Shape Shifter: Ralph Fiennes

Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Typecasting isn’t a problem for Ralph Fiennes, whose CV ranges from art-house pics to popcorn films. On December 12, Lincoln Center will honor him for his extraordinary performance as a grief-stricken diplomat in The Constant Gardener, but this season he also plays Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort—and an embittered politico in Merchant Ivory’s The White Countess, out December 21. Logan Hill spoke to Fiennes about the art of disillusionment.

In both Gardener and Countess, you play men who run into global politics and become disillusioned in very different ways.
In a funny way, they’re opposite sides of the same coin. Justin [Gardener] is a man whose mind is being opened up to the bigger world. In White Countess, Jackson has been a successful diplomat, but he’s lost, through terrorist attacks, his family and even his sight. One’s walking right into the modern world, and the other is retreating.

Which resonates more with your own life?
I’m close to Justin in that, with the war in Iraq, I feel like we all have to figure out what we think. But also like him, I just can’t be an activist. I work with unicef, and I feel maybe I should be more active, but it doesn’t run naturally in my bones. I have that Jackson side of me. In one scene, he’s talking about seeing nothing out there, just chaos, hatred, bitterness, deceit. I loved the part.

Because of his bitterness?
It was closer to my heart, but I loved both parts. Recently, I’ve tended to play extreme people with quite extreme psychological conditions: Spider, Red Dragon … So I quite liked playing these two good men who were trying to make sense of a brutal world. It struck a chord with me: the mess and compromises of life, and how wartime is full of them.

Compromise is something you must know well, shuttling from Merchant Ivory to Harry Potter to working with J.Lo in Maid in Manhattan.
I wrestled with doing a franchise movie like Harry Potter, but even a poorly received franchise movie, like Red Dragon, will do predictably good box office. Even Maid in Manhattan did well, though I look at it and feel a big distance between me and it—not that I look at it!

In the spring, you’re returning to Broadway with Cherry Jones in Brian Friel’s new play.
I play a healer who occasionally heals people and sometimes doesn’t. I think it’s intended to be a metaphor for inspiration and artists, and for all of us: He’s talking about those moments in our lives when we’re full of energy. And when we’re not.

When you’re acting, how do you know when you have it?
There are just odd nights when something takes over and it flows. I think you can be competent and satisfy a lot of people, but the moments you become a tiny part of something larger hardly ever happen.

When you get awards, are they for those moments—or for performances that are, in your mind, only competent?
That’s very hard to answer. I have two or three intimate friends who know. They’ll say, “Maybe you weren’t at your best.” I have one who will say, “You were on song.” Which means I am in tune. I like that. But you never know when it will happen, which is why I am addicted to the gamble of it.

The White Countess
Sony Classics
December 21

Shape Shifter: Ralph Fiennes