Entertainment

Ralph Fiennes, Master of Monsters

After 10 minutes sitting alone, I panicked. I was meeting Ralph Fiennes for dinner and suddenly realized I was in the wrong restaurant.

The 59-year-old actor is a confessed compulsive, always overly prepared, not the sort who would be late or appreciate lateness in others. So I began frantically running around Canada, a stranger in a strange land.

I was dreading that famous icy blue stare, the one that seems lit with darkness; the merciless glare that was so blood-chilling when Fiennes played a depraved Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List, a reptilian Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, and a psychopathic chef in his stylish new black comedy, The Menu.

When I finally careered into the right place, 30 minutes late, he was sitting alone, looking sharp in a Timothy Everest navy wool suit, eating an appetizer, which he called “a chickpea thing” and drinking a glass of Sancerre. He did not give me a brooding Heathcliff look (though he perfected it in 1992’s Wuthering Heights).

Instead, Fiennes was charming, indulging my fan-girl questions about Shakespeare — his 1995 Broadway performance in Hamlet, for which he won a Tony, and his blazing 2011 film version of Coriolanus.

After eating “duck three ways,” at Richmond Station, he suggested we start over the next morning because he was due on the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of The Menu.

He was probably acting like he wasn’t irritated by my tardiness, because he’s an astonishing actor. He’s that rare creature who’s equally powerful in the classics and popular fare, who’s dedicated to toggling between stage and screen. He is both prolific and enigmatic, disappearing into a dazzling range of characters.

When you watch or rewatch 20 of his movies, as I did, you think that the Oscars have no meaning because this guy doesn’t have one. No offense to Tommy Lee Jones, who was great in The Fugitive, and in 1994 beat out Fiennes for best supporting actor for his role in Schindler’s List, but … Amon Goeth? The scene in which the Nazi sets his sights on a Jewish prisoner in a death camp, played by a trembling Embeth Davidtz, and he’s tempted to kiss her, even though, as he tells her, she’s not “a person in the strictest sense of the word,” is one of the best things ever put on film.

Now Fiennes is in New York, starring at the Shed in Straight Line Crazy as Robert Moses, the master builder who created, for better or worse, the New York of today.

“Ralph’s good at monsters,” said Nicholas Hytner, a director of the play. “He doesn’t approach them sensationally. He tries to understand them.”

It was Hytner who suggested that David Hare write the play about Moses for the theater he runs in London, the Bridge, where it opened this spring.

Moses was an American Caesar — a perfect barrel-chested, desk-slapping role for a leading Shakespeare interpreter like Fiennes.

“I’ve always loved a toxic male,” Hare said, fondly recalling the 1985 Rupert Murdoch satire, Pravda, that he wrote with Howard Brenton. “They’re great for theater, aren’t they?”

Fiennes likes them, too. Unlike some top American actors, who carefully curate heroic roles, the British actor relishes swimming in moral murkiness, “the gray areas where you can’t easily put a definition.”

Hytner said of his star: “With Robert Moses, the ability to subordinate his charm to a brutal megalomaniac to the extent that he’s completely unafraid to alienate an audience. That doesn’t go with being a movie star. He makes himself open but he never makes himself too open. He’s one of those actors who is fascinating because he appears to be nursing a secret.”

A Disciplined Hedonist

Fiennes has had a storied career, starting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He had a quartet of scorching roles that made him famous and a heartthrob by his early 30s: Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1993, Robert Redford’s Quiz Show in 1994, Hamlet on Broadway in 1995 and Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient in 1996.

But he hasn’t pursued fame so much as interesting work.

“Being a leading actor on the classical stage and a huge, great film star is an almost impossible double to straddle,” Hare said. “Laurence Olivier could do that. Judi Dench could do that. And Ralph Fiennes is the only other one.”

Just for fun, on a Monday night in December when he has the night off from playing Moses, he’s doing a reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at the 92nd Street Y. (Don’t bother: Tickets sold out within minutes of going on sale.) Coming out of Covid, Fiennes tried to revive England’s regional theaters, touring with a recitation of Eliot’s Four Quartets.

“That’s what he chose as a post-pandemic pick-me-up,” Hare said dryly. “Four Quartets is about as difficult an evening as you can offer. The thing about Ralph is that he has the easiest, most relaxed relationship with high culture of anyone I know. He doesn’t give a damn about whether things are too difficult for people. He just thinks difficult stuff is good.”

