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Capone converses with the fiercely charming Ralph Fiennes about IN BRUGES!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago. Is there anything that Ralph Fiennes can't do and can't do well? So far, he hasn't given us a poor performance, even in some of his less-than-stellar films, of which there are few. But most of the time, he's at the top of his game as one of the most significant and weighty actors working today. SCHINDLER'S LIST, THE BABY OF MACON, QUIZ SHOW, STRANGE DAYS, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, SUNSHINE, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, SPIDER, RED DRAGON, THE CHUMSCRUBBER, THE CONSTANT GARDENER, the WALLACE AND GROMIT movie, and so far just this year, HBO's BERNARD AND DORIS and Martin McDonagh's exceptional IN BRUGES. Oh, and let's not forget his delightfully evil turn as Lord Voldemort in the last two HARRY POTTER offerings. And wait until you see what he's got lined up for the next year or so. My conversation with Fiennes was interesting for many reasons. Although the interview was arranged (in connection with IN BRUGES opening wider) by a publicist, he actually called me directly from London, where he's currently rehearing a play called "God of Carnage," set to open in March. Since he wasn't in the midst of a proper publicity tour, we actually got a bit more time to talk. As far as I was aware, we had no time limit at all, something that happens so infrequently, I'll admit I ran out of questions at about the half-hour mark. I'd expected someone more shy and restrained than the man I spoke to. He seems keenly aware of his public image and the status of his career over the years, and he has a great sense of humor about all of it. Few actors play villains as convincingly as Fiennes, and even when he's playing someone more heroic, he infuses his characters with dark corners that make them seem more vulnerable and human. With IN BRUGES, he's clearly having fun playing Harry, a crazed mobster who comes to the small Belgian town to kill a hitman in his employ who killed the wrong person during a job for him. It's one of the purest comic performances Fiennes has ever given, and it's one of his scariest. Enjoy the hell out of my conversation with Ralph Fiennes… Capone: Hello?
Ralph Fiennes: Hello. Ralph Fiennes calling.
Capone: I'd expected a publicist's voice, but this will have to do.
RF: [laughs]
Capone: I don't know if you've spoken to [IN BRUGES writer-director] Martin McDonagh recently, but we did a really fun Q&A thing here in Chicago a couple of weeks back, and he had some fun stories about working with you.
RF: Oh really. Did he?
Capone: He did. In fact, he mentioned to me that there was originally more of a backstory between Harry and the priest.
RF: That's right.
Capone: Was that something that was filmed, or something that was just in the script? What do you remember when you heard about that history between them?
RF: Actually, I don't know if it was shot even. [pause to consider] I guess it must have been shot, and then maybe they just took it out.
Capone: Now that I think about it, any such backstory wouldn't have involved you in the filming, since it was supposed to be an incident between the priest and Harry as a young boy.
RF: No, but it was definitely intriguing, and it definitely made you…funnily enough when I saw the film, I didn't lose any sleep over the fact that they'd cut it out. But when you read the screenplay, it made you understand the anger in Harry and his obsession with anyone killing a child has to shoot himself. It gave him a peculiar moral center of his own [laughs].
Capone: There are so many contradictions with Harry. He's part common thug, part sophisticated businessman. He's slightly sociopathic, but he's got this lovely family. Did you relish in these opposed sides of Harry?
RF: Yeah, I think they're very true of people, not everyone maybe, but I think most of us have our opposing sides. And I love it when the writing really shows up different aspects of a character in keen opposition. I can't explain it, but I can completely buy that there is the family man and then there's the business side with a set of business principles, and absolutely he operates by them like a code. I watched that wonderful British gangster film THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, where you get a sense of that world with the Bob Hoskins character, where he has his girlfriend and he has his friends, and then there's the tougher business side.
Capone: I seem to recall that particular film coming up in my discussion with Martin.
RF: It's not a million miles from what Coppola showed us in THE GODFATHER, the intense family relationships and affection amongst family, and then the very ruthless of application of a business code that may involve killing people.
Capone: You're certainly no stranger to playing these darker parts, but in looking through a list of the films you have been in over the years, even when you play less villainous characters, you seem to find that dark center to people you portray. Is that something you seek out, do you add that, or is that just a part of you?
RF: I think probably I always ask myself "What else is going on here?", if I can. I think good writing will make you ask those questions. It might even be that the writer hasn't even thought of it, but it's just there. I'm doing this play at the moment about two couples who meet to discuss why one of their sons has injured the other son, and then they collide. But I'm realizing in the writing, there are lot of different choices you can make about who someone is and play up the contradictions in people. I feel it when I look around me, and I watch people and hear conversations. And I even notice in myself massive contradictions and huge mood swings--from psychopathic frustration with someone to being very happy to see someone and pour affection in someone's direction. I think in good writing those contradictions are there. And Martin very clearly puts them there, but I believe it.
Capone: Martin also mentioned that you had a very good time in what he said was your first gunfight. Is that true? I know you've fired guns in films before, but I'm assuming he means in a proper gun battle, running around shooting at people.
