Ralph Fiennes Talks Coriolanus: 'I'm Afraid the Lack of Hope In It Was Appealing to Me'

coriolanus_fiennes_regrave.pngAs befits one of the contemporary stage and screen's more intense, challenging actors, Ralph Fiennes didn't make his directorial debut easy on himself. His adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus (opening today in limited release) studies the vicissitudes of political pride, corruption and revenge -- an unflinching stare into a familiar powder keg that looks and feels increasingly like an abyss.

Also playing the title character, a warrior who returns heroically to "a place called Rome" only to be exiled by the downtrodden citizenry he reviles, Fiennes demonstrates a bracing sympathy with the Bard's most cynical instincts. Yet in casting Vanessa Redgrave as his influential mother, Jessica Chastain as his long-suffering wife, Brian Cox as his blustery chief adviser and Gerard Butler as his mortal rival Tullus Aufidius, the first-time director has cut sharp, exquisite facets into this jewel of a cautionary tale, reflecting back to viewers the various sides of a society collapsing around them. Whether or not they're entertained is almost irrelevant, though with Redgrave and Fiennes facing off in a narrative like this (adapted by screenwriter John Logan), it's pretty hard not be.

Fiennes spoke with Movieline recently about his fascination with the original piece, the upside of hopelessness, the necessity of risk, and the fine art of the very, very extreme close-up.

Why Coriolanus? Conceptually, creatively -- why now?

[Long pause] It's mostly very personal. There are two strands, I suppose. One is the actor -- I played it on stage, and I felt very drawn to the confrontational nature of him and the piece. And maybe there's a sort of anger involved about the continual dysfunction of society, and its continual patterns of political turnaround and endless, endless conflict. And the play and Coriolanus himself punch through that. I mean, I think the play is a tragedy, properly. But the sort of evisceration it leads to is... I feel like we're always on track to these repeated eviscerations in how we are as a people -- as humankind. I'm afraid the lack of hope in it was appealing to me.

Wow!

[Laughs] Because it was honest! That's what I'm saying.

Well, yeah. There is not one laugh in this entire movie.

Not really. Well, there is if you like his sense of humor. But there's something terrifying about it. It's a very bleak piece, really. But I felt we're living in these really bleak times.

Is that generally a thematic appeal to you as an actor -- and now as a director?

Not always; it's just this occasion. But I think that whole kind of "fuck you" anger and attitude of Coriolanus that sort of carves its way through everything is untenable. But it also has an appeal at the same time. There's an ambivalence to it: "I am who I am, and I will not compromise." He's absurd and appealing in equal measure. But the tragedy is that he does -- he does compromise. He says he doesn't want to talk to the people, but he does, against his better nature. Twice he does it, and it explodes in his face. So I also find it very dramatically satisfying -- for the same reason I guess some people find it unsatisfying. But I love how Shakespeare throws thee questions at us: Who are we with? Is Coriolanus the hero we were meant to follow? I think he is, but at the same time he's a challenge to us. I love it that we're challenged right at the front by who he is and what he says. I love the anger in it. I love it. It's sort of searing.

And then, finally, where it all leads to, is this umbilical nakedness between a mother and a son. It's so painful: The one moment of enlightenment is going to be the cause of his death. But there's this moment where he gives in. When I first saw the play, I found that scene extraordinary -- that final scene. And I found it so moving. The humanity surges out of him; he says something like, "It's very hard to make mine eyes sweat compassion." But he's full of compassion. His mother opens him up. And then he's going to die for it.

It costs him his life.

It touches a nerve in me -- this endless pain we're all in the world, whether it's drug wars in Mexico or journalists beaten up in Moscow, or Anna Politkovskaya shot in the lobby of her building.

But this is a very mediated place called Rome. The journalists and videographers and talking heads featured in Coriolanus aren't necessarily making things better.

There's an ongoing noise of news, isn't there, in the world? I'd make a differentiation: There is the noise of corporate newsmaking, which I think is what you're seeing in the film. In my head, they're slightly different than the individual, whether they be a writer or a journalist or... Maybe I'm sounding confused, but wanting to make it came out a sort of frustration, maybe. So in a perverse way, Coriolanus appeals in a world of compromises -- where there's on betrayal after another. That's why Aufidius looks at him and has that moment where he says, "What was it that made him? What was his fault?" And he meditates on it: "One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail / Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail." I think we see that constant changearound of power through blood or betrayal or devious politics.

It's obviously such a personal project for you. Is that ever a threat as a filmmaker? To be too close, to be too involved or too connected to the source?