Fiennes is democratic in his advisers. Two years ago, while he was rehearsing Beat the Devil, Hare’s monologue play about his own severe case of Covid, Fiennes went to a house he rents in the Umbria region of central Italy to prepare.

“He would find a stray shepherd and ask him to sit down and he would perform the monologue to the shepherd,” said an amused Hytner, who also directed that show. “He was always calling me to say, ‘There’s this contessa who lives 10 miles up the road and she thought it was great!’”

Fiennes has a reputation for being tunnel-visioned about his work.

“When I worked with him 20 years ago, there was undoubtedly a nimbus of depression and intensity around him,” Hare said. “That cloud has cleared with the years. His work process is just beautiful to observe because he’s just very, very hard at work every minute of the day. Then he closes the door and puts it behind him.”

When Fiennes was doing the Moses role in London, he listened to recordings of the builder hour after hour. But, worried about his New York accent, Fiennes would sometimes call a friend in Brooklyn, actor and documentarian Fisher Stevens, just before curtain to ask him how to pronounce “Bronx” or “West Side Highway.”

He was just as meticulous about his concierge uniform in The Grand Budapest Hotel. When he first tried it on, Wes Anderson, the film’s director, recalled, Fiennes bristled at the cut and materials, explaining that he wanted to move like Fred Astaire in the role and couldn’t. Anderson let him redesign it.

Mark Mylod, the British director of The Menu, said that Fiennes is rigorous but loose, like a free-form jazz musician.

“He’s a sensualist and a hedonist on some level,” the director said. “He’ll tell you himself his idea of perfection is to go off to the place he rents in Italy in the middle of nowhere and dive naked into a lake.”

Jessica Chastain, who played Fiennes’ wife in Coriolanus (which Fiennes also directed) and in last year’s The Forgiven, said she was nervous when she first met him about filming Shakespeare opposite him, given his ferocity as an actor.

“But then I realized how fragile he was because the financing fell through and he called me and left me this message and it was so emotional,” she said. “I remember listening to it, thinking, ‘I’ll love him forever because he trusts me with this vulnerability.’”

At one point during the filming of Schindler’s List, recalled Liam Neeson (who played Oskar Schindler), they were doing a scene and Fiennes, as the Nazi, let out an unearthly cry of hate and rage that gave Neeson goose bumps. (It was cut from the finished film.) When they announced best supporting actor at the Oscars, Neeson said, he was keeping his fingers crossed that his friend would not win for playing the Nazi officer, because Fiennes would be typecast forever like Tony Perkins was after Psycho.

“He’s terribly sweet, Ralph,” Neeson said. “He almost belongs to another century.” (So does his full name: Ralph — pronounced “Rafe” — Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.)

He became close to Neeson and his wife, Natasha Richardson — who, before she died in 2009, made two movies with Fiennes — and they hung out at the farmhouse in the South of France that her father, director-producer Tony Richardson, left her. They would turn the record player on and dance on the lawn in the moonlight on warm summer nights.

Andy Cohen, the Bravo impresario, who was there sometimes, said Fiennes would recite Beckett at 3 a.m. under the stars. Like Neeson, Cohen sees his friend as a throwback, “this amazing poetic soul from another time who’s walking among us.”

They got to be friends over the years, having nightcaps in Greenwich Village and going on what Cohen calls “bro-buddy adventures.”

“He’s very mischievous,” Cohen said. “He loves women in the most beautiful way, in all forms. There’s not a woman in front of him that he doesn’t appreciate.”

When fame hit in the early ’90s, Fiennes’ life erupted in a Harry Styles-style publicity blizzard. He was married to Alex Kingston (who later became a regular on ER) when he fell in love with Francesca Annis, the beautiful British actress, nearly 18 years older, who played his mother, Gertrude, in Hamlet. Annis and Fiennes split after 11 years.

The actor, who prizes mystery, hated being gossip fodder. “That was anathema to him,” said his sister Martha Fiennes, a filmmaker, “and he just hated the curiosity into his life.”

In contrast with his brother Joseph Fiennes, also a famous actor, who lives in Spain with his wife and family, Ralph is an adventurous free spirit in his love life and cherishes his solitude.

Sometimes, as he did when he was a child, Ralph likes to “separate himself from that rough and tumble,” Martha said. Laughing, she added that Ralph prefers to live in beautiful, civilized places “where there are no dogs that are vomiting or kids that are screaming.” Stevens, a father of two, drolly affirmed that Fiennes is skittish around diapers.

I told Fiennes I would respect his privacy, but he should tell me if he was engaged or having a baby.

