LONDON — Ralph Fiennes does not make an entrance so much as he materializes. His tennis-shoe-clad feet make no sound, and he is slighter than you would imagine, his body barely perceptible beneath his baggy rehearsal clothes.
It's a late May afternoon at the Gainsborough Studios, the ruin of a film studio once used by Hitchcock that has been converted into the venue for Fiennes' much-anticipated return to the London stage.
Here nearly every night for the last six weeks, he has been gazing into the melancholy soul of Richard II. "I started off very much enjoying the humor that's in Richard, the irony and the wit," says Fiennes, 37, over a beer in his dressing room. "Now I feel the more I play it--he's a lost sort of person, really, underneath all his kingship. The pain of discovering that he doesn't know who he is without being king, the tragic element of it--that's becoming something I suppose I'm investigating more."
He's spent the afternoon learning to be Coriolanus, the second half of a double Shakespearean bill directed by Jonathan Kent, who led him to Broadway in 1995, where he won a Tony for his interpretation of "Hamlet."
Fiennes will perform "Richard II" and "Coriolanus" in repertory until August, before taking them to the Brooklyn Academy of Music New Wave Festival in the fall. The Royal Shakespeare Company-trained actor says that the challenge of the stage is trying to make something come alive again each night.
"You can always tell if you're with another actor and they haven't quite listened to you and are just giving the line back," Fiennes says. "Some actors can be brilliant repeating every night and getting their laughs, and the audience is totally engaged. I quite like the idea that though I know what I'm going to do next, I try to sort of un-know it--if you know what I mean."
Fiennes continues to return to the theater despite having made a successