British leading man Ralph
Fiennes refuses to be pinned down. After making a name for himself with
“The English Patient” and “Schindler’s List” – a pair of
sweeping dramas that earned him Oscar nods – he explored his range in daring genre
flicks like the trippy thriller “Strange Days,” the jaunty espionage
romp “The Avengers” and the Hannibal horror story “Red
Dragon.” Then with the “Harry Potter” series, Fiennes defined
the iconic villain Voldemort, while keeping his mesmerizing menace family
friendly. With apparent ease, he can leap from Shakespeare
(“Coriolanus”) to action blockbusters (“Skyfall”), to
historical romances (“The Invisible Woman”) and imaginative indie
darlings (“The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Hail, Caesar”).
And that brings us to his steamy new drama “A Bigger Splash.”
Reteaming with his
“Grand Budapest Hotel” co-star Tilda Swinton, Fiennes plays one half
of a curdled couple. Rock star Marianne Lane (Swinton) has moved on from her
garrulous and outrageous ex-producer/ex-lover Harry (Fiennes), but when he
unexpectedly shows up on the doorstep of her Sicilian hideaway with his
eye-rolling daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), Marianne’s romantic relationship
with documentarian Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) faces its greatest
Indiewire sat down with
Fiennes in New York to discuss all things “Bigger Splash,” from its
most challenging moments (dancing, nudity, karaoke) and deleted scenes (of fine
art and fussy fashion designers) to how he relates to the devil-may-care Harry.
Plus, the acclaimed thespian who’ll be bringing his velvety voice to “Lego Batman Movie”s Alfred, answered the defining question of all things Dark
Knight: Can Batman be happy?
You have this big epic dance scene in “A Bigger
Splash.” Is it true that it’s what piqued your interest in the role?
That was a scene that was going to be fun to do,
but I liked the whole character of Harry. The things he says, the situations he
In the script, what does that scene look like? Does
it just say “Harry dances” or was there a description you felt you
had to capture?
It says he dances really
well, which is a bit intimidating. But I thought if he dances with an energy
and commitment so it becomes a sort of self-expression that would be a way forward. It was a challenge for me
because I’m not a dancer. (Chuckles)
I like to dance and make an idiot of
myself, but this clearly had to have a bit more form to it. So I worked with
this lady Anne Yee, who’s a choreographer and movement coach for actors. She’s
done a lot of work in theater in London. I’d met her after seeing something
she’d done, she’d gotten this guy to do this impressive bit of dancing. So,
with (director Luca Guadagnino)’s permission I invited her to help me construct
this moment in the film.
That’s surprising because the dance feels so
spontaneous. But I suppose with the camera moves, you’d need some sense of
Well, we structured it. We
knew it went from there to there, but specific
body movements were organic to the moment. He starts in the room. He puts the
record on. He dances around them. He goes outside, it’s a sort of geographical
thing, then he gets on the roof. Then on the roof, we established that bit
there, then he does that bit out to the sea, and then he goes into himself
(hunches his back and pulls his arms into his chest). So we sort of had a
shape. But it wasn’t like a dance where every move was choreographed.
So you had an emotional arc within that?
Yeah, it’s about all Harry’s
frustrations and desires, all his locked in – it’s how he get’s it out in a way,
releasing all this shit that people carry. For him, dance is a release. Catharsis, that’s the word.
Harry reminded me a bit of Gustave from “The
Grand Budapest Hotel,” because he has such a way with profanity, wielding
it with aplomb. Are you a fan of curse words?
Yeah, I like curse
Do you have a favorite?
Nice! That’s one that you can get away with a lot
more in the UK than here in the U.S.
Yeah. I think the
“c-word” is the heaviest hitting, but it’s such a satisfying word to say.
In both “A Bigger Splash” and
“Grand Budapest,” you play a love interest of Tilda Swinton’s characters. How do those
Completely different. For
one thing (my “Grand Budapest Hotel” sequence with Tilda) was shot in
two days where the love scenes were off camera. And Wes (Anderson)’s whole
style and approach could not be farther from Luca’s style and approach. The
details of the backstory are quite detailed and specific.
