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Q&A: Ralph Fiennes on His Bard Badass 'Coriolanus'

Ralph Fiennes
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How does one follow up a stint as one of modern lit's all-time most powerful figures, the noseless wonder and embodiment of evil, Voldemort, in the insanely popular "Harry Potter" series?

For Ralph Fiennes, it's by playing one of classic lit's all-time most badass figures, taking the title role of the mercilessly tough military leader/ politician in "Coriolanus."

Fiennes not only stars in but directs this inspired adaptation, which, like Baz Luhrmann's 1996 spin on "Romeo + Juliet," unspools the timeless Bard yard in contemporary times. The first-time filmmaker and venerated thesp talks Shakespeare, "Potter" and Bond (sort of).

Coriolanus
The Weinstein Co.

Did you plan to set "Coriolanus" in modern times from the onset of this project?
I started off with just an idea that I pitched to [screenwriter] John Logan who then refined it into this fantastic screenplay. We pooled ideas, but he actually put it down on the page and made my initial idea better. He had lots of his own brilliant ideas. But yes the initial concept which I proposed was a completely modern world for this story of this extreme figure.

Did you take any cues from Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet"?
A huge cue. What I did take from that film was, particularly, his complete creation of a world that I couldn't tell you where it was but I knew it was somewhere today and I believed it, whether it was Mexico or Miami or something. I felt completely at home in this modern world that he created, although I think probably my approach, stylistically, is pretty different.

Shakespearean dialect can be a tougher sell for broad audiences. That ever a concern?
I think it's a shame that when people come to it, their ear comes on the defensive. Like, "I'm not going to like it, it's school, it's boring, it's study, it's homework." Why can't people come to it how they come to a dialect or street slang. Street talk has its own expressiveness and elasticity. And we love it, but somehow Shakespeare, for lots of people, feels of the schoolroom and something stuffy and heavy. I think it's alive. The language is vitally alive.

Also Check Out: 9 Movies That Prove Shakespeare Is Cool

Do you see "Coriolanus" as one of Shakespeare's most timeless pieces?
The political turnaround in it is timeless. I think there's an essential mother-son or parent-child dynamic which is always timeless. It may be that the codes of military honor [have changed], but I think people have it. The sense of duty to your country is still very strong. I think the sense of one's honor is very big in Shakespeare, and I think it's less and less a key point of principle for people. "My honor is at stake here."

And that's why I like Coriolanus, because of his sense of honor. What I love is that Shakespeare doesn't romanticize him. He's brutal and he's proud and he's contemptuous, but he's honorable in his sense of who he is as a soldier. I think you have to come to him as a soldier above everything else.

What did you make of Roland Emmerich's recent movie "Anonymous"?
I've not seen it.

What about just the assertion that Shakespeare was a fraud?
Instinctively I don't buy it, but I'm also ignorant of the reasons as to why he might not have written it ... In the end, does it matter? Am I supposed to respond differently to "King Lear" because someone else from a different background, possibly an aristocrat, wrote it? And on top of that, if it is meant to be the Earl of Oxford, and I think there's enough evidence to say that it couldn't be because he died before some of the key plays were written, it also taps into a kind of snobbery that the knowledge in the plays could only have come from some educated person who had traveled and had great learning, and I find that a bit worrying because I also think that the school system at the time was very, very good.

Shakespeare would have been speaking Latin at an early age. I think we assume that everything was more primitive than it was. There were printed books and there was incredible intellectual life. Theater life was very, very vibrant … I'm slightly suspect is the short answer to that proposition. I'm not sure I buy it. But I hear it's a good film.

Are there specific directors that you've worked under that influenced your approach?
I don’t think there was anyone I was trying to imitate, but I do think that [I tried to emulate] the sort of directness of approach, the kind of honesty of filming [of a few directors]. There's a Hungarian director called István Szabó. I did a film with him called "Sunshine." Working with Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"), working with David Cronenberg ("Spider"), working with Fernado Meirelles who did "The Constant Gardener"; they had a very pure, honest approach. The camera is an honest recorder, an honest storyteller. It tries not to do things for effect, or maybe you choose a specific moment when it's there to comment.

Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2"
Warner Bros.

So has any young child ever cried upon seeing you, thinking they've just seen Voldemort in the flesh?
Have you not read the story? On [the "Harry Potter" set] the child of the script supervisor was sitting in a chair and I just walked past and looked and the child dissolved into tears. Very satisfying.

Amazing. But never in public?
No. I mean I had all of the makeup on and stuff.

Do you keep in touch with any of the young actors?
I'm not in touch with them, no.

Are there any young actors from the films that you're particularly excited to see grow into other roles?
All three of those actors. Daniel [Radcliffe] I think is interesting. He's very committed and very brave and stuck his neck out. I'm very keen to see how he grows. How he emerges. But I think they're all very talented, all three of them.

How did it feel to finally wrap the "Potter" series up after such a commitment?
I think it's come to its natural end. I think it was good that it ended. It seemed to be there for just the right amount of time and it sustained itself very well. Warner Bros. and the producers were smart in the way they kept up to speed with the changing taste of their audience. The series sort of grew up with its core audience as they grew up and got darker and tougher and kind of quite adult in the end, I think. I thought they handled it brilliantly. It was really smartly produced, cleverly produced to be big entertainment, but to have a smartness about it. Every department, its design, its look.

Also Check Out: Why "Harry Potter" Ending Is a Good Thing

Can you tell us anything about your role in the "Bond" movie?
I can't, I'm not allowed to, except I've been seduced by ("Skyfall 007" writer) John Logan and (director) Sam Mendes into a very interesting little cameo.

It was interesting to hear Sam Mendes say it will focus a little bit more on the characters than the action.
I think the script — it has a lot to do with my friendship with John — the script is very cool and very smart. It's a brilliantly thought-through screenplay. I think it will surprise people with just what a good story it is.

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