RF: [laughs] I have to confess to a pathetic boyish glee having run down the street shooting blanks at Colin Farrell. But I could never catch up with him; he's very, very fast, and I was never a runner, so he outran me every time.
Capone: I know that Colin and Brendan Gleeson did about three weeks of rehearsal before shooting began. Were you a part of that?
RF: No. For some reason, I wasn't. Oh, I was in Australia doing something at the Sydney Festival, so I came in about two weeks into the shoot. I know that Brendan and Colin had some in-depth rehearsal time with Martin. I did have some rehearsal time with Martin, but it was after a shooting day, so it was more like going through scenes in a room in a hotel.
Capone: There was definitely a time in the mid-1990s where you were on what seemed like a very particular--some might say predictable--path, career-wise. You probably could have written your own ticket in Hollywood and been a leading man in every film you made for as long as you wanted. And it seemed like you deliberately and admirably shifted away from that path. You took chances with more untested directors, took some more interesting supporting parts, and did more experimental films like SPIDER. Was that deliberate?
RF: I think it was a mix of things. I'll take something because I have a gut feeling about something. And it could be any number of things that fuel that. It could be the director; usually it's the script and the character, but it's just an instinctive feeling. Sometimes I've been wrong about stuff. But I haven't planned anything. I think there's an instinct that goes, "Well, I did something like that last time, so maybe I will look for something in the opposite direction." Sometimes, I've done things, and people will say…like when I did THE END OF THE AFFAIR, people said, "Oh, that's a bit like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, isn't it, another love affair?" I could see that they would say that, but I didn't feel like it was the same story at all, and I just did it because I love Graham Greene, I love [director] Neil Jordan, and Julianne Moore was in it. So it's just a feeling, really. And I love being in a play, and I've tried to make time to do plays that I wanted to do.
Capone: I guess what I'm wondering was if you ever made the decision not to go down a certain path toward what might appear to be a certain level of stardom.
RF: Well, yeah. But there was also a time when I'd done a number of things that hadn't been huge box offices successes, and you definitely notice a little chill going on. In that way, I was always glad that I had theater things happening. I did this double-bill of "Richard II" and "Coriolanus" about eight years ago, which I loved doing. And each project has its own little history in my head about why I did it, and something like SPIDER was something I read quite a long time before I made it. I love the book by Patrick McGrath, and for a long time I was attached to it. And there were a few times when I thought it would never happen, and as soon as David Cronenberg was interested in it, it took off. And I've done a couple of things recently that haven't done well, but you read a script and you like it, and I never regret those things, never.
Capone: Forgive me for saying this, but you do seem like you are so careful about the scripts that you choose, and I'm still trying to figure out how you got involved in MAID IN MANHATTAN. There were no dark corners in that character.
RF: I looked desperately to find the dark side, but I couldn't find it. [laughs]
Capone: That being said, there are a lot of American's who only know you from that movie, which makes me cringe.
RF: I know. It's funny meeting different people who have different tastes. The people who love SPIDER could not understand why I did MAID IN MANHATTAN. And then there are people, as you say, who see MAID IN MANHATTAN and nothing else, and they come up to me and say how much they loved it.
Capone: Of course. And you certainly can't ignore high-profile crowd pleasers. Speaking of which, all bets are basically off now that you're a part of the Harry Potter experience. Now, I'll admit I'm not the Harry Potter reader on our site, but I've enjoyed the movies, especially the last two. Are you even in THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE?
RF: The one they're shooting now, no, I'm not in it.
Capone: So it's just your nephew that's playing…
RF: My nephew is playing, I think just for a couple of scenes, the younger Voldemort [Tom Riddle]. I understand that the bulk of the bulk of the backstory of Voldemort is played by another, slightly older actor [Frank Dillane].
Capone: And have you signed on for the final film yet?
RF: I have not yet, no.
Capone: Has it been fun seeing yourself rendered serpentine for the two films your are in?
RF: Yeah, I particularly liked doing the first one. The second one, I think Voldemort is placed more as a sense in Harry's head, whereas in the first one I did with Mike Newell directing, there was that fantastic scene of his rebirth in the graveyard, which I enjoyed doing. I've enjoyed making the movies, but I was never an avid reader of the books. It just wasn't something I went towards. When I went to the premiere of the first one I did, I got a real sense of the extraordinary nature of it all.
Capone: Were there small children in the audience screaming at the site of you?
RF: Yes! The volume of people and the noise and excitement; it was a huge phenomenon, the whole thing is definitely. And I actually think that the David Yates-directed one, the last one, was particularly good. I liked the style of it; it was grown up. and had an edge to it, the way it was shot and lit. It's a franchise that could so easily have not developed, but I think just filmicly it has been developed, and the producers have been very smart to keep it alive and present and edgy.
