By FABIAN WAINTAL
Front Row Features Special Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD—It’s been more than 20 years since Ralph Fiennes starred in the Academy Award winning drama “The English Patient” set in Egypt. He was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, but Geoffrey Rush won that year for “Shine.” Although it was actually filmed in Tunisia and Italy, the film put the spotlight on Egypt. Fiennes finally arrived in Egypt for the Cairo International Film Festival to release his new movie “The White Crow,” about the famous Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and his defection to the U.S. The film is due in theaters April 26.
I caught up with acclaimed actor/filmmaker at the festival where he talked about his new film. He also reminisced about working with Steven Spielberg on “Schindler’s List” and how Robert Redford courted him for “Quiz Show” as well as how his sister had an important role in convincing him to play Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” films.
Q: As the director of “The White Crow,” how was it that you chose professional ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko instead of an actor as the star of your movie?
Fiennes: From the beginning, I was quite clear I wanted a dancer who could act, and I believed and I prayed that there would be some young man out there who could fill this role. We did a big casting sweep through Russian ballet companies, Russian-speaking ballet companies, Russian dance schools. Our two casting directors met many young dancers and I met a few of those. From there, we reduced it to five people in the end. (With) Oleg, we identified him quite early on as someone to look at and then his screen test was very, very good. Quite quickly, I had a very strong feeling about him. He understood things very quickly. And yes, we had to do quite a bit of work and had to work again with him through the screenplay. He is a lead dancer, so his dancing is strong. We were blessed with a young man who had an innate screen-acting ability with a physical closeness to Nureyev and who was a good dancer. With a lot of work, like any screen performance, the editing nurtures the performance as well. But he has a great talent.
Q: “The White Crow” delves into the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union. Does it have any political and social message?
Fiennes: I don’t have a political message. I’m interested in the inner-spirit of people. Who are we if we’re artists? Who are we if we’re individuals? I’m interested in any story that touches on the pain and the beauty of being human.
Q: Did you ever think about working in a capacity that wasn’t artistic at all, before you decided to become an actor?
Fiennes: No. My mother was a writer and my father was a photographer. They’ve both passed on, but I was lucky enough to be brought up in an atmosphere of encouragement in things artistic and so as children we were encouraged to draw, paint and express ourselves, because as a totally non-scientific, non-mathematical atmosphere, the visual arts were particularly present as a stimulation. But both my parents encouraged all of us children to have the confidence, to explore each of our passions, our interests. So, we were lucky. We were never steered in any direction, but allowed to discover things for ourselves.
Q: How did you discover you had the acting bug?
Fiennes: I went to art school and in my late teens and found myself focusing on drawing and painting more than anything else. I acted a bit at school. When I left school, I went to art school for a year, and on the foundation course—in the U.K. often before you do a degree in either fine art or design or photography or fashion you do a foundation course where you’re given the opportunity to try different areas of the visual arts. That was the case in 1981. I found myself doing one little project, which was something like a stage-set or something close to a stage-set. It was a version of a painting that when I pushed it, it became like a stage-set and someone said, “Maybe you should do stage design,” and I thought “Okay,” and I took a stage design course in London.
I realized, as I looked at all these designs by students and I realized I didn’t want to design the stage, I wanted to be on the stage. That was a moment of clarity. I’d grown up listening to my mother playing recordings of (veteran stage and screen actor) Laurence Olivier and recordings of poems and language as dramatic expression. So, my interest in acting was a theatrical one. It wasn’t cinematic at all. I then got involved in an amateur youth group and played Romeo and was in a production of “The Phantom of the Opera” and that gave me the confidence to audition for drama school.
Q: Last year was the 25th anniversary of “Schindler’s List,” which was re-released in theaters in December. What was it like to receive that Steven Spielberg first call?
Fiennes: I was a very lucky actor. I had these two (other) roles and then I heard that Steven Spielberg was casting “Schindler’s List,” and someone pointed me in his direction or him in my direction, and I remember meeting him in London. I had not read the Thomas Keneally book “Schindler’s Ark,” but I went to meet Steven and I remember having a very warm and open discussion with him. It was not, as you might think, intimidated. He was incredibly warm and open and engaging and, shortly after that I was asked to screen-test for Amon Goeth. In fact, they sent me some of the text from the script. It’d been made into a speech, so it was like a little monologue in which I had to direct myself. I had to go to a recording studio and direct myself in this screen-test and then send it off and then I heard that it was okay.
Q: He is the worst of villains and yet there are these iconic scenes where you don’t play him as the monster that he was. Was that always the plan?
