Jon Snow recalls his acting debut in Coriolanus

The Channel 4 newscaster has a small role in Ralph Fiennes’s new film version of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy

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“Ralph Fiennes is directing his first film and wonders if you would have a small part in it,” said the voice. It was the voice of someone I knew, and I didn’t take her too seriously. But she was insistent. “It is Coriolanus,” she went on, “he’s playing him and needs a TV newscaster.”

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Shakespeare needs a TV newscaster, I mused. It seemed the text would be the Bard’s, the portrayal would be in modern dress. The idea was enough to draw a positive “I’d love to”, from me, and the “Hollywood deal” was done.

I do not lie awake at night yearning to be an actor. Indeed I have never seen news anchoring as any kind of relative of the genre. I approach what I do as undertaking a kind of adventure in which I and the viewer go on a shared journey of discovery – what’s going on, who’s going on, why, and when.

Early acting experiences

I cannot even claim ever to have been much of an actor. My thespian moments began when I was four years old, when I played a sunflower in my primary school Christmas play.

My final acting effort was as one of the women in Jean Anouilh’s Ring round the Moon. News of John F Kennedy’s assassination broke in the auditorium during the interval and the production went seriously downhill thereafter.

That moment represented the instant in which I left the world of drama, and began to become a news obsessional. Not only did I feel that being 15 was embarrassingly old to be acting as a woman; I was suddenly seized with the need to know what was going on in the outside world.

Beyond that, I had a speaking role in Stephen Frears’s The Queen – the reporter’s voice at the very beginning and when Her Maj decides to leave Balmoral to face the angry grief outside Buckingham Palace. But that, until now, is and was the sum total of my acting career.

Preparing to perform Shakespeare

As for Shakespeare, I loved Hamlet for his contorted empathy with my own adolescence, but I found the plays long. Julius Caesar at O-level had secured me a C pass; King John at A-level, little better, and a hard slog. Coriolanus I had never read, nor seen any of Fiennes’s acclaimed stage portrayals.

Someone sent me a script – for realism, much of it had to be delivered on autocue. There were also a few learned lines engaging with a couple of characters who had been cast as “pundits”.

Arriving at BBC TV Centre, I was determined that I was simply going to be my professional self. “I am absolutely NOT going to ACT,” I said to myself as I stopped at the reception desk.

Meeting the director

Within minutes I was meeting Ralph, more slight than his huge screen presence, intense, enthusiastic, interested and absolutely set on achieving what was in his mind’s eye. When you meet Ralph Fiennes, you are immediately aware of a big intellect, and a great earnestness. Yet he’s both charming and inscrutable.

I took my place before him, and his camera. The desk, the apparatus were all familiar. But unlike my “day job”, he was not the director in my ear, he was right there, just a nose away. At 8.30 that morning, I did what I do. I even relished the Shakespearean pentameter. I thought, “this is easy – I’ll be out by 9am.” But it wasn’t enough for Mr Fiennes.

By 11, we were beginning to understand each other. He wanted more – much more, much bigger, much more portent, urgency, and understanding. I was acting, going beyond my normal being, and – oh dear – loving it.

He had me feeling the words as never before, overwhelmed by the enormity of the armed struggle I was reporting. “The Volscians are coming.” Little did I know the turning points my words would describe.

By lunchtime, he was done, and so was I. I had acted, and he had directed in the most precise, lucid, absolute way. He had taken my broadcasting systems apart and reassembled them 20 takes later in the form he wanted them.

Watching the finished film

It is, I need hardly say, a small part. When I went to see it at the London film festival (the film is on general release in cinemas on Friday 20 January), I thought I might even have hit the cutting-room floor. But I had not. I found myself in the midst of a unique cinema experience.

I had gone expecting to wander through Shakespeare, and instead found myself caught up in an utterly present-day conflict. Rome is Belgrade – the Romans are Serbians, including what appears to be the entire Serbian army – tanks, trucks, jeeps, and heavy artillery. The action, which is vast, was captured by Barry Ackroyd, who filmed The Hurt Locker.

The crowds surge, the military oppresses, and somewhere amid the drama, a TV screen is on. Even though it was filmed earlier than these events, it speaks of Cairo, Benghazi, Homs and even Tottenham.

I asked the scriptwriter, John Logan, where he derived my newscasting character from. He told me, “the media became the public’s goad and interlocutor – a senator here, a military messenger as an embedded reporter there.”

The studio interviews with opposing talking heads presenting their opinions about Coriolanus’s political future were culled, he told me, “from senators, patricians, citizens and soldiers, as well as traditional messengers”.

There was an audible gasp in the cinema in Leicester Square when I appeared on screen. It is an odd yet reassuring touch of reality. Fiennes has said that Shakespeare wrote for all times, including our times right now.

Even though the events of the Arab Spring erupted after almost all the film had been shot, it is there. Fiennes told me these violent ups and downs in our lives are always there, so that whenever you see him, Shakespeare always remains relevant.

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And dammit, I’m in it, and that man Fiennes had me acting when I told myself I wouldn’t.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 January 2012.