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Ralph Fiennes On How His Own Celebrity Factors Into ‘The Invisible Woman’ and How Painful It Was to Edit His Own Performance

Ralph Fiennes On How His Own Celebrity Factors Into 'The Invisible Woman' and How Painful It Was to Edit His Own Performance

With “The Invisible Woman,” Ralph Fiennes proves that his acclaimed directorial debut “Coriolanus” was no fluke. Shot just over a year later, “The Invisible Woman” sees the Oscar-nominee go from playing one of Shakespeare’s most divisive protagonists to embodying beloved author Charles Dickens. Showcasing his breadth as a filmmaker, the handsome, refined production marks a notable change in style from the gritty, experimental one he employed to bring “Coriolanus” to the screen.

The period drama tells the little known story behind Dickens’ secret 13-year
affair with his mistress, Nelly Ternan (played by “Like Crazy” breakout
Felicity Jones). It opens in select theaters Dec. 25.

READ MORE: Indiewire Reviews ‘The Invisible Woman’

Indiewire sat down with Fiennes in New York to discuss his latest.

This marks your sophomore feature as a director. What came easier this time around?

Having done it once, that gives you a certain degree of confidence. When I was starting “Coriolanus,” I didn’t know if I could do it. But it’s still very adrenalizing. You have one to shoot a given scene and you’ve got to be on full alert to chase whatever that thing is. I’m someone who gets bogged down in a shot.

I read you’re a director who likes to do a lot of takes.

I do sometimes. When you want to get the performance right, sometimes you need to. Especially if you feel there’s more to be found. Not as many takes as Wes Anderson!

Is that a method inspired by any of the filmmakers you’ve worked with as an actor?

No, I haven’t worked with many filmmakers who break you down. Well, Kathryn Bigelow, she does a generous amount of takes. I don’t think there should be any kind of judgment implied. It’s great when a director asks a lot of you. Sometimes you feel like, what else can I do here, I need some help. It’s frustrating when you’re asked to repeat and repeat but you’re not getting clear signals about what it is. That’s frustrating. But I love it when directors can go after a third of fourth take, “We have it.” David Cronenberg is someone who likes to know that he has two takes he can use. And once he’s got those two, he moves on.

How many usable takes do you have to complete in order to move on?

There isn’t a figure. It changes. I seem to average maybe around seven or eight takes. Sometimes it can go 12. Once I hit 10 it feels like a lot.

Would you have made “The Invisible Woman” as your debut?

No, I was driven to make “Coriolanus.” I wasn’t really interested in making anything else. I had this kind of obsession about it.

What led you to make a second film then?

It came in a completely different way. I didn’t expect to make a film about Dickens. I just read the screenplay and was very moved by it. It surprised me and I felt myself being drawn to Nelly’s world. There’s so many things about intimacy and relationships, and the memory of relationships. With Charles Dickens you have this whole element of a public figure, the power of the public figure to engineer things for themselves — but also the vulnerability of a public persona. You seem to hit on so many themes. Dickens is this force-field of energy and brilliance. He was also a man who unwittingly damaged people, or knowingly did it.

You yourself are a celebrity. Did that factor into your interest in the project?

Yeah, absolutely. As an actor, you have a public who knows you for your work. It’s a very peculiar thing being an actor. You need an audience. It’s peculiar to what it does to you in terms of yourself to the world. It matters to people with a public profile, how you are perceived. It matters to them when their sense of inner privacy is being invaded by violent curiosity that people have about the lives of famous people. At the same time, certainly with actors, that’s your lifeblood. For Dickens, his readership was very important to him. He responded to letters, he needed to keep his audience in the palm of his hand. When he did these public readings, the actor in him was fulfilled by having people hang onto his every word.

It was always your intention to play “Coriolanus,” given that you had played the role onstage, but with this project that wasn’t the case.

When I received the screenplay and it came with the proposal, “Would you like to direct and play Dickens?” I certainly wanted to direct. I felt a very strong impulse. I could see Dickens was a great role. But initially I said no, then after some time when they approached someone else, I said I could do it. I just couldn’t resist. I kind of love Dickens. I know people will have a mixed reaction to him. I sort of carry a flag for him despite all his flaws and failings.

Why didn’t you want to play him at first? Did you want the experience of solely directing, not having to worry about your performance?

Exactly that reason. I wanted that experience.

How did this experience differ from “Coriolanus.” You act in this, but the film arguably belongs to Felicity Jones.

That helped. That’s part of the reason I decided to act in it. It was still sometimes really hard to do both. To alternate between two different head spaces, even the memory of it just gives me a headache.

In the Hollywood Reporter’s recent roundtable discussion with directors, they each spoke of how they shut off the outside world when on set. I can imagine the process is even more all-encompassing when doing all that you do.

It’s a paradox, if that’s the right word. Even when directing an actor has a certain element of contradiction, the total immersion in the world of the film and in Dickens, there’s a point where they crossover. It was maybe also helped by the fact that Dickens was doing everything. Overseeing everything, that all sort of bled into the nature of who Dickens was. That was helpful. But I would love to direct a film and not be in it.

Anything in the works on that front?

No, I’m going to take a long break.

Most actors hate watching themselves. How do you as a director edit your performance?

It’s very painful. It’s very, very painful. But there comes a point where you sort of cross over from the embarrassment and weird conflict to just going, “OK,” and trusting your editor. Often it’s back and forth, back and forth. I think I’m quite good at judging my own performance. Especially if I’m somehow mentally in the position of doing the whole thing. I had to do a bit of ADR the other day for something I’d done, and I really hated watching it. In Wes’ film, I never wanted to see the takes. Not that he invited me. It was very useful discipline though, to have to assess and be responsible for your performance. 

Are you surprised at how things turned out?

I’m really surprised. I mean, fuck, did we actually make “Coriolanus”? This pathetic fantasy (laughs). You think, Christ, we did it. I’ve had amazing offers that have come and really surprised me. I’m happily surprised whenever I get an offer. There’s a bit of you that wants to be accepted. Even if you’ve had degrees of success and been blessed with all kinds of opportunities that have done well, and I think I have, it’s still great when someone goes, “Will you come and do this?”

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