Ralph Fiennes talks about his passion and understanding of Coriolanus now that he has played the character on stage and on film. He also discusses working on the film as a first-time director, the many lessons he learned and how it has helped to inform his own choices and attitudes as an actor.
Coming into Coriolanus as a first-time director, did you realise how ambitious you were being or did you view it as something of a natural fit given your relationship with it previously?
Ralph Fiennes: Yes, I knew it was very ambitious and possibly overly ambitious. But it was just one of those things where your life is going, you want to do stuff and this became the thing I couldn't let go of and I knew it was a slightly mad thing, but I just thought: 'F**k it! I want to try and do it!' I believed that this play of Shakespeare's - which was thought to be difficult and relatively hard to access - if you adapted it, edited it aggressively, could become a dynamic, political thriller with a kind of familial mother-son tragedy at the centre of it, which had always moved me very much. It has a sort of Greek tragic quality at the heart of it. There's also a primal energy running through it. I also think that these primal power games between parties and classes and nations are happening all around us now. They haven't gone away. There's a primitive anger about being disenfranchised or the private anger and the psychosis of individuals... you see it in Libya with Gaddafi and Assad, I'm seeing it everywhere... the psychology of Putin versus the psychology of the people of Russia... their desire or their scepticism. All these things are rattling around in the bag called Coriolanus.
And that obviously informed the decision to set it in the present day...
Ralph Fiennes: Completely... and also I suspect an audience thinks: 'Oh Shakespeare, Coriolanus, I'm not going to understand it.' So, I want a man in military gear that they see every day in the newspapers. I think then at a very crude level the audience then have a handle on something: politicians, I know this world, I see it every day.
How do you view Coriolanus as a character?
Ralph Fiennes: I find him continually fascinating even now. Obviously there's an attraction to want to play him and it's not as simple as liking him, although I like what he is dramatically and what he is as an energy in a drama. A bit of me, in an un-thought way, likes his purity of intent even though, in my thinking head, I know that what he stands for is something very frightening. But there's a kind of primitive will, an obscene personal integrity, which I think all of us sometimes feel. We feel a kind of 'f**k it, I'm not going to f**king give up on this one!' We feel like we're going to do it. And of course we can't behave like that. We need to go: 'Sorry, what I meant was we have to negotiate.' But here's someone who because of his military mentality and background only thrives in a war zone where you've got the right to do that, can put that anger into fighting. He's a kind of samurai... samurais had a rigid code of honour, they thought nothing of taking their own life, and they were there to fight as soldiers under a very strict code and, as I understand it, they were part of an elite and they had a sort of contempt for those who were not part of their elite. It's not something that's necessarily likeable but it's kind of fascinating and I think we're all fascinated by something that's that austere and unbending.
And yet there's this Achilles heel with the relationship with his mother?
Ralph Fiennes: Yeah, a huge Achilles because of course, he's the boy and that's the tragedy. That's what I love about where Shakespeare takes you: a man I don't like, who is contemptuous, arrogant, so why should I like this guy, oh wait a minute he's trying to hold onto something, but he's being manoeuvred but actually he's a very brave soldier. And then I see his mother is controlling him. And then he's just a boy who is kind of lost. And once he admits his lost-ness, he's killed for it, which makes him really tragic.
How special was it to have Vanessa Redgrave playing your mother?
Ralph Fiennes: Amazing, amazing. I've known her a friend for sometime but always have been so moved by her as a presence, as an actress, and my first phone call to any actor was to Vanessa to say: 'Please play Volumnia.' And she did. She was incredibly loyal to the project and I was very emotional when she came to Belgrade because it was hard to finance, it was hard to negotiate everyone's different needs, and juggling the stuff you need to juggle to make a film happen is just crazy. So, when you finally get your actors in a room prior to shooting the scene it was very emotional for me [laughs]. When Vanessa was rehearsing her first scene and she started to say these lines, you can see from her performance the amazing layers of qualities she brings, and subtlety and the speaking of the text by her is thrilling to hear. I think the film has its identity, in a way, because of her.
What was the biggest lesson you learnt from directing?
Ralph Fiennes: [Pauses to think] I learnt so many things. I'm trying to think of the simple answer. Well, when people ask me this I always say my biggest learning... my sort of vertical learning experience was editing because suddenly I understood. People had often said to me: 'When you get into the edit you'll understand what making a film is. You'll see all the things you missed and all the possibilities you have from what you shot.' So, I think what I've learnt is, wow, that of course you've got to be prepared, of course you've got to know your shots, and all the stuff that's apparent, but there are these unknowns that you don't know you're gathering as you shoot because the infinite places where the scissors can come in and you can cut one shot to the next to the next. You don't know what that's going to be. I mean, yes you can edit and say: 'I think I'll be on him and then I'll cut to a wide-shot with her in the background.'But that's all theory. When you're shooting... and Steven Spielberg famously edits in his head, and a lot of that I'm sure is right, but I learnt, wow, you can do that. First of all, I saw the rushes and thought: 'Oh, it's all shit! Only bits of it are halfway good! Why did I do that? That shot isn't working!' But then that fell away as my editor, a wonderful editor called Nick Gaster, said: 'No, no, it's OK. This is fine. We'll do that.' And then I learnt where the real problems were and how to get around them when I discovered that actually those four lines of dialogue out of those 10 are actually really great, so we'll just use the four and cut back to another take where the rest of the speech was really good. If I was to direct again, I would probably know there are all kinds of things going on that I don't know about while I'm shooting, which makes me feel... well, that awareness is good to have. So, that's what I've learned, to have that awareness.
How does that inform the actor in you?
Ralph Fiennes: Well, I guess I understand why very experienced screen actors... I guess having one foot in the theatre, the ideal is that there's a fluidity to it and every second you're on stage you can't edit, so it has to be as good as it can be. And maybe I bring that as an actor to film. But what I'm learning, and I guess I've been learning it for a while, but it was brought home to me very strongly once I was inside an editing room. I've known that even if the whole scene wasn't great [from me], I've also known there were bits in it that would be fine. I suppose it kind of gives me a reassurance for performance that you should embrace as an actor rather than continually worrying about getting it right. You can embrace the idea of trying something different, or stopping something, or repeating something. I'm more relaxed about how the editing process will create a performance and that, in a way, gives me a sense of freedom. I learned a lot about acting - watching not just myself but other actors and learning how to distinguish between two great takes.
Interview: Rob Carnevale. Photo: Lionsgate