Signature line: “You’re giving them hope. You shouldn’t do that. That’s cruel.” Ralph Fiennes shares that disturbing observation with Liam Neeson’s unlikely hero Oskar Schindler in 1993’s Schindler’s List. The British-born actor’s chilling yet all-too-human portrait of a thickset, sadistic concentration-camp commandant Amon Goeth remains one of the most vivid incarnations of evil ever captured on film. The supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s landmark best-picture Oscar winner was Fiennes’ introduction to international audiences (who learned that his first name rhymes with “strafe” and his surname is pronounced “fines”) and earn him the first of two Oscar nominations. It would also cause the stage veteran to be somewhat typecast as a series of vainglorious villains and flawed Byronic romantics.
But that could change after this past weekend’s rousing reception of Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The exercise in Old World nostalgia finds Fiennes in rare comic form as the aromatic and mustachioed M. Gustave, the meticulous martinet of a concierge at a swank pre-World War II European hotel who regularly beds the rich old ladies among the clientele. This debonair proponent of decorum strives to offer “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” even as he engages in the heist of a famous painting with a gang of fellow prison escapees.
Career peaks: Born Dec. 22, 1962 in Ipswich, England, Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham Fiennes is the eldest of six children raised by Mark, a farmer/photographer father and Jennifer, a writer mother. The couple moved the family to Ireland when he was 11. It was his mom – known as Jini – who instilled in him a passion for language and drama. The eighth cousin of the Prince of Wales, Fiennes first pursued painting as a career before switching to acting. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and later joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. The darkly handsome actor’s knack for tormented characters was established in 1992 with his TV debut in the BBC film “A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia” and on the big screen as Heathcliff to Juliette Binoche’s Cathy in “Wuthering Heights.”
Impressed by both performances, Spielberg recruited the actor for his masterwork, “Schindler’s List.” The filmmaker said of Fiennes’ audition: “I saw sexual evil. It is all about subtlety. There were moments of kindness that would move across his eyes and then instantly run cold.” After his breakout in the war drama, Fiennes was in high demand as a lead, including as the TV contestant coerced into cheating in Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” (1994); a burn victim who recounts his ill-fated steamy affair with a married woman in flashbacks amid the sun-scorched desert sands in 1996’s “The English Patient”; and as a jealous novelist who rekindles a doomed relationship with his former married mistress in 1999’s “The End of the Affair.”
Fiennes went the commercial route as the depraved serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy in “Red Dragon,” the 2002 hit prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal.” His murderous fiend could be seen as a kind of rehearsal for an even more notorious literary-inspired menace, Lord Voldemort, in four of the eight films in the Harry Potter franchise, starting with “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” in 2005. He Who Must Not Be Named introduced Fiennes to a younger generation of moviegoers. “He’s really sort of the devil,” he has said of the boy wizard’s archnemesis. “He’s completely emotion detached. He has no empathy. You find that in psychopaths. It’s about power with Voldemort. It’s an aphrodisiac for him. Power makes him feel alive.”
Fiennes has recently turned to directing, transforming Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” into a stripped-down action thriller while performing the title role in 2011, and dissecting Charles Dickens’ secret love life in last year’s “The Invisible Woman.”
Awards attention: Fiennes’ seductive appeal in “The English Patient,” which inspired a swooning Janet Maslin in The New York Times to describe him as “the most dashing British actor to brood in such settings since the young Peter O’Toole,” led to his second Oscar nomination. He also scored a triumph by returning to the stage and winning a 1995 Tony for his fresh take on Hamlet – the first performer to play the Danish prince to claim the honor.
Biggest misfire: Many would point to “Maid in Manhattan,” a fluffy 2002 romantic comedy starring Fiennes as a politician who falls for Jennifer Lopez’s hotel housekeeper, as his career low. “It’s Cinderella gone stale” is how The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described it. Even the actor has said, “I felt completely lost as that Cary Grant type.” But the love story was popular with J-Lo fans, grossing nearly $100 million at the box office. But it was 1998’s “The Avengers,” a misbegotten remake of the campy British spy series from the ‘60s with Fiennes as John Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel, that brought the actor his lone Razzie nomination, one of nine collected by the film declared to be “a big fat gob of maximum crapulosity” by The New York Post.
Biggest problem: As “The Avengers” proved early on — along with his more recent appearances as Hades in 2010’s “Clash of the Titans” and its 2012 sequel — Fiennes’ strengths do not translate well in broad mainstream outings lacking in nuance. Too often he comes off as a stilted joyless mope. But pair this talented actor with a well-written script, a savvy director and a part that requires emotive depth and he can nail it – even in a comedy, as proven by his foul-mouthed gangster in 2008’s “In Bruges” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Gossip: Fiennes is an unabashed ladies’ man. And an unapologetic one. As the actor has frankly stated in the past, “I’m not very good at being domesticated. I’ve tried. The domestic life I find claustrophobic — the rituals and habits and patterns.” British tabloids especially had a field day when he and “ER” regular Alex Kingston — who dated for 10 years after meeting as students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and married in 1993 — divorced in 1997 after he took up with Francesca Annis, his co-star in “Hamlet” who played his mother Gertrude and was 18 years his senior. He would then leave Annis in 2006 after it was revealed that he had a two-year affair with Cornelia Crisan, a young Romanian singer. The news caused the Sunday Mirror to run this screaming headline: “HARRY POTTER STAR IS A LOVE RAT.” Another ruckus was caused in 2007 by a Qantas flight attendant who spilled the beans to the eager press that she and Fiennes engaged in mile-high club behavior on a flight from Darwin, Australia, to Mumbai.
Next step: Fiennes hitches his wagon to another massively successful franchise when he officially replaces Judi Dench as M, the head of M16 and James Bond’s boss, in the yet-untitled 24th film in the official 007 series that’s due in 2015. He also will appear in “Turks & Caicos” and “Salting the Battlefield,” two sequels to the 2011 British TV spy drama “Page Eight” (which aired on PBS’s Masterpiece series) that are due later this year.
Career advice: The rave reviews (and likely Oscar nomination) for Fiennes’ previously under-utilized humorous panache in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” should encourage the actor to loosen up more onscreen. Besides, at 51, it would behoove him to test out his facility for character acting by seeking out-of-the-ordinary roles that get him to step out of his routine of anguished broken men and maniacal meanies. Maybe something like Marlon Brando in “The Freshman.”
In a recent interview with The Arizona Republic, Fiennes sounds like he’s ready to go: ”I can tell you I loved playing Gustave. It was lovely to be in this world that Wes was creating, away from the heavier stuff I’ve done. It was a delight. I wouldn’t mind being asked to have another go at doing something that is more comedic considered, I could take a shot at it. That seemed to be the case with this.”
And few would complain if he continued to work behind the cameras as a director.