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

By Christopher Wallenberg
20 Nov 2011

Vanessa Redgrave in "Coriolanus."
The Weinstein Co.
There's a contemporary look to it, but it's not quite our world.
RF: Yeah. It's a world with a petrol stations and high rises and helicopters flying overhead, and there are limousines, and there's a wealthy family with a swimming pool. And we know that world. We see it in magazines. We see it in movies. Maybe our friends have a house with a swimming pool….

So you felt that Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" showed you could adapt Shakespeare into a contemporary setting on the big screen, attract an audience, and maintain the language?
RF: Of course there's always going to be the question of, "Why keep the dialogue?" I think there's an expressiveness in the dialogue that is thrilling. And once people get on board, I believe they will follow it. Absolutely, I felt I wanted to keep the Shakespeare — 100 percent. I think the language is extraordinary. But I don't see it as being a problem. I think a bit like listening to a dialect, your ear has to really engage.

Is a big part of any success casting actors, like Vanessa Redgrave, who could really speak that Shakespearean language in a way that felt contemporary and immediate?
RF: I mean, there isn't one right way to speak Shakespeare. Shakespeare's language should feel real. But there are moments when it's quite heightened, definitely, and it's overtly poetic. And there are other moments when it's a very loose verse form, which can be spoken so naturalistically, you wouldn't know whether it was prose or verse. It doesn't really matter. It's just: How is it being inhabited?

You said you watched Gillo Pontecorvo's seminal documentary-style war film, "The Battle of Algiers" (1966), as an inspirational reference point for the film. How did that film become something of a touchstone?
A: Well, because of his way of capturing the sense of The Street, the aliveness of the Street, the movement on the Street — the faces, the people — real people, you know, in crowds, particularly. Watching the film, you feel that it could be a documentary. So those faces were important to me. It was important that they were the real thing, that they weren't from Central Casting.

What other influences or inspirations did you look to in adapting the play for the big screen?
RF: I had a whole massive trove of imagery: Still photographs of war zones, riots, politicians' faces. There's a fantastic photographer called James Nachtwey, who's done a great book called "Inferno," which is photographs of these war zones and trouble spots in the world. That book was hugely influential for gathering imagery. Things like the murdered family in the car that [Aufidius] discovers — those sort of images, that photography played into making that scene happen. You know, the complete horror of just aimless violence, which you see in the shot of bodies on the ground. So those were influences in terms of photography.

Fiennes in The Tempest
photo by Catherine Ashmore

Were there any real-life political figures that inspired you as provided a reference point for the film?
RF: There were bits of people. But there really wasn't one person that I based it on. I think a lot of acting is imagination…But in my office in Belgrade, I had a Caravaggio painting on my wall as a sort of lighting reference, particularly for the scene in which I encounter [Aufidius] in his underground lair in Antium, where he's hiding out. I thought the lighting should have a certain feel in those scenes. So Caravaggio's paintings and their Biblical content meant something for me there. Things like the woman coming in to cut the hair and shave Coriolanus has the sort of Biblical feeling of a traveler being washed. I also had a Francis Bacon painting on the wall — so the sort of entwined bodies of Aufidius and Coriolanus as they fight should subliminally suggest a sense of male coupling. I also had pictures of General Stanley McCrystal on my wall — before he had this drama with the Rolling Stone magazine article. I didn't know much about him, except that he was a highly respected general, admired by his troops and incredibly tough. But his face — he's in a military hat, a beret and everything — was Coriolanian to me. And I had a couple of Petraeus, too. But McCrystal's face has a sort of real overt toughness in it, which I liked. So that was on the wall in my office. Also, I had some images of Putin. He's not really Coriolanus, but the completely detached look of Putin in his eyes is quite scary and was quite useful. And there were Donald McCullin's photographs of Beirut in the early '80s. All these things are like visual emotional triggers that feed into your imagination. But also just looking in the paper every day. I mean, I started the whole process off because I was tearing out the front page photograph from the [International] Herald Tribune, which is always electric as a piece of photography. Iraq, Afghanistan, even the 2008 riots in Athens —all that stuff played into how we made the feel of the film.

What were some of the biggest challenges of simultaneously acting in and directing in the film?
RF: Probably what you would imagine. How do you sort of go from looking at a frame and discussing a position of a camera and a performance, and then how do you go in front of it and then immerse yourself in it? And that was hard — made particularly hard because I think there's a necessary time that you need [as an actor]. Every actor needs the time to go…to come from their dressing room, where they've done their teeth and they've put on their costume, and then they go and they…I mean, every actor is different. But there's a time where you go, "Now I'm actually consciously making the effort to think about what I'm about to do, whatever internal process I have, I'm engaging with it — imaginatively, emotionally, spiritually, physically, whatever. And now I take that time to do that. And that's why on a set, people go, "Are you ready? Should we wait? Should we set up? O.K., let's have quiet now." Because there's an awareness that some kind of transformation or transition has to happen. And that takes some kind of time. Some actors, they might keep everyone waiting, because they're not there [in the right mind set or frame of mind] yet. But under time pressure, because we had so little time to do these scenes, where we probably had on average half the time you normally schedule, that was hard. I mean, there were days when it was just really hard to hold the part in my head as the actor. But I had a wonderful team with me.

What Shakespeare adaptations do you think have translated well from the stage to the screen, and were there reference points in those films that you looked to for inspiration?
RF: There were fantastic sequences in Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight." Amazing battle sequences in that. Although arguably things will always date, I do think that there's a wonderful visual coherence to Olivier's "Hamlet," with the castle and the mood of that. You know, maybe the performance style is still very close to something theatrical. But it's a very committed filmic gesture — brilliant. And also there's the Russian director, Kozintsev, who did a "Hamlet" and a "Lear." I haven't seen the "Lear" since I was at school, but the "Hamlet" is amazing. And also Peter Brook's "King Lear" with Paul Scofield. I love that for its real austerity. I think there's a wonderful understated quality to performance [in that film], which I loved.

You might just be the hardest working man in show business. You recently finished up a stage turn in The Tempest in London; you've just been announced for Sam Mendes' new Bond film, and you're about to shoot Mike Newell's new version of "Great Expectations. Are you worried about the, um, expectations, for a classic Dickens work?
A: Well, with "Great Expectations" you're on hallowed ground, of course. Because David Lean's [1946] film is sort of sacred almost in British cinema history certainly. I think, you know, it's a great film. But I think there is room for another version. So we'll see.

Christopher Wallenberg is a freelance arts and entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. He's a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe, Playbill and American Theatre magazines.