Mr. Showbiz's Review of "Shakespeare In Love"

"HE'S SO FIENNES" (Dec. 10, 1998)

The rising star who wooed a queen in Elizabeth brings
the Bard to exuberant life.
By Stephen Schaefer Ralph's baby brother Joseph holds forth on the complexities of playing William Shakespeare, his experience working with Gwyneth Paltrow, and his native country's infamous tabloids.

The striking resemblance between Joseph Fiennes and his elder, internationally acclaimed brother Ralph extends beyond the physical: Seems the family gene pool is well stocked with Oscar-worthy acting talent. The evidence can be seen in not one but two holiday features certain to make moviegoers take notice of Fiennes the younger. In November Fiennes co-starred in the sumptuous Elizabeth€which charts the rise to power of England's so-called Virgin Queen€as the callow aristocrat who becomes the embattled monarch's great love. In John Madden's "Shakespeare In Love", the handsome young Brit takes center stage as the Bard himself. His character is not the "playwright for the ages" audiences may be expecting to see - a literary genius whose work has endured for centuries. Rather, Fiennes' Will is youthful and robustly romantic, a little-known aspiring playwright employed by a desperate, snaggle-toothed theater owner and struggling with writer's block as he fiddles with a potboiler called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Much-needed inspiration arrives in the cross- dressing person of Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), a winsome lass who soon teaches the young playwright what true tragedy great love can mean.

Son of a professional photographer, the stage-trained Joseph isn't the only Fiennes family member laboring in the artistic shadow of his famous older sibling. Sister Martha has just directed Ralph and Liv Tyler in Onegin, a film adaptation of the classic Russian love poem, for which brother Magnus composed the music. Another brother is an archeologist, and another sister, a producer. Only Joe's fraternal twin, Jake, settled on a vocation outside the realms of art and academia (he's a gamekeeper on an English estate).

Though starring in a movie that's being heralded as the sleeper of the season (and a potential Best Picture contender to boot) could make anyone a bit giddy, the 28-year-old Fiennes did his best to appear nonchalant at a recent interview with Mr. Showbiz. Looking elegant in a Paul Smith black windowpane suit, pink shirt, and black work boots, he downplayed the significance of his current high profile at the box-office, recalled his earliest experiences with acting, and turned a critical eye on his own outfit, the work of a designer who favors, "a modern twist on the classics. Like Shakespeare In Love, I guess." Right you are, Joe.


Q: Do people call you Joseph or Joe?

A: Both.

Q: When they were filming Armageddon, Bruce Willis mocked Ben Affleck for wrecking his career and doing a movie like Shakespeare In Love where he wore tights.

A: I've done it twice, so obviously I'm in bad shape.

Q: What was it like to play Shakespeare, a man about whom everyone seems to have an opinion? Last year the Los Angeles Times ran a playwright's declaration that Shakespeare was definitely gay because of the relationship between Hamlet and his mother.

A: I think a lot of the sonnets definitely allude to that theory. And they are all theories. At the end of the day, I think it's dangerous to come up with a concrete idea. I think sexuality had a very different meaning then than it does now. But I think possibly, from what I've read, that could well be true. I love that. And there's so much cross- dressing in his plays and Tom [Stoppard]'s used that for this great British tradition of cross-dressing in the film. And when Shakespeare is listening to Gwyneth speak his lines as a boy, he does fall in love with that voice. I love that. I think it's great, it's original.

As far as playing Shakespeare, it's daunting. He's sacred ground to so many people, academics and theatergoers alike. But fundamentally there is nothing known about him, so there's a blank sheet of paper to work from. He left a table and chair in his will, and that's all we know apart from his work. When you make up a profile of the man, you could look at his plays and his sonnets, but that's tricky. They contradict each other, in terms of his faith, his religion. He could be Catholic, Protestant. Likewise his understanding of women, of court, of his sexuality. Here's a man you just can't pin down. He's enigmatic in that sense. What Stoppard has brought to the piece is he's humanized this icon to such a degree that he's allowing everyone to bring their own take or fantasy.

Q: You've just appeared as a callow courtier in Elizabeth. Was it strange to be in two Elizabethan movies, especially two with Geoffrey Rush?

