Q & A With Ralph Fiennes
You've been acting in films for many years. Now you're making your directorial
debut as well as starring in CORIOLANUS, an adaptation of one of Shakespeare's
lesser-known plays. Why this film and why now?
There were two catalysts. The first was playing Coriolanus in a stage production
in 2000, and believing that this play of Shakespeare's could become a
contemporary, urgent political thriller, with a Greek tragedy at its center,
involving the mother and the son. And there's something in the spirit of
Coriolanus, in the essence of his character, which spoke to me very strongly and
wouldn't leave me.
The other catalyst was Simon Channing Williams, who produced THE CONSTANT
GARDENER. We became very close while we were making that movie, and he gleaned
that I was interested in directing. In fact, he wanted to produce the first film
that I would direct. Very sadly, Simon died. We had tried to get something off
the ground, which didn't work. But we had worked on it for two years, and I'd
begun to put on the director's hat of scouting locations and so on. That gave me
confidence to pick up CORIOLANUS when the other project fell through. Still, I
didn't talk about CORIOLANUS to very many people because on the face of it, it
seemed unlikely to fly: me as a first-time director, also acting in it,
supposedly quote-unquote difficult Shakespeare. Then one day I pitched it, as it
were, to my agent, who said, "You should do this."
CORIOLANUS is dedicated to the memory of Simon Channing Williams, because I know
that without his belief in me I might not have had the confidence to move it
What drew you to Coriolanus as a character?
I like characters that challenge an audience. With "Coriolanus, " Shakespeare
takes a really hard-ass man who despises the people, and makes him the
protagonist. Which I think is thrilling, dramatically. Coriolanus comes into the
opening of the story and basically tells the people to go fuck themselves. I
think we in the audience decide we don't like this guy based on that simple
fact. But then the audience experiences him as a soldier, an extremely brave,
almost crazy kind of soldier. They come to see that he has a kind of integrity,
which is manipulated and destroyed by the world around him, and by his own
arrogance and pride. Coriolanus wants recognition and doesn't want it at the
same time. He is very riven. I think he's happiest in the battlefield; that's
where he is at one with himself.
How did John Logan become involved in writing the screen adaptation?
My agency introduced me to John as the first candidate to write this screenplay.
He's a superb screenwriter and he has an instinctive understanding of
Shakespeare's potential on the big screen. I told him my ideas for contemporary
CORIOLANUS, and showed him a series of images that
corresponded to different stages in the story. He really seemed to understand
what sort of film I had in mind and we started to share ideas that would develop
You and John are both known for creatively ambitious work, but each of you also
has a long resume of very commercial movies, like GLADIATOR in John's case and
the HARRY POTTER series in yours. Did that experience factor in to your
collaboration, and how did you work together to develop the script?
Well, John and I wanted to a make a film that was accessible to a modern
audience, and we recognized it needed a strong narrative drive. I'd always found
the basic story of "Coriolanus " really thrilling. The play sets up a visceral
dynamic of confrontation: between Coriolanus and the audience; between him and
the citizens; it develops, as it were, an intimacy of opposites between him and
Aufidius; and there is an extraordinary tension between Coriolanus and his
mother Volumnia. There are violent battles, power plays, reversals and
betrayals. As cinematic storytelling, we felt CORIOLANUS could be exciting and
Of course, we had to aggressively edit the text. I had already identified some
key areas to cut and John then came up with more cuts and more ways of revising
things. He brought great ideas to the table, and he had a fantastic sense of
dramatic progression in integrating them into the adaptation.
Were you concerned about a whether a 17th Century Shakespearean play would fit
into a modern context?
No, not at all. I believe that Shakespeare is in so many respects
extraordinarily modern. Taking aside the question of the language, what's
happening in Shakespeare's stories is always relevant - they're active as
stories. Whether it's a comedy about love; or it's about a young student who
can't make up his mind about what he should do about the death of his father; or
it's a tragedy about a man who's constantly killing to get his way to the top:
everything Shakespeare describes is going on right now. "Coriolanus, "
particularly, is always going to be pertinent because the power plays of
politics will always be with us.
Side by side with preparing this film, I'd read the newspaper and constantly see
variations of events that happen in the story that felt like they came from our
film. That's one reason it was important that the film look like today's world,
not some indeterminate time period. So, the suits, electronics, cars - they're
what we see in our everyday lives. But our "Rome " is not Rome, Italy. Just as
the events that happen in CORIOLANUS could happen anywhere, our Rome could be
just about city in the world.
Although you set the play in the present day, you chose to maintain
Shakespeare's dialogue. Can you explain that decision?
We could have chosen to re-write all the dialogue, but John and I believed that
the dialogue should be Shakespeare's. Structurally and in terms of vocabulary,
there is an expressiveness and athleticism in the original that, I would argue,
you couldn't achieve in modern speech. If you get on board the train, your ear
is tantalized and stimulated by how he is framing ideas in
conversation. A speech like, "You, common cry of curs whose breath I hate as
reeks of the rotten fens/Whose loves I prize like as the dead carcasses of
unburied men that do corrupt my air" - the imagery is amazing. How could you
possibly translate that into modern vernacular?
Of course, sometimes the language is quite plain and accessible. And when you
have actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox speaking the lines, it sounds
I realize it's a risk; people today are not used to that mode of expression. But
I believe that audiences can be delighted and thrilled by what Shakespeare is
doing with dialogue. I guess I'm of the belief that many people like to be
challenged. I know I do.
After triumphing over the Volsci, Coriolanus is prodded by Volumnia to seek the
office of Consul. In so doing, he's following a tradition that has played out
all over the world for centuries. Why do you think people continue to gravitate
towards soldiers-turned-politicians, and were there any real-life figures who
informed your interpretation of Coriolanus?
I think all countries celebrate the courage of their heroes, though sometimes we
get very uneasy when generals start to move into politics. Still, you can look
at a character like Ariel Sharon: he had been an extremely tough soldier. But he
was elected Israel's prime minister, and whatever your view of him, he was a
strong leader, very uncompromising. I think we all recognize that people who are
so unwavering and potent in their determination can be very attractive to an
electorate. They also can be extremely dangerous. Coriolanus sits right at the
nerve centre of this ambivalence.
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