'The Invisible Woman' Star-Director Ralph Fiennes Talks Celebrity Bruises, Slow-Burn Relationships And 'Total Interior Inhabitation'

Posted: Dec 23 2013, 8:46am CST | by , in News

'The Invisible Woman' Star-Director Ralph Fiennes Talks Celebrity Bruises, Slow-Burn Relationships And 'Total Interior Inhabitation'
Photo Credit: Forbes

For an actor best known for roles playing Nazis (Schindler’s List), doomed cartographers (The English Patient), British diplomats (The Constant Gardener), and wizards so evil their names must never be mentioned (Harry Potter), Ralph Fiennes is much more open, even affable, in person than one might expect. Sitting down for a conversation about his new film The Invisible Woman, which he not only starred in but also directed, Fiennes was insightful and honest but never less than warm or friendly as he discussed the challenges of bringing yet another serious tale to life – this time, the story of author Charles Dickens’ secret mistress.

In the film, which opens December 25, Fiennes plays Dickens, who was in his time a huge celebrity. The acclaimed actor talked about the differences – and similarities – in the challenges in being a public figure then and now, and explored his approach to the material, which he wanted to be less of a torrid affair than a “slow-burn” evolution of a relationship being told as a way for Dickens’ real-life mistress, Nelly Ternan, to sort of come to terms with her time with him.

Talk about what in particular you connected with in The Invisible Woman that made you want for this to be both your next acting and directing project?

I connected with the character of Nelly Ternan. When I first read Abi [Morgan]’s screenplay, which changed a lot over the course of the months we were working together, the essential elements are what’s in the film – which is a woman seeking closure with a past relationship. Because I think everyone has, or can have intimacies, with a brother, a sister, lover. But I felt very moved by a woman who has got inside her unresolved history, and that’s what I wanted to explore, that intimacy. It happened that Charles Dickens was a major player in it, and that also was interesting to me as I didn’t know much about Dickens. And when I read the book on which it’s based, I got really turned on by the complexity of Dickens. But what really hooked me was a film about unresolved, intimate history within someone. It speaks to me – moves me, really.

Because Dickens is such an iconic figure, how difficult was it to bring him to life in a way that was vivid but didn’t shift the focus from her?

Well, it seemed from the start that the balance was sort of in a good place when I got the screenplay. Early on, there were scenes that felt slightly overblown, but I felt I wanted to get to know Dickens just by doing research, just to fine-tune it. I think it’s important that when you first meet Dickens, you get one side of him, which is the gregarious, vital, social actor-manager part of Dickens – the sort of center of the party, which is a huge part of who he was. And then when you see him later on, you are seeing the controlling husband, the sort of slightly overbearing father – the sensitive Dickens. But I thought that Abi had gotten it in a good place, and I wanted to bring more of a sense of the two sisters of Nelly – she’s one of three, and the mother. So those scenes in the cottage where they’re unpacking their clothes, all of that stuff really is important to me – to give her, to make sure that her background, her context is really working. But I felt that Abi had gotten that right, and it was only a question of refining it, and then editing it and just making sure that it was [about] Nelly. I mean, it was interesting in the editing process, because my editor Nick would often worry that we mustn’t let Dickens fade out – we’ve got to keep him at the right levels.

The moment in which he sort of notices Nelly meaningfully for the first time is wonderfully understated. How tough is it to make that both naturalistic and resonant?

Well, I think Dickens, in that moment, it’s Dickens who’s curious about Nelly first. What I didn’t want it to be was two people going, ding! I wanted to see if it was possible to chart a relationship where it’s a slow burn, and there were tiny little moments of Dickens and actually the first a-ha moment is at the window, and they’ve all gone to bed. That’s the time when he really notices her because she makes the comment about how two people know each other or share secrets with each other. That was the moment where that was really important. But it felt worrying to me when there moments in earlier drafts of the screenplay where we had them sort of looking at each other, going, “we are fated to be together.” I wanted to play against that.

How much of a character that you play do you define beforehand, and how much of them do you discover while you’re actually performing them on set?

Well, I’d been rehearsing it in a way before I decided to play it – I thought I would not play it, and then I succumbed. I couldn’t help it. But I think you definitely want to chart a throughline before, definitely absolutely. You want to have a map through it. But on the day, there are things you think you will find on the day in front of the camera which will add to the texture, to the physical embodiment of it. But I really think you need to have thought about exactly the story you’re telling, of each of the characters, and their emotional journey, before.

The way that Dickens’ first wife speaks about him explains things about who he is in a way he’d never say himself. How much do you rely on lines like that to help define the way you play the character?

Well, I don’t think that what other people say about you is necessarily right in the screenplay. But I think you’ve got to know who you are aside from that, and it may be – I mean, in that instance, I think Catherine is quite perceptive about him. But I think as a rule of thumb, you should be aware of it, but sort of be scented in your character outside what other people in the story are saying about you.

How much do you feel like you show yourself through your work? Is the transformation you go through as an actor just revealing these characters or that the characters you play offer a window into who you are?

