Ralph Fiennes makes acting look easy. But when he mixed performing with his first stint as a film director, on a brutal, modern-day riff on Shakespeare's unloved and rarely staged political drama Coriolanus, it proved to be one of the two-time Oscar nominee's toughest assignments.
"It was very, very hard, and a bit mad," he says, ensconced in a London hotel room, his soldier character's beat-up body armour now replaced by a cardie and jeans. "The days I wasn't acting, I was relieved. But underneath it all there was a kind of thrill about it. It was a huge adrenaline rush."
As the eponymous battle-hardened general - whose refusal to beg for the support of the people, when he swaps the theatre of war for the bearpit of Roman politics, leads to tragedy - Fiennes is in almost every scene. He first played Coriolanus on stage, at London's Almeida Theatre, 10 years ago and the film is, to some extent, the result of unfinished business.
He wasn't unhappy with his earlier performance. But he'd felt there were sides to the Bard's rage-filled antihero that he'd been unable to convey in the theatre. "In a perverse way I love Coriolanus because he's so hard to like," says the actor who many thought should have won an Oscar (he was nominated) for his complex portrayal of a nazi SS officer in Schindler's List. "There was an interior life that I was starting to tap into but which could never be transmitted on stage where you just become someone striding around in anger, saying, 'I hate the people'."
In the cinema, close-ups allow the audience to look into Fiennes' eyes, making Coriolanus less monolithic, more knowable. We see deeper inside the man, who is at home in the masculine world of the military but emotionally stunted outside it, and, arguably, get to understand his flawed humanity better. "The moment that a man breaks the shell of his military conditioning," Fiennes says, "he's going to die." And so it goes.
The film's language makes few concessions to contemporary speech and Fiennes admits this was an obstacle when he was pitching the project. "People would go 'Um, will you be keeping Shakespeare's dialogue?' That was a big worry factor, that it would be a turn-off for audiences."
The movie's screenwriter, John Logan, shared his passion for the playwright's words, however, and they decided early on not to rewrite them. It's like "looking at a complex painting or listening to a difficult piece of music", suggests Fiennes. "It is a challenge. But I think it's a challenge people should rise to. Sorry," he adds, in a tone suggesting he isn't sorry at all. "You have to come with your ears open."
Less challenging is the modern setting (the movie was shot on location in Serbia), which is as instantly recognisable as any urban war zone seen on the news, while the film's action sequences are as dynamic, hard-hitting and raw as anything in Children of Men or Full Metal Jacket. To help potential backers understand his vision, Fiennes put together a book of photojournalistic images that reflected the story and drew parallels between the play's characters and real-life figures such as Jacques Chirac, Madeleine Albright, and Vladimir Putin.
"There was endless battle imagery that we have all seen from Iraq and Afghanistan," he recalls. He felt from the outset that the film would be a political thriller that resonated with our fractious and out-of-joint times. He wasn't thinking in terms of party politics or "isms", Fiennes says, but, like Shakespeare, in more general terms. "What I love is that what he is showing is the bigger perspective on the endless shifts of power. But this is a pattern that is particular to nowhere. It is a global dysfunction."
If anyone still had doubts about Coriolanus' relevance, they were swept aside when the film's premiere at last year's Berlin Film Festival coincided with the protests in Cairo and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Suddenly its scenes of popular unrest looked like they'd been ripped from the headlines.
"On the one hand it was odd," says Fiennes, pondering the timing. "But I think the things in Coriolanus are always going on. It's just that they're at the point of critical mass and have all come together. The world is in a state of complete uncertainty."
The economic uncertainty stymied Fiennes' first bid to finance the film in 2008 when "the big crash" sent interest in the project into reverse. Of course, he hadn't made things easy for himself by choosing a play with such a spiky protagonist. Fiennes, though, revels in portraying characters - from Schindler's Amon Goeth to the mentally disturbed lead of Spider, or Harry Potter's monstrous Lord Voldemort - that are often riven by internal tensions and not immediately accessible to the viewer. "I'm wary of this question, 'Is he or she likable?', he sneers. "I mean, f… off, I don't always want protagonists to be likable. Likable is rather deadly."
That said, playing Voldemort was particularly difficult, he admits, since J. K. Rowling had written a character that was so "creepy and evil and all-powerful and malign" that it made understanding him tough. "I was glad I had four films to try to get to the heart of him."
He will soon play Magwitch, the convict with a heart, in yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations ("I couldn't resist having a go because it's a part that's not in my natural casting zone"), and the villain, probably ("that is classified information," he teases), in the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall. The actor is also set to repeat the "schizophrenic" feat of directing and acting with a period drama, The Invisible Woman, about Dickens' (Fiennes) affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan. He says he has been approached to direct other things, but cannot talk about them yet. Which begs the question of whether he can see a day when, like Clint Eastwood, he will give up acting for good?
"I can see why he would do that, not having to be on camera all the time, but I love being on stage," says Fiennes.
From The West Australian