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Ralph Fiennes Braves the Bard

The Tony Award winner discusses directing and starring in the film version of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus. logo
Ralph Fiennes
(© Tristan Fuge)
Not quite 49 years old, Ralph Fiennes can already boast of a career that encompasses a Tony Award (for Hamlet), two Oscar nominations (for Schindler's List and The English Patient), and the fear of billions of children for his portrayal of Lord Voldemort in the various Harry Potter films.

Now, the actor -- who recently starred in a London production of The Tempest that might head stateside -- adds to his illustrious resume by making his directorial debut, as well as playing the title character, in his new dark and dangerous film adaptation of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus, opening on December 2 for a brief Oscar-consideration run before going into general release in January.

Considered one of the Bard's "problem" plays, Coriolanus is the story of a Patrician soldier who returns home with many scars to show his fiercely ambitious mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and his beautiful but gentle wife (Jessica Chastain). To become consul, he must display his scars to the people, but the proud Coriolanus disdains this public show, thereby losing the people's love. Swearing allegiance to his enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the two warriors set out to destroy his former homeland. But when he yields to appeals for peace from his mother and his wife, Aufidius turns on him and has Coriolanus killed.

"It's a difficult play," explains Fiennes, who played the title role in London 11 years ago. "I lived with the idea for a long time, but it was John Logan agreeing to write it, that validated the idea. It had epic possibilities. After all, the concept of continuing warfare and political unrest is as fresh as today's headlines and thanks to John's excellent editing, we have the most dynamic screenplay imaginable. Still, it took us two years to get our financing and we knew there would probably be little or no commercial appeal. I mean the 'hero' hates everyone and they hate him!"

As a result, Fiennes had to watch the purse strings. "We needed to keep to a really tight budget and find locations that had the scale we needed," he says. "We were thinking Bucharest or Montenegro and then we found Belgrade with its fantastic architecture -- that's their actual Parliament building and they let us shoot in the Senate chamber. They basically fulfilled our every wish! The scene in the television station was initially set in a football stadium, but we just couldn't afford it."

Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus
As a first-time director also acting in an epic film, Fiennes naturally felt anxious, so he surrounded himself with the best technical crew possible, including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and film editor Nick Gastner. "My biggest point of reference was the 1966 film Battle of Algiers," he reveals. That said, some of the battle scenes in Coriolanus also have the look and feel of contemporary video games."

Although the language remains Elizabethan, the film includes many modern touches. For example, the senators -- including Brian Cox as the elder statesman Menenius -- wear three-piece suits, while the soldiers are attired in contemporary camouflage and carry AK-47's in a war torn country where television news commentators constantly report on the war's progress.

Fiennes also understood how important the casting of the film would be to its success, starting with Redgrave. "I was fascinated by the mother-son trajectory of the play," he notes. "It was always Vanessa; I never considered anyone else. She is so extraordinary that all I had to do as both actor and director was just not get in the way."

Choosing Butler and Chastain were also key to Fiennes' plan. "Gerard had been a walk-on in a production in Scotland and thought he might like to give it a go. Shakespeare gives us their rivalry and hatred, so I just had to put us together in a smoky room, eyeball to eyeball. And I worked out every day to hold my own," he says.

"I hired Jessica on a hunch and a clip from Salome that she did with Al Pacino. She was also the best Desdemona I'd ever seen [in the LAByrinth production of Othello]. I offered her the role over a cappuccino and she brought both gravitas and transcendence to a part that is essentially unspoken."

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