Ralph Fiennes On Taking Risks With 'Coriolanus'

Jan 22, 2012
Originally published on January 22, 2012 9:06 pm

For his directorial debut, actor Ralph Fiennes brings William Shakespeare's work to the big screen with a modern adaptation of Coriolanus. Fiennes also stars as the eponymous Roman general, a role he played on the stage 11 years ago.

The original play, Fiennes tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, is complex.

"I had this feeling that if you were to clear away a lot of the denser passages, and shorten it and edit it, you are left actually with a very visceral, sinewy political thriller," Fiennes says.

Fiennes worked closely with screenwriter John Logan, best known for co-writing the Academy Award-winning Gladiator and writing Hugo, on interpreting the play and turning it into a modern-day tragedy for the big screen. Remaining loyal to Shakespeare's original language and verse was seen as a risk by many in Hollywood.

"Some producers and people did ask me would I rewrite the project," Fiennes says. "I carry a flag for Shakespeare's verse. It was the reason I became an actor, because I was moved and excited by Shakespeare's language and Shakespeare's stories."

Fiennes' career as an actor is impressive and extensive, but he'd never directed himself in a film. Coriolanus forced Fiennes to watch himself closely, analyzing his acting in a way that he never had before.

"You are confronted with all kinds of facial takes, vocal mannerism, things that make you embarrassed, recoil," Fiennes says. "That was painful and I still feel slightly awkward when I see myself up there, but I felt I learned a lot about acting."

In both the movie and the play, the character of Coriolanus is filled with an enduring rage. Fiennes says this rage, both thrilling and terrifying, makes the role difficult.

Fiennes has played some of the most critically acclaimed villains on screen. In Schindler's List, he earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Amon Goth; in recent years, he made his mark as Lord Voldemort, the dark wizard in the Harry Potter movies. But when NPR's Raz asked Fiennes about his dream role, his answer veered from the roles for which he's known.

"What I really would love is the unknown part, the part that's going to be written," Fiennes says. "I guess I'd love to be surprised by something I had never thought of."

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Eleven years ago, the actor Ralph Fiennes took a break from the big screen and headed to the stage where he played one of Shakespeare's most controversial roles. "Coriolanus" is the story of a Roman hero who rises to lead his people only to be banished shortly after. Coriolanus leaves with a sense of betrayal and joins forces with an enemy of Rome to invade his own city.

Now, the play was so controversial that some European countries banned it after the Second World War because they felt it had fascist overtones. But Ralph Fiennes is not one to shy away from complex roles, and in "Coriolanus," he adapted the ancient story to the recent past. The characters are modern, so are the weapons, but the speech is strictly Shakespearian. And Fiennes didn't just star in it. He also directed it.

RALPH FIENNES: People were surprised when I arrived and sort of tested it as an idea because it's one of Shakespeare's plays that people don't know so well. And if they do, they often find it very difficult. But I have this feeling that if you were to clear away all the dense passages and shorten it and edit it, you're left actually with a very visceral, sinewy, political thriller with this extraordinary mother/son dynamic at the center of it.

RAZ: He is a terrifying character.

FIENNES: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And the way you portray him quite possibly makes him even more terrifying. I want to just play a clip from the film.


FIENNES: (As Coriolanus) You common cry of curs whose breath I hate as reeks of the rotten fens, whose loves I prize as the dead carcasses of unburied men that do corrupt my air, I banish you.

RAZ: Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes, is angry for most of the some neck veins bulging. I mean, your face goes back and forth in the film between a kind of stoic rage and a violent rage.


RAZ: How did you get into that mindset as an actor?

FIENNES: The rage of Coriolanus is actually hard to play. It's also thrilling and terrifying. The adrenaline that I think the part gives an actor is extraordinary, but it is a terrifying piece. And I think we are living in terrifying times.

RAZ: This was your directorial debut, and I wonder what the pressures were like for you as a director versus what they are like for you as an actor working on someone else's film. Say the film doesn't work, you know, for example. Is that something that you sort of carry on your shoulders?

FIENNES: Of course. You've put something together and you're responsible in a way for the interpretation, for the making of it. But, you know, things not working, call it failure, I mean, that's - you learn from these things. And they can be painful and disappointing, but they're part and parcel of doing this kind of work. This is a risky project and risk often involves, you know, the perception that something doesn't work.

RAZ: Ralph Fiennes, I want to talk to you about risk taking because this film obviously is very - I say obviously because I've seen it. But for those who haven't, it's loyal to Shakespeare. It's set in the modern era, but it's - the language is Shakespeare's language. Did you ever, at any moment, consider modernizing the language?

FIENNES: It came up in discussions very early on when I was pitching the project to some producers and people did ask me would I rewrite the dialogue. I carry a flag for Shakespeare's verse, so...

