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Ralph Fiennes Career Watch: from 'Schindler's List' and Mile-High Antics to 'Grand Budapest Hotel'

Photo of Susan Wloszczyna By Susan Wloszczyna | Thompson on Hollywood March 10, 2014 at 2:52PM

Ralph Fiennes carries Wes Anderson's indie period comedy 'Grand Budapest Hotel' on his able shoulders. We examine Fiennes' career from his breakout role in "Schindler's List" through "The English Patient" and his recent turn to directing. Where should he go from here?
Ralph Fiennes in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Ralph Fiennes in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Schindler's List
'Schindler's List'
Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in 'The Invisible Woman'
Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones in 'The Invisible Woman'

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. 

This article is related to: Ralph Fiennes, Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Career Watch, The Invisible Woman, Coriolanus

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.