`Spider' character offers Fiennes a different role

Actor tries to break from `Patient' typecasting

Movies: on screen, DVD/Video

April 17, 2003|By Chris Hewitt | Chris Hewitt,KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

The English Patient was Ralph Fiennes' biggest hit. It has been his curse.

Sure, the movie snagged him an Oscar nomination and huge box office, but it also fixed his image, at least in the minds of movie studio heads, as a guy who looks good mourning a lost love.

"That's why I loved Spider," says Fiennes. "I loved this lonely figure who hardly speaks and is totally isolated. It has this spare, weird atmosphere, not at all the sort of romantic parts I'm usually offered."

Fiennes had signed up for the drama - a creepy affair about a man who revisits the scenes of his childhood, attempting to make sense of the tragedies that befell him there - when David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, Crash) came aboard. Luckily, he and Fiennes were totally simpatico about the direction Fiennes' character, nicknamed Spider because of his affection for the creatures, should take.

"On the first day, I asked David if he thought I was moving too cautiously, if that was going to create too slow a rhythm for the film. I was anxious about that," recalls Fiennes. "But David was very insistent. He said, `No, the slowness feels right. I don't want you to push it just because you're worried about the pace of the movie. I'll find ways to move it along.' "

Fiennes gives another memorable performance in Spider, adding to what may be the most interesting body of work of any actor working today, ranging from the creepy thrills of last fall's Red Dragon and the twisted spirituality of The End of the Affair to the electrifying energy of Strange Days. Fiennes says he wants to work with the world's best directors, and, given the depth of his talent, it's no surprise that they return the favor.

Fiennes says he learns something new from each director: "On Quiz Show, you couldn't learn the dialogue even a day ahead of time because it was constantly being altered. On The English Patient, Anthony Minghella kept fiddling with the scenes, but I had learned how to adapt to that from [Steven] Spielberg."

While making Schindler's List, Spielberg constantly rewrote, sometimes directing the writer to come up with two different versions of some scenes.

"When it happened, I remember thinking, `Which is it, then? Which scene should I do?' But now, I tend to be more flexible and think it's interesting to be able to try it another way. I've learned to like that looseness."

Not that looseness enters much into his portrayal of Spider, a man caught in the past like a fly trapped in a web. But, even on Spider, Fiennes found that other elements of the movie - drab costumes, the abandoned industrial areas where it was shot - helped him figure out what to do.

"That's why I love collaborating with directors. It's wonderful to be able to marry what I want to do with what they're trying to achieve," says Fiennes. "The truly great directors always have more questions than answers. I'm always wary if someone says, `This is the way I see it,' because he or she is excluding all kinds of possibilities."

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