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 out in cinemas now.

What was it about this flawed hero and story that you found so captivating?

Ralph Fiennes: I think I became obsessed with Coriolanus by playing it onstage about 10, 11 years ago. It’s a very provocative piece with a very confrontational tone to it. I like that, I like the way Shakespeare was confronting the audience, not just with Coriolanus, but with all the questions about loyalty and political intrigue. The idea that you have this man who almost has an obscene integrity (laughs). I think the play challenges audiences sense of where their audience should lie. I also think it’s a play that is continually relevant – always! Now particularly with various uprisings and economic uncertainty around the world, which is the background to the play. I think it’s always a play that provokes an audience.

The delivery of the dialogue is given in a very contemporary fashion, was that intentional from the beginning or did that come about more organically?

Ralph Fiennes: It was intentional, one of the challenges is that the dialogue’s written for the theatre – although I have to say the best performances I’ve seen in the theatre have been with actors like Michael Bryant, who used to play it at the National Theatre. He always had the most simplistic and naturalistic delivery, it was as if it was his natural language. I wanted it to be as naturalistic as possible, except there are places where I think it’s explosive and heightened, but I think generally it’s natural, you have scenes with cups of coffee in a cafe, it should have this completely real rhythm. I still think though that it has to be very specific, so the skill was that it appears completely naturalistic, but the actors skill is that it’s so specific that the phrasing is accessible. Always the intention was to keep it simple, avoid going into something pronounced.

Someone like Gerard Butler, I wanted it to come from his own spirit, I think a voice, someone’s own dialect is part of who they are. I think that’s important, in this case, not to mess with it. Also to have a world of different accents, in our world today there’s different dialects, different backgrounds – it was very deliberate.

How was the rehearsal process on this film? Traditionally with Shakespeare and theatre you have a long rehearsal process.

Ralph Fiennes: It was very hard because everyone’s schedule were so tight, people were coming into join the shoot just for a certain window of time. It was really the second of our two rest days which was given over to rehearsal and prep. We would rehearse sometimes at the end of the shooting day, we were just grabbing it where we could. It wasn’t long and involved, I would have loved it to be but it just wasn’t possible.

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.