Ralph Fiennes with Jessica Chastain in a scene from Coriolanus
© Larry D. Horricks

No stranger to the role of the great hero, Fiennes played the complex general in a London stage production directed by Jonathan Kent in 2000. With keen foresight, the versatile actor felt the play could become a “contemporary, urgent, political thriller with a Greek tragedy at its center, involving the mother and the son. And there’s something in the spirit of Coriolanus, in the essence of his character, which spoke to me very strongly and wouldn’t leave me. I found him confrontational in every way; he has an isolated quality and is uncompromising which made me very attracted to [the project]. I became obsessed with the play and the role and felt it could be very cinematic. The thought stayed — and developed — in my mind.”
Fiennes also identified with the character’s “intense sense of desolation,” his “loyalty to one’s own family, and his distinctive view of the world.” The film has paramilitary groups on one end of the spectrum and politicians on the other with modern-day parallels.

The passion project of Coriolanus took almost two years to bring to the screen, and directing a film has been on the busy actor’s radar for some time. He was urged by Simon Channing Williams (producer of 2005’s The Constant Gardener), who “wanted to produce the film (but died in the process), and felt that I should direct. We had worked on it for two years, and I’d begun to put on the director’s hat of scouting locations and so on. That gave me the confidence to pick up Coriolanus,” Fiennes explains. The film is dedicated to the memory of the late producer “because I know that without his belief in me I might not have had the confidence to move it along.”
In his role as Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show.
courtesy everett collection

Directing proved to be a natural fit for Fiennes, having learned at the feet of such notables as Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Anthony Minghella, and Kathryn Bigelow. “I loved the process,” he explains, “ I loved creating the world of the film, finding and shooting on location. I was supported by an extraordinary team of people! You bring people to the table, and they support you and want to help you realize on-screen what’s in your head. It was an amazing experience.” He also enjoyed the collaboration, noting, “I love sharing ideas and making choices. The happiest experience is one where I feel the director has a strong vision, sense of story, includes you, and collaborates with the actors.” Known for his attention to detail, unique shot framing influenced by an early art-school training, and a tremendous passion for Shakespeare, the project was tailor-made.

To say the career of Ralph Fiennes is a varied one would be an understatement. He has convincingly portrayed good and evil — at extreme ends of the spectrum — beginning with the BBC’s A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia in l992, at the age of 29. Since that time, the actor with the trademark piercing gaze has played a series of tormented individuals such as the sadistic Nazi commandant Amon Goeth in 1993’s Schindler’s List, (for which he received a Best Supporting Actor nod), a protégé of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon (2002), and Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort in the final three films of the franchise.

Diverse roles as an academic American game-show contestant in Quiz Show (1994), an ill-fated geographer in The English Patient (1996), a World War II writer in The End of the Affair (1999), and a senate candidate in love in Maid in Manhattan (2002), permanently solidified his place as not only a leading man but a (reluctant) sex symbol as well. When asked about his status as a Hollywood heartthrob, he laughs, “there is reluctance as I creep toward 50. The shutters are about to close!”