“No, no, nothing,” Fiennes told me, laughing.

As he once said about being the oldest of many siblings, “I had kids when I was a kid.”

I Confess, I Like the West Side Highway

When Fiennes played Moses in London, most English theatergoers were not familiar with the concrete potentate, knowing only that he had a thunderous Old Testament name. Now Fiennes is playing the role in the city that Moses shaped. In the preview audience I was in, the Jane Jacobs character — who describes herself as the woman who beat Robert Moses on his plan to put a highway through Greenwich Village — got a round of applause just for walking onstage.

Not since Ayn Rand has anyone tried so hard to make infrastructure so sexy. “I love mixing the concrete and driving in the stakes,” the Moses character says.

As Robert Caro wrote in his magisterial biography of Moses, the visionary builder who hated public transport and loved cars (even though he didn’t have a driver’s license) conjured nearly all the major roads in the metro area today, determining how New Yorkers live and work.

“He would never admit the motor car was not the answer to mankind’s problems,” Hare said. “To me, he’s an interesting figure because he’s the prisoner of an ideal, but he can’t change the ideal when the facts change and he becomes stuck in a dream, trapped in the ideas of his youth.”

Working under six governors, Moses oversaw the building of Lincoln Center, the New York Coliseum and Shea Stadium; he vastly expanded the city’s green space and constructed 673 baseball diamonds, 658 playgrounds and 288 tennis courts.

From 1946 to 1953, he approved countless public works projects and to clear the land, he evicted hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, many of them minority residents, from their homes and tore the homes down. Perhaps his worst offense was the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which destroyed the borough, uprooting vibrant neighborhoods, and creating an eyesore that many New York commuters lament to this day.

The show is at the cultural center, the Shed, which might have been the one tiny part of the giant Moses-esque development that is Hudson Yards of which Jane Jacobs would have approved.

When I asked Fiennes if he was annoyed that his play wasn’t running on Broadway, meaning he wouldn’t be eligible for a Tony, he said, “What?” and I began to worry I had told him something he didn’t know. But he shrugged. “Hasn’t crossed my mind,” he said.

As with many Shakespearean characters, Moses’ arc is a fall from idealism to egotism.

The play depicts how at first, in 1928, he pushed to make Jones Beach accessible to the masses by building roads, so that Long Island wasn’t a cloistered preserve of the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys and other aristocratic New York families. But as the master builder’s power grows, his prejudice and intolerance are revealed. By 1955, after tearing up the Bronx, he wanted to build a four-lane highway through Greenwich Village that would bisect Washington Square Park; he was secretly planning to build three elevated expressways, a scheme that fell apart because of, as the Moses character says in the play, “a group of minstrels and artistic women with handbags.”

Like Coriolanus, Moses’ attitude toward “the people” is withering.

“We must advance their fortunes without having any respect for their opinions,” Fiennes’ Moses tells the young Irish woman working with him, adding: “To build a road, it may be that you need to knock down a house. What happens? A lot of screaming and shouting. ‘That has always been there.’ And then when the road is built? ‘Oh my God, how much better this is. How did we ever manage without this road?’ They can’t even remember the house. The people lack imagination. The job of the leader is to provide it.”

Fiennes told me, “I’ve met people who say, ‘You’re doing a play about Moses? Oh, no, he’s terrible.’ And other people say, ‘My parents love Moses. He gave them Jones Beach.’”

The actor added, “He gave you the West Side Highway, didn’t he? I mean, you’re kind of grateful for the West Side Highway on occasion, aren’t you?”

The actor rejects the binary view, noting geniuses can be good and bad at the same time.

I noted that, with cancel culture, the arts have to deal with a more censorious world.

“Righteous anger is righteous,” he said, “but often it becomes kind of dumb because it can’t work its way through the gray areas. It has no nuance.”

I wondered how he liked directing movies he was appearing in (including Coriolanus, The Invisible Woman and The White Crow, a movie about Rudolf Nureyev’s life that was very difficult to get made).

“I don’t like the money bit before,” he said of procuring funding. “I find that very bruising. But the whole deciding of what it is you are going to show visually, I love that. Before I went to acting school, I went to art school for one year, thinking I would be a painter.”

He said he loved making movies like Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, in which his charismatic, obstreperous character, Harry Hawkes, a music producer described by the Italian director as “a pagan fawn,” does a Dionysian dance to the Rolling Stones song “Emotional Rescue.”

