THE PHOTOGRAPHER is not scheduled to arrive for another four hours,
so we have no way of recording the look on Joseph Fiennes' face as
he contemplates his Internet Web site for the first time. Cobbled
together by rabid fans, the adoring page is headed "The Joy of Joseph
Fiennes," a title that conjures odd echoes of Beethoven symphonies
and best-selling sex manuals. As the actor flips though the printout,
his eyes register that inseparable blend of amusement, flattery and
heebie-jeebies one experiences when one realizes a complete stranger
has been amassing every last detail of one's life.
Fiennes speaks a great deal about joy. When he does, however, it is
not about the joy of being the youngest sibling (along with his twin
brother, Jacob) of that brooding English star Ralph Fiennes. Nor is
it the joy of finding himself the romantic magnet of the moment in
the season's two hot British screen exports, playing Robert Dudley,
Earl of Leicester in "Elizabeth" and the greatest English-speaking
playwright of all time in "Shakespeare in Love." Rather, he speaks
of the elemental pleasures: the joy of work, learning, music and the
"I've got a vendetta to destroy the Net," he says in a half-mocking
tone from a mid-Manhattan hotel suite recently. "To make everyone
go to the library. I love the organic thing of pen and paper, ink on
canvas. I love going down to the library, the feel and smell of books."
Joseph Fiennes doesn't look a bit like a fusty academe. Out of the
Elizabethan tights of his two movie roles and into a black suit and
neon-blue shirt and necktie, he emits a low-burning sensuality that
is neither contemporary nor particularly British. With full lips,
penetrating cedar-brown eyes and dark brown hair, there is an air of
Italian High Renaissance about him, like a figure in a Raphael fresco.
At 28, he may be the only actor of his generation to have portrayed
both William Shakespeare and Jesus Christ ("I know, there is nowhere
to go now," he muses). The latter part was in a Royal Shakespeare
Company staging of Dennis Potter's controversial "Son of Man" in 1995,
adapted from a teleplay that provoked threats of prosecution from the
government on charges of blasphemy when it was first aired in 1969.
Winding down from a brain-frying weekend publicity blitz for
"Shakespeare in Love," Tom Stoppard's rambunctious imagining
of the creation of "Romeo and Juliet," Fiennes' tank of joy is
running low. He has been held hostage to three questions: (1)
Tell us about the differences between your two current film
roles; (2) Tell us about the differences between acting for stage
and screen; and (3) Tell us about the differences between you
and your famous brother.
At the mention of the Jesus play, Fiennes smiles and turns off
his automatic response button. "Part of their success," he says,
linking it with his current stint as Shakespeare, "and part of
what triggered the kind of rage and fury that surrounded `Son
of Man' when it was first produced, is their success in humanizing
the mythic icons. Because they live, they breathe, they cry, they
The warmth and athleticism of his screen persona stand in marked
contrast - one can't resist - with the cool, reflective image
projected by his brother Ralph. The mild-mannered Fiennes concedes
that all of that swordplay and rousting about is a chore for him.
"It is a task, especially in a movie. I found the acute concentration
one has to achieve over a span of 30 seconds for 15 weeks grueling.
But part of Shakespeare's robust physicality [in the movie] was a
metaphor for the mercurial brilliance of his brain."
When asked if he is equally uncomfortable having to contend with the
nude lovemaking demands of both movies, he responds dryly, "Give me
a sword fight any day."
The joy of acting for Fiennes, in great part, is the research -
"the chance for me to catch up on my lack of academic background."
That said, he kept his excavation of Shakespeare's life to a minimum.
"There is next to nothing known about him. You can collect an idea,
a profile of the man from his sonnets and his work, and you're
astounded because his knowledge was so extensive. But then it's a
can of worms because if you look at any of his plays, you don't
quite know where his bias lies: his religion - is he a Protestant
or a Catholic? - his politics, his sexuality. You can't nail him
"I think academics are infuriating. For every expert on Shakespeare
there is another one to cancel his theory out. It drives you up the
wall. I think the greatest form of finding out the truth is through
Joseph Fiennes' propensity for fantasy and pretend may have been
fertilized by his gypsy-like upbringing with six brothers and sisters
by photographer Mark Fiennes and the late writer and painter Jennifer
Lash. They moved 14 times, without a television set, nurturing a
family interdependency that flourished through literature, art and
"I'm not going to paint a romantic bohemian picture. There were seven
mouths to feed, a lot of mess moving house, it was noisy. The dream of
living out an idyllic existence with a big family in the country and the
reality of clothing and feeding all these children forced us to keep on
"I think what I discovered from an early age was the joy of the
written word. I just found that lifeenhancing, that you could hold
hands with poets from different centuries, different ages, different
backgrounds, and they would take you places that you never really
knew or understood existed."
Fiennes was particularly affected by his mother, who died of cancer
in 1990. "She was an extraordinary encouragement. As a writer and
painter she understood the whole creative process, and nature. She
was someone I could talk to on the subject of what inspired this
passion in me. That sense of her voice is prevalent in all my work."
The turning point came when a primary school teacher handed him the
title role in a school production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor
Dreamcoat." The rush of performing stayed with him even as he dropped
out of school at 17 to try his hand at art school and working at the
Royal National Theatre in backstage jobs finagled by brother Ralph.
A three-year acting grant at London's revered Guildhall School of
Music and Drama led to two years in repertory with the R.S.C., a
six-month stint on the West End in the long-running thriller "The
Woman in Black" and a choice role opposite Helen Mirren in "A Month
in the Country."
Those were rocky years, during which Fiennes was subsidized by his
ex-girlfriend, actress Sara Griffiths. Eventually, the actor bagged
his first featured role in a romantic comedy called "Meet Frank,
Daniel and Lawrence," which is projected for a May release in the
When asked if he has ever felt concern that his famous family name
may have given him an unfair leg up, he responds, "It's always a
concern. I know other actors, the Cusacks and the Richardsons, a
whole host of people who are probably confronted with that same
question. It might open the door for you but at the end of the day
you have to walk through it and stand on your own two feet. In fact,
it might even put more pressure on you. I've been lucky enough that
I started out seven years ago, early enough not to feel any
comparisons or pressures in that sense."
Even with only a seven-year resume to go by, Fiennes' fans have
clogged the Internet with news and gossip of their hero. When he
speaks of the legacy of his latest character, William Shakespeare,
one can't help but discern a self-referential plea underneath. "At
the end of the day, it's his work. He says at the beginning of the
Folio, `Look not upon this picture, but look upon the work.' Through
the work, I will live. And that's the kind of joy of being an actor."