With the action-packed film adaptation of Shakespeare’s rarely performed political thriller “Coriolanus,” Ralph Fiennes made the leap from two-time Academy Award-nominated actor to rookie director.
The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts graduate played Coriolanus in a 2000 London stage production. In his film version, adapted by John Logan (“The Aviator”), Fiennes returns to the lead role, but updates the setting from ancient Rome to a tumultuous 21st century ridden with 24-hour news networks and guerilla insurgencies.
Fiennes plays Coriolanus, Rome’s most courageous (and controversial) general, as an angry pit bull, ready to do battle with any adversary who questions his values. After achieving victory in war against the neighboring Volsces, Coriolanus is advised by his mother, Volmnia (a scene-stealing Vanessa Redgrave), to seek political office of Consul. To the horror of his mother and loved ones (Jessica Chastain plays his doting wife), Coriolanus doesn’t take too well do the niceties required of politicking. Suffice to say, things don’t go according to plan.
Indiewire caught up with Fiennes in New York to discuss his first foray behind the camera and the continued relevancy of Shakespeare’s play.
This is a decidedly ambitious affair for your directorial debut. Did you feel ready when the cameras started rolling?
I don’t think you ever know when you’re ready. I follow impulses as an actor and in this case as a director. I had a strong belief that this knotty confrontational tale of Shakespeare’s could be something meaningful today.
Obviously, I have a love of Shakespeare. I’m a believer that Shakespeare’s dramas can speak to us, probably more than any other dramatist. I like this toughness as a piece. It’s hard. It doesn’t offer any easy way out.
When did it occur to you that this had to be made into a film? Was it while you were involved in the stage production?
It became clear over time. I felt that it’s a tough political drama, but even that’s not enough. There’s a deep tragic familial theme to it, too, which is what in the end moves me. It’s where the humanity in the piece breaks out, when Coriolanus gives in to his mother in the end.
I think “Coriolanus” always has relevance. I think authority, power, despotic leaders who are hard-line, autocrats… the fickleness of those in power, the continual changing of power and politics, which to me is the continual dysfunction of us as a people, as a race. All these tribes trying to make sense of how we organize ourselves and essentially failing.
Particularly now, maybe all the post-second war hope that we had that the world would move forward? I don’t think it really has. There’s bleakness to “Coriolanus” that speaks to me.
Was the modern setting always your idea from the outset, or did your writer John Logan propose that angle to you?
No, I pitched it as an idea to John. I had amassed a lot of images that showed a contemporary take on the play so I could talk him through the story of the film. I did that with John on the first meeting. He liked it and very quickly said yes. We then worked together for about a week pooling our ideas. He had some brilliant ones to make it more succinct. For us, it was about clarity. The plot of the play is difficult. It’s not impossible, but it’s quite involved. It was all about making it accessible. This could be a dynamic, provocative thriller. Shakespeare has to connect.
The film connects in a large part thanks to the nuanced performances from your exceptional ensemble. As an actor yourself, what was your approach in handling your cast? Was it all in the casting, as they say?
A lot is in the casting. Vanessa Redgrave was always, always my first choice to play Volumnia. I think she has such extraordinary layers. When you get Vanessa Redgrave, you get something quite profound as a spirit. And then you get her interpretive skill and alertness to text to make it real truthful.
The same with Brian Cox. He has such male weight and charisma. He’s so clear.
The other great joy of casting was Jessica Chastain in the small, possibly thankless role of Virgilia. But she’s a crucial figure for me. She’s like the silent witness to this car crash. I think of all the other characters, she possibly retains every line Shakespeare wrote for that part. It’s a part people remember, because she’s the wife of the protagonist.
What about your own performance? How did you modulate it, especially given that you developed it first on stage?
I had with me a wonderful woman called Joan Washington whose taste I like. She’s very honest and she was there specifically to give me critical feedback on set alongside the script supervisor, who I’d worked with on “The Reader.” They were there to give me feedback. Coriolanus, he’s often a man enraged or in battle. It was trying to commit to those moments of extreme emotion, but keeping it rooted in real things. But I relied on their guidance.
How did you keep it fresh for yourself as a performer?
A lot of it has to do with whom you’re acting with. With Vanessa, she’s always so instinctively fresh; she challenges you to be open and present back. The same with Brian.
But also as an actor, whatever goes on, you need to keep the plate clean. You develop a sense for when something’s in a rut. But I needed people to tell me that. It was a lot of pressure, as you can imagine.
You’ve worked with such an amazing and varied crop of directors yourself. How would you characterize your own approach as a first-time filmmaker?
My own approach involves being extremely open and connected to the people I’m working with and what they bring. I need to feel a human connection with whoever’s photographing it or designing it. I need to feel that they hear me. I had strong ideas, but would often love the other ideas that other people brought that I hadn’t thought of. Other times, I needed to be clear that this is what I wanted. But the best experiences I had — like working with Anthony Minghella who was a true collaborator — were when the directors still managed to keep a strong overview, remained open, whilst trying to keep the so-called vision coherent. But things are emerging all the time as you’re shooting. Accidents are part of the exhilaration of it.
In the end, it seems like the happiest experiences I had are when directors come with a vision and a world, but they’re also seemingly open. Fernando Meirelles, a very, very gentle man, was always looking for something that was truthful and honest. The same with Anthony. Their alertness to a human truth meant a lot to me.
Are you planning anything to follow this? What kind of projects do you see yourself tackling as a director?
Well, I don’t know. There is a project I’m working on. It’s about the relationship between Charles Dickens and his mistress Ellen Ternan. It’s been written about, but I don’t think it’s widely known. It’s a fascinating story of this young actress who found herself of the receiving end of Dickens’ infatuation. It’s about the theater and what society expected of Dickens.