Fiennes: I don’t think when I was filming it that I was thinking that. I was concentrating on this character. One of the things that Steven Spielberg quite emphatic about is he wanted the audience to see that this sort of man was a human being. When you’re portraying someone like that, the disturbing thing is that these people are human beings with relationships with others, with children. They have boring lives. They put on their clothes. And so, if you’re inside that person, you have to somehow put away your judgment, because you’re being them and that’s a different perspective.
Q: You became a movie star pretty fast after that. How well do you remember those years and what stands out for those times?
Fiennes: It’s like a roller coaster, because that film was an extraordinary hit, and so every connected with that film. Me and my friend, Ben Kingsley, everyone was caught up in an extraordinary response to the film and then the after effects were that people were interested to cast us in other parts. It was exciting now that I think about it. I was a little bit tied up. My mother died just after “Schindler’s List” came out, so that was obviously a big blow. Somehow, I had these opportunities being presented to me when I also lost the person who had been my main motivator as an actor.
Q: How was the transition from Steven Spielberg to Robert Redford and the movie “Quiz Show?”
Fiennes: That was interesting because as I was finishing, “Schindler’s List” I got a call to go to New York and audition for Robert Redford for “Quiz Show.” The part was for this very clean-cut young American intellectual. I’ve never been very confident in an American accent, and I was excited that Robert Redford was even considering me, but I had the Nazi haircut, very short, and I put on a bit of weight deliberately. I didn’t feel at all like a clean-cut young American, but I got on a plane I remember flying and I think Steven (Spielberg) did not like me going off to meet Robert Redford before I had finished his film. I can understand it, now, as a director that you’re very possessive of your actors. But I got on a plane, it was my first time to New York, which was extraordinary.
Suddenly, I’m meeting Mr. Redford. He was very charming and I read for him and tested for him and then flew back (to Poland to finish shooting “Schindler’s List.”). Shortly after, I got a call from Redford saying, “You’re great. I’d like you to play the part.” I was very excited and, subconsciously, I started eating less. So, one day Steven said to me “Ralph, you’re losing weight.” (After “Schindler’s List” wrapped), I went straight from Poland to New York and did a rapid weight-loss routine. If you look at the film, you’ll see scenes in “Quiz Show” are the first scenes we shot and I’m a little bit chubbier than I am in the rest of the film.
Q: Arthur Miller said famously that a character is defined by the kind of challenges he cannot walk away from.
Fiennes: That’s very interesting. It makes me think about people. It suggests to me that what you can’t walk away from is the thing which is in you that you can’t alter or a situation that you can’t change. My response to that quote is to think about not exterior context but that within the human being which they can’t shift or change, they can’t change their own interior DNA even if they might struggle with it because I’m interested in the characters who are caught up with interior contradictions.
Q: You have this incredible body of work and yet, probably you’ve garnered the most amount of fans by playing Lord Voldemort in “Harry Potter.” How did you get cast for that and what was that process like?
Fiennes: The “Harry Potter” franchise had already started, they had already had the CGI Voldemort coming out of someone’s head in the early films. But then they wanted a real flesh and blood Voldemort. I was asked to consider the part. I didn’t know the “Harry Potter” books, I hadn’t read them. I am afraid to say initially I thought, “This isn’t for me.” Then, I was speaking with my sister, Martha, who has three children, and I told her, “I’ve got this Voldemort thing in ‘Harry Potter.’ I don’t know what to think about it.” She said, “What are you talking about? Voldemort? Ralph, it’s Voldemort. Don’t you realize?” Then, I sort of reorganized my head space. The casting director was very persistent. She said, “You should do this part. You must do this part.” But, the thing that really sort of clinched it was actually looking at drawings they had done for the look of Voldemort that looked very scary and impressive. Then, I completely changed my mind, and I loved playing Voldemort. It was fun.
Q: How involved were you with say, advice on makeup or what you were wearing to sort of get into the character?
Fiennes: J.K. Rowling has a lot of say in those films, so every element of it is run by her. You’re not told that, but the producers will say, “Well, J.K. thinks this” or “It’s important to her…” So, the production is very specific, and the directors and producers are all sharing and collaborating. I quickly understood was the fan base was huge, therefore they are expecting the books to be delivered. They don’t want to be disappointed in the way the films realize the books that they’ve been reading. I already thought the franchise was a success. I guess I realized that to hear that I hadn’t messed up yet.
“The White Crow” is slated to open in theaters April 26, 2019.