‘I don’t want to be known, I want to be safe’: Ralph Fiennes, the great theatrical actor who never wanted to be famous

The British performer, who rose to fame through iconic films such as ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The English Patient,’ returns to the big screen with ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’

Ralph Fiennes
A portrait of Ralph Fiennes, taken in London in 2022.Scott Barbour������������������
Eva Güimil

“I would give up my firstborn for Ralph Fiennes.” The enthusiasm expressed by one of Elaine’s friends in Seinfeld after seeing The English Patient is a good example of the fervor that Anthony Minghella’s film — and its attractive protagonist — aroused in 1996. When Ralph Fiennes kissed his way around Kristin Scott-Thomas’s neck, the cinemas couldn’t take it. Hollywood licked its lips, thinking that it had found an old-fashioned heartthrob. His blue eyes, delicate face and classic demeanor made one think of a Lleslie Howard for the new generations, a Robert Redford with a more slender European build… or perhaps a less tortured Daniel Day-Lewis. But it didn’t take long for Fiennes to show the studios that it wasn’t going to be so easy to pigeonhole him.—

Just four years earlier, his emergence in Hollywood left critics breathless. Coming almost out of nowhere (although he had an extensive theatrical career in his native England), he stole the spotlight with his supporting role in Schindler’s List (1993). Who was the man behind that disgusting Nazi with the icy stare?

But that wasn’t the only bad man of Fiennes’ career. For the next generation of moviegoers, he was Lord Voldemort — “he who must not be named” — the antagonist of the Harry Potter saga. “Ralph is good with monsters,” affirms Nicholas Hytner, his director in Straight Line Crazy, the latest play that the actor has starred in. “He doesn’t address them in a sensationalized way. He tries to understand them.”

Fiennes has touched on all genres, including comedy, thanks to Wes Anderson, who put him in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). And, this week, a new collaboration between the two men hit Netflix: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, in which he plays the writer Roald Dahl. The role is appropriate, as Fiennes was destined for a life among texts. He had a bohemian childhood, the son of a farmer-turned-photographer and mother who was a writer and painter. One of seven children — including Joseph, the protagonist of Shakespeare in Love and Martha, a film director — he lived in 15 different homes while growing up. The nomadic life resulted in the kids being homeschooled by their mother. It was she who read Hamlet to Fiennes at the age of eight and — noticing her son’s enthusiasm — gave him a recording of Laurence Olivier playing the role.

Little Ralph didn’t really understand the play, but he fell in love with the cadence of the voice. His mother encouraged his creative nature… but not everything was so rosy. “My mother often showed a great level of distress,” Martha Fiennes told The Guardian. “She had been diagnosed with incurable hysteria — she had an unpredictable side. It was terrifying. She screamed, broke dishes, threatened to kill us all.”

Ralph Fiennes
Ralph Fiennes in 1994.Ron Galella (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

“I think Ralph has a dark side,” Martha notes. She has directed her brother in two films: Onegin (1999) and Chromophobia (2005). “He has an innate understanding… a very true understanding of human nature. He understands anguish and sadness. [He knows that] there’s always a strange beauty in tragedy.”

Theater was — and is — Ralph’s first great passion. In 1988, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, the sacred place for any actor devoted to the writer, as he confessed to The New York Times. “I wanted to be an actor because Shakespeare excited me. I didn’t think about cinema, because it seemed like another world to me.” But cinema certainly thought about him. His first performances were in classics and period pieces. He played a twisted Heathcliff in a failed version of Wuthering Heights (1992), was part of the controversial The Baby of Mâcon (1993) and stepped into the shoes of T. E. Lawrence in A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia (1992). That was the role that caught Steven Spielberg’s attention. He not only liked his performance, but also the audacity he showed when playing a role so masterfully defined by Peter O’Toole 30 years earlier.

A legendary villain

“Ralph did three takes,” Spielberg told NBC News, on the 25th anniversary of Schindler’s List. “To this day, I have only seen the first one. It was absolutely brilliant. As soon as I saw him, I knew it was Amon [Goeth]. I saw sexual evil. The subtlety. There were moments of kindness that would come through his eyes… and then they would instantly cool down.” Spielberg gave him some freedom to build the character and Fiennes began a diet to gain weight, based on sumptuous meals and Guinness beer that he detailed to The Los Angeles Times. “Goeth (the SS officer who commanded the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp) was a man with a sense of his own incredible power, the power to let people live or die. And powerful men often carry a belly with them, in a way that demonstrates that power. It makes them more expansive, it creates additional space around them. There’s something almost phallic about it.”

The newcomer earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 1994 Academy Awards, which Tommy Lee Jones ended up winning for The Fugitive. That night, however, not everyone from the cast of Schindler’s List was sorry for him. Liam Neeson confesses that he crossed his fingers that Fiennes would lose. He feared that his friend would be forever typecast as a psychopathic character. Fiennes, Neeson and his wife, Natasha Richardson, had become close during filming. He was a regular at the farm in southern France that was owned by Richardson’s family. She made lychee cocktails, they turned on the record player and they danced on the grass. After the actress’ death in 2009, Fiennes dedicated a moving obituary to her in The Guardian.

