In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the sweeping, whimsical new adventure from Wes Anderson (opening March 7), Ralph Fiennes wields the rat-a-tat-tat vocabulary of Cary Grant in his heyday and exudes the ambiguous sexual prowess of Montgomery Clift. His throwback of a character—1930s hotelier Gustave H.—leads the film's nesting-doll narrative, and his performance is being touted as the greatest in any of Anderson's movies. While he may be best known to a younger generation as the makeup-caked Voldemort from the Harry Potter franchise, Fiennes was first revered as a classically trained gem of the British stage, a pedigree that works well with Anderson's affinity for eloquent, comic brilliance.
Sitting down with Details in Berlin, where The Grand Budapest Hotel opened the 64th Berlin Film Festival and claimed the Silver Bear Award for Best Feature, Fiennes seems right at home in the Hotel Adlon, a posh resort overlooking the Brandenburg Gate. Having recently completed work on The Invisible Woman, which he directed (and stars in as Charles Dickens), the seasoned actor seemed to relish having some downtime, letting his stubble replace Gustave's perpetual close shave. Easygoing but never not refined, Fiennes spoke of Shakespeare, dropping f-bombs, director-actor chemistry, and why a good actor's work is never done.
DETAILS: How did Wes approach you about this role?
RALPH FIENNES: He sent me a script, and he was a bit vague about what part he wanted me to consider. He said, "Tell me what part you'd like to play." And I said [putting nose in the air], "Well, I suppose the big one." And it was a funny approach, because it was slightly circular, and he indeed said, "Yes, I'd like you to play Gustave." On the page, it seemed like a great part. It's very funny. But I wasn't quite sure how he'd want it pitched, because it's a part that could be played in a sort of broad way, or a campy way, possibly. But his note to me was that when it's simpler and it comes from me, that's when he felt it was working.
DETAILS: You've worked with some great filmmakers, Wes Anderson included. When do you know that you're in good hands?
RALPH FIENNES: It's a gut instinct. When someone is observing and giving you notes, often you have an instinct of when it's a good note or when it's a sort of bullshitty note. I think all actors are quite quick to feel, "This person is really seeing what I'm doing, and they're seeing my weaknesses, or they're letting me breathe." It's like anything to do with trust, in any relationship. It emerges—that chemistry and that vibe between two people. You just know whether this is someone you'd like to be with, whose interaction with you is something you believe in.
DETAILS: When do you know you're not in good hands?
RALPH FIENNES: It's not great when someone gives you bland praise without giving you clear direction and saying, "This is good, but let's try it like this." I mean, I've worked with someone who seemed very inarticulate and would just say, "That's good, that's good." And that's very frustrating. It's nice to hear that something's good, but you know that you can always change, and there are infinite ways to play a scene or say a line. If you feel like you're with someone who is aware of that and at the same time is guiding their film because they know what they want, that's the best scenario. As an actor, you want to feel like you're in the hands of someone who's got the reins.
DETAILS: Did you ever resist Wes' direction?
RALPH FIENNES: No, not really. There was only one time where I felt troubled by these prearranged camera moves, which I tried to make work, because they required me to move to these different places in the course of a scene. I tried to make them organic, but I really couldn't, and in the end I did say, "I'm really finding this hard." Often there's something given to you and you can make it work, and other times there's something that just sort of cuts right across your instinct, and that's when I resist. I'm not a person of absolutely blunt resistance, but usually there's only one day to shoot a scene, so you want to be under the umbrella of "Let's be transparent with each other, because we want to make it as good as we can."
DETAILS: And did he alter the scene?
RALPH FIENNES: Yeah, he could see it. He's a very smart guy—he had a plan, saw that it wasn't working, and said, "Okay, let's do it this way."
DETAILS: He created animatics—a virtual storyboard—of the film in its entirety before shooting. What did you make of that?
