"He's So Fiennes" - Globe &
Mail (Toronto, 1/23/99)
By Martyn Palmer
He has moved out of brother Ralph's shadow with his breakthrough
performance in Shakespeare in Love. Now Joseph Fiennes has to
learn how to play the real-life role of budding Hollywood star.
New York -- According to director John Madden, there really
was only one actor who could play a young, obsessed, lovestruck
William Shakespeare on the big screen.
With a script to die for -- courtesy of Tom Stoppard -- circulating
Hollywood, there were certainly plenty of contenders from the
A-list who would have given their agent's right arm to star in
a romantic comedy that has Oscar stamped all over it. The female
lead, playing the delectable Viola De Lesseps -- a woman who
inspires Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet, no less -- was
already in place; Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress who's proved that
her birth as a New Yorker is not in any way a handicap when it
comes to delivering a flawless English accent (she's pulled it
off twice before in Emma and Sliding Doors, for course) knew
a good thing when she saw it.
"Quite simply, this was the best script I'd ever read
by far," she said. "It's very funny, it's beautifully
romantic and it's accessible. I was completely taken with it
from the very first page." Paltrow is, of course, box-office
gold. She would guarantee an audience in the U.S., where a film
titled Shakespeare in Love would, for some, be the kiss of death.
Geoffrey Rush, the Australian-born Oscar winner for his performance
in Shine, was another early recruit. Rush, in fine form as a
hard-pressed theatre owner desperate for new work from up-and-coming
playwright Will, admitted that on the set the cast would have
a joke about which alternative titles might work for North Americans.
"The cynics among us thought that the word 'Shakespeare'
in the title might be box-office poison in America," explained
Rush, "so I came up with a game where we had to invent different
ones. My personal favourites were Good Will Humping and The Full
Montague . . ."
The wonderful ensemble cast also included Tom Wilkinson, Judi
Dench, Simon Callow, Anthony Sher, Rupert Everett and Martin
Clunes. But who then, among the cream of U.S. and English acting
talent (think Daniel Day Lewis, Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor)
would inspire Madden to stamp his directorial foot and insist
that this most succulent of plum parts be given to them? Step
forward one Joseph Fiennes, younger brother of the more successful
-- so far -- Ralph (who, according to film gossip, was rejected
for the role).
"Joe was the unchallenged candidate from a very wide
search," said Madden, who also directed the acclaimed Mrs.
Brown. "He just stood out head-and-shoulders above the rest.
He was the only person remotely believable as the man who wrote
the plays. He has the romance and the humour and the looks --
and so much more. The part belongs to him. He was my choice and
I made it very clear that I didn't want to make the movie unless
I could find the right person. Joe was the one."
Now, normally you would expect a director to back his leading
man and deliver that kind of eulogy as a matter of course. But
in this instance, Madden happens to be right. In Shakespeare
in Love, Fiennes is that good. Displaying the perfect combination
of vulnerability, passion and comic deftness, he can brood with
the best of them and his timing -- albeit in possession of some
of the best one-liners written for the screen in a long, long
time -- is perfect. All the more remarkable when you think that
this is only his fourth film (his others being Stealing Beauty,
Martha -- Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence and Elizabeth).
And despite fears that North Americans would not quite get
the joke, critics and audiences in the U.S. and Canada have given
the film good reviews and more than $21-million (U.S.) so far
at the box office; more importantly for this 28-year-old, the
industry movers and shakers love it, too. And rightly so. With
a slew of nominations for tomorrow night's Golden Globes, there
is talk that come Oscar time in March, Shakespeare in Love will
be a serious challenger. Fiennes the younger can now expect scripts
of the heartthrob and blockbuster variety to plop with a resounding
thud on the doormat at his agent's office along with offers of
huge proportions. He is a star, make no mistake, whether he likes
it or not.
"I don't believe in the next 'big deal.' I don't believe
in 'new hot things,' " Fiennes said defiantly. "So
many people are labelled and bandied around in that way, it's
lost its potency. I mean, there's another guy out there who is
the next new hot thing and another one has been that for a while
-- there's a whole corridor full of us. I'm aware of that. The
great thing is to be allowed the privilege to work. To do good
work, that's the joy."
Today, in a New York hotel room where he's holed up for a
round of press interviews, Fiennes looks disheveled. He obviously
started the day suited and booted, but now, in late afternoon,
has the look of a man who has spent the night on the town. His
tie is askew, like a schoolboy at the end of play time, an impressive
growth of stubble is shading half of his face and his hair seems
to be defying the laws of gravity, shooting off in all sorts
of unlikely directions. It doesn't seem to matter much, though.
