By Jen Vineyard | The Playlist November 30, 2011 at 12:00PM
Actor Talks The Urge To Direct, The Lack Of Commercial Appeal In Shakespearean Projects & The Homoerotic Undercurrents In His Feature-Film Debut
Can you track Ralph Fiennes' career by his haircuts? The actor joked it would be possible, considering how often he's had to shave his head for roles such as Voldemort in the 'Harry Potter' series and his most recent incarnation as the general-politician Coriolanus, in the Shakespearean adaptation he's also directed. Noted Fiennes, "The last time I shaved was for the premiere [of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II"] on July 7," before growing out a shaggy head of hair and an unruly beard for his stage performance in a West End production of "The Tempest," which he displayed as an image on his iPhone. Now clean-shaven once again, Fiennes refused to say whether his work in the upcoming Bond film "Skyfall" will require any further distracting 'do measures, but when the Playlist caught up with him earlier this month, we asked about rumors that he'd play famous Bond villain Ernst Stavros Blofeld in the film, and Fiennes played coy. "I can't say anything more," he said with a grin, having already discussed with The Playlist about how screenwriter John Logan (who wrote "Coriolanus") was partly responsible for Fiennes appearing in the new 'Bond' film "because he wrote this really interesting part which is really quite fun."
When we asked him directly if he would be playing Blofeld he laughed once more. "I can't say anything," he said, but then did allow this: "I will not be stroking a white pussy!" Is that a straight-up denial or perhaps a coy response to how his character would be different from the antagonist who appeared in the Bond films, "Thunderball," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," and "You Only Live Twice"? We'll leave that up to you to decide.
Fiennes was far more forthcoming about the risks involved in his directorial debut, "Coriolanus," which even he admitted "on face value has no commercial appeal." "It's Shakespeare, first of all," he said, laughing. "We don't know this one. And the character Coriolanus, he hates everyone!" So why do it? Fiennes explains, as well as the reasoning behind some of his decisions for the cast (including Vanessa Redgrave -- who is already getting Oscar buzz, Gerard Butler, and Jessica Chastain), the location, and the strong homoerotic subtext.
"Coriolanus" is one of Shakespeare's later and lesser-known tragedies, but Fiennes was intimately familiar with the text, having played the lead on stage back in 2000. Even then, he said, he had a "strong feeling" it could be a movie. "It has a reputation as a difficult play," he admitted, "but it's a strong story. It's a parable of social, political, and civic dysfunction, and of continual warfare, and that background is always relevant. Even now, I'm going, 'Oh yes, it's like the Arab Spring.'"
In the play, a Roman general named Caius Martius becomes a war hero, is renamed Coriolanus, runs for consul, and then runs afoul of the populace and the politicians in charge. After he's condemned as a traitor and banished, he teams up with his arch enemy Aufidius to take revenge and conquer Rome.
"It has these epic possibilities," Fiennes said, "and the scale of warfare, political upheaval, people on the streets has a cinematic scale. And at the heart of it is an intimate, tragic mother/son confrontation that's always moved me."
Fiennes had already felt the urge to direct, and since he wanted to revisit the part, he thought he might as well try his hand at something he knew. "And no one else was banging on my door wanting to direct it!" he laughed. "I knew it would appear madly ambitious and a little stupid to direct such a big thing and be in it, but I couldn't help it. As I lived with it as an idea, I became more convinced that I wanted to direct it. John Logan agreed to write it, and I was buoyed up by his support."
While Logan wasn't present during the shoot, Fiennes worked closely with the screenwriter, deciding together what the scenes would be. After Logan wrote "a brilliant first draft," Fiennes struggled to find financing, and as that proved difficult, made revisions accordingly.
"We originally set one scene in a football stadium," Fiennes said. "That was going to be very hard to pull off, even with all the tricks in the world, so it changed to a television studio setting. We would respond to locations, and everything evolved in a number of drafts."
One scene that was cut was when Coriolanus comforted a young soldier dying in triage. "It seemed too sentimental," Fiennes said. "Any point of empathy seemed a moment of weakness, and it doesn't give you anything until the end, when he breaks in front of his mother."
At one point, funding from a American billionaire fell through, which was actually a relief. "There had been pressure to cut the scene of Coriolanus' mother losing it on the steps of the Senate," Fiennes said, "and with pain, I took it out, but I always regretted it. And when that funding went away, I reinstated it. And I went, 'This is the script, I'm not fucking with it anymore!'"
Fiennes eventually did get funding, but not as much as he would have liked -- "we had to crunch our budget, and it really was very tight." So location became an issue -- where could he shoot the film? "There are countries around the world where you can do things for cheap, but you don't know who you're working with," he said.
Fiennes scouted out spots in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro -- using a film festival invite as an excuse to tour the region. He considered Bucharest for a while, but eventually Belgrade won out because the city offered the use of its Senate chamber.
"I wanted to have a big scale: streets, soldiers, a parliament," Fiennes said. "And to build a Senate chamber, that would be tough. We need the real deal, something that's convincing. And the idea that we could get this national building for next to nothing, that was fantastic."
Plus, Serbia's history fed into the atmosphere of the story, although Fiennes cautioned, it was never his intention to imply "Coriolanus" was about the Bosnian conflict. "It's meant to be a place calling itself Rome," he said. "It could be Chechnya. It could be Afghanistan. It could be recent history in Latin America. It could be Israel and Palestine."
Also, since his producer on "The Duchess," Gabrielle Tana -- who is half-American, half-Serbian -- found an investor in Belgrade, he was able to start casting.
Vanessa Redgrave was his first choice for Coriolanus' mother Volumnia, Fiennes said, and she was the first actor he cast. Next up was the part of his rival Aufidius -- he wanted Gerard Butler, but he thought he'd be turned down. Luckily for him, Butler shared a "nostalgic affection" for the play -- "he had been a walk-on in a production years back."