Fiennes liked that Harry would say outrageous things. “One of the attractions of being an actor,” he said, is the freedom to say things “you don’t say in life.”

‘A Coiled Tiger in an Adolescent Frame’

Fiennes grew up mostly in southern England, one of six children; his father’s income as a photographer was erratic. His mother was a writer, poet and painter. “I think it was a huge pressure on them both,” Fiennes said. “Sometimes she would just explode. And often, the fact that she had so many children, she would literally vocalize it, ‘Why do we have so many children?’”

Once, Fiennes said, he worked up “a little bit of courage” and said, ‘Well, we didn’t ask you and Dad to be born.’ And that just made it worse — ‘Ah, don’t speak to me like that.’”

The Fiennes lived on the west coast of Ireland for a time. Fiennes said his mother, a committed Catholic with some Irish ancestry, fell in love with the country. There, he said, the size of their family wasn’t frowned on in the way it was in Britain.

His mother, Jennifer Lash, told him bedtime stories from Shakespeare, including Henry V and Hamlet.

“I was on a top bunk and my mother said, ‘I’ll tell you a story. There was this young man and his father’s died and he’s a young prince.’ And she told it to me in her own words. I think she saw the effect that it had on me. The next day she put on the vinyl record of Laurence Olivier, doing speeches from Hamlet and Henry V. And I sat there with a paperback, following this text as I listened to it, not knowing what it meant, but being thrilled by this voice of this actor doing this stuff.”

Joseph Fiennes, who just finished five years in The Handmaid’s Tale, said that their mother taught them about “getting your guts into it, throwing yourself off the edge, mistakes and all, but being disciplined with it.”

Martha Fiennes said that her brother was “completely self-contained” even at 5 or 6 years old. When Martha came along, she said, their mother would remark, “Oh, my God, I’ve got a sort of normally socializing child, thank God.”

“She said she’d take him to a children’s birthday party,” Martha recalled, “and he’d go straight up to the mom and say, ‘Do you have a puzzle I can do?’ He wouldn’t be the one to say, ‘Let’s all do this.’”

Joseph said his “lovely” big brother was not merely a bookworm as a youngster. “He was thinking about being a Marine and going to karate clubs.”

“Maybe he wanted a sense of control,” Joseph said. “There was this underlying physical tension. I remember being placed against a bookshelf and having punches and kicks thrown at me and asked, ‘Can you feel the wind?’ as he came within a millimeter of my nose. There was the sense of a coiled spring aching to release itself, a coiled tiger in an adolescent frame.”

Ralph still seeks out physical release. Like Moses, he does his best thinking when he’s swimming. “I think challenging yourself physically is a great way of getting all the crap out of your head,” he said.

Hytner told me that Fiennes’ one request for his rehearsal room, when Straight Line Crazy played at the Bridge Theater, was that it have a ballet barre, so he could do his ballet exercises.

“I arrived early one morning and crashed into the rehearsal room to find him with his ballet teacher at the barre,” the director said. “Barefoot, with a leotard. It was quite a sight.”

A ‘Naughty’ Sense of Humor

When Fiennes was starting out, he tried some Hugh Grant-ish parts to balance out the Shakespearean tragedies, but he said he felt uncomfortable in roles like the romantic lead opposite Jennifer Lopez in the Cinderella story Maid in Manhattan.

“I can fit into comedy if the writing works for me, but I just felt that was a Prince Charming role,” he said. “And Prince Charming’s sort of a bland figure.”

According to his sister Martha, the press often misses the fact that Fiennes isn’t totally serious. “Ralph, he’s got his naughty sense of humor, silly stories,” she said. “He’s unrepeatable.”

Ralph Fiennes Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort.

That style of humor was clear when Fiennes suggested a Harry Potter spinoff called Voldemort’s Bride, starring him and Jessica Chastain, depicting a loving Voldemort marriage filled with sex, hate and spells.

He turned in a wonderful comic performance in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and he enjoyed playing Lord Voldemort, once Martha explained who the Harry Potter villain was and told him it was a “stonkingly vast, mega, mega part.” Her middle son, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, plays a young Tom Riddle, who becomes Voldemort, in the films.

“I was a bit sniffy, I think, initially,” Ralph said. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is a children’s fantasy thing. I’m not sure.’” (Martha noted that when Ralph was 7, he was reading T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.)

He said his proudest moment was when he walked past the 4-year-old son of the script supervisor on the Harry Potter set, as Voldemort, and the child burst into tears.

