In town to accept an honorary Dragon Award from the Göteborg International Film Festival (which seriously has the coolest mascot, I mean, Lions, and Leopards and Bears, oh my, but Dragons), actor, director and Dark Lord Ralph Fiennes also presented his latest directorial offering “The Invisible Woman.” And strangely, I found much the same thing happening that occurred with his debut “Coriolanus,” in that I’d been excited for it in advance, then heard mixed reports which dampened my enthusiasm somewhat, only to like it a great deal when I finally did see it. I’m not quite sure why both his directorial films have followed this pattern, as ordinarily, the industry loves an actor-turned-director, especially one who, as a thesp, is as universally admired as Fiennes. And both times he’s pulled double duty and appeared in a central role as well, and both times his efforts have been in the kind of world in which we’d expect his classical training to serve him well (Shakespeare, and the life of Dickens). And yet both have also shown a willingness to experiment with form and approach: in “Coriolanus” literally, by updating and restaging one of the Bard’s more obscure plays; and in “The Invisible Woman” more subtly, by casting a modern perspective — that of the “other woman” — on a period-set true-life tale.
As an actor, the story is more straightforwardly successful. Fiennes has recently cropped up in two of the all-time biggest franchises: under heavy prosthetics in the world-conquering “Harry Potter” series, and in the last Bond movie, a series to which he will return, in a larger role as M, in “Bond 24.” And of course he’s enough in demand to be able to balance blockbuster, beach-house roles in shit like “Clash of the Titans” with smaller parts in smaller movies–everything from “In Bruges” to “The Hurt Locker” to Mike Newell’s adaptation of “Great Expectations” has seen him crop up playing characters that are little more than memorable cameos. He will also very soon headline the hotly anticipated “The Grand Budapest Hotel” from Wes Anderson, in a role that looks to be a whole other step-change for an actor rarely asked to be funny. When I got to sit down with the actor at the festival, I of course asked him about working with Anderson, and also about some upcoming roles including one, hopefully, in the Gary Oldman-directed “The Flying Horse.” But to start we talked “The Invisible Woman,” about the reception of which he delicately admitted to a degree of disappointment.
What are your feelings about how “The Invisible Woman” has been received?
It’s hard because I’m so subjective… It came out to very good trade reviews in Telluride and it had fantastic reviews in the U.K. press out of Toronto. Which is the first thing you can’t ignore, the critical response, because it’s this kind of thermometer. And of course it was designed to come out in the award season. But…in the whole press related run-up to award season, everyone hopes they might have a piece of the cake.
I can’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed. We didn’t get a Best British Film nomination in the BAFTAs — that would be one thing that I thought, given the response, and even the Guardian indicated that we might do. So, not that awards matter, but it helps people see a film. You see, if your film is being released as part of an award season, the films that are getting the attention take it [all]. The other films, because they’re not on that roster, the perception is they’re not present.
So if this film had been released, maybe at a different time, it would have had a chance. It’s like a doorway and everyone’s trying to get in. That’s what it feels like. But it’s dangerous to say these things because one has to go, okay, I’ve made the film. I was lucky enough to make the film I wanted to make, that’s amazing. And I’ve had great affirming responses from people whose opinion I trust.
It’s a very female-oriented film — it could almost be “The Invisible Women” — and the women are shown to be incredibly pragmatic, something not traditionally regarded as a feminine trait. Was that one of the attractions of the material?
I haven’t given it that word…Though, yes, what was fascinating to me was, how did Mrs. Ternan [Kristin Scott-Thomas in the film who plays the mother of Dickens’ mistress, Nelly] acquiesce? She was part of it, she knew what was going on. Claire Tomlin, in her great book [on which the film is based], tries to articulate Mrs. Ternan’s role and I became very interested in that.
There’s a scene Abi [Morgan, the writer] and I discussed. Nothing can be said overtly, but the mother has noticed Dickens’ attention, and says, “I cannot risk Nelly’s reputation” — seemingly apropos of nothing. To me that’s very believable. A mother can see, what’s going on and it’s ”don’t mess with my daughter” and he’s in denial …I love the way Abi’s written that scene.