A: I went up for Shakespeare when I was in the middle of Elizabeth, and it did cross my mind. But they're so entirely different beasts, one is taking a very strong historical take from this narrative and the other is a fantasy. The other is not really about the costumes and the age; it's totally modern in that respect. It's sexy and vibrant and funny and full of pathos.

Geoffrey was sheer joy. He's a comic genius. Just look how he went from Walsingham [Elizabeth's murderous spymaster] to this [his Shakespeare role as a beleaguered theater owner] as a sign of sure brilliance. It was daunting.

Q: Do you have to be smart to see Shakespeare In Love?

A: No. [Shakes his head, smiling.] You don't have to be smart to see Hamlet, or any of his work. Or Shakespeare In Love. It humanizes [Shakespeare] to such a degree that it invites you in. It seduces you into this character and the whole Elizabethan age in such a vibrant way.

Shakespeare wouldn't have survived the test of time if he were just for academics. It's not for academics; it's for everyone. The reason he has survived is because he has such pertinent resonance with our day-to-day social structure. For some reason, his brilliance has touched on that. It's something to learn from, to look at, to readdress. It's a mirror to society in that age and to our own society, and to ourselves, our sexuality, our faiths. And it's full of great bawdy jokes. What more do you need?

Q: How is having a famous older brother in the same business? Do you see him often? Are you competitors?

A: There's seven of us in the family and every journalist has asked me that. It's going to be the normal parallel to make.

I started out seven or eight years ago, so it's never crossed my mind.

Q: Ralph recently worked with your sister on Onegin. Have you talked about doing something with him?

A: We have worked together. We did something a long time ago called "A Dangerous Man: Lawrence of Arabia" on television. If you look for a fleeting second, I'm in there.

Q: How does it feel to get your career "launched," so to speak, starring in what could be the sleeper hit of the Christmas season?

A: How do I feel? I don't look at it as [my] "movie career," it's just another wonderful opportunity to participate in great writing from Tom Stoppard and a formidable director like John Madden and a dynamic cast.

Q: You've just done your first three major roles though, with "Martha Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence" coming in the spring.

A: I've done several years of theater roles, and [it'll be] great if I can jump between the two mediums.

Q: Are you well known in England for your stage work?

A: I don't know. I never really think about it.

Q: Well, do people see you regularly in plays?

A: I just finished a play at the Royal Court Upstairs by a new writer called Nick Russian where I played a character called Billy. It's about a group of young men in North London with dodgy backgrounds. There's no real narrative, but as the psychobabble unfolds, we get a real feel for the backgrounds of these men. It was a success, sold out and very well received.

Q: Will you move it to the West End then?

A: The thing about the Royal Court is it's very short runs, about a month. They may move it somewhere else, but the cast and [crew] had other commitments.

Q: So you're doing something else now?

A: I'm making a film called "Rancid Aluminum" in London. It's a sinister comedy about a young man who falls in love with a Mafia boss's daughter, and he's married and is impotent. That's not me, [that's] the main guy. He has an accountant who runs his father's business, and I'm the accountant, who is a bit of [a] nasty psychotic wonk. So it's a bit of a change from this movie.

Q: Certainly a change from a man with writer's block. How did you get cast for "Shakespeare In Love"?

A: Ah, it was the normal protocol: being sent the script, auditioning. I went back a couple of times and didn't give a brilliant reading at first, and John [Madden, the director] was kind enough to realize there was a morsel of potential. Then I went to screen with Gwyneth. And that went very well, and we got on exceedingly well, and then it was offered to me soon after.

Q: Tell me about Gwyneth.

A: I feel she's an extraordinarily dynamic talent. My background is theater, so seeing someone so acutely disciplined and spontaneous in a film [was a surprise]. Not just the way she looks, the way she can nail a scene straight off [snaps his fingers], a big emotional scene. And also speaking verse! In a dialect that's not her own. Deeply impressive.

Q: What's tougher, the passionate love scenes with Gwyneth or those sword fights where it's choreographed but so much slapstick physicality?

A: Yeah. God, I saw the fight scene the other day and I thought, "It looks kind of easy." And I swear I nearly slipped a disk doing that. I slipped and had a really bad back problem. That was kind of rough, and the love scenes - I'm kind of shy anyway, so when you're doing it in front of loads of people, nothing's easy.