No, not always. I mean, it depends on the fan, or the person. I think I can look at an actor’s work – I believe with an actor’s work, there’s the skill of characterization, impersonation, which can totally mask who the actor is, but the essential soul of the actor informs their skill – and I couldn’t say what it was. And that’s the mystery – there’s something the actor makes choices and inhabits, but there’s something about the nature of inhabitation that is about them – but it’s not directly about them. You know, I’m just thinking as I’m talking – I’ve just watched Michael Douglas as Liberace, and he’s fantastic and complete, it seems, as this other character; Michael Douglas, I don’t recognize him. But the soul of Michael Douglas, his essence is informing his choices. So it’s not about him, but of course it is him – it’s him making it possible. And so that’s the kind of mystery about it. So I would say, if you ask me about myself, some of these roles are not me, but who I am informs the choices and the way that they are. But they’re not remotely autobiographical.

How much do you like to put yourself into a role, to find a character who shares some element in common, as opposed to transforming yourself and finding one who’s as far from you as possible?

I mean, I think some roles feel like they’re close to you, to who you really are, and other roles feel not at all. Sometimes it feels good to be in a role where something in this part feels close to me, but is not me, and other roles are clearly you are creating another interior structure that’s not you at all. I think it’s good to have the chance to engage on other end of the spectrum.

How much of that sort of Daniel Day-Lewis immersion in a character do you participate in, and how much do you want to?

Well, every actor’s sense of immersion is completely different. I mean, you mention Daniel Day-Lewis, who the press always reach for to talk about his apparent immersion – which is always very impressive to read about. And I think to immerse yourself is great. I guess not every role do I go around feeling “I’ve got to be this character all of the time,” and other role preoccupy me a lot. I mean, people tell me that I change, but I’m not consciously going around being Mr. Dickens; but the energy around me, people will say, “oh you’re being very Dickens right now.”

Do you find that happens often?

Well, sometimes. I think it matters to me that I can comprehend the heart of a part in some way. I would love to work with a director that, as it were, raised the bar for the level of immersion – that would be something. Some directors do that and I would really love to work with someone who demanded a sort of total investment. But I think it’s a lot to with who you’re being directed by. But I know on Wes’s film [Grand Budapest Hotel], it mattered to me that the guy I was playing was very fastidious, and it mattered to me the way we dressed, and the hair and everything – and that seemed to inform my behavior a lot.

What is your disposition then as a director? What expectations do you place on the actors in your films?

I want total interior inhabitation. I don’t expect them to be the part, but I want to help an actor to explore the total interior of what’s inside them. Characterization as such, the walk, the voice, the this, the that, that’s important, but for me it’s more like an interior connection, the truth. You know, when I saw Vanessa Redgrave perform the last scene in Coriolanus, she hit something really profound in the delivery of this speech, and that to me was like great acting. Looking at the text and looking at that, she just went into this thing that was inside her, and that’s what moves me when I see performances on film that I love. It’s that I feel inside that person, there is real transitioning, inside them.

What do you feel like is key in presenting period scenarios so that there’s a sort of matter-of-fact look at the difference between values then and now?

Well, I don’t know. I suppose that the essential human being hasn’t changed much – the manner of clothes and what society accepts or doesn’t accept has changed, but the sort of essential emotional tugs and pulls, the shit that happens, that hasn’t really changed. It’s just that the sort of language around it in the physical world is different. I also sort of feel it’s a very modern story I suppose. I mean, a young girl is pursued by a famous man, and she has to sacrifice. You probably could tell that story today, except what she has to sacrifice, you’d have to just ask yourself what that is today. There are famous men out there who have got mistresses or lovers. I mean, there’s a Victorian thing about the public can’t know, we have to keep it a secret, and that probably would be exploded now, but the power play within the relationship, the politics between two people, that still would be the same, I think. And so to me the period thing was there, and even part of the drama, but I hope the film essentially appears as the story of a relationship that could be today, and to me it’s as I’ve said from the beginning, what moved me was something I guess in my own life – how do you come to terms with the things you wished you had said to your mom or your dad or the previous lover. We only have one life, so how do we figure out? I mean, in the end maybe it’s as simple as talking about it, and this is what she does. And I found that very moving, that she can finally talk about it to [a character late in the movie].

What’s maybe surprising is how he’s gossiped about in a way that isn’t that dissimilar from the way he might be now.

I think it’s a different world altogether now. But I still think that although people defend their reputations now, it’s very hard to with all of the mass media and online gossip. But people’s reputations matter to them, as much as they did then. I think people really get upset when the world starts to judge them through newspapers and television and stories and stuff – and Dickens was one of the first great celebrities who with what was going on in his personal life reacted massively and protected himself aggressively – he sort of rewrote the history of his marriage to the world and defended himself in a way that’s hard to stomach. But he did it – he was a public man with a huge readership who wanted to protect that relationship with the world.

How protective of your personal life do you have to be now to be able to do your job as successfully as possible as an actor? Is that a component of being an actor and public figure now?

Well, you know, I’ve had my bruises in that regard, and it can be very upsetting and disturbing. But I guess you get burned, you try and be smart about it. But yeah, it seems to be something now that if you’re in a job, and an actor’s job is about their relationship with the public – and audience goes to see him or her – and I think you would be kind of dumb if you didn’t [acknowledge] that you take on a profession where you yourself are being watched in public. Of course there’s a curiosity, and I think you can forget sometimes the intensity of that curiosity, and it’s kind of good to be aware of it.

Source: Forbes

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