And I tried with Felicity [Jones, who plays Nelly] to explore, how did Nelly negotiate her way towards saying yes? It sounds quite calculated, but it was an emotional negotiation within herself. Then of course her heart opens when he reads…what I believe is one of the great love declarations in English, which is from “Great Expectations,” where he says, “You’re in the wind, you’re in the trees, take all of me…”
That novel figures quite largely in the film and obviously you were very recently in “Great Expectations” as well. Was that just a coincidence?
Yeah, I had embarked on ‘Invisible Woman’ and then I was approached by Mike Newell to play Magwitch, which I loved the idea of, because I thought it would never be a part I would play… It was great to be familiar with “Great Expectations.” Pip and Estella can’t be literally about Dickens and Nelly, but it’s a sort of where he processed stuff [about their relationship]. Writers are quick to say, “I’m not writing about real life.” But bits of real life get tangled up in the imaginary life, and I think that’s what happens in “Great Expectations.”
Have you plans for your next directorial project?
No I’m looking.
But as an actor, next up is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which seems like it was an awful lot of fun to do. Was it? Or is it twice as much work to give the illusion of it being a lot of fun?
It was fun, but it was challenging because Wes is so deliberate, but in a lovely way. We came to a great way of working together; I realized that he would want a certain thing that he’d been hearing. He wrote the script and he hears the rhythms very precisely of speech. I said, “Please can I just do maybe two or three takes when you just let me do my instinctive version, and then please give me all of the things that you want to see and I can attempt to do. And when you’ve got to the place that you are happy, and you’re happy to say you got it, then if there’s time, give me two more.” Then I feel freedom, but obviously I’ve gone through a little training ground to get there… you never know which is the take he’s going to use. But the process feels satisfactory.
So can you tell which were the takes he mostly used?
I can’t really remember the exact takes, but I can tell you… it was always a part that could lend itself to being pushed too far. It was a high-definition role and you could easily make it too flamboyant, too overstated. Yet you didn’t want to deny a little bit of that. But Wes, always seemed to like it when it felt as real as possible, where it wasn’t underlined too much but has a sort of interior reality. He seems to have just chosen those takes.
And as to upcoming roles, you were rumored to be attached to John LeCarre adaptation “Our Kind of Traitor,” for a while, is that still happening?
Not for me, it’s not.
“Sands” has also been mooted as project for you?
That’s bollocks. Whoever put that out there, whoever said that, is bollocks. I don’t know where that came from, I’ve never read a script called “Sands.” It was announced at Berlin a year ago, and it seems like the producers are chancers.
And how about Gary Oldman’s directorial project “The Flying Horse”?
That yes, that’s why I’m growing this beard.[To play the bearded photography pioneer Eadward Muybridge]. It needs to be a bit longer…they might have to add extensions, but anyway, this is the purpose. It’s not fully set up yet, but I’m hoping it will be.
Was it the story or director that attracted you to that?
Both. It’s a great screenplay that Gary’s written, really fantastic. He’s quite brilliant. I just feel that to be in a working relationship with Gary and his brilliant instincts, as an actor and director, would be an amazing experience. I love his screenplay. I didn’t know much about Muybridge, but I went to an exhibition about him two or three years ago, and I thought then that this was an interesting life, this could be a film.
It was a crazy life— he killed his wife’s lover, right? Also I believe it inspired a Phillip Glass opera based on the story of Muybridge’s homicide trial.
That’s the centerpiece of the film!
It sounds like he’s an interesting character, not necessarily sympathetic. But then arguably you’ve played a lot of very unsympathetic characters, even Dickens here does some very cruel things…
I’m happy that people won’t like him. But I feel it’s a rounded portrait, it’s understandable… He had this intellectual energy, hunger, life. Catherine [his wife] just couldn’t keep up. And she was pregnant nearly every year of their marriage! It was a disaster area. But he was so enmeshed with a sense of himself as a public success figure, that it was a trauma for him to face what he was doing. His narcissistic pride was so strong. His daughter was later quoted as saying, “my father was not a good man but he was a great man.”
“The Invisible Woman” is now playing in limited release.