The Oscar-nominated actor explains why Shakespeare’s works are still as present as ever today and discusses his latest film project, the Shakespeare tragedy Corialanus, which he also directed.
Actor Ralph Fiennes
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ralph Fiennes to this program. The two-time Oscar nominee has starred in so many notable projects, including, of course, “Schindler’s List,” “The English Patient” and “Harry Potter.” His latest film is called “Coriolanus,” which is based, of course, on the Shakespeare tragedy. The movie opens in select cities in December with many more on the way come January. And so, here now some scenes from “Coriolanus.”
Tavis: Ralph Fiennes, you obviously believe in this. You direct it, you star in it, you produce it. What made you think that “Coriolanus” would work cinematically?
Ralph Fiennes: I was in a production of it on stage about 11 years ago and I think then that it sort of wormed its way into me as an idea for a movie. It’s a politically provocative play, I think, by Shakespeare, and still is, and still has resonance. It’s set against a backdrop of economic uncertainty.
There’s war, the people are unhappy. It’s really about the crisis of authority, which I think we’re continually witnessing everywhere. The dramatic stakes that Shakespeare proposes with his very confrontational protagonist, who’s a warrior who has an overt contempt for the people but is a brave soldier, but actually in the course of the story you come to sort of see that he’s been conditioned and set up by his mother.
So you have this political thriller leading to a mother-son Greek tragic moment, if you like – what I call the umbilical moment. That’s always moved me profoundly when I’ve seen it, and it’s at that moment at the end that this sort of – his humanity kind of cracks open out of him.
Tavis: You started to answer some of this already. Let me ask – just take a little step further, which is what is it to your mind about Shakespeare’s work that still, to your earlier point, makes it so relevant now that allows you to do something like this cinematically.
Fiennes: Well, in every drama of Shakespeare’s, the human drama is still as present as ever. In the comedies, in the histories, mothers, fathers, sons, husbands, wives, fathers, daughters, brothers, lovers, he seems to have had this extraordinary understanding of the infinite complexities of human beings and could see them comedically, could see them tragically.
We keep doing his plays or making films of his dramas because I think that there’s always this connection still goes on. I think the big challenge is that does his language work for us today. There’s no question I think the stories do. John Logan adapted this.
The screenwriter known – he did “Gladiator” last summer, and like me, he was convinced – he’s a lover of Shakespeare, so we had – I pitched it to him, a contemporary version of “Coriolanus” set today, and he – the question was do we keep the original dialogue or do we rewrite it? We both felt passionately that we keep it, and I’ve always loved in the theater, there’ve often been modern dress productions where you have clothes like we’re wearing and people are speaking Shakespeare’s words.
I love that counterpoint. I think it’s quite sexy to me, it’s exciting. But for some people, some people want to see their Shakespeare in Jacobean dress. That’s odd to me now. I wanted this audience, and so did John Logan, wanted our audience to connect immediately with the world in the film.
Tavis: To your point now, how do you do that? How do you contemporize “Coriolanus?”
Fiennes: Well, we talked about where would these events happen today, so in the because of the play the people are protesting, they’re angry. They’re actually meeting, there’s a meeting of unhappy citizens to say, “We have to get rid of Coriolanus.” So I suppose I sit with John and we think, well, it’s a cell of activists meeting secretly to say we have to take to the streets. Then one of the thrills of thinking how you would adapt for film is you can open stuff out that you can’t do on stage, so the people are protesting, the people are walking, so it’s on the street.
People carrying sticks, staves, bits of iron. In the original Shakespeare they are complaining about bread. They don’t have enough bread. So maybe it was a bit literal, but I thought, well, symbolically they’re going to the central grain depot of Rome, so we found these amazing huge grain silos in Belgrade, where we shot it.
So just the process going through the play saying, “Well, if this is today, where would it be?”
Tavis: You mentioned earlier, and you’re absolutely right about this, all of Shakespeare’s work challenges us to wrestle with the humanity and the characters. For those not familiar with the story of “Coriolanus,” we’re wrestling with his humanity in what ways?
Fiennes: Well, you first meet him as an extreme soldier. In fact, you first meet him confronting the crowd with contempt. Then you see him in a war situation. I think he’s defined by his military qualities and then you understand where he’s from and you meet his mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave.
Tavis: Very controlling mother.
Fiennes: Yeah, domineering mother. In Vanessa’s performance, brilliantly played with extraordinary delicacy and intimacy, so her controllingness kind of creeps up on you, I think.
But I think he’s a man somehow emotionally stunted. He’s only fully himself on the field of battle. I always think that Coriolanus feels most complete when he’s fighting. In fact, his only – the area where any kind of intimacy is possible for him is perversely with a man he’s fighting against, which is his enemy.
