It’s nice to see his face again.
Over the past decade, Ralph Fiennes has reached more people than ever before, as a key player in four Harry Potter films. But he has done so in the guise of Lord Voldemort, an evil wizard who has no nose and whose nickname (“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”), like his disfigured face and body-concealing robe, signals his unknowability.
In last year’s The Invisible Woman, similarly, Fiennes played Charles Dickens, with much of his face hidden behind a massive mustache and beard. There is something private and unreachable about Dickens in Fiennes’ portrayal, although he is a great showman and bon vivant. The bush of facial hair seems to separate the character from everyone around him—and it may also shield Fiennes, who did not enjoy his bout with major stardom in the mid-nineties, from scrutiny.
But now, as the hero of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fiennes has no mask. Save for a neatly trimmed mustache, there he is. Naked. Open.
The character’s name is Gustave H. He belongs to a refined Mitteleuropa that is fading fast—now that the fascists are closing in. Gentle and bighearted, he has a fondness for faded ladies, melancholy spa-goers, gruff convicts, refugees, and other broken-winged creatures. And quite unlike the majority of recent Fiennes characters, he is someone you can root for.
Discussing Gustave over a late-afternoon glass of red wine in a Greenwich Village café a short walk from the apartment he keeps in New York, Fiennes says, in his lovely British accent, “There is a wonderful...something. I can’t—it’s hard….” Here, I should mention that Fiennes is not an easy talker. He corrects himself as he goes.
Although he is fluid with great gobs of difficult text when he is working, in person, up close, he is not a big gabber. “It’s hard to put these things into words,” he goes on, “but there’s an interior brightness to Gustave.”
Gustave’s ambition is to serve as a superb concierge. He has a talent for sensing the discomfort of others and solving it on the spot. He claims he sleeps with all his friends, and casually admits to having gone to bed with women older than 84. His formal bearing, the result of careful practice, might seem off-putting, if it were not oiled with a sleazy gigolo charm, which makes him all too human.
Like other Wes Anderson protagonists, from Max Fischer to Steve Zissou and on to Mr. Fox, Gustave is a loony ringleader whose single-minded devotion to a beautiful ideal (in his case, a rarefied notion of civilized behavior that knows no nationality) leads those around him into some tight spots.
Fiennes got his training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, before putting in time at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since then, he has immersed himself in the heavyweight stage roles Hamlet, Coriolanus, and Oedipus, among many others.
From early on, he has specialized in making palpable the private pain and suffering of tormented souls. On-screen, he has been a Nazi brute (Schindler’s List), a serial killer (Red Dragon), and a lovelorn burn victim (The English Patient) whose handsome face (again with the face) we see only in flashback.
He gave big-budget romantic comedy a stab with the J. Lo vehicle Maid in Manhattan, only to learn the hard way that he is not cut out for the high jinks that made a star of his countryman Hugh Grant. With The Grand Budapest Hotel—a melancholy but funny paean to between-the-wars Europe rooted in the works of
Stefan Zweig—he has found a comedy that suits him.
Unlike some male actors who are all too at ease with action, superhero, and cop movies in which female characters function as bystanders, victims, or helpers, Fiennes has had the most impact playing men who go toe-to-toe with strong women, as he did in The English Patient, The End of the Affair, and Wuthering Heights. Which makes sense when you consider he grew up under the watch of a formidable mother, Jennifer Lash, a novelist and painter who published her first book before marrying and having kids.
Lash’s second novel made print not long after Ralph’s birth; following that, she did not publish for close to fourteen years while raising a brood of six children and one foster son. When Ralph was little, before he could understand much of Shakespearean verse, she played him the LPs of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet.
“I love women,” Fiennes says. “They fascinate me. There are these huge distances between women and men, of course, but I have two sisters, and my mother was very perceptive, very articulate. Her childhood had been difficult—a very painful adolescence and childhood. She was not close to her parents, and her sensibility, her imagination, was on fire with the possibility of what she might create.”
