Where last week’s New York Film Festival gala tribute to Cate Blanchett focused entirely on the actress in question, tonight’s event–purportedly a similar fête for Ralph Fiennes–went the kill-two-birds approach. First, there was the expected Q&A, which was truncated more quickly than last week’s for a screening of the actor-turned-director’s newest film, “The Invisible Woman.” As if to back up this impression, my ticket for last week’s event was marked ‘Cate Blanchett Tribute”; tonight’s read simply ‘The Invisible Woman.’
For the first half hour or so, the night focused on Fiennes the actor, kicking off with a video montage highlighting his work that featured scenes from “Schindler’s List,” “Quiz Show,” “Strange Days,” “The English Patient,” “Harry Potter” and, of course, his directorial debut, “Coriolanus.” Fiennes admitted to Kent Jones, NYFF’s director of programming and the event’s moderator, that he hadn’t seen several of the films for years, and said that while watching them–he singled out “Schindler’s List” specifically–he felt almost transported back to the moment when the scene was shot.
Jones followed Fiennes into that reverie, asking what the atmosphere of the set was like on Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust masterpiece. Fiennes–whose breakout performance in the film garnered an Oscar nod for best supporting actor–praised the director for his “infectious energy” on set, describing him as someone who “seemed possessed, in a great way.” Fiennes said he was surprised at the speed with which the shoot moved and at Spielberg’s self-confident direction, singling out his habit of letting the camera run between takes without cutting, which Fiennes described as a great way to break actors out of their own self-consciousness.
Fiennes’s next role was Charles Van Doren in Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show,” which the actor describes as “another great masterclass.” Early on in the shoot, Redford sat Fiennes down and showed him dailies of the day’s work, asking him to pick his favorite take. It was a “generous way,” Fiennes put it, of Redford leading him to an understated performance. As the shoot went on, Redford would ask Fiennes after a take, “Are you happy?” When Fiennes said yes, the director would respond, “Let’s go again.”
Asked by Jones whether he picked projects based on the director or the material, Fiennes emphatically indicated the former. He described his work with Anthony Minghella on “The English Patient” (which nabbed Fiennes his second Oscar nomination), a director whom he called a great communicator with “a delicacy about the way he would guide you.” David Cronenberg, on the other hand, said very little but was quick to point out when he didn’t like something: Fiennes recounted a take during the filming of “Spider” in which he consciously began to bounce his leg, something Cronenberg immediately shut down.
Even when it came to portraying the arch-villain Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, whose green screen-driven work environments Fiennes described as “very alienating,” the actor lauded director David Yates, whom he said wanted “even moments of wand jabbing” to be good.
With all the talk of directors, it wasn’t surprising that the conversation circled to Fiennes’s own directing. It was his work with Minghella and the director’s ethos of inclusivity that “started a curiosity” to move into a new role, Fiennes said. But why “Coriolanus”?
“I felt I had some unfinished business with the role,” Fiennes told Jones, referring to an earlier turn on the stage 13 years ago in which he played the lead role in one of Shakespeare’s most challenging–and least performed–plays. “I couldn’t let go of it.” It took the prodding of his agent, Joel Lubin, for Fiennes to reveal that he wanted his next project to be a film adaptation of the play; a meeting with screenwriter John Logan was a breakthrough into making the project a reality.
As for “The Invisible Woman,” which had its U.S. premiere tonight immediately following the Q&A, Fiennes said that the project “sort of ambushed me.” Gabrielle Tana, who produced “Coriolanus,” gave Fiennes a script written by Abi Morgan (who penned “Shame” and “The Iron Lady”) based on Claire Tomalin’s book. It was the story of Nelly Ternan, who met Charles Dickens, then 45, when she was only 18 and pursued a 13-year affair with him, that attracted Fiennes to the project. Initially, he planned to work exclusively behind the camera, but “the hungry actor in me couldn’t resist,” he told Jones, and he ended up playing the famous novelist.
In a way, it was fitting that NYFF’s tribute to Fiennes split its focus between his acting career and his new directorial effort. Blanchett, last week’s honoree, is firmly ensconced in the pantheon of great actors; Fiennes–no slouch himself in that regard, of course–is on a different path. For him, the question is whether he will join the ranks of successful actors who went on to become acclaimed directors. Even if he does, that “hungry actor” inside probably isn’t going away anytime soon.