I think he’s locked down, emotionally, and at the end of the story, his mother confronts him, and it’s at that moment that his humanity comes out; he breaks down at his mother’s feet. I’ve given it away.
Tavis: No, no, you haven’t. It’s a nice tease. We saw Gerard Butler in the trailer as well. Tell me about his character in the film.
Fiennes: He’s the enemy. To go back to your question about how do you adapt it, in Shakespeare’s drama there’s Rome, and Rome’s at war with a tribe called the Volscians. One of the challenges of adapting this was how do you set this up, because Shakespeare doesn’t give you any setup. He just says we’re going to war.
So we tried to use news footage and scrolling news to sense that there’s a border conflict with a people called the Volscians, so Jerry plays Tullus Aufidius, who’s the leader of, in my head, a group on the borders of the Roman territory. Maybe they’re fighting for independence, maybe they want to secede from Roman rule, and he’s their leader.
So we talked about people like Che Guevara, people who have led revolutionary movements or movements seceding from controlling governments, and these two men, Coriolanus and Aufidius, are locked in a kind of enmity, but this intense obsession with wanting to fight each other I think has a flip side to it where they actually have an attraction for each other. And there’s no question that there’s a homoerotic element in this relationship between the two.
Tavis: To your point about a homoerotic relationship, it leads me to what I wanted to ask, which is who do you think the audience is for this film?
Fiennes: I like to think it could be a broad audience. I’m hoping that this is – it’s a dynamic political thriller, it has a familial situation at the heart of it. There must be an audience of Shakespeare lovers who will come, but I’m hoping that the drama of it and the momentum of it will appeal to people.
It’s the reason I wanted to make it. I think it’s a story for today. I think it shows the continual dysfunction in government all the time. We’re tribes always at war, or we’re parties always at war. We’re always maneuvering, grouping into blocks of opposition.
It’s a pattern that continues and continues, and I think it’s Shakespeare’s – I think it doesn’t have a great deal of hope in it, that’s for sure.
Tavis: I’m glad you went there. I was about to ask. To my mind, to my read, at
Fiennes: least, I’m not sure it’s – you’re right, it’s relevant in one sense, but I’m not sure it gives us a way forward. I’m not sure that there’s much said to us about how to stop the cycle that you referenced that we’re always on regarding these issues.
Fiennes: I think you’re right. But for me, it’s a tragedy. He’s a difficult, tragic protagonist, no question. But I think with a tragedy you witness the demise of a person and it’s the witnessing that is the thing that you’re asked to do.
Tavis: That is the lesson, I think, sometimes. Sometimes the tragedy is the lesson.
Fiennes: Yes, yeah, is the lesson. Witnessing – not that there isn’t a message of hope or this is how we’ve solved the world’s problems, it’s just that you reflect on it and that tragedy is – the best responses I’ve had are people saying, “I didn’t know what to say. I had to be on my own, I had no words afterwards.”
When I’ve seen a good tragic performance, that’s what I feel. I feel kind of the pity of our condition and that – I think in Shakespeare’s later work he got to where he was showing us the kind of the pain and the pity of who we are, and I think it’s the case certainly in “King Lear,” to some extent in “Hamlet,” and definitely in another play, “Troilus and Cressida.”
I think sometimes he was showing us a wasteland. In other plays there were huge gestures of hope, but not in this play.
Tavis: That’s what’s always turned me on personally about Shakespeare, to your earlier point – I put it this way, Shakespeare challenges us with each of his works to go inside. That’s what makes it unique.
Fiennes: He does, he does, he does, yeah.
Tavis: He challenges you go to – you sit there, whoever told you afterwards they had to go sit with themselves, I totally get that, because that’s what Shakespeare’s work does. It makes you sit and marinate.
Fiennes: Exactly, exactly.
Tavis: And wrestle internally.
Fiennes: Yeah, exactly, that’s exactly it.
Tavis: Yeah, well, I look forward to seeing -
Fiennes: I’ve just done this play, “The Tempest,” on stage, which has a completely different kind of ending, one of forgiveness and reckoning, a different conclusion altogether.
Tavis: I look forward to seeing this on the big screen. For those who are Shakespeare fans as I am, I’ve had a chance to check this out so I think you’ll like it. It’s called “Coriolanus,” stars and directed by and produced by Ralph Fiennes. So it shows you what he thinks of the project, and I’m sure he’d like to know what you think of the project.
Once again, it’s called “Coriolanus.” Go check it out. Ralph, good to have you here.
Fiennes: Thank you very much, Tavis.
Tavis: Delighted to have you.
Fiennes: Thank you.
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