Ralph Fiennes, Tyler Garcia & Jennifer Lopez during Jennifer Lopez on Location for "Maid in Manhattan"
Ralph Fiennes, Tyler Garcia and Jennifer Lopez during the filming of 'Maid in Manhattan,' in New York City.James Devaney (WireImage)

Despite becoming a trendy actor in Hollywood, he didn’t forget the theater. His Hamlet in 1995 became the cultural talk of New York. The play sold out for four months straight: Cher, Tom Hanks, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were among the audience. And so was Barbra Streisand, who had acquired the rights to The Normal Heart — by playwright Larry Kramer — and thought that Fiennes would be the ideal protagonist. The woman who directed the film adaptation of The Prince of Tides felt that Fiennes had “a magical charm that attracts both men and women,” something that would help “audiences of any sexual orientation to understand the emotions that unite the characters of The Normal Heart.”

Robert Redford — Streisand’s partner in The Way We Were — was another of the icons who were dazzled by Fiennes. After seeing him play the diabolical Nazi, he offered him a role that couldn’t have been more different. In Quiz Show (1994), Fiennes was Charles Van Doren — the elegant and highly-educated professor of English Literature from Columbia University, whose ego made him become the protagonist of the first major television scandal. His ability to show two extremely diverse facets of human darkness was what convinced Kathryn Bigelow that he — and not Andy García — was the right man to play the greasy Lenny Nero, the black marketeer in the underrated Strange Days (1995).

There was, however, one role left to conquer, the most-prized by Hollywood: the classic heartthrob. He managed this thanks to his portrayal of Count Almásy in The English Patient (1996), where he lived a passionate love story with Krisin Scott-Thomas, in a turbulent historical era amidst exotic landscapes. Today, it’s a classic… but in 1996, the film was a hot potato that no one knew quite what to do with. Filming came to a halt and the actors drastically reduced their salaries to make it happen. Few in Hollywood trusted an overpriced drama about a deformed man, which starred protagonists who — apart from Fiennes — were not very recognizable. At one point, Kristin Scott-Thomas was nearly replaced by Demi Moore. Only the tenacity of director Anthony Minghella saved her.

The project was in danger until the Weinsteins took it over and turned it into the big event of the season, thanks to one of their overwhelming advertising campaigns. The Academy gave up. The film received 12 Oscar nominations and won nine. Fiennes didn’t manage to convert his nomination into a win, but the praise he received compensated for the five hours a day in the makeup room that his character required. The actor insisted that makeup be applied all over his body, even in scenes where only his face would be seen.

Ralph Fiennes attends the New York premiere of 'The Menu,' at AMC Lincoln Square Theater, on November 14, 2022.
Ralph Fiennes attends the New York premiere of 'The Menu,' at AMC Lincoln Square Theater, on November 14, 2022.Michael Loccisano (WireImage)

On screen, he was a great tortured lover, which allowed him to be cast in The End of the Affair (1999) alongside Julianne Moore and as the devastated man chasing his wife’s ghost in The Constant Gardener (2005). However, he wasn’t cut out for highly-lucrative romantic comedies. He doesn’t have good memories of his time in Maid in Manhattan (2002), in which he seduced Jennifer Lopez. “I felt like it was a ‘prince charming role.’ And Prince Charming is a very bland figure.”

The same year that he seduced Jennifer Lopez with little enthusiasm, he tackled two very complex characters: the deranged protagonist of Spider (2002) by David Cronenberg and the serial killer in The Red Dragon (2002), the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs. As his career was marked by characters with altered psyches, it was surprising that Wes Anderson contacted him for The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). As he confessed to Vanity Fair, Anderson sent Fiennes the script, accompanied by a note that read: “Tell me what role you would like.” He chose to be the ubiquitous concierge Gustave, receiving rave reviews.

Fiennes — as a British actor — couldn’t escape the rumors that he would be cast as James Bond. He even had conversations with producer Barbara Broccoli, who, along with her half-brother, controls the film franchise. While it didn’t work out, he did end up entering the 007 universe, replacing Judi Dench as M. It was the highest-grossing saga of his career… until another charismatic evil crossed his path. It was his sister, Martha, who encouraged him to accept the role of Lord Voldemort. Fiennes ended up enjoying the part — especially when he saw the terror that gripped the children who visited the set.

Like his co-star — Helena Bonham-Carter, who played Bellatrix Lestrange — Fiennes took a stand in favor of J.K. Rowling, when controversy broke out after some statements were made by the writer. “J.K. 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-centred human being. The verbal abuse directed at her is disgusting, it’s appalling.” The actor told The New York Times he could “understand a viewpoint that might be angry at what she says about women. But [this is] not some obscene, uber-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.”

Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas on set of the film " The English Pataint "
Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas on the set of The English Patient, in 1996. Getty Images (Getty Images)

Fiennes has tried to protect his private life from the tabloid media, which he considers to be the worst side of fame. “I’m someone who doesn’t like to open up. Sometimes, you don’t want to be known. You want to be safe. I hate saying things and then wishing I hadn’t said them.” His caution hasn’t prevented certain details about this life from being revealed. Amidst the success of Schindler’s List, he married the British actress Alex Kingston, who would end up becoming very popular as Dr. Elizabeth Corday in ER. The couple had been together since they met in theater school. The relationship had a traumatic end, however, when he fell in love with Francesca Annis — the actress who played his mother in Hamlet.

His relationship with the protagonist of the first version of Dune was a small scandal at the time: they were both married, she had three children and she was 17-years-older than him. The relationship lasted 11 years and ended when he left her for a Romanian singer. Both breakups delighted the tabloid reporters, who were even more gleeful when it was revealed that he had had sexual relations with a stewardess during a flight from Australia to India. Just one of those things that can happen in business class.

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