One female U.S. journalist who has just had the pleasure of his
company is positively cooing. "He's so mysterious,"
she said. "He's so enigmatic and so good-looking . . . And,
boy, I love that film." It must be me, but to these eyes
he also looks plain beat.
Compared with his older brother -- notorious among film journalists
as a painfully reluctant interviewee -- young Joseph is open
to the point of being gushing. But that's only compared with
his brother. It is, perhaps, watching his sibling's experience
with the media at close range (especially when Ralph's marriage
to actress Alex Kingston broke down and his relationship with
Francesca Annis attracted the attention of the British tabloids)
that makes him so guarded at times. Ask him, for instance, his
views on romance and marriage (he appears to be wearing a gold
band on his wedding finger) and you get short shrift. "My
ring is on a different finger," he pointed out. So you're
not married? "No, I'm not . . . [pause] but I could be.
I wouldn't tell you if I was, so I could be lying. After all,
I am an actor . . ."
It's not that he's humourless -- he just worries about coming
across like a jerk in print. "I try not to read the things
that are written about me. I think there's something very dangerous
about an actor when he speaks. And, however honest the journalist
is in translating what he says on to the page, especially if
he speaks passionately about his work, he will always come across
somehow as, er . . . a . . . I can't think of another word to
use, but he always comes across as a wanker. I mean, I can speak
to you now, but once it's in print I don't know what it is .
. . I just think: "Oh, shut up . . ." So I prefer not
to look at it and cringe."
He has also had to contend with the fact that his older brother
is not just another actor, but a very good and a successful one,
too. It's never easy to follow in a sibling's famous footsteps,
and Joseph can see the journalistic traps a mile off. "No,
Ralph and I don't discuss acting or careers when we meet,"
he said firmly. "It's very rare that all of us get together
because everybody is so busy, and when we do we usually talk
domestics. I'm doing a bit of [work] on my flat in London at
the moment so we, you know, talk about that sort of thing . .
Joseph, 28, and his twin brother, Jake, are the youngest of
the Fiennes clan (Ralph is eight years older). Father Mark, a
photographer, and novelist and painter Jini, who died six years
ago while Joseph was still at college, had six children and an
unconventional lifestyle, moving frequently from homes in the
West Country, London and Ireland. "I think I had a privileged
yet strange upbringing," he said. "It was bohemian
but it was also functional. We were surrounded by constant stimulus
from my parents and from their friends. It was the whole creative
gamut -- actors, musicians, sculptors, whatever. In some ways,
they all have the same key -- observation -- and they kind of
blended with each other.
"I mean, to me as a kid it was phenomenal and a great
adventure. We moved 14 times and it was always a challenge to
reinvent yourself at school. I know a lot of friends who were
unhappy at school. They'd probably been to two schools in their
whole life, and you get labelled like that. Your identity comes
from other people, not yourself. But I sort of relished our life.
I guess it was good preparation for acting, too."
That "constant stimulus" has certainly had an effect
on the children: Ralph, the eldest, is an actor, of course; Martha
is a director; Magnus a musician and composer; Sophie an actress.
Only Jake has bucked the arts trend -- he's a gamekeeper. "He
has a love of the country, which I share," said Fiennes
by way of some kind of explanation. Last year Martha directed
Ralph in a screen adaptation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and Magnus
composed the music. There was even a small part for Sophie. "I
wasn't in it," Joseph said, grinning. "Actually, I'm
sure that they don't want to work with each other ever again
. . ."
Fiennes left school at 16 -- at first to study art, but acting
was always at the back of his mind. After a year at art college
(and by this time Ralph was already winning plaudits on stage
in London), he was helping out backstage while big brother was
out front. "I used to go to the National to see him and
that was wonderful. I was doing youth theatre as well and I really
loved it. I just knew it was what I wanted to do."
After a spell with the Young Vic and then three years at the
Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Fiennes concentrated almost
entirely on the theatre, notably with the RSC with acclaimed
roles as Troilus in Troilus and Cressida and Silvius in As You
Like It. It is, he said, where he feels most at home and, no
matter what happens as a result of Shakespeare in Love, where
he will always return. "In theatre it's easier to get parts
where you age up and down. There doesn't seem to be that much
pressure on typecasting. In film, I think you have to prove other
things. I like to respond to material, wherever it is, but really
film wasn't on my agenda.
"I made a choice to concentrate on theatre and there
were times -- believe me, because theatre pays so badly -- when
I was in debt and I would lust for a television job or something
to pay the bills. But I stuck with theatre. In the end, though,
it's the written word that I find deeply fascinating and compelling.
I respond to the material, whether it's in theatre or film."