Fiennes bristles at the kerfuffle over JK Rowling.

“JK Rowling has written these great books about empowerment, about young children finding themselves as human beings. It’s about how you become a better, stronger, more morally centered human being,” he said. “The verbal abuse directed at her is disgusting, it’s appalling. I mean, I can understand a viewpoint that might be angry at what she says about women. But it’s not some obscene, über-right-wing fascist. It’s just a woman saying, ‘I’m a woman and I feel I’m a woman and I want to be able to say that I’m a woman.’ And I understand where she’s coming from. Even though I’m not a woman.”

He’s not angry that James Bond got killed off after 25 films, possibly putting Fiennes out of a job as M.

“I thought it was a bold and strong decision,” Fiennes said. “You know, they might reboot everything and they might want a woman back as M. Every single film after I took over from Judi Dench, she upstaged me. They always had her voice, a recording or a portrait. I’m like, ‘Look, can I be M, Judi?’”

When he was 14, he could name all the Bond girls. Can he still?

He rattles off the names, from Honey Ryder to Pussy Galore to Domino to Kissy Suzuki. He said he toyed with the idea of playing James Bond and had a conversation about it at one point, but he asked if it could be a black-and-white period piece set in the ’50s.

Before we parted, I told him that I thought it would be fun if I asked him the four questions that Kristin Scott Thomas puts to him during an amorous bath in The English Patient.

Fiennes, who was wearing a stylish denim jacket and jeans for our morning coffee, shot me a look as if to say “That would not be fun at all.” But he was game.

When were you most happy?

He said that, after being “London-centric” for so long, his new place in Suffolk, with “the echo of my childhood,” from a happy time when his parents were young and not so stressed out about money, “felt like a human coming home.”

When were you least happy?

That, he said gingerly, is connected to his personal life. “If you are preoccupied with doing the right thing through the eyes of other people, what you think other people want to see, or you are locked into something that you haven’t yet got the courage to say, ‘This isn’t working,’ then I think you’re unhappy.”

What do you love?

“Swimming and Shakespeare,” he said.

What do you hate?

“I try not to hate anything, but I think anything that feels like there’s a phoniness,” he said. “Funny, ’cause I’m in the business of pretending.”

CONFIRM OR DENY

Maureen Dowd: Like Robert Moses, you prefer bridges to tunnels.

Ralph Fiennes: Yes.

Dowd: You always wonder what Othello saw in Desdemona.

Fiennes: No, I don’t wonder.

Dowd: You were jealous that your brother got to play Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love.

Fiennes: No, I wasn’t jealous of Joe. I was thrilled for him. But a year or so before, I auditioned for Shakespeare for the same film, set up with Julia Roberts, and Ed Zwick directing. I don’t think I did it for her.

Dowd: When you worked as a valet at Brown’s hotel in London in the ’90s, you carried my bag when I came to cover Wimbledon.

Fiennes: No, I was there in the early ’80s. I carried Jack Palance’s bags.

Dowd: You can’t get enough Harry Styles gossip.

Fiennes: No, I can get enough. I’m not really into that.

Dowd: You REALLY hate Harry Potter.

Fiennes: Yes.

Dowd: Heathcliff was a jerk.

Fiennes: (Laughs.)

Dowd: You hate having your Voldemort makeup done.

Fiennes: I want to correct that. The makeup guys were brilliant. It’s a challenge, sure, to sit in the chair for three hours, but The English Patient was four hours. It was a lot of painting, and I shaved my head, and I had stuff to cover my eyebrows. But I didn’t hate it.

Dowd: You love Santa Maria Novella soap, shoes from Loeb and T-shirts from James Perse.

Fiennes: Yes.

Dowd: The Avengers was your least favorite movie.

Fiennes: It did business, and I enjoyed making it, but I think it needed a particular style and very bold, stylish choices. It was trying to replicate that British series of the ’60s, and it just didn’t do it.

Dowd: You are a Serbian citizen.

Fiennes: An honorary one.

Dowd: You took inspiration for the obsessive chef in The Menu from Grant Achatz, who runs Alinea in Chicago and whose surreal techniques include encapsulation, pillows of scented air and an ingredient called Ultra-Tex 3.

Fiennes: Yes. I didn’t even know what a s’more was.

Dowd: In the classic Seinfeld episode when Elaine and Jerry go to see The English Patient and Elaine yells at your character, Count Laszlo Almasy, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. It’s too long! Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert and just die already! Die!” she’s right.

Fiennes: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Die, already.




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