I don't know what kind of actor I am, to be honest," Ralph Fiennes says. "Every part I approach differently, and sleep with the director if I can."
There it is, that sneaky wit. The subdued Fiennes uses it sparingly at a Toronto coffee shop, but he wields it to pinprick effect. As in most interviews with the British star of Spider (tentatively scheduled for a Baltimore opening in April), Fiennes is asked to dissect his love of the tormented. A joke or two makes the heavy talk go down easier.
Fiennes is best known for playing such troubled souls as the sadistic Nazi in Schindler's List (1993) and the burned pilot in The English Patient (1996). He was an Anglican priest addicted to gambling in the smaller Oscar and Lucinda (1997).
In Spider, Fiennes plays a man with schizophrenia in denial of a monstrous act he committed as a child. Spider scribbles. Spider mumbles. But of all the behaviors Fiennes discovered in his research of the disease, he never chose the hysterical for his character.
"I didn't want the audience to be watching me externally," Fiennes says. "I wanted to help them get inside Spider's head. I don't want it to be about the behavior. I want it to be about the internal life."
More than a year has passed since Fiennes, 40, wrapped Spider, but the Suffolk, England, native continues to explore mind games. He recently finished a run on the London stage as psychiatrist Carl Jung in The Talking Cure. He is set for an April opening of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henrik Ibsen's Brand, which he proudly declares was never intended to be produced onstage. "There are no laughs whatsoever," he says.
After playing a tortured monster who gets inside the head of Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, Fiennes could have kept alive his streak of portraying the afflicted. But he threw the acting world a curve by starring opposite Jennifer Lopez in the formulaic bonbon Maid in Manhattan. Fiennes plays an affable Republican senator who meets his salt-of-the-earth Democratic soulmate in Lopez, a hotel maid who pretends she isn't. Fiennes says he welcomed the task of making the audience believe they could love each other. No tragedy, no roiling angst. It was nothing near the "English-y" roles he has embraced, he says.
Fiennes says he has never excluded studio films. A quick dip into the mainstream, however, got him linked in the media to Lopez, even while her relationship with Ben Affleck was in full bloom. (Fiennes has a longtime relationship with stage actress Francesca Annis, who is 19 years his senior; they live in London.)
Spider is the type of project he can afford to do because of making films like Maid in Manhattan. He wanted Spider so badly that when a chunk of the $8 million financing fell through just weeks before shooting, he deferred his salary. His co-star, Miranda Richardson, and the director, David Cronenberg, did the same.
The movie begins with Spider, fresh from an institution, left to his own devices at a London halfway house. He drowns in self-obsession, casting himself as a victim in a morality play between his parents. The bleary truth emerges.
It is fair to say that Spider will fascinate some and exasperate others. In understatement, Fiennes says he does appear in films that are difficult to watch.
Unfortunately, one of them, a remake of the The Avenger (1998), was meant to lure in big audiences and flopped. Fiennes' advisers exhorted him to stray from conflicted characters for one mass-market romp. Fiennes says he smarted from that one, then retreated into more modest fare, such as the World War II drama The End of the Affair (1999); an adaptation of Pushkin's Onegin; and the transgenerational saga of a Hungarian Jewish family called Sunshine.
By the time the Ibsen run ends, Fiennes will have been away from movies for a year. Just enough time, he says, to start the cycle again. He has known only the artist's life. His father, Mark Fiennes, is a photographer; his mother, Jennifer Lash, was a novelist; and he has five younger siblings, all of whom are in the arts, including actor Joseph (Shakespeare in Love) and Martha, a writer-director.
"When I was a boy, I had this toy theater, and I used to put on plays, and I played all the characters," Fiennes says
The stage, however, has its limitations. Fiennes had tired of interacting with characters via normal dialogue. Spider offered a new challenge.
"It was a relief to be given the chance to play a role where I can just exist," he says.