There’s a degree of
the fantastical about “Grand Budapest Hotel,” and that’s not the case
here. It’s more about these people who are real recognizable. They come from
the sweaty world of rock ‘n roll, and also the scenes we got to play are all
based on massive backstory and subtext. Playing old lovers, there’s all this
history to play with naturalism and reality. It doesn’t have the heightened, controlled
sort of style of Wes’s work.
Did you and Tilda discuss what your characters’
alluded-to romantic history was?
We did discuss it, yeah. We
had to have a shared understanding of where we had come from, what we had
experienced, for sure.
There’s a line where Harry declares his pride in
being “obscene,” saying, “We’re all obscene. That’s the whole
point. We see it and we love each other anyway.” Do you relate to this
point of view?
Completely. I love that line. I think
we’re all in areas of uncertainty and we all contain within us monstrous
behavior, some more than others. I think Harry – because he is capable of
monstrous behavior – I think he sort of sees everyone’s bullshit. I think he’s
ultimately compassionate about it. I think what rubs him up the wrong way is
people smoothing over the edges, and pretending everything is okay, and the
sort of masks that people put on to
accommodate acceptable social norms. I think that drives him crazy.
people do like these norms because we then feel safe. We don’t call each other
out on each other’s bullshit. But Harry – to a fault – wants to do that.
I think he feels like if we
talk about it, we’re honest. We start to have more integrity. And I think we
have more compassion if we are able to confront who we are. That’s what he
tries to do, so I related to that. It sort of contains the line, “We can’t
judge each other; we have to forgive
each other.” But we have to be honest about what we’re forgiving each
The director has mentioned there was a scene shot in
front of David Hockney’s painting, “A Bigger Splash” that didn’t make
the final cut. What was that scene about?
I think it was a way to tie
it all up. I think it was intellectually conceived scene like deciding to call
it “A Bigger Splash” because having it center around a swimming pool,
and the repercussions, ripple effect, and someone jumps in the water and
everyone gets soaked.
Who was in this scene?
Well, it was simply the
painting in the Tate Modern and Penelope (Dakota Johnson) looking at it,
reflecting on it. The conceit: Here’s the famous painting called “A Bigger
Splash” and here’s Penelope from the movie contemplating it. So what do you
think, audience? (Chuckles)
I think it was a sort of tie-up moment that then
didn’t make the film because it read satisfyingly on the page, but when you
actually put it together it probably didn’t quite land.
Was there anything about the script that intimidated you
about taking this role?
Yeah, I was intimidated by
the dance. I was intimidated by having to sing karaoke. I’m not a singer/dancer
I get that on one level, because while I like to
dance and love karaoke, I don’t know that I’d want the world to see that.
But then there’s a scene in the movie where it’s a
long and pivotal scene where you are entirely naked for the duration. Was that
not intimidating to you?
That wasn’t as intimidating!
The film speaks to privilege,
with its characters receiving various advantages because of their status. Is
this a theme that particularly interests you?
Not for it’s own sake,
no. But let’s face it: There’s lots of dramas full of the foibles and upsets of
the privileged classes. That’s just the stuff of drama. That’s why people love
Do you not really love “Downton
I’ve not really watched
it much, not enough to have a strong yay or nay.
Is it true that you’re a pro wrestling fan?
No. This is one of those stupid things
that has gotten out there.
It’s supposed “trivia.”
I must have joked about it once and someone got it wrong.
So, hard no?
Coming up you have “The Lego Batman Movie.” I’m curious what kind of research you may have put into your
What defines your Alfred?
You’ll have to see.
The directors, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, have said
this movie asks, “Can Batman be happy?” So what do
you think? Can Batman be happy?
No. He’s destined for
eternal melancholy and grouchiness.
“A Bigger Splash” is in theaters on Wednesday, May 4.
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