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MOVIES : Cerebral Vortex : Ralph Fiennes spends a lot of time in his head--for his roles in 'Schindler's List' and 'Quiz Show,' and as Hamlet. Thanks to 'Strange Days' ' virtual reality, we can go there too.

October 15, 1995|Bronwen Hruska | Bronwen Hruska, a New York-based free-lance writer, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Ralph Fiennes has seated himself smack dab in the center of the hotel room couch.

As the reluctant promoter for his films "Schindler's List" (1993), "Quiz Show" (1994) and now "Strange Days" (which opened Friday) begins to speak about his rapid rise to Hollywood's coveted elite, he unconsciously pulls two throw pillows close and clutches them, creating a sort of fortress around himself. Fiennes is notoriously private, afraid that through a glance or smile he might give away some secret to his soul and betray the man behind the facade.

He talks in hushed, proper-sounding British, addressing no one in particular as he stares straight ahead at a television that is not turned on. When he does face his guest, the effect of his intense gray eyes, sunken slightly into his hawkishly handsome face, is even greater.

It's those searching, intelligent eyes that have pierced the consciousness of American movie audiences and rocketed Fiennes, 32, from parochial British stage actor to Hollywood darling in a mere two years. And though he won the New York, Boston and Chicago film critics awards for "Schindler's List" plus nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, his success (and the inevitable comparisons to Laurence Olivier) only makes him wary.

"When actors start doing well, people want a bit of them," he says, sounding rather bored, as if he'd rather be anywhere than here today. "They become a commodity, you start to speak the language of the marketplace. I acknowledge and respect that is a part of it; I just think you have to be careful of the way people will shift perspective for you--they can be very persuasive--unless you're very clear about what you want to do."

The classically trained actor speaks in lofty, Shakespearean-sounding language about the importance of staying true to himself. "As a child, it's important to be accepted and praised--you need to hear the noise of success," he begins, legs crossed and slumping into the back of the couch.

He's paid his film dues with a bit part in the miniseries "Prime Suspect," a 1991 remake of "Wuthering Heights" with Juliette Binoche and a Peter Greenaway film, "The Baby of Macon" (1992). And now that he's receiving the hottest scripts around, he can afford to be ultra-selective. He recently turned down a role in Robert Evans' upcoming "The Saint." He even stopped reading reviews--to shield himself from the good ones as well as the bad.

"Every actor, of course, wants to be applauded at some level. But you do it because something is in you, not because you want a stamp of approval. It's sort of a nonentity, really. You've just got to try to hang onto what inspires you."

That's where theater comes in. Fiennes' passion for theater began at home where he played games and put on plays for his five younger siblings in Suffolk, just outside of London, where he grew up. His mother, a writer, and his father, a farmer-turned-photographer, had little money, but were major influences in their children's artistic endeavors (two of Fiennes' sisters work in the film industry and one of his brothers is an actor).

"The human imagination is so infinite, every person has their own universe inside them," says Fiennes, remembering his fascination even as a child. "And maybe acting is a way to know yourself, because even when you're acting, you're always yourself in some way--it's a very primitive impulse to inhabit who you are."

If it sounds like Fiennes has thought about his craft a good deal, it's probably because he has. Acting, for Fiennes, is more than the five-minute rehearsal before doing the shot. It's an intellectual exercise that's rooted in his top-notch training. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1985, joined Michael Rudman's company at the National Theatre in 1987 and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988.

His vast success on both stage and screen may have spurred the inevitable comparisons to Olivier--a comparison he recognizes as a compliment but shrugs off as "a waste of time." According to Jonathan Kent, who directed Fiennes in his Tony award-winning portrayal of "Hamlet" this year, Fiennes' natural secretiveness adds to his allure.

"I think Ralph is one of the few actors who can exist onstage and on-screen to equal effect," Kent says. "He has an immediacy and he fascinates audiences. He has a hidden quality, a secret heart, and most great actors have that. It's not intentional, it's just an elusive quality--there's something you can't pin down about him."

Perhaps that's why fans began sending him gifts in the mail--usually pieces of clothing like shirts and hats. It's something Fiennes can't quite seem to figure out. "It's slightly embarrassing," he says, cracking one of the first smiles of the day as the color rises in his cheeks. "I feel awkward someone would buy me something, spend money. And often it's not something you'd wear. . . ."

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