She died at age 55, of breast cancer, just before Fiennes broke through to worldwide audiences,
thanks to his ferocious performance in Schindler’s List. Not long afterward, his feral portrayal of Hamlet was a sensation in London and then New York. He saved a seat for his mother on opening night.
As the run continued, Fiennes, married at the time to actress Alex Kingston, fell into a romance with a woman eighteen years his senior, Francesca Annis, who was playing Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude.
Fiennes’ marriage broke apart, and he stayed in his relationship with Annis for more than ten years.
After it was all over, the London tabloids made sport of the actor’s flings, with one of them paying a woman to tell the story of her romantic nights spent in his company.
Fiennes’ mother left home at age 16—she was “desperate” to get out, Fiennes says—and her childhood haunted her: “I think my mother felt she had not been enabled by her parents in the way that she wished,” he says. “Maybe it’s wrong to blame parents, but, nevertheless, children can feel this way. What I’m realizing now is that we, as children, grew up with her sense of what she had missed. But not all the time. She had moments when she would lurch into acute distress and emotional breakdown. Then she could be incredibly inspiring and encouraging.”
His father, Mark Fiennes, gave up an attempt at tenant farming and became a successful photographer. But there were lean years and frequent moves, with the bohemian family jumbled together in one cottage after another.
In the café, Fiennes recalls a childhood moment: “The first album I ever spent money on was Ziggy Stardust. I went into the chain in England called W. H. Smith, and I bought it. And the day I bought it, my father was photographing the beautiful carvings in Salisbury Cathedral. I went to school in Salisbury, and it has one of the most famous medieval Gothic cathedrals. It’s huge, with the tallest spire, I think, after
Cologne’s. It’s a stunning piece. And he had a commission to photograph inside, in the chapter house.
“Anyway, I can see it now: I come with a little plastic bag from W. H. Smith. It’s got this thing called Ziggy Stardust inside it, with the cover of David Bowie in the red phone box. All I can remember is, I’ve got this secret, and my father is busy photographing something fantastically beautiful.”
As a teenager, he got into The Stranglers: “There were people I knew in my age group who were doing the whole punk thing, with the hair and the piercings, and I wasn’t, really, but the one group that I liked was The Stranglers. I don’t know why. I remember hearing Rattus Norvegicus, the album, for the first time. I don’t know what it did, but it was something about my adolescent testosterone. So I bought all The Stranglers’ albums as they came out, and, at one point, I drew the outline of the rat in pencil on my bedroom wall. My dad went mad with me.
“Then I had my mother crop my hair. It wasn’t punk, but it was a messy, close haircut. It was scrappy, deliberately bad, kind of messy, with a slight punky thing. It was a sort of crew cut mixed with a sort of hack. My mother enjoyed it, but my father found it offensive.”
The Grand Budapest Hotel probably comes at a good time for Fiennes. At 51, he was in danger of falling into a trap that has snared many veteran British film actors: villainy. With their stage-trained bodies and crystal-clear diction, not to mention (for American audiences) a soupçon of the exotic, British stars can find themselves typecast if they are not careful.
Fiennes certainly does not mind donning the hair shirt in the name of art. To wit, his Coriolanus adventure. Not only did he play Shakespeare’s least self-reflective hero onstage, in 2000, but he also mounted a Coriolanus movie, with himself as star and director, in 2011.
Coriolanus may be the least loved of the Bard’s plays. Its protagonist, a martial man strongly influenced by his ambitious mother (Vanessa Redgrave in the film), is perhaps more an antihero than a tragic figure. Fiennes’ movie, from a script by John Logan, got good notices, but it is a bleak and brutal affair.
“Coriolanus was something that I’d obsessed about,” he says. “I don’t know why. I did it onstage, and I felt I had unfinished business with it. For some reason, I wouldn’t let go of this idea of Coriolanus as a film.”