Ralph Fiennes hates – truly, visibly and profoundly loathes – talking about himself, which is an unusual trait in any actor, and a frustrating one in this one, because as an actor he’s so darned good. Pop him in front of the camera and he can be anything from tragic (The English Patient) to terrifying (Schindler’s List) to flat-out hilariously funny (if you haven’t seen In Bruges, do yourself a favour and do). Now he’s about to be seen in the Bond film Skyfall, playing a shadowy MI6 figure who might just, or just not, prove to be 007’s nemesis. Fiennes is giving nothing away about his role, saying that he is forbidden to disclose any secrets about either characters or plot. Giving nothing away appears to come easily to him.
‘There are things that are… hard for me to talk about,’ he agrees politely. It is a snappy morning in Beverly Hills and he’s looking well-scrubbed if not exactly relaxed, his elegantly thinning hair swept dramatically back from those aquiline features. ‘Partly, I think, because of the way I work as an actor, which feels quite private. In order to create an emotional life for any character I play, I tend to scan my own life, my own experiences and fit them into the imaginary world my character inhabits. So in a funny way, that makes me more private about my real personal life.’ He stops and, surprisingly, gives a disarmingly open smile. ‘Besides,’ he adds frankly, ‘I’m shy!’
Another actor, plagued by shyness and facing a successful career in the least private profession known to mankind, would find a way to overcome his shyness sufficiently to play the Hollywood game. But Ralph Fiennes was never much good at playing games – of any sort.
‘When I was at school,’ he explains, remembering his days at a boys’ grammar in Salisbury, ‘I was never very good at sport. I did try to be a rugby player, because it really helped if you were good at that sort of thing, and initially I pulled it off a little bit. I gave the appearance that, even if I were not good then, I might be good one day. But then I found that whether I was good at it or not didn’t matter.
'I didn’t really enjoy rugby. I didn’t like the sort of clannish, macho, boys-club style behaviour that it seemed to involve. So I stopped playing it and started to ignore the pressure to be good at sports, then I discovered that I was finding friends and interests in other aspects of school life. I was lucky to be able to do this because I had parents who helped all my siblings and myself to be ourselves instead of being what other people told us we should be.’
Fiennes family tree
His family is famously bohemian. Eldest of six children of farmer and photographer Mark Fiennes and writer, painter and free spirit Jennifer Lash; eighth cousin of the Prince of Wales; third cousin of adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes was born in Ipswich on December 22, 1962, and raised in the west of Ireland and Wiltshire. His siblings include an older foster brother Michael Emery (an archaeologist), Joseph, Martha, Magnus and Sophie – respectively, actor, director, composer and film-maker – and Jacob, the only one of the Fiennes brood who decided not to go into the arts, but is now a conservationist (‘the most sensible one of all of us’).
‘I suppose you could say,’ he remarks, ‘that I grew up in a somewhat artistic environment. My parents had created a home where we were surrounded by books and supplies of drawing paper and paint, where there were a lot of trips to the theatre or to art exhibitions, and a lot of open discussion and conversation about anything that was going on. My mother encouraged all of her children to express themselves and gave to all of us a great deal of confidence and belief in whatever we chose to do.
‘I think she had quite an unhappy childhood herself. She never had a close relationship with her mother or her father, but she did have a nanny, who was very close to her in her early years, who I think gave her some kind of innate confidence, and who used to say, “It almost doesn’t matter about your parents, Jennifer – I believe in you”. And that was the sense that my mother gave to her own children. “It doesn’t matter, darling – I believe in you.” Which is what a mother’s there for, isn’t it?’
It was a happy childhood, he says, although one that had its share of ups and downs, both emotionally and financially. ‘My mother had access to a great deal of passion and was probably quite emotionally volatile. She was very loving and supportive not only to her own children but to a lot of people outside her family, too. But she was also a writer and I remember times when her depression or frustration at not having the time or the space to write was palpable and it was very distressing for all of us. And between her writing and my father’s photography, there was not a lot of income coming in.’
Money worries or not, he adds, there was always room for fun. ‘We all played little theatre games and charades and such, and we did a lot of mimicking of adults, which amused us. Nobody famous – we’d get more entertainment mimicking friends of my parents, or the local priest. I wasn’t the best mimic in the family. I wasn’t bad, but one of my sisters was much better – she still is.’
Art school to RSC
Fiennes originally wanted to be a painter, and attended Chelsea Art School for a year before dropping out to go to RADA. He graduated in 1985 and spent the next few years paying his acting dues, playing at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, then moving briefly to the National before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company where he remained, both happily and successfully, for several years. In 1993, he burst onto the big screen as Amon Goeth, commandant of the Nazi concentration camp in Schindler’s List. And in an instant, his life had changed.
‘It can get quite unnerving, when suddenly everyone in the entertainment business wants a piece of you. It can actually get quite bamboozling at times and I wish in hindsight that I had had people around to advise me because I think I was quite unsmart about some things then… On the other hand, if an actor is lucky enough to get any work, then that’s great, of course.’
He didn’t do too badly through all the bamboozlement. The English Patient came in 1996; The End of the Affair in 1999; in 2005 he signed on to play Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series; and this month he dons his sinister guise again to play Gareth Mallory in the new Bond film, Skyfall. As a boy he was a huge fan of the Bond books.
‘I got into them when I was about 12 or 13, and for a while I was obsessed by them; I knew all the plots and all the characters inside out. I suppose when you’re a boy that sort of machismo is something that you’d like to emulate, but then life often teaches you that you can’t… especially if you can’t even make yourself be interested in rugby!’
Personal means personal
Fiennes is private about his personal life. He was living with actress Alex Kingston for 12 years, for the last two of which they were married, until he famously left her to move in with Francesca Annis, 18 years his senior. They met when she was playing Gertrude to his Hamlet, and they were together for ten years until they separated in 2006 after revelations of his affair with a younger Romanian singer. Ask him today about his romantic status and, understandably, the shutters close. But at nearly 50, the product of a large family himself and clearly an affectionate and involved uncle, he does not miss having children of his own.
‘I’m a bit of a workaholic,’ he admits in a rare moment of openness. ‘I think I get that from my father, on his side they’re all slightly obsessive workers. I tend to fill up my day with so much stuff – work meetings and such – that afterwards I wonder why I’ve done it. But I do carry on doing it anyway.’
To prove it, this year he has been directing himself as Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman, to be released next year. Before that, there’s the November film release of Great Expectations, in which he plays Magwitch. ‘I’m not a great Dickens expert, but I’ve learned to love him through this film,’ he says. ‘He had a very interesting life as well as writing all those novels – I’m interested in a possible movie about his relationship with Ellen Ternan, which was fascinating.’
Ask him what life lessons he will take into his imminent sixth decade, and the answer is revealing. ‘I think the most important thing I have learnt is how much I value the friendships that I have and the family that I have. This is definitely something that comes with being older. I think that initially, when one is racing to get established in one’s career or to be valued or to achieve stuff, then you can take these connections somewhat for granted. But as you get older, you look around and think, “Wait a minute. These people are important to me.” And you start to pay attention to that.’
Again, very briefly, Fiennes gives his startlingly boyish smile.
Ralph stars as 'M' in the new Bond film Spectre. For more on his career visit IMDB
This article first appeared in Saga Magazine in October 2012. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month