Q: Were you really naked?

A: I can't remember. I don't think I was.

Q: Would you do nudity onstage, the way Nicole Kidman and Ian Glen did in London with "The Blue Room"?

A: I never saw that. If the role really demands it. I think one has to look carefully at how integral it is for the integrity of the piece€whether it's just cheap voyeurism or it's what's needed.

Q: We hear how terrible the London tabloids are. Are you an object of pursuit as a new sex symbol?

A: I don't tend to read any press at all. [Laughs nervously.] Probably because I do so much of it for the work, I tend not to read it. As for the press in England, well, there's the tabloids and broadsheets, and I'm a bit of a Guardian reader. That's the long and short of it.

Q: I'm sure Gwyneth and Ben have been in the papers there. Do you feel you don't have a real career until you're tabloid gossip?

A: Of course people want to get their stories. What is sad is the angle of a lot of press is the gossip. It's a chicken and egg thing: Is it the readers who want the gossip? Or do journalists want to give it to please their editors? I don't know where it lies, but it certainly doesn't relate to the work I want to be involved in. It's to do with marketing and money and something that's not on the agenda for me.

Q: You grew up in Ireland?

A: Yes, I spent about four years in the south of Ireland, from 4 'til 8.

Q: Do you remember it much?

A: Yes. It's an impressionable age. I have very strong memories of the southwest coast, in Bantry Bay. It's a wonderful, wild, extremely mythic kind of territory.

Q: I guess you just played and went to school.

A: Yeah, my father was a photographer, and he did something called Insight cards for the Irish Tourist Board, and we spent four years there. We moved a couple of times, from a place called Kilkenny to Bantry Bay.

Q: Do you ever want to go back and make it your home?

A: I do, but I don't know about making it my home. But I feel very strong about my Anglo-Irish connections; it's a part of my upbringing.

Q: When did you become interested in acting then?

A: For me I guess it was a moment when I was 9 or 10, when I auditioned and got the part of Joseph in Joseph and the "Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat". There was a downside: I was not allowed to sing. But that was the beginning.

Q: You were lip-synching?

A: I don't know - it was all the kids in the class, and I had to mime.

Q: Was Ralph acting already at that point? Or were you the first to realize it was what you wanted?

A: When I had that first moment, it was kind of important to me in my life - but I never thought I wanted to act at that moment. I did something that I recognized had an effect.

Q: I see. Where did you go from there?

A: I went on to art school at 16 years old, so I didn't go immediately to acting. After art school, then I went to Italy for six months. I was a builder doing restoration work in a 12th-century villa. It was great! I came straight back from there to do two years in youth theater in South London, and then I went on to train for three years after that. I had about five years of grounding before going on to the professional circuit.

Q: Have you found things have changed remarkably in the past year with these two movies?

A: Everything remains the same.

Q: Does it?

A: I think so, yes. There might be hype or whatever but that's nothing to do with me - that's separate. That's to generate interest.

Q: It's not different being offered roles, rather than calling your agent saying, "Get me in there to audition, I can convince them I can do this part?"

A: It's true [in that regard]. I miss those days.

Q: You do?

A: Yeah, I love the chase. But it does [change]. It's a privileged state to be in, and I am aware of what it means. How long it lasts I don't know. If it [only] lasts this week, I'm a happy man.

Q: But do you have any feeling for the kind of roles you want to do? Leads, character parts?

A: Like most actors, I respond to the material. And for me, coming from the background of theater, I respond to the written word as much as anything. In the theater especially, if the actor can hold hands with great writing, it can take you places. Film can take you elsewhere€it's not necessarily on the page. So much can happen between the script and the final product.

Q: What is your favorite Shakespearean play?

A: I love King John, a very early play. I love "Measure for Measure". Can't go wrong with "Hamlet". And "The Tempest".

Q: And your favorite Shakespearean role, among those you've played?

A: I've only done a few. Maybe Romeo, although that's difficult. I did that for a radio production.

Q: Do you plan on playing Hamlet some day?

A: I'd love to do a play where the people in the front row don't mumble all the monologues under their breath while you're playing it. If that means Hamlet, maybe we should ban Shakespeare for five years so people forget what it's about.

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