STAGE TO SCREENS: Ralph Fiennes Talks to About Wrestling Coriolanus Onto the Big Screen

By Christopher Wallenberg
20 Nov 2011

Fiennes in "Coriolanus."
The Weinstein Co.

Why were you drawn to play this character who can be quite unlikable? He's stubborn and unyielding and doesn't have much sympathy for the people.
RF: Dramatically what's exciting is that Shakespeare puts his very confrontational protagonist at the center of the drama, and it's quite risky. He's like a sheet of granite — Coriolanus. He doesn't like anyone particularly, except those closest to him. And that's a challenge to an audience. But that's always excited me. And I find that part of me is sympathetic to him. Because even though I don't probably sympathize with his views, I sympathize with the man trying to stick to his truth, even though we don't like his truth. But at least we have to give him credit that he's trying to hold to it. And he's maneuvered and manipulated by people. But he's trying to hold to a sense of extreme integrity. He's a complex figure. He's emotionally quite stunted and compressed. He has emotions. But he's not someone who knows how to express them. He's a warrior, and that's the way I understood him — as a soldier or a samurai. The samurai has a very strong set of principles. And they're prepared to die for their honor. Where he experiences any kind of ecstasy or elation is in the battlefield. So I think that's who he is. But negotiation is not part of his DNA.

He seems to reject political gamesmanship and that whole world. Is that an outgrowth of him being a warrior and a military man?
RF: I've always felt he's been conditioned, very particularly by his mother, by a military ethic of service. What makes good generals is a kind of ruthless sense of order, and the whole function of an army is dependent on people following orders and being prepared to put themselves on the line and being prepared to die. That's why there's all this [stuff surrounding the] cult of the warrior — its rituals of honor and medals and awards. That's why military structures have this highly defined code, which is there to support a mystique that helps give them courage. So that's why I think you can see [that] the person who's been in the service treats the civilian world as completely different. The luxuries that a civilian has, the latitude that the civilian has to express [him or herself], it's foreign to him. Coriolanus is an extreme warrior. So the civilian world, he has no time for it. People protest, and they're hungry. But he's been on the front lines, and he's been prepared to die many times. So he can't comprehend their point of view. He just can't understand it. He thinks that is disloyal. Actually, you see it in some more right-wing publications here, you know. The New York Post, today, saying, "Enough!" for the protestors down on Wall Street. "Shaming New York City by your protests." That's not far from how Coriolanus would feel.

Fiennes and Gerard Butler on set
The Weinstein Co.

You played Coriolanus on stage in 2000. In what ways did that inspire your decision to make this film? What could you do in the film version that you couldn't on stage?
RF: The role is challenging on stage because the interior life is not really expressed. He doesn't have many soliloquies. There's maybe one soliloquy, which even then is not very introspective. It doesn't let you, the audience, into his life particularly. What the audience receives is a man being angry, mostly. So the challenge of the part is to find the nuances, because a lot of the time it's clear from the text that he's in a state of aggression or anger or confrontation. So I felt that it could be revisited in terms of the camera being able to go into him, into the mother, into Menenius.

One of the things that John Logan thought was exciting was that the close-up of Coriolanus is what you never get on stage. You never really see and hear from him all that much. I love the play. It's provocative, and it doesn't give you any neat, compact message about what's right and what's wrong. I think it's possibly quite nihilistic. But it asks a lot of questions, and it confronts the audience with a panorama of dysfunction in the world, which is what I see around me. I think we're completely dysfunctional as a [human] race. And I think that this play exposes that brilliantly in the form of this tragic drama.

What are some of those questions that you think the play raises?
RF: Who should you trust? Who should you follow? When should you be loyal? Do you think it's right to change your mind on the turn of a [dime]? [Snaps fingers.] You vote for Obama one day, and then the next day you change your mind. Or do you? Or should you stick to your principles? You were a loyal Democrat when Obama was voted in, then suddenly you've lost patience. Why? Are you disloyal? Or do you think you're justified?

Those are difficult questions to grapple with.
RF: Yeah. You know: "Where are your loyalties?" — that's what it's saying. Or, "Are you right to change your loyalties?" "Hey, ho, tomorrow I feel that I'll go here." You know, actually, we're all like that. We all do it. We all change and shift. I think it confronts us with our shiftiness. [Smiles.] It says, "Do you have the guts to be a Coriolanus?" None of us do. And, actually, if we do, we'll probably end up like him, because unless you're prepared to negotiate and shift, you probably don't survive. So it sort of presses the buttons of our instinct for survival. We have to negotiate, to compromise, because if we don't, we end up dead maybe, or we probably don't get very far in life.

Can you talk about the enormous influence of Coriolanus' mother on him and how she's shaped him to become that man that he is?
A: She's the mother of all mothers. And the confrontation between mother and son is where the play, I believe, leads. That's where it's leading. It's presenting us the shifty, changeable world of politics and society. But actually where we all come from is from the womb of our mother. And that final moment [in the play] is about that. And what's tragic about it is that this man, whether you like him or not, he has tried to hold to his principles…And sometimes he is a boy. He holds to his truth like an adolescent sometimes. But then he cracks finally. He makes peace. He's a peacemaker. And he dies because of it. And I think often with a tragedy, you in the audience are asked to be sort of a witness to the demise of a person. The pitiable state of mankind is exposed in a great tragedy. And I think you're asked to witness it.

Why set the play in a contemporary world, or a world that's not our own but that looks and feel contemporary? Much of the film feels like you're turning on the television or opening the newspaper and reading about current events.
RF: Well, I just wanted an immediacy. And I believed that [a contemporary setting] was the best way to establish an immediacy and an intimate connection with the world of the play. I was absolutely set on it being contemporary. For me it has an immediacy: I know that politician getting out of that car. I know that combat guy. I've seen him every day on the news and in the newspaper — that man in that camouflage uniform running down the street, through the smoke and the dust. I've seen the people protesting on the streets, in their hoodies and jeans. You know, that's our world. I wanted the audience to visually connect with it right away — as a way to help them follow the story. Because I knew that both John and I wanted to stay with Shakespeare's dialogue. Also, I was encouraged by the success of the Baz Luhrmann "Romeo + Juliet," which I think was a brilliant film and completely says to its audience, "Here's this world. And people speak like this, and this is what we're doing." He presents a completely brilliant, clear world. You don't quite know where it is, but you know the world. Somewhere, we've seen it.