Fiennes is likely to win celebrity from 'Quiz Show' An actor becomes a movie star

September 23, 1994|By Joe Logan | Joe Logan,Knight-Ridder News Service

You may not know actor Ralph Fiennes. But if you saw "Schindler's List," you surely know his work.

In Steven Spielberg's powerful film opus about the Holocaust, it was Mr. Fiennes who delivered the gut-wrenching portrayal of Amon Goeth, the ruthless and remorseless commandant of the World War II concentration camp. One memorable image: Mr. Fiennes, as the bloated and coolly maniacal Goeth, rolls out of bed one morning, reaches for his high-powered rifle, then strolls to the balcony, where he takes aim and unblinkingly executes an unsuspecting internee.

Mr. Fiennes embodied human brutality at its rawest.

Until "Schindler's List," this 32-year-old British stage actor was a largely unknown commodity here, most of his previous work having been on the London stage.

Now comes Mr. Fiennes' new movie, "Quiz Show," which opens amid predictions by critics and movie insiders that this will be the film to catapult the actor to big-ticket stardom. U.S. magazines already are discovering Mr. Fiennes. He was on the August cover of GQ and on the September cover of Premiere. Premiere is already wondering in print if "Sexiest Man Alive" status can be far behind.

Suffice it to say that in "Quiz Show," Mr. Fiennes has undergone a complete transformation. The film, set in New York in the 1950s, is director Robert Redford's take on the network quiz-show scandals of the time.

Mr. Fiennes plays contestant Charles Van Doren, the --ing blue-blood intellectual -- a Columbia University English instructor who reluctantly agrees to cooperate with the crooked producers of "Twenty-One," one of the most popular quiz shows of the day. Mr. Van Doren quickly finds himself flush with cash from his winnings and wildly celebrated, touted as the man who made academics sexy. He even made the cover of Time magazine.

But his fame was bogus, if not fleeting. As Americans eventually were shocked to learn, Mr. Van Doren was being fed the answers. He was part of a scam. Mr. Van Doren's fame turned to infamy.

Mr. Fiennes' Van Doren is as gentle and charming as his Goeth was vile and repugnant. In person, of course, Mr. Fiennes is neither Goeth or Mr. Van Doren.

As he glides silently into the top-dollar Manhattan hotel suite, where he has come recently to promote "Quiz Show," Mr. Fiennes seems almost embarrassed by the attention. After all, he notes, everyone may think that this movie will make him a star, but it hasn't happened yet. No, for now, he's much more comfortable posing as the Shakespearean stage actor he is, who has made forays into film.

Already Mr. Fiennes has earned a reputation as a difficult interview, quick to dismiss questions that annoy him or pry too deeply into his private life. Perhaps he just doesn't understand celebrity, American style.

But on this day, Mr. Fiennes is anything but difficult. Like Mr. Van Doren, he is charming, downright ingratiating. He is also finally getting used to questions about the Old English pronunciation of his name ("Rafe Fines").

"Oh, G-o-d," he moans, rolling his eyes at the mention of the name thing. "I'm going to have to change the spelling or something. It has always been one of those things I've had to explain."

As for stardom and celebrity, he says: "In every actor, there has to be a bit of the showoff, I couldn't deny that. But I don't think actors think about it when they're starting out. I know certainly in England the emphasis in the theater is, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to play this role, like Iago or Willy Loman?' The ambition is to play the piece. The idea of actually making it big-time, of becoming famous, I just don't think most actors start out with that being their emphasis."

Until "Schindler's List," what was most important to Mr. Fiennes was the Royal Shakespeare Company in London -- that, and his stage-actress wife, Alex Kingston, as well as his father, a photographer, and his five siblings.

Granted, before "Schindler's List," he had done some small parts in a few feature films and TV movies, including a memorable scene in the "Mystery!" series "Prime Suspect." Mr. Spielberg is said to have spotted Mr. Fiennes one night when he tuned into the Bravo channel to watch a made-for-TV movie, "A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia."

Mr. Fiennes came from solidly middle-class stock. His father was a farmer for much of his life, moving the family around Ireland and England for years before turning to photography. His mother, a novelist and painter who, he says, introduced him to language and theater, died last year from breast cancer.

The artist genes must have been passed on. In addition to Ralph, the eldest, all the children but one are involved in music or film.

One of the biggest decisions facing Mr. Fiennes and his wife now is whether to move to this country. If they do, they're thinking New York, not Los Angeles.

"I just don't see myself living there," he says. "The climate is great, and there are great houses and places to live. But it is a place where you feel nothing is built for permanence."

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