Occasionally, the personality of an actor can seep through the roles they play, giving the audience snippets of their persona. This is often not the case with Ralph Fiennes. When asked of a role that would mirror his true personality, he points to the diplomat, gardener, and husband who becomes embroiled in his wife’s murder in John le Carré’s political-thriller-turned-film The Constant Gardener. “I was happy to open up in The Constant Gardener, as the character has an attempt at decency,” he says. “He is flawed, tentative, and has a quiet deliberation. It is what I aspire to be!” Fiennes also feels he can’t be pigeonholed, as there aren’t any roles he doesn’t love and has a hard time saying no to so many great parts. Besides his work on the big screen, he is obviously just as much at home and well-known on the theater stage — he “loves the buzz and the connection with the audience.”
Born in Suffolk, England, he was the eldest of six children to parents Mark (farmer-turned-photographer) and Jennifer “Jini” Lash (novelist); the Fiennes family was a close-knit one. Mom Jini encouraged intellectual and cultural pursuits and it shows — sister Sophie is a producer and sister Martha a director (Martha even directed Fiennes in her 1999 film Onegin). Brother Joseph is an actor (Shakespeare in Love, 1998) and Magnus is a composer. Fiennes studied at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, but quickly decided he would rather be on stage than designing one. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he began his acting career on the London stage and eventually joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for two seasons where he, no doubt, found his true passion.
While Fiennes won’t necessarily admit to being a workaholic, some 47 films and 30-plus plays in 26 years would certainly indicate otherwise. When he is not in front of — or behind — a camera or performing to packed-theater crowds, he finds the time to travel. This past year he “took a bit of time off” and journeyed to Greece, Russia, and Istanbul, where he visited the site of Troy. India was also another stop, as was Germany, for the Berlin International Film Festival. Currently reported to be single, Fiennes resides in London and has a place in New York’s West Village.
For a man who grew up in such a large household and never had children, a few of his acting choices prove to be quite a paradox. He has appeared in children’s tales such as Nanny McPhee Returns (2010), as the voices in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) and The Prince of Egypt (1998), and in one of his biggest roles to date — the evil snake-faced Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. “The child in me likes playing the extreme villain,” he explains of his Potter performances. “I wasn’t sure about doing the role when first approached, but a wonderful casting
director convinced me,” he says. Starring alongside his nephew Hero, Fiennes knew he looked scary when the child of a script supervisor saw him in costume and burst into tears on the set.
As the life and career of Fiennes comes full-circle since his first introduction to the Bard on the airwaves, many critics compare him with the late Olivier, another actor who was a natural with the lines of William Shakespeare. As his Schindler’s List director Steven Spielberg decidedly notes, “If he picks the right roles and doesn’t forget the theater, I think he can eventually be Alec Guinness or Laurence Olivier.”
Or perhaps he’s already there.