RAZ: This is how you began as an actor.


RAZ: Stage actor.

FIENNES: It was the reason I became an actor, I feel sure, is because I was moved and excited by Shakespeare's language, Shakespeare's stories. In the same way that other people are moved by rock music or sports. This was it for me. It was Shakespeare. And then, you know, drama and films, but my ambition when I started was to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford in the U.K. I didn't have any ambition much beyond that.

RAZ: When you directed "Coriolanus," you had to watch yourself every day after the shoots on screen and work closely with an editor. What did you learn about yourself as an actor that you didn't know?

FIENNES: Oh, God. Well, you're confronted with all kinds of sort of facial tics, vocal mannerisms, things that...

RAZ: Things that make you recoil or critic?

FIENNES: Yes. Yeah, things that make you embarrassed, recoil, why do I do that, you know. You analyze things a lot when you're editing, I learned. The editing process was the biggest learning curve for me in all of this, and that was painful. It was painful. And I still feel slightly awkward when I see myself up there. I don't feel comfortable.

But it was - I felt I learned a lot about acting, about, you know, screen acting as - I think the best screen performances, they find a kind of simplicity. That can be really strong.

RAZ: My guest is actor Ralph Fiennes. He stars and directs in the modern day film adaptation of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus." I want to ask you about the legendary Vanessa Redgrave who plays Coriolanus' mother in the film. And I want to play a clip from the film for a moment.


FIENNES: (As Coriolanus) I will not do it lest I cease to honor mine own truth and by my body's action teach my mind the most inherent baseness.

VANESSA REDGRAVE: (As Volumnia) At thy choice, then. To beg of thee, it is more my dishonor than thou of them. Come all to ruin. Let thy mother rather feel thy pride than fear thy dangerous stoutness, for I mock at death with as big heart as thou. Do as you like.

RAZ: She is extraordinary in this film...


RAZ: ...Ralph Fiennes. I mean, you are working with somebody you probably watched as a student. Was it intimidating directing somebody like her?

FIENNES: I suppose, initially, I felt a degree of something close to intimidation, but just wanting not to mess it up.

RAZ: Yeah, right.

FIENNES: You know, she comes to this sort of material, Shakespeare's text, with such extraordinary profound sensitivity and alertness to the truth of any one word. And every take was different, and it was always an exploration. And that's what I love about her performance, you know? It's ungilded. It comes from someplace of extraordinary truth in her.

RAZ: You have played some of the most critically acclaimed villains in recent years, obviously, Amon Goth from "Schindler's List," Lord Voldemort and Coriolanus, I would add to that. Do you see those kinds of roles as your strength as an actor?

FIENNES: What, villain roles?

RAZ: Yeah.


FIENNES: No. I have played men who are not...

RAZ: Right.

FIENNES: ...all bad, but at the moment, it must look like I'm always playing the bad guy. I never felt Coriolanus was a bad guy. I think he's an extreme figure. Lord Voldemort is, of course, you know, absolutely the bad guy, Mr. Evil. I mean, he's sort of a satanic figure.

RAZ: And obviously, one of your most famous roles is the count in "The English Patient."

FIENNES: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: You were not a bad guy.

FIENNES: No. But I'm morally conflicted...

RAZ: Right.

FIENNES: ...maybe, but not bad. And the part that I - one of the parts I loved playing was an exceptionally decent man called Justin Quayle in the "Constant Gardener." And that's a part that really spoke to my heart, and the whole project did as well.

RAZ: Are you at a point in your career where you want to focus on specific types of roles, or are you always looking to kind of push yourself in the direction that might test your comfort level, you know, more comedy for example, or - I mean, what would...

FIENNES: That would really test my comfort level. I've never felt - I mean, I have actually chosen two comic pieces that I have enjoyed being in. One was a darkly comic film "In Bruges." On the London stage, I played, in a Yasmina Reza play, "God of Carnage."

RAZ: Is it hard for you to do comedy?

FIENNES: It's not instinctive. I mean, if I'm given the right part and the setting is right and the good director can unlock stuff that can be funny, that's fine. But that's - there are people who can just be funny...

RAZ: Right.

FIENNES: ...and I'm not one of them.


RAZ: What would your dream role be right now?

FIENNES: Well, of course, there are all these great classic parts that exist, and I guess I come - having - as I said earlier on, you know, having wanted to be an actor because of Shakespeare, I still eye a handful of Shakespeare parts I would love to get into in the next 10, 15, 20 years perhaps. But I think what I really would love is the unknown part, the part that's going to be written. I guess I'd love to be surprised by something, something I'd never thought of.

RAZ: That's the actor and director Ralph Fiennes. His new film, "Coriolanus," is in theaters now. Ralph Fiennes, thank you so much for being with us.

FIENNES: Thank you, Guy. It's been great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.