Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Once again, our pal Mr. Beaks has provided AICN with the first half of an interview to support this week’s release of THE CONSTANT GARDENER. You can find the second half over on Collider.com, but first, check this out:
Perhaps the most flattering compliment one can pay Ralph Fiennes is that he so quickly overcame what could’ve been a career stifling consignment to “banality of evil” roles after his chillingly effective portrayal of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, going on to become a bona fide leading man in such uncommonly intelligent studio fare as Quiz Show, The English Patient and The End of the Affair. Meanwhile, the biggest shock may be that he hasn’t won an Oscar for any of these indelible performances.
That could very well change with The Constant Gardener, in which he plays Justin Quayle, an emotionally remote British diplomat who’s spurred to pursue a life-threatening investigation into his wife Tessa’s mysterious death in Kenya. It’s impossible for Fiennes to be revelatory at this late date, but it’s conceivable that he’s as good as he’s ever been in this sharp adaptation of John le Carre’s bestselling novel.
I had the great pleasure to chat with Mr. Fiennes at The Four Seasons two weeks ago, and found him in an admirably cheerful mood after having endured the patience eroding gauntlet known as taping an episode of The Tonight Show. Below, we discuss his penchant for doomed romances, Fernando Meirelles’s unique directorial style, “He Who Must Not Be Named”, and the curmudgeonly David Thomson. Here comes the Ralph!
I don’t know if this is by design, but you’ve been the leading man in some of the great doomed romances of our time – The English Patient, Sunshine, The End of the Affair and, now, The Constant Gardener. Are you just naturally fatalistic, or are these just the roles that are being offered?
I suppose. I mean, I don’t consciously think, “Oh, this is another doomed leading man” when I sign up. I was certainly very moved in this role, playing Justin Quayle. I read the book first, and I just found the way that he decides to conclude things very moving. When I read it, I didn’t know where it was going. I knew he was sort of tracing, as it were, his investigation to its conclusion, but I just didn’t know… and the film is very faithful to that ending. Not all of these characters I play die.
They may not die, but they always seem to have a sense of finality even as they pursue these things.
Yes, yes. I think there’s something about that quality of finality that appeals to me. I know what you mean; although, I have to say, in Sunshine, there were three characters, and the final character, to me, there was no sense of doom there. There was just a man who’s been very, very confused, and then, through a lot of confusion and difficulty, to retrieve his name, his family name that his family had given up. It’s a Jewish name: Sonnenschein. And when I read that, I thought it was a fantastic sense of affirmation of oneself, and one’s background and culture. Whatever you want to call it, it was an act of defining oneself. It had an element of fate about it, I suppose, but to me it was very, very positive.
But the journey certainly was very rough.
The journey was rough, but I learned a lot on that film from IstvÃ¡n SzabÃ³, who directed it. The first two roles in that, I could kind of imaginatively get a grip on, because they were pre-communist period [Hungary]. But the last part, which was the Soviet time in Hungary, I had no references at all in my own life whatsoever for what that world was like, and that’s when I depended on IstvÃ¡n, who knew that.
Here, you were depending on Fernando Meirelles, and, from what I’ve gathered, he calls action and lets the actors run with the material. This is not to suggest that it’s improvisational, but his approach does sound very freeing.
It’s freeing, but it’s also very thought through. I know that he and CÃ©sar [Charlone] talked; I believe there was a lot of preparation about the palette of the film, where they would shoot, the style of the film. They had worked together on City of God, so they already had a strong partnership in place. They certainly have a style where the actors can completely play a scene, and they would follow the actors and not hamper themselves with too much complicated lighting so that they could move the camera in a second if they felt that CÃ©sar would suddenly decide to come in at a different angle. And you had to just ignore it. I found it great, because it freed us up to just play a scene. The scene with Rachel and I in the bedroom of our child-to-be, which sadly doesn’t happen – we’re discussing the name of our child, and we just moved and played it differently. I mean, we loosely followed a shape, but it changed. It was a bit like improvising. Not only did we improvise around the text, we also improvised our [blocking]. We did it differently each time. You sort of knew the camera was there, but, as a film actor, you develop a healthy, proper alertness to the camera that doesn’t make you too self-conscious in an inhibiting way. It’s just an awareness. I think it’s like having the awareness of an audience. You’re aware of your audience – their mood, their energy, where they are – and the same with the camera.
When you talk about being free to move about without worrying too much about the placement of the camera, I imagine that’s much different from working with someone like Anthony Minghella, who is very particular with his compositions. The metaphors, the themes – everything is so rigorously thought out in his movies.
That would basically be true, yes.
So, how does contrast with Meirelles’s approach, and do you have a preference?
No, I don’t in the sense that, first off, I love Visconti films. I love them. I mean, these are setups that must’ve taken ages. I love that. I also like films like Amores Perros and 21 Grams, where you feel as if you’re on a roller coaster. It was a new experience, the camera being looser and being freer, and I liked it. Part of the challenge with very, very composed shots which are then repeated a few times, the danger is that you get comfortable; you the shot, you’ve done it a number of times, and you can start to feel like you’re losing your edge. The challenge is to keep it. The director and the cameraman are dissecting a conceived shot and the movement of the camera, and I think that’s sometimes frustrating if you’ve given the performance, but they’re still trying to get the shot. Then the performance isn’t quite as spontaneous.
I don’t know if I have a preference, but doing this, I just thought, “I feel freer, I don’t have to know if I that do this I’m out of my light. There can be that inhibiting thing with complicated light setups, but actors have to live with inhibiting factors all the time. Even in the theater, you can’t do what you want. Within the framework of any given situation, there are degrees of freedom which allow for spontaneity.
In theater, lighting is very particular.
Yeah, you can walk out of your light on stage. You can have rehearsed a moment, and then you can suddenly think you’re being free and experimental, and, suddenly, no one can see you. (Laughs)
This was interesting to me: David Thomson, in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, commented that your performances are marked by a “lacerating intelligence.” But then he also remarks that you sometimes act as if you “would rather be off-screen”.
I hated what he wrote about me. I read that. He also says, “He won’t bear his soul, but he’ll take his clothes off”, or something crappy like that. (That’s the gist of it. The full entry: “Others remark on the extraordinary opportunities he has had, coupled with the strange reticence – call it a lack of stamina, a kind of metaphysical disinterest, or a reluctance to expose himself. (I mean his spirit – he takes his clothes off regularly.))
I always felt a great deal of wariness with your characters, but they never struck me as—
No, I remember reading that thing of his, and it pissed me off, actually, because real people aren’t behaving as if they want to be on camera. I love watching interviews, any interview with a politician, and what happens behind the eyes. This is really acting. They aren’t splurging their emotions out. Suddenly, bursts of things can happen, shadows cross a face when someone’s provoked in an uncomfortable situation. But I suppose the screen performances I like are when I want to know what’s happening, when I’m not being told everything about [the character]. Some people feel as if they’re not getting enough of the juice, of the raw, and I think “horses for courses”. Certainly, IstvÃ¡n SzabÃ³ would be someone who loathed it if he felt you were overly demonstrating any sense of the theatrical. He just wanted to look for the finest shades of feeling or thought. And I loved that approach. I thought, “This seems right!” As I’m looking at your face right now – you’re listening, but you’re receiving. Oh, now you just smiled a bit. Something’s happening, but you’re not showing me that you’re listening; you’re just being. (Laughs)
(Laughing) Being held rapt.