As the star of three eagerly awaited films, Joseph Fiennes will soon be as famous as Ralph, says GARTH PEARCE
The little brother with a big future
For Joseph Fiennes, life is never going to be quite like this again. He slips unnoticed into a film studio in black leather jacket and jeans, a trim dark-haired man of 27. No heads turn. No demand is made of his time to give an autograph or be photographed. Nobody, apart from his friends and family, knows or cares who he sleeps with. He, more than most actors, can appreciate the pleasures of anonymity.
He has seen what it can do. Brother Ralph, eight years his elder, can hardly turn for attracting attention. After the Oscar-nominated parts in Schindler's List and The English Patient comes the reckoning. Ralph leaves his wife, the actress Alex Kingston, and it's emblazoned across tabloid newspapers; he sets up home with another actress, Francesca Annis: ditto. He has reached the stage where he can't shop or eat in public with comfort. So Joseph, whose on-screen talents we are about to witness in three films that will change his life, must know he is sitting on a time bomb.
The first film, Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Lawrence, made by Channel 4 for just under £5m and released in Britain on May 8, is a delight. And Fiennes is the man you really notice, despite being alongside the excellent Rufus Sewell and Tom Hollander. The three friends (Frank, Daniel and Lawrence) are chasing the love of the same American girl, Martha, played by Monica Potter, who quits her home in Minneapolis for a new life in London. His character, Lawrence, is the only one to show real concern for both the mental state of his friends and the girl. He's gentle, honourable and heroic: a heart-melting new man whom the camera clearly loves.
The film's director, Nick Hamm, who was under pressure to cast bigger names, recalls: "I finally put Joe on videotape, and everyone was immediately excited by what they saw. He is going to become one of our great movie actors. He just doesn't know it yet."As for the film itself, which manages to be sharp, funny and romantic, the word is out. The movie magazine Empire has declared in advance that it's "fast, feelgood and laugh-aloud funny"; Total Film goes further, calling it the next Four Weddings and a Funeral.
After such a notable debut, in September Fiennes is likely to be at the heart of a heated debate that can only help his career. He is the male lead in the much-awaited big-budget film Elizabeth I, playing Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. In the history books, Dudley was the queen's favourite; in this highly controversial account of the years before she was crowned, at the age of 25, in 1558, he becomes her lover, deflowering the Virgin Queen. A battery of warning shots has already been fired at the script, including one from Amanda Foreman, a historian at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. "Elizabeth I's virginity is the one thing on which every Tudor historian can agree," she writes. "This is ego- driven fiction parading as the truth."
If that weren't enough, Fiennes is currently filming at Shepperton Studios, Middlesex, in another costly reworking of Elizabethan history called Shakespeare in Love. In Tom Stoppard's well-crafted screenplay, Shakespeare has an affair with a beautiful woman called Viola (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) as he suffers writer's block while working on Romeo and Juliet. Although there seems not a scrap of evidence from 1593 that points to such a relationship, there is no documentary information to dispute it, either.
What all this will mean to the historians is anyone's guess; for Joseph Fiennes's public profile, though, it's going to be marvellous. But when we meet for lunch at the studio restaurant in Shepperton, he has a more immediate and pressing thought on his mind: playing a man in tights for the second consecutive time. "I felt a right prick today coming here in costume," he says, disarmingly. "Try walking through the pub next door, packed with all the sparks [electricians] and chippies [carpenters] and hear all the remarks. If you can survive that, you can survive anything."
Yet Fiennes clearly does not suffer from the sensitiveness of his famous brother. There are no long, awkward silences while he searches for the right phrase, as if he fears to see it in print. His clear brown eyes are direct and challenging. There's even a touch of laddishness about him, a hint he thinks bedding the Virgin Queen is a great idea.
To play the 29-year-old Shakespeare, he's been devouring as much historical information as possible. His education, he admits, was not the greatest. "We had a crazy upbringing. There were seven of us, and my twin brother, Jacob, and I were the youngest. I fell behind badly, with all the changes of schools and styles of lessons. So I finished at 16, without doing very much, and went to art school in Suffolk, where we were living at the time. I left home at 17 and worked in London, getting involved in youth theatre and the National, working backstage. This gave me a more accurate picture of what acting is all about.
"The big surprise was the amount of smelly pants and socks I had to deal with. It made me realise there's not much glamour in this profession, and a lot of hard, sweaty work."
An acting grant allowed him to spend three years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. "It paid half the fees and I got sponsorship from companies, after writing 100 letters. Ralph gave me a lot of help - not financially, because he was not up and running himself, but support on speeches and working. But you're really on your own."
His handful of years since leaving drama school in 1993 have been far from smooth. There were a couple of appearances in West End plays, The Woman in Black and A Month in the Country, plus two seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon- Avon, where he was a notable Jesus in Dennis Potter's Son of Man. But he has mixed memories of the RSC and his crop of appearances in plays such as As You Like It and Troilus and Cressida. There is too much emphasis, he believes, on shadowing the syllabus, ensuring coachloads of GCSE students pile in. "The passion is about putting bums on seats rather than a director really wanting to do a piece." Although accepting that "the carrot is the part, not the money", he was also broke. "There were times when I was actually losing money," he says. "I was paying for my flat in London and being charged another £120 a week by the RSC for their little house. The two rents did not come to my weekly wage."
His actress girlfriend of six years, Sara Griffiths, helped save him financially. "This business has no compassion," he says pragmatically. "Sara put food on the table and pulled me through drama school and all the low points. We have been out of work together - and, rarely, in work together. So we are both good for each other. But we have to keep a cool attitude to all the rejections, otherwise it would drive you crazy."
It's obvious from his conversation that Joseph Fiennes has not quite got used to the luxury of nonstop work. Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Lawrence was the breakthrough, following a virtual walk-on part in Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty. But it took five meetings to get the part. Despite the small budget, the script by Peter Morgan became a hot property among American stars - filming in London is in vogue perhaps more than at any time since the 1960s - and director Hamm fought successfully for the Britboys.
"Joseph's was the toughest role of them all," he says. "Given the situation of the plot - and without giving too much away - most men would just go for the girl, if they got the chance, and not give a stuff about their friends. Joe has a gentility of spirit, a warmth and openness and looks great in repose. He's the kind of guy you'd pay to watch at the cinema even if he was just reading a book."
There was a similar reaction from Elizabeth I's director, Shekhar Kapur, currently in the final editing stage of his film, which stars Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth, plus a powerful cast of Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, Lord Attenborough, Kathy Burke and Christopher Eccleston. "Joe's impact and sexuality is fantastic to watch, even in an editing room," he says. "This is the only man Elizabeth loved - and even historians agree on that one. Such a person has to have exceptional qualities, both as an actor and as a man."
Blanchett is in a unique position to make comparisons between Joseph and his acclaimed brother; she co-starred with Ralph in Oscar and Lucinda, released earlier this month. Although warning that she regards such comparisons as "odious", she tells me: "Ralph is very complex and intense, but has a wicked sense of humour bubbling under the surface. Joseph is open, direct, focused and a secret trickster. But both are incredibly beautiful to look at and gifted beyond belief. It is already clear to everyone who has worked with him that Joseph will become every bit as big a name as Ralph."
So where does all this leave Joseph Fiennes? Excited but cautious, he says. "Nobody has actually seen a single thing yet, apart from some film critics. All I know is that I've had three great scripts to work with; that, in itself, is a triumph."