RALPH FIENNES: He was very open with those, and they were helpful up to a point. It was sort of satisfying to see what the movie might be, but I didn't want to look at them too much. I didn't want to study them. Because I wanted to find it on the day, you know? I think one's own imagination—the world you're inhabiting as an actor—is a thing you need.
DETAILS: Now that you're directing yourself, with films like Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman, do you ever sit and look at a scene and think, "Well, this is how I would do it?"
RALPH FIENNES: No, not at all. On this film, certainly, it would be much more "Oh, this is interesting. This is how Wes is doing that. Wow." Oftentimes his cameraman, Bob Yeoman, has to do very complicated and precise camera movements. The camera has to whip and pan 90 degrees and not be seen to jiggle. It's incredibly difficult camera operation that Wes was asking for, and it was impressive to see it. So I actually felt that I was learning.
DETAILS: And how has working as a director and editor, and editing your own performances, changed you as an actor? Do you approach things differently?
RALPH FIENNES: I think it's changed me, having seen all [my] bad stuff. As a director and editor, you have to face things and see things that, as an actor, you may feel are embarrassing or wrong. It's kind of released me in some way, I think. The actors shouldn't edit themselves. Or be anxious. On the day, they should be free. All of the actors I admire are inventive, and their imaginative life is freewheeling. It's the director's job to say, "No, here—don't do that, go there."
DETAILS: Who are some of those actors you admire?
RALPH FIENNES: Well, it's very sad, of course, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of them. Every single performance, I'd feel, "There's a great actor." Totally free and totally in his world. Totally inside something and yet so present in it.
DETAILS: You're an actor who's often associated with Shakespeare, not just because of Coriolanus, but because of your background as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Many would say you're one of our preeminent Shakespearean actors.
RALPH FIENNES: Well, I don't know about that. All I know is that I think one of the reasons I wanted to be an actor is my mother had succeeded in instilling me with a love of Shakespeare when I was very young. I studied him in school, but even prior to school I was listening to Laurence Olivier speaking monologues. And I thought it was great. It was a prime motivator when, in my twenties, I decided to be an actor.
DETAILS: Do you feel like you played Gustave in multiple ways throughout the performance? Or did you eventually lock into a tone?
RALPH FIENNES: I think the tone of Gustave the person, sort of emerges. Toward the end, it's there. But we did lots and lots of takes, and I do remember that Wes would want to see the broader version of the character. He wanted to see if that would work, and I loved that—to feel that you could go this way, or go that way, until you've exhausted it. I'm not sure how clearly I'm remembering this, but I have a memory that, during the first two or three weeks, we were finding it, and then about halfway through, whatever I was doing seemed to be in a zone. I was becoming Gustave.
DETAILS: One of the great things about Gustave is he's so poetic, but then every so often he'll toss out a violent f-bomb. What was it like to play that?
RALPH FIENNES: With that, I thought of someone, my old agent, who's sadly passed on. He was very precise, had been an actor, was very honorable, a gentleman. But then he'd often say things like, "Oh, I can't bear her, she's such a cunt." He'd come out with big speeches and then be like, "I don't give a fuck."
DETAILS: Many of those moments with Gustave come at peaks of frustration, which are very, very funny.
RALPH FIENNES: My publicist would tell you that's just me.
DETAILS: What about your chemistry with the other actors? Can you sense when that's working while you're shooting, or do you need to wait until you see the actual movie?
RALPH FIENNES: I think sometimes you do have a sense that it's there, and then you hope it's being caught. If the camera's not in the right position, all this chemistry could be flying around and it's not being filmed. And then sometimes you think it's there, and then you see it and think, "Hmm . . . I thought that would be better." Or you might think, "Oh, I fucked that up. I lost it. I couldn't do it."
DETAILS: Are you someone who looks back much in regard to your work?
RALPH FIENNES: I reflect on things, but I don't really look back. If anything, I always come away thinking, "I'll be better next time."
—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @AddisonDeTwitt.