Capone: I actually saw IN BRUGES within a week of seeing BERNARD AND DORIS, which just premiered on HBO. Between those two films, your range really comes through. And that's a fascinating character, Bernard Lafferty. Did that film play in theaters in some parts of the world?
RF: No, no. It never did. We made it for a shoestring hoping it would get picked up, but it wasn't. But HBO loved it and got really behind it. I think everyone involved with making it was really thrilled that it's been so well supported by HBO. It's a character study of two people.
Capone: How do you play a real person that so little is known about? And how do you portray events that no one was there to chronicle except the two main characters?
RF: There's not much known. Some of it is just imagination from what you do know. You just extend it a bit from what you do know. There's a documentary on Bernard Lafferty that Irish television made, which actually is quite interesting, with lots of people saying how much he adored Doris and how she was a mother figure to him. You get the feeling of this man with an alcohol problem who wanted to devote himself to this matriarchal figure. There are certain huge inaccuracies. She had lots of different houses, and they were always flying around. She didn't die on the East Coast; she died in Los Angeles. But we had to put all those things to the side for the sake of the drama. I actually loved it because I felt it was a story about two people who allowed each other to be their true selves and tolerate each other foibles and frailties. And he's given permission to be himself by her, and she doesn't judge him as long as he does his job. It's about not judging people and accepting people and letting people be who they are.
Capone: Let's talk about a couple of things you've got upcoming. I've read interviews with you over the years where you've said you've wanted to work with Kathryn Bigelow again since STRANGE DAYS, and now you have. What can you tell me about THE HURT LOCKER?
RF: It's about young U.S. soldiers, particularly about a team whose job it is to defuse IEDs, improvised explosive devices, in Iraq. It was written by a journalist named Mark Bowl, who spent some time out there imbedded with U.S. forces. It's a compelling, gripping screenplay, and she's cast some brilliant young actors in it who are by and large not well known yet. She wanted to have a few more familiar faces to help the profile of the movie, and I did two days playing a…I suppose you would call him a British mercenary; they're now called contractors. But it was two days in a Jordanian desert, and it was great scene, but it will be five minutes in the film. I love Kathryn, and we have a strong bond, and it was great to be with her again.
Capone: And you also have a film with Keira Knightley, THE DUCHESS. You play the Duke of Devonshire, which I'm guessing required more than two days work.
RF: [laughs] It's more than five minutes, I hope, unless they've cut me right down. That's an interesting story based on the life of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, who was this extraordinary extroverted, vivacious woman who set the style in fashion and political in Britain in the 1780s. Amanda Foreman wrote a book about her about 10 years ago, and people didn't really know about her until this book came out. I think the film focuses on the marital life, the dysfunctional marriage, and her love affair and the Duke's love affair with Georgiana's best friend. I know it will look extremely handsome, and the production value has not been short changed. The looks of the dresses and the location and the rooms and the wigs and the lighting are stunning. I think it's quite a good story, the story of a marriage really.
Capone: Have you already shot THE READER with Kate Winslet?
RF: I've still got a couple of scenes on that because it's had a few hiccups. But I will finish this show and go back and finish it in June.
Capone: And I noticed that's an adapted screenplay by David Hare. But no Bill Nighy in this film; I know that's often his go-to guy for his plays.
RF: [laughs] Yes, he and Bill Nighy have done many project together over the years in the theater certainly. THE READER is a well-known book in Germany. It's about a young boy in the 1950s, a young 16-year-old, who has a very intense, sexually charged love affair with an older woman. And it's very short and intense liaison, and then she disappears from his life very suddenly and abruptly, and it's about how he's affected by that love affair and what he later learns about her when he's a law student, which traumatizes him. And it's about the history of that trauma and the memory of that relationship and how he deals with it. In the end, the underlying big theme is dealing with the history of the Holocaust in Germany. Because this girl he had the affair with had been part of an atrocity working with the SS.
Capone: And your character is?
RF: I'm the grown-up version of the young boy. The structure of the film is loosely flashback, but that could change. I come into my own during the last 20 minutes of the film, I suppose.
Capone: Not to simplify, but you're looking at things from the other side of the Holocaust, as opposed to being a perpetrator of it in SCHINDLER'S LIST.
RF: Yeah. I'm certainly not playing a Nazi. Quite the opposite.
Capone: SCHINDLER'S LIST certainly wasn't the first film you'd made but it's certainly the one that pushed you into the spotlight. I remember you going back to the first "Prime Suspect" season, if you can believe that. Looking back on it, was it something of a blessing and a curse to have that be the film for which you were best known for a time?
RF: It was entirely a blessing. It was a wonderful screenplay, a wonderful film. It was one of the luckiest breaks that any actor could have in every way. It was all good, as they say. The part was great, and working with Steven Spielberg was great. I still remember the shooting days. I made a great friend in Liam Nesson. And I did not asked to play Nazis afterwards. I wasn't only known as playing Nazis after that.
Capone: Thank you very much for talking with us.
RF: Many thanks for your time.
Capone Send me g-strings - I'm making a fashion change.

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