As I walk in to interview Ralph Fiennes, I ask the German photographer coming out what he’s like. “Quiet, serious… like a monk,” she responds.
The first thing I notice is that he’s clean-shaven, compared with his appearance in his two upcoming films. As Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman, he has a bushy moustache and a goatee. For his role as a 1930s concierge in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, there’s a thin, well- groomed line of hair across his upper lip.
Were the photographer to see either of these films, I suspect she might change her view of Fiennes, who shows glimpses of both characters during our conversation. His Dickens is a man of huge appetites, both sexual and intellectual. And in The Grand Budapest Hotel, he displays great comic talent as the oily, perfumed Monsieur Gustave.
The Invisible Woman is about the love affair that Dickens embarked on at the age of 45 with an 18-year-old actress called Nelly Ternan (played by Felicity Jones). Fiennes developed the script with Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) after being asked to direct the film, and their main source was Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens’s mistress. Morgan says it was great to work with the actor/director Fiennes: “He gets up and moves around the room to illustrate his point. Most directors aren’t good at saying the lines. He was great at visualising and understanding how a scene would play.”
This is the second time Fiennes has sat in the director’s chair and he clearly relishes the role of ringmaster. His first opportunity came in 2010, when he directed and starred in an acclaimed contemporary reworking of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
But Fiennes didn’t know what he’d be likes as a director until the first day of shooting. “Normally I’m the sort of person who says, “No, after you…” I avoid confrontation. But I became much more assertive and would say, ‘Sorry, that’s not working’.” He was also surprised by how much he liked being part of a team. “Socially, I don’t like rooms full of people but on set as a director I felt an eagerness to engage and communicate, which I don’t normally have.”
Fiennes extends his involvement to almost every detail of the production process. For The Invisible Woman (released Friday 7 February; The Grand Budapest Hotel is in cinemas in March), he drew storyboards and encouraged the designers to study Victorian artworks such as William Powell Frith’s painting The Derby Day.
The eldest of six children, Fiennes was raised by artistic parents. “My father was a photographer, my mother painted and wrote, and as children we were encouraged to make things and draw, so the visual aspect of my films is very important to me.”
Despite growing up in a bookish household, Fiennes hadn’t read any Dickens before making The Invisible Woman. As a young man he was more drawn to Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. “I blame overexposure to a recording of A Christmas Carol we listened to as a family, which made me think Dickens’s novels were too cosy. I have now read several of them and feel the opposite.”
The film is set at the height of Dickens’s popularity. He was a huge publishing star, the JK Rowling of his day, but he also loved the limelight. A workaholic, he directed plays, performed readings to hundreds of people and campaigned on behalf of the poor. He was regularly recognised in the street and his private life was the subject of widespread gossip.
Fiennes’s own relationships have often seen his name splashed all over the tabloids. In 1995, his marriage to Alex Kingston ended when he began an affair with Francesca Annis, 18 years his senior. Their relationship lasted 11 years before it was revealed that Fiennes had again been involved with another woman. Was it inevitable that parallels would be drawn between his own life and that of Dickens?
“No, Charles Dickens’ level of fame was more akin to a pop star’s or footballer’s than mine. He was a huge, iconic figure,” says Fiennes modestly, although he does confess to being frequently stopped by autograph hunters. There are the Harry Potter fans who know him as Voldemort, then there are the other admirers who recall his Oscar-nominated performances in The English Patient and Schindler’s List.
“You may find this surprising but I often get people telling me how much they loved me in Taken.” But isn’t that the action film where Liam Neeson tracks down baddies? “Exactly. People sometimes confuse me with Neeson and he often gets complimented on The English Patient!” says Fiennes with a smile. Having interviewed both actors, I don’t see much similarity beyond their good cheekbones and piercing blue eyes: Neeson is huge, sits with his legs wide apart and oozes testosterone; Fiennes is thin, hunches over his knees and exudes an almost ascetic intellectual intensity.
A press officer attempts to bring our interview to a close, but Fiennes politely ignores her. He wants to know what films and plays I’ve seen recently and what I thought of them. It could be flattery but he appears to be genuinely interested.
I later discover that he often does this with journalists. This is not Fiennes the actor but Fiennes the film-maker, finding out what works and what doesn’t, honing his art.