The NS Interview: Ralph Fiennes

“God is a force – terror and enlightenment at the same time”

Ralph Fiennes. Credit: Getty Images

“God is a force – terror and enlightenment at the same time”

Was Coriolanus, your first film as a director, a story that you always wanted to tell?
Since I played it on stage I've had this building curiosity about it. The situations in Coriolanus are always with us all the time. Particularly this year, weirdly, with what's happening in the world, in the Middle East, economically everywhere - the sense of deep uncertainty, these things that are happening in the streets. They all happen in Coriolanus. They always happen. The tensions between authority and the people need to be heard, especially when they are suffering and they can't eat.

It's almost uncanny, the way the film seems to echo the Arab spring. Were you surprised by that synchronicity?
What is happening in the Arab world wasn't happening when I was making the film. The Iraq war was a strong background noise and Afghan­istan, too. It seemed that all the time there would be images coming in from everywhere, and [I thought]: "This is the world of Coriolanus, it's all ongoing."

Why did you choose to modernise the play?
When the so-called Green Revolution happened in Iran, images were coming in from people's phones. I came to the point where [I was wondering], "How do you set it?" I thought: "I want the audience to connect with this world." Men coming out of cars, with security guards, mobile phones, cameras - that's the world I'm in. That's our world.

Do you think we are telling enough new stories about our times?
Yes. My head goes to Ken Loach, who is always writing such socially aware things. I think we do. It's dangerous to make Coriolanus a conduit for a political viewpoint. I don't think that's Shakespeare's intention, myself.

Why did the character of Coriolanus appeal?
He's a soldier; he's been very much conditioned to be a certain way. I think there's no question Volumnia has instilled in him certain values, martial values of service, and he's become that thing she's wanted, and somewhere there is a death wish in him. In some ways he is rather stunted. He is a boy who has never been allowed to grow up. He is a kind of impossible, sad figure. In a way, I find him sympathetic. You shouldn't allow him into politics.

Do you think art is always political?
What moves me in art is how we question who we are as people. I don't like giving a wrapped-up package, [saying] "this is the answer", because all these political positions haven't given us an answer. I can't pretend that there is a huge message of hope at the end of Coriolanus. There is a sort of despair about our inability to find any assured structure for a benign harmony. We are incapable as human beings; we are not an attractive proposition.

That's what Shakespeare is ending up with. What is the answer, where do we go? I don't think at the moment we know.

How do you engage with politics?
There is a humanitarian impulse that one aspires to and there are days when one doesn't do it very well. But you go: "What can I do to help?" in the immediate sense. That's why I admire Vanessa [Redgrave]. But I am suspicious of overt political manoeuvring, of party politics.

What is the root of that impulse?
Sometimes you need people to prod you. It doesn't always come organically. I'm not very good at causes. I've had a relationship with Unicef and also the Constant Gardener Trust - a couple of experiences going abroad which were amazing. People have said: "Was it very upsetting going to places like Uganda?" But no, often it's uplifting.

Was directing terrifying, after years as an actor?
It was exhilarating. I think I felt a deep curiosity about it for some time, and people got behind it. On the first day, I was so full of adrenalin I didn't have time to be nervous, then my confidence grew as the shoot went on. The excitement is in seeing other performances come together. Seeing a scene, a world, a story, I think I have become more excited by what it would be like to make that world of a film happen. I love working on the design of it - on the clothes, the look, the location, on what a shot is doing, how a shot develops. I found all that exhilarating.

What does God mean to you?
God is not anything human. God is a force, God is chaos, God is unknown. God is terror and enlightenment at the same time.

Is there a plan?
There are bits of plans lying around.

Do you vote?
I do.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
Oh yes. But don't ask me what.

Are we all doomed?
Well, ultimately, yes.

Defining Moments

1962 Born in Ipswich to the novelist Jennifer Lash and Mark Fiennes, photographer
1983 Enters Rada in London to study drama
1994 First Oscar nomination for playing the Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler's List
1997 Second Oscar nomination for title role in Anthony Minghella's The English Patient
2005 Plays Lord Voldemort in the fourth and subsequent Harry Potter films
2011 Directs and stars in film adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus