Sunday Telegraph UK - Jan. 17, 1999

by Sheila Johnson

The Joy of Joe Fiennes

Joseph Fiennes's star just goes on rising. The actor talks to Sheila Johnson about his latest film, Shakespeare in Love and what a relief it is to be moving on from playing moody romantic lovers.

Joe Fiennes has just polished off 70 interviews. "It was relentless," he sighs, "but the journalists I met had done three junkets in one weekend. It must be exhausting for them, I imagine." Well...rare, indeed, is the actor who, fresh from the publicity mill, spares a second's concern for the poor lambs who have been grilling him. But Fiennes is all solicitude for his interrogator. How long have you been a journalist? Did you ever want to act? Have you eaten already?

A mention of the enviable seamed leather doublet he sports in his new film elicits the offer to "root it out for you". And, by the way, you really ought to take something - "Nurofen, I've always found, is quite good" - for that nasty cold.

All this reveals, curiously, a fair bit about him. First, what seems to be a genuine niceness. The Internet site devoted to him is called "The Joy of Joe Fiennes" - appropriate for an emergent sex symbol but also for the actor's own sunniness. "Joy" is a word he uses himself, several times, in the course of our interview. But his barrage of questions is also, of course, a most effective way of warding off enquiries about himself.

With good reason: in the cause of investigative journalism, I subscribed to "The Joy of Joe" mailing list, and ever since the e-mails have come flooding in, peaking last week in a record 65 missives in a single day. Every article, every television appearance is recorded. You can even buy shares in him on a fantasy stock exchange.

All of which underlines the intergalactic distance between Joseph Fiennes, the endlessly enthralling and mysterious young film star, and the young man sprawling on the sofa opposite with his hedgehog hair, direct gaze and impish grin. His middle name is Alberic, after an uncle. "I think it's German. It means "King of the Elves".

As his amiability also indicates, Fiennes, 28, is new enough on the block to find facing the media a reltively painless experience. After several low-profile seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he was beginning to attract attention four or five years ago for his performances as Jesus in Dennis Potter's Son of Man and Turgenev's A Month in the Country, in which his Belyaev was judged to have "just the right amount of gangly charm."

Then, after a small part in Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, his film career suddenly lifted off with three chunky roles in less than a year. Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence was a comedy hailed - wrongly, as it turned out - as the new Four Weddings and a Funeral. Fiennes considered his character a bit of a drip compared to the men behaving badly played with gusto by his co-stars Rufus Sewell and Tom Hollander.

"There are fewer facets in a romantic lead. When I was with the RSC I did three mooning lovers on the trot and I found I couldn't get the creative energy to leap between those extremes."

Alas, his next film, Elizabeth, required his Dudley to deflower the Virgin Queen and his visage, brooding and darkly bearded, appeared on posters beneath the legend "Lover." "Naff marketing," he mumbles self-consciously. "Roll on the beer gut and bald head, I say. The character parts."

Meanwhile, Shakespeare in Love is yet another Fiennes romance. In the title role of the high-spirited farce, he battles creative block and incorrigible indolence to complete a new play "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" (working title) , and finds that a fling with a stage-struck noblewoman revives his juices. The cast also includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench, Simon Callow and Tom Wilkinson, and Fiennes enthuses about "the joy of their presence."

His Bard is a likeable rogue, dodging his creditors and pillaging diaogue from all around him. "One was treading on sacred ground, obviously, for theatre-goers, academics, poets and playwrights. And very little is known about Shakespeare; for every expert and his theory, there's another that cancels it out. I just learned the lines and hit the mark."

"At the end of the day I felt it was less about him and more about the deeply unsettling and competitive world a young writer lives in. The sex appeal and mystique of the theatre have always had a fascination for those outside it. And there are great parallels between Cheapside and Los Angeles. The frailties and vanities haven't changed much." Indeed Tom Stoppard's script has a great deal of fun with the rough-and-tumble of show business, its cheap publicity staunts, cut-throat competition, delicate egos and byzantine politicking (the playbill for what becomes Romeo and Juliet, with its complex list of progenitors, impressarios and producers, reads like the pre-credit crawl for any big-budget Hollywood movie).

Still, a vast chasm yawns between Shakespeare's world and the frenzy of doing one's bit for this year's Oscar campaign. "It's a bit of a shock, the amount one has to give of oneself to promote a project. I'm aware of the intrusion and I find it overwhelming at times I guess." Privacy was always at a premium. His parents, Mark, a tenant farmer turned freelance photographer, and Jini, a painter and writer, had six children in rapid succession; just over seven years separate Joe, the youngest along with his twin, Jake, from their eldest brother. The family size (the Fiennes also somehow found the space and time to adopt a foster son) and unconventional nomadic lifestyle left little time for contemplation.

"My upbringing was a mad, messy, noisy,chaotic adventure. As a kid, you adapt to anything. And I see my family as close friends as much as siblings. But I was a bit of a tearaway." After leaving school at 16, he disappeared to Tuscany to restore a 12th century villa. "I was quite isolated for about six months. It was important to get away and clear my head, with my passion intact and focused. And becoming an actor was like a strange thing that happens when you're picked up by the scruff of the neck and plonked in the right place."

By others' accounts, this childhood was not as idyllic as he paints it. Jini, who died five years ago at the age of 55, was, according to some of her children, volatile, difficult, sometimes hysterical. Certainly her last novel, Blood Ties - about a couple who, like the Fiennes, adopt a foster child - has been seen as a bleak vision of family life.

Joe disagrees: "There is a sinister and sad side to it. But it's also about breaking that vicious circle, both poignant and uplifting as a way out of the past and into the future. And very funny. Hysterically funny." What is undeniable is that Jini and Mark spawned a remarkably creative brood: as well as Ralph, (the eldest, from whose shadow as an actor Joe has been steadily emerging) there is Martha, a director, Sophie, a producer and designer, and Magnus, a musician. Only Jake, a gamekeeper, has bucked the trend.

The others have all collaborated on a forthcoming movie of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. But, says Joe, vastly amused at being thought part of an artistic dynasty, "everyone follows their individual paths. We don't go to each other's houses and swap notes, and when we do it's less talking shop and more the joy of domesticity."

After weeks of discoursing on playing men in tights, moving from stage to screen and following in the footsteps of his big brother, there must be one question which he would like to have been asked. There is.

He would, he says, like to be asked about the collapse of the global economy. "It's a terrifying moment in history: looking at Asia and Russia, we're close to a crash that will be like a meltdown of capitalism." But strangely, Fiennes, beaming, does not look greatly concerned by the imminent end of civilisation.


© 1998-2000 Joy of Joseph Fiennes