Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in ‘Coriolanus’


Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in ‘Coriolanus.’ The film opens Feb. 17 at West End Cinema. (Larry D. Horricks)

When actor Ralph Fiennes decided to direct his first film, he didn’t make things easy.

He chose one of Shakespeare’s most obscure plays, “Coriolanus,” about a conquering warrior who, returning to Rome, is unwilling to play the politician’s role by wooing the populace with tales of bravery.

Fiennes set the film in the present, with action in Iraq-inspired combat zones. And he cast himself in the lead — a character whose volcanic outbursts would threaten to exhaust any actor, much less one simultaneously responsible for the film’s overall direction. Unlike his character, Fiennes was happy to explain himself to us.

Does doing interviews for your film feel like Coriolanus having to sell himself to the rabble?

Well, in the past, it has felt like that. I have at times found it hard, but now, I care about the film and I’m happy to talk about it.

As for Coriolanus himself, what’s the root of his reluctance to speak to the citizenry?

It comes off as extreme arrogance and contempt, at face value, which is what it is. But the root of it is a deep unease. There’s some fundamental unease about dealing with people, expressed in overt contempt.

It’s weird, someone who’s so courageous in physical combat — there’s a kind of insecurity about the everyday need to negotiate with people. There’s something not quite right. Some people have said it’s post-traumatic stress disorder. I think there’s something valid in that, you know?

He’s defined by combat, by killing people. This is where he feels most alive, most alert, most fulfilled. He hasn’t got a language of intimacy with anyone, except, weirdly, with [his battlefield enemy] Aufidius.

There’s a sort of weird pathology about other people, civilians. I was curious about this sort of inability to connect.

Doing this for the first time, did you go to any other actor-turned-directors for advice?

I talked to Kenneth Branagh, who just said to me, ‘It’s a lot. You’re taking on a lot. You’ve got to have a DP [director of photography] who you have a real connection with. That’s the person you’ll be relying on, on the day: your cinematographer — their sensitivity, their alertness to what you need to be doing.’

I wanted [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd, based on a number of films he’d done. Barry has a very particular style that not only Kathryn Bigelow wanted [in “The Hurt Locker”], but also Paul Greengrass has used a lot. That approach can help create an incredible energy for battle sequences. Essentially it’s hand-held, but it’s also how you move, when you move the camera.

I wondered whether part of your interest in doing “Coriolanus” was the fact that no famous film has been made of it yet. That it would sort of be yours.

Yeah. I suppose I th ought that if we did pull it off, it would be the first time. It’s been done on the television by BBC, but never as a movie. I think everyone thought I was mad, and I could see why they would. [Laughs.]

Why?

It’s dense and full of angry rhetoric, and I think is often difficult to pull off in the theater. There’s not much lyricism; there’s no soft moment. The language and the characters, they’re sort of jangling in a way. It also has a reputation — often based maybe on ignorance, for people who don’t really know it — that it’s somehow the difficult one that’s not very good or doesn’t really work.

People have said to me, ‘Oh, it’s a flawed play.’ And I don’t think it is that flawed. I think it’s rather got a very beautiful structure to it. I don’t see the dramatic flaw.

I see a certain risk in it, when you present a protagonist who doesn’t bend. Shakespeare is stretching a wire, because Coriolanus is constantly asserting his refusal to bend, even though he does eventually agree to talk to the people.

It seems to me a high-risk dramatic proposition: Where is the transition in this man? When is he going to change? What is the key turning point in the drama?

You had seen the play staged before you did it yourself in 2000?

As a student, at the National Theatre. Ian McKellen played Coriolanus. I was just blown away. McKellen was electric in it, and that final scene was extraordinary.

In the end, all the roads of the play lead to this confrontation between a mother and a son. [Steely Volumnia, played here by Vanessa Redgrave, has raised Coriolanus to be a bloodthirsty patriot. When he is exiled, she tries to force him to tell the people what they want to hear.] When I first saw it, that’s what moved me. That’s when I understood it. I’d been watching this man’s bizarre insistence on his personal integrity, which is sort of compelling and sort of mad, and then I see, ‘Oh, it’s about the mum!’

That’s where we connect with it; it’s a family drama. He’s a boy, under all his warrior-ness, his soldierliness. When I first saw that on stage, it just moved me so much. That’s why I think it’s a great play, that scene.

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