Ralph Fiennes Shares What He Learned From ‘The Invisible Woman’
Ralph Fiennes will be wearing several hats at this year’s Hamptons film fest, appearing not only as a star and director, but also as a mentor to younger actors.
Over the course of a career that encompasses memorable performances of such literary icons as Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort, Fiennes has always been attracted to darker material and conflicted, tragic characters. In his more recent role as director, he seems to be following a similar muse, tackling the fiery part of a tragic warmonger in his bigscreen staging of Shakespeare’s lesser-known “Coriolanus.”
His second film as director, “The Invisible Woman,” screens at the festival and also hails from a hidden corner of a celebrated writer’s past in its story of a young actress, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), who in the 1880s met the famous — and famously energetic and controlling — Charles Dickens and became his secret mistress. (She reportedly bore him a son.)
The project, written by “The Iron Lady” scribe Abi Morgan, reunites its star with “The English Patient’s” Kristin Scott Thomas (she plays Ellen’s mother) and marked another labor of love for Fiennes.
“But unlike ‘Coriolanus,’ which I’d wanted to make for a long time, it ambushed me, as I had no idea what I wanted to direct next,” he says. “When I read it, I was so moved by the story, especially by the idea of a woman holding the history of a past love and intimacy inside her, like a deep wound she’s not reconciled with. I think that’s a universal feeling for us all.”
Fiennes says that he began collaborating on the screenplay with Morgan “right away, as I want to keep directing and it was immediately obvious that this should be my next film.” The pair also sought input from author Claire Tomalin, whose 1990 biography “The Invisible Woman” formed the basis for the screenplay.
Despite his passion for the project, Fiennes admits to being “largely ignorant” of Dickens before the film. “I’d only read ‘Little Dorrit,’ and never really studied him at school,” he says. “When I began researching him, I became completely fascinated” — so much so that, even though he initially had no plans to also star in the film, Fiennes soon found himself falling in love with Dickens.
“He’s a very complicated man, which I like, and while trying to direct and act at the same time isn’t easy, portraying Dickens’ exhaustive energy and love of organizing amateur dramatics and so on came in very useful, as it paralleled what I had to do,” he explains.
The actor, who received valuable advice and critical feedback from two director friends, says he’s happy to assume the role of mentor himself at the Hamptons film fest.
“I’ll try to pass on what I’ve learned,” he says, “although I don’t feel as if I’m really qualified to say much about directing yet, as I’m still basically a ‘student director’ myself.”
But when it comes to acting advice, despite being eminently qualified to dispense it, Fiennes admits to being “a little uncertain” on the subject.
“Basically, with each new role, you’re faced with limitless choices, and I’d tell them to stay open to all of them and make it as personal as possible,” he says. “The best piece of acting advice I ever got was when I auditioned for drama school, and this brilliant man told me after I finished my monologue, ‘That was fine, but let it happen instead of making it happen.’ And he was right. You have to be in control, but also always be loose and open to all possibilities.”