His reluctance to venture into films earlier does seem to
come from a genuine fear of being famous. "I think one has
to try and keep a fine equilibrium between the myth of Hollywood
and the reality of life," he said. "I mean, I know,
as does every other actor of my generation, about Hollywood hype.
Celluloid pushes you, demands you to take on a persona which
you are not. People have said to me, 'You've come out of nowhere.'
But you look at most actors, including me, and I guarantee you
it's taken years of hard work to achieve a certain level of notoriety,
or respect, or whatever. Those who do come out of nowhere don't
always survive that.
"I don't get recognized on the streets. If you go on
the Tube in London with a hat on your head, it's fine. I mean,
I haven't had to worry about recognition and I would hate to.
But, I guess, yeah, it could happen. And I do worry about it.
I'm not particularly fond of it."
Whatever happens, he insists that he's staying put in London.
Right now he's working on a small-budget British film, Rancid
Aluminium, about a man with a complicated love life who gets
mixed up with the Russian mafia. He admits that he's already
had "one or two" offers from Hollywood as a result
of Shakespeare in Love -- he comes to Toronto in March to star
in Forever Mine for writer/director Paul Schrader -- and there
will be a lot more. Just like Hugh Grant before him, Hollywood
will try to cast him as a romantic lead. And with those looks,
who can blame them?
On romance, he is as guarded as ever. A six-year relationship
with the actress Sarah Griffiths ended earlier this year. He
is, apparently, on his own. Is he, you wonder, a romantic? "I
guess there is a romantic hidden in here somewhere," he
said with a smile. "I hope there is, anyway. But don't ask
me what the most romantic thing I've ever done is. I don't know.
I do know the most romantic thing that someone has ever done
for me. They cooked me pasta . . ."
He's easily pleased, this Mr. Fiennes. Either that or he's
developing a neat way of keeping journalists at bay. Perhaps
it's that comic touch that he shows so well in Shakespeare in
Love. Based on an idea by U.S. writer Marc Norman, it was originally
to have been filmed by director Edward Zwick (Legends of the
Fall) for Universal five years ago with Julia Roberts as the
female lead. The script, however, was not considered to be in
the best of shape, and Tom Stoppard was called in to weave his
magic. The project, in the meantime, fell by the wayside. But
Zwick and Stoppard were convinced that it would work and the
director persuaded his friend Harvey Weinstein, chairman of Miramax,
to take a look. Zwick was no longer able to direct -- he was
committed to another film, although he remained attached as a
producer -- and Weinstein, impressed by John Madden's work with
Mrs. Brown, called in the Briton and the film was back on again.
"A script like this comes along once in a lifetime,"
Madden said. "I never expected to find something that I
would feel so strongly about. I've spent my life around Shakespeare
-- I've acted in it, directed it, I've studied it and I've even
taught Shakespeare at university -- and to find a script that
actually gets behind it all and is so incredibly funny and fresh
and brilliantly imagined is just wonderful. I am very proud of
this film. We all are."
In the film, Shakespeare is suffering from writer's block
at a time when he could be making money. He needs a muse. In
a whirl of mistaken identities, mixed-up messages and misbegotten
desires -- along with some frankly raunchy lovemaking scenes
and some hilarious send-ups of the acting profession -- we see
the young Bard find his inspiration and write Romeo and Juliet
as the love of his life is slowly slipping through his ink-stained
fingers. "Strangely enough, I didn't do much research for
this. I mean research is great and it's an opportunity not only
to invest in the character but broaden one's own personal knowledge,"
Fiennes said. "But with Tom's unique script, I mean he is
such a brilliant wordsmith, it's all there, it's watertight.
"At first I did look at what the academics have to say
about Shakespeare's life, but it's a can of worms. It's seductive
but it drives you up the wall! There was talk about whether he
was the illegitimate child of Elizabeth I and then you would
read something else and find a completely contradictory theory.
The truth is that we don't know an awful lot about his life,
so in the end I just closed the books and embraced Tom's script."
At first, he admits, he was intimidated by the prospect of
playing the great man. "He's sacred ground for a lot of
people worldwide, and especially in the U.K. It's a great opportunity
to infuriate them all . . ." But then he decided it wasn't
so much about an icon, more about a young man named Will trying
to make his way in the world.
"I never felt like it was Shakespeare but a guy called
Will, and he was a hustler. Rather like a journalist, he's a
reporter of the human psyche, and he's constantly looking for
inspiration and Gwyneth becomes his muse. Once you look at it
like that, it becomes a lot easier. We see Shakespeare as a writer
of exceptional talent, but we also see him as a man. The love
scenes are very real, and in that way the man is very real too.
As soon as I put on the tights I knew that."