On a deep level, you mean?

Yes. Can you truly feel like you're doing it justice, or that the risk is too great?

I knew it was a huge risk. I knew just from the response of people when I was trying to pitch it. [Laughs] But the person who's a key figure in giving it some kind of objectivity is John Logan, who sort of sensed what I was chasing. Which is something that I find it hard to define easily, but there's a howl of pain at the center of this piece -- this flashing of blades and knives, something frightening. I think everything has its own spirit. We all know why we enjoy A Midsummer Night's Dream -- it has a spirit, which, whatever the production is like, is this thing we all respond to. And I think why people often avert their gaze from Coriolanus is because it goes to a very, very frightening place. He is frightening; what happens is frightening. There's literally an eviscerated body at the end of it.

But I think that John, coming onboard, knew I wanted to get into that. He knew I wanted to go to that place. And he brought his great skill and eye to shaping it. If it hadn't been for him, I probably wouldn't be here, because I pitched to him, but he then wrote the screenplay, which was phenomenal. When you read his screenplay, you saw a film. You, as a reader, were aware of the emotional progression or a physical nuance inside a speech. He made you very, very present. I mean, we worked on it together. I had very strong ideas, and then he brought to the table his strong ideas. It is a fusion, but without his skill to kind of shape it as a written thing, I don't know what I would have done.

You now belong to a very, very elite class of actors who've directed themselves onscreen in Shakespeare adaptations -- Olivier, Welles, Branagh... I'm sure there are a few others, but very few. What are the challenges, and how do you know when you're ready to tackle that as a director?

You never know you're ready, but I can only speak for myself: I have one life, and this is what I really feel... I can't get this thing out of my head. Any time along the way I could have lost confidence, or someone could have come along and said this is not going to work, but there were enough people who came onboard as it went along who kept the flame alive. But I never knew that I was ready. I just knew that I was prepared to fall on my sword, or whatever the appropriate expression may be.

Your knife.

My knife. Initially it could have been very incoherent as a piece. I feel, from the response I'm getting, that it has a coherence. But I don't know.

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Did you look back at other adaptations to see how others had done it? Were you influenced by any Shakespeare adaptations for the screen?

Yes. I liked the commitment to a specific world that Baz Luhrmann did in Romeo + Juliet. He embraced a very coherent world. I took a lot from that. Every location mattered to me. I fell in love with locations; they became like actors in the cast. They were really important to me. And then for performance, there's a Peter Brook King Lear, which is very naturalistic in black-and-white -- very austere performances that I kind of like. I didn't want to mimic that exactly -- that style -- but I wanted it naturalistic. So there were those, and I tried to avoid -- wherever I could -- any overt theatricality, and just treat it like a political drama set today.

The most striking thing to me in this film is its approach to the extreme close-up. There are so many obvious differences between the media of stage and screen, but the close-up is The Difference.

No, it is. You're right. This is the conversation I had with John Logan. What I love in films... I mean, look at Gary Oldman's performance as Smiley (in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Have you seen it?

Oh, yeah.

He doesn't say a lot; he's just looking, blank. But the close-up means that I, the viewer, am fascinated by what shifts of thought are going on. What's happening? I love that.

It compounds the physicality of a performance. We see the body on stage, but we don't see the face. But with Coriolanus, if you don't buy the face, then you don't buy the movie.

Exactly. It was funny when we were shooting it -- how I would shoot sort of from hips to shoulders. And it was valid, but very quickly in the scene, just talking to my producer and my script supervisor and this group of people around me whom was asking for an opinion, the consensus around me was that we had to get in. "You've got to get into the face." And even in the longer scenes, even if it's so-called "static," then so be it. But it's all happening here. [Staggers hands directly above and below his face.] Like in that middle scene where Vanessa is saying, "You must go back and talk to them," I'm in her face. But I love her face.

I think everyone does.

Yeah!

But how does she feel about that on set -- knowing how close the camera is and the presence she has to bring to it?

I think actors know generally that that's where they play -- in the close-up. That's where you deliver. It can be intimidating, but... I mean, some actors sometimes choose to go, "Is it this? Is it this?" [Contorts face and laughs] You know? But Vanessa is not that sort of actor. She wants to feel that what she's doing is truthful for her. She's sensitive to what's happening on camera, but she's not the type of actor who goes and checks the monitor. Ever.

Did you have that actor on set?

Well, I had to do it! [Laughs] By definition. Sometimes.

[Top photo: Getty Images]

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