It takes a certain type of actor to breathe fiery life into the Shakespearean role of a battle-scarred Roman general who "grow[s] from man to dragon," just as it takes a particular kind of director to pull off recasting the Bard's period-piece parable on political power in war-torn Belgrade. Thankfully, Ralph Fiennes happens to both: The former Harry Potter villain took a gamble by choosing one of Shakespeare's most difficult, dense plays as his directorial debut while also playing the mercurial lead. Fiennes's reimagination of the work as a comment on today's perpetual life during wartime succeeds wildy on several fronts, while his portrayal builds on his 2000 theatrical performance before rocketing into the Stratford-and-beyond stratosphere. TONY spoke to Fiennes last September, shortly after his film made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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What prompted you to make a movie of this particular play now?
The idea had been with me for some time...I just feel that this play is not only consistently provocative, but always seems to be pertinent. It's always been a work that stirs up trouble: The play was banned in postwar Berlin by the American forces, because it was thought that the the story could be given a very strong, right-wing fascistic spin or it could be given a very hard-left socialist spin. Either way you come at it, I'd argue that the Coriolanus remains so integral because Shakespeare embedded some huge questions about how society should function. Plus you've got this deep, painful mother-son relationship whirling around inside of it. It's like a political thriller with a Greek tragedy embedded in the center of it!
You almost make it sound like a candy bar: It's the chocolate of a Shakespeare play with a delicious caramel nogat center of Sophocles.
[Laughs] All covered in blood. Don't forget the blood.
What do you think the play says about power and authority?
I think it says that while we need authority, it has to function in the interest of the people. No matter how brave or courageous your leaders are, if they can't negotiate, then society is fucked. But it's a double-edged sword, right? You need some leaders who won't back down, occasionally. I find someone like, say, Ariel Sharon really interesting in this respect. He was a tough soldier that became a tough leader. And people have been fascinated by historical figures like Napoleon or Genghis Khan for centuries because the notion of extreme leaders seems so incredibly intriguing. They fascinate us, and they scare us.
These types of leaders also seem to have a sense of contempt for anyone who hasn't, in their eyes, served their country like they have.
That's certainly a characteristic of Coriolanus. He's lived his entire life ready to die for his country. So in his head, these people that are out here that are asking what about our jobs, we have nothing to eat, the response is: fuck off! [Laughs] "I've been out there fighting for you, and you come to me complaining about jobs? Do you want the barbarians to stay outside of our gates or do you want bread?" Never mind that jobs and food are very real concerns to people who are starving and out of work. Like a lot of people who've come to power this way throughout the ages, he's a born leader who somehow fails to lead in the most practical terms.
It's been over ten years since you'd played him on stage in London. What do you feel you learned about the character in the decade between portraying him then and now?
It was less about something specifically learned over time or wisdom about the world that I'd gained than it was realizing over time what I could do with him by switching mediums. On stage, you spend a lot of time being very angry very loudly and with very many words; that's the way you have to express this person's rage, because you're bound to playing to the back seats. But with film, you can get right here [puts hands in front his face] and you can help bring the audience to the character. You can draw them in closer to see what's going on in this compacted, squeezed-down soul that's stuck in a warrior's body.
Can you give me an example?
There's a scene in which Coriolanus is leaving the Senate chamber and he doesn't want to hear himself being praised...there are different ways you can communicate onstage that this is a man who doesn't want anyone to know him, who wants to give nothing away. But now I could just have [cinematographer] Barry Aykroyd bring the camera right to my face, as if it's literally trying to get inside this person and find out what he's feeling. I could now play him as a more nuanced person, instead of someone who's just a human explosion at all times. That's a gift.
How did you and [screenwriter] John Logan work out transposing this play from the Roman era to contemporary times?
I had to pitch him on the idea, initially. I had a collection of photographs, some of which were location shots around Belgrade where we ended up filming. Others were simply photojournalistic pictures of industrial sites and bombed-out buildings, or of politicians and everyday people from various places around the world, that reflected how I imagined the movie would look. The idea was, I want to stage the play as if it were here, among these building and these faces. And he responded to that immediately. We then simply started brain-crunching on each of the plays scenes, trying to figure out the most dynamic way to stage something or how to place an exchange in a modern setting while still being faithful to the text.
What are the advantages—or the disadvantages—of taking one of Shakespeare's period plays and placing it in another era?
Well, there's always a slight worry that people will focus on the changes—"oh, so it's not ancient Rome, it's the present-day Balkans!"—and then ideas within the text recede into the background more than it should. But people have done modernized versions of Shakespeare for centuries, so as long as it'd done right, that shouldn't happen. The advantage, of course, is that it doesn't become a play simply about the period; the significance of Coriolanus extends far past either the Roman Empire or Shakespeare's era. I mean, I could have done it in a sword-and-sandal milieu, or set it in the 19th century, but again, the things being discussed here are still so remarkably contemporary.
And this way, you get to hear a BBC newscaster speak in verse.
That's a nice touch, isn't it? [Laughs] He's a real newscaster, John Snow. I tried to get actors to speak in the particular clipped diction that British news anchors have, and no one seemed to be able to get it. I'm so glad he agreed to do it; him speaking Shakespeare's words so naturally just adds to the wonderful friction you get when you do a modern-dress version. I actually tried to get all of the actors to speak these lines very naturally, as if you were eavesdropping on a conversation in a caf—when in fact, it's two Roman tribunes plotting to conspire against a famous general.
You must have known that taking something like this on as a directorial debut, in which you have to co-ordinate these huge battle scenes and guide the cast through a complex play while still taking on this part, would be a huge endeavor, right?
I didn't realize it would be as huge an endeavor as it was, no. [Laughs] It was hard, certainly, and you're under a lot of pressure. But I'd been preparing to do this for a long, long time. I'd been walking these locations, storyboarding, figuring out what we'd need to pull things off the way I wanted fro what felt like years. So when it I was finally there, on the set and ready to do a take, there was actually this huge rush of positive energy. I carry with me the memory of working with directors like Anthony Minghella and Fernando Meirelles, who were very inclusive and collaborative artists; they gave me something to live up to. As an actor, you often come there because you believe in the filmmaker and his or her vision; you give yourself over to someone and you want to be guided. But you also want to be listened to, and I think a good director knows when to be open to what the people around him think.
Do you think you could have directed this ten years ago?
No, not at all. Having had the time to think about what I could add to this story, how you could make a film out of it, helped me out immensely. I remember going to my agent and him asking me, what do you want to do next. I told him the story, explained how I envisioned everything—then I braced for the barrage of no's. Instead, he immediately said yes, do it, this could be major. And that gave me the confidence to carry on full speed ahead. I expected to be gently persuaded to set it aside. Instead, I felt empowered enough to lead an army.