"I thought he had a full-on warrior quality," Fiennes said, "and I thought he might like to come do a bit of Shakespeare, after all his rom-coms. He completely blew me away with his speech about the murdered family. He was thrilling."
For Coriolanus' wife Virgilia, the actor/director cast Jessica Chastain "on a hunch." Her volume of work appearing in theaters this year -- from "The Tree of Life" to "Take Shelter" -- had yet to be released, so all Fiennes had to go on was a clip of her performance in "Salome." "She was extraordinary," he said. "She had this gravitas and presence. I met her over a cappuccino and thought everything about her energy felt right. I offered it to her on a gut instinct."
To improve the naturalism of the actors, Fiennes relied on coach Joan Washington, especially for his own performance. "I remember having a continual anxiety: Was I delivering it? How could I tell if I was?" he recalled. "I was looking for a kind of truth, and I wondered if the audience would want to follow this man who is so confrontational, whose contempt for the people is so overt."
Perhaps to balance the harshness of his character, Fiennes wanted to be the easiest director for his actors to approach with ideas. "I think the best experience I've had as an actor is when your ideas are welcomed by the director," he explained.
One such example of how that played out is when Redgrave improved upon her big speech scene. "You just want to be there and offer up a physical, spatial possibility," Fiennes said. "So I said, 'There's a man in a chair, you come in,' and what I suggested was, 'There's a family thing,' and then one of the discoveries she made, which was thrilling, was the intimacy of the speech. The proposition of the scene is formal: a man in authority receives a family and says, 'What do you want?' And I always thought he should be surrounded by his soldiers, with her kneeling about five or six feet away. And she tried it, and then she said, 'I think I need to be closer.' So we tried that. And then it became this amazing thing where she looked up and spoke to me softly."
"The director offers up something," Fiennes added. "The actor takes it, and makes a discovery, and the director takes it. I just managed not to fuck it up, and made sure it was in focus!"
Fiennes drew inspiration from many of his past directors -- David Cronenberg, Istvan Szabo, Anthony Minghella, and Fernando Meirelles especially -- but his biggest influence on the look of "Coriolanus" was "The Hurt Locker," because they shared cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. From there, his second biggest influence was "The Battle of Algiers," for the documentary feel.
"I knew we'd have tough shooting days -- crowd scenes, battle scenes -- and I knew Barry had the right compositional eye," Fiennes said. "He would find a frame that was fantastic. I mean, I had ideas about certain scenes, and I offered them up, but sometimes they weren't very good, and he would say, 'Let's do this.' I could be wrong about something, and he would open it up."
Fiennes created a look-book for the film from news pictures in The Herald Tribune, "my favorite newspaper." "I started to tear out newspaper images that were very strong, war imagery, the Iraq conflict, soldiers, dust, demonstrations," he said, "and politicians, the mad loopy pictures of the suits glad-handing. All of that fed into this catalogue of imagery, of what we're all receiving through the media, and it seemed to work."
From those pictures, Fiennes knew he wanted very specific light sources and strong shadows, and in one scene that takes place in an underground bunker, a mythical undertow. "A stranger arrives, and you have someone washing and cutting his hair," he said. "It's a weird sequence. Is it possibly taking place in Coriolanus' head? Or not? So I wanted an extremely wide lens to distort that a bit."
Back to that shaving-the-head scenes, Fiennes said he hopes a "gentle homoerotic undertone" comes across. "I don't want to hammer it home, but it's there," he said.
The two characters profess to hate each other, but at the same time, have a grudging admiration for each other. "I think there's a hint of unconscious attraction," Fiennes said. "In an early scene, Coriolanus says, 'Were I anything but what I am, I would wish me only he.' "
Fiennes said the attraction is further supported by the original text, such as the scene in which Aufidius greets Coriolanus and says, "Let me twine/Mine arms about that body," and then later compares his reaction of seeing him to that of a lover:
But that I see thee here, Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart Than when I first my wedded mistress saw Bestride my threshold
"So woven alongside their rivalry and apparent hatred is this,” Fiennes said. “You can’t help but feel it’s there. It’s definitely there in the text. It can be misleading, because it’s full of romantic language. Aufidius uses the ‘fisting’ word:
We have been down together in my sleep, Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat, And waked half dead with nothing.
But he's not meaning it in the gay sense. That's misleading. But he's been dreaming about Coriolanus and he's obsessed with him. It's unquestionably there."
Fiennes said he wrestled with the subtext, and at one point in an earlier version of the script, was going to have Coriolanus cut his own throat to deny Aufidius the death stroke. "But then I realized, no, Aufidius must. He's got to do it. And it's meant to be deliberate that it's a cradling, an embrace, a penetrative act of the knife going in."
Fiennes worked out the fight scenes between Coriolanus and Aufidius to be "very intense, very hot, very smoky," he said.
"Having decided that this adaptation was modern dress with guns, they could obviously just meet each other and shoot each other," he said. "But then that would be the end of the story. In the story, they need a confrontation, so we can understand their hatred and physical rivalry. In the play, it's swords, so I needed to create a fight with blades that we could buy."
So while the two characters are armed with guns, "they know it's a moment of reckoning, and they have a little interchange," Fiennes said. "If you pull a blade, it's more of a challenge, and that's when the fight starts."
A Serbian officer in charge of the authenticity of the battle scenes was on hand, and when Fiennes explained what was going to happen, he shook his head. Imitating a Serbian accent, Fiennes said, "'No, no, no. Now you are making movie.' "
"Coriolonaus" opens in limited release on December 2nd, and will go wide on January 20, 2012.