President Bush, and I'm very disappointed in Tony Blair. But I'm very wary about exploiting my public profile for political reasons. I vote – I have voted twice for Labour – but I'm not an overtly political animal."

Another pause. "I was making Spider on September 11, shooting in Toronto, and my immediate response was, yes, it's appalling, yes, something must be done, but why are these people this angry? Why are people suicide bombers? We must stop them, of course, but why do they do it?"

Maybe, I suggest, this is the actor in him, needing to find the deep-seated motivation for a character's terrible actions?

"Yes, in Schindler's List, I had to know why men were like this." Here, Fiennes grits his lovely white teeth and narrows his lovely blue eyes. It's a fleeting but slightly scary change of demeanour. "Why did they join the SS in the 1930s? Because of their anger, their huge anger at their country's emasculation, their huge sense of humiliation... not that I'm justifying or condoning it, of course not."

Of course not. In the meantime, we have reached one of The Questions. There are two questions contained in virtually all interviews with Fiennes, and he doesn't like either of them, and one of them I'm not going to bother with. That's the one about the age difference between him and Annis and whether it ever gives him pause for thought (it doesn't).

The other is the one about tortured souls. So, here goes: so many of his characters exhibit signs of inner torment... is he particularly drawn to those parts, and if so, why? He sighs. "This terrible label, 'tortured souls'. I think most people are wrestling with something... it's really about dramatising the choices we're all making, but pushed to a greater level to make them drama. I like to play tortured souls with a sense of purpose, like Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda, this quirky priest with a peculiar inner conviction. That's why I was drawn to Brand, because he has this extraordinary vision that, at its best, inspires people."

The actor Simon Russell Beale once said of Fiennes that, more than most in their profession, he seems to sense the importance of acting. I don't want to back him into Pseud's Corner, but does he think that there is some truth in that?

"Well, I like to feel the energy behind what people do, whether they are architects, painters, or other actors. What inspired me to act was seeing Paul Scofield playing Salieri in the play Amadeus. I felt that thing of the goose bumps, you know. And it happened again when I saw Judi Dench as Cleopatra.

"As a punter, I love it when one's imagination is deeply affected, and in Brand, it's wonderful to feel on some nights that we have taken the audience on a journey. I don't know how important that is, but it's wonderful that some people come out feeling terribly moved... and I guess some people come out feeling nothing."

It must have been gratifying, I add, that his youthful inspiration, Paul Scofield, wound up playing his father in Quiz Show. "Oh, I couldn't believe it. He was cast quite late on, after we had started filming, and I couldn't believe it. My mother had gone to the theatre a lot, and spoken to me a lot about Scofield, and I had seen him as King Lear, and in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National Theatre." Did he tell the great man of his admiration? "I think I did, actually, rather sheepishly."

It is not hard to think of Fiennes being sheepish; a slight reticence is part of his considerable charm. He admits as much when I ask how much direction matters to him. "I am not good at confrontation," he says, "so I have to feel there is a common view. I had a huge sense of collaboration with [director] Adrian Noble on this... but at other times, I have felt frustration with directors. Music is one of my bugbears, the overlaying of too much music. I felt that slightly in [the 1999 Neil Jordan film] The End of the Affair. It was very exciting music by Michael Nyman, but sometimes overly insistent."

As we part, and he wanders across the road to get into character as Brand, I recall that The End of the Affair was also the film that fell foul of the censor on account of the Fiennes bottom doing some overly insistent pumping. I wonder what Henrik Ibsen would have made of that. But I think I can guess the response of the woman from Row F.

'Brand' continues at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, to 24 May (0870 609 1110), and transfers to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London on 30 May

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