Ralph Fiennes Interview For ‘Coriolanus’
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes), a hero of Rome, is a great soldier but despises the people. His extreme views ignite a mass riot and he is banished from Rome. Coriolanus allies with a sworn enemy (Gerard Butler) to take his revenge on the city. As director and star, Ralph Fiennes brings William Shakespeare’s visceral history play to the big screen for the first time. Coriolanus is a drama for the ages, a commentary on the precarious draw of war and an auspicious directorial debut from one of the world’s great classical actor. Alongside Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler the film stars Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and James Nesbitt. Coriolanus is scheduled for cinemas December 2nd in the US, and January 20th in the UK.
You’ve worked on a great number of Shakespeare productions, what was it about Coriolanus that made you want to adapt this story to film?
Ralph Fiennes: I played it on stage about ten years ago, it made a very deep impression on me. To me it’s a play that, unquestionably, always has resonance with the times we are in – in particular now, with so much uncertainty in the world, social upheaval, political upheaval, war, combat, the constant tension between the nature of leadership and the voice of the people. For me it seemed to combine a continually resonate thriller with a Greek tragedy at the centre of it.
How did you develop the screenplay and the idea to update Coriolanus?
Ralph Fiennes: The screenplay is a result of a great collaboration I had with the screenwriter John Logan, who wrote films like ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Aviator.’ I pitched this idea of an updated version of Coriolanus to him, he responded very enthusiastically and wrote this electric screenplay. It’s his extraordinary visceral descriptive writing style on the page, which was really the first big step forward for the film to come a reality. It was so clear, so dynamic, such a page turner.
How did you find the process of directing?
Ralph Fiennes: I think for some actors directing can become a natural progression. You do a number of films, and I found I became increasingly curious, and more than curious about choices directors were making – the camera, the locations, the costumes. Working with Anthony Minghella, who’s particularly collaborative, I felt very included in that process. I think possibly since that time I felt this curiosity become more like a strong urge. I think for many actors, you’re at the mercy of so many decisions, there comes a point when you want to be the person making the decisions (laughs).
With the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and Gerard Butler, you’ve put together an incredible cast for this film. How was that casting process?
Ralph Fiennes: The first piece was Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the mother of Coriolanus, Volumnia. I knew I wanted her from day one, she’s of course one of the great actresses, ever. She’s always moved me profoundly as a spirit, as an acting spirit. I felt like she has great conviction, not only in her work, but also in her principles and beliefs. I felt that it would be amazing to have someone who carries conviction like that so profoundly play Volumnia, who’s convictions are quite challenging for us to share, they’re essentially authoritarian and arguably…I suppose military elitist in nature, but she feels them profoundly, you have to get inside the skin of that woman and Vanessa did it.
I’ve been a fan of Brian Cox for a very long time. I needed an actor of great stature to convey a political infighter, someone who has real charisma and masculine weight as a politician. I’ve seen Brian’s work over the years and he was the ideal choice for me.
I met Jessica Chastain, I was introduced to Jessica by someone who was at one point interested in financing the film, that didn’t happen but I met her, having only seen her in a snippet of her Salome. Virgilia is a hard part because she doesn’t have a lot to say, but she is the wife of Coriolanus, and she is present in fact by her silence, Coriolanus calls her, ‘My gracious silence.’ I think she is possibly the only character who carries love in the play, and I knew we needed someone with an effortless, emotional translucence – and that’s what this wonderful actress carries, this is why clearly Terrence Malick cast her in ‘The Tree of Life.’ I had the privilege of seeing her play Desdemona on stage, I think Desdemona’s one of those parts where you have to have this quality, it cannot be acted. She had it, and until then I had never seen it, so I’d seen the best Desdemona ever in her.
Then Gerard Butler, this man is a warrior (laughs), I needed a warrior. Gerard came and was determined to kick my ass, with knives and guns. I don’t think I’ve ever told him but he has a wonderful scene in this film where he sees a family, a murdered family in a car. The effect of this is an emotional high-spot for Gerard’s character, it is very disturbing, he has a sort of reactive rage to the sight of this murdered family. On the day that we shot that, we could all feel the electricity around the cast and the crew, this extraordinary emotional flame that was happening. I remember our line producer, Kevin, when we were wrapped, we were shooting until the light had gone, I remember when we finished he said, ‘That’s Shakespeare baby!’ (Laughs).
How do you find Shakespeare on the big-screen compared to the stage?
Ralph Fiennes: The first difference I think is that on stage you have a space that you have to be heard, sometimes it’s quite big and you’ve got to convey some kind of complex text, idea, speech to maybe eight hundred or nine hundred people. So that’s one set of skills, which is very vocal. On film, the camera can be in close, you can be intimate. Also I think the test of Shakespeare on film is that too much words, or too much language can sometimes not work on film. One of the things I felt would help the audiences ear to engage would be a simplicity of delivery, the more conversational it could be – except when there are arguably extreme moments, when people are enraged or emotional or upset. Conversational, that’s what you aim for funny enough in the theatre, but sometimes you extend things because the physical demands are different. But intimacy and simplicity for film, for Shakespeare is the guideline I think.
What was the idea to include things like camera phones? I felt it really helped contemporised it a step further.
Ralph Fiennes: It was really because I wanted it set now, I guess it will probably inevitably date, but I didn’t want it to be futuristic, I wanted it to be now, and now was the time of the Green Revolution in Tehran, all the images were coming through on cell phones, constantly all the time. People photographing and recording video clips. It just seemed that it was part of the world we are in, any politician walking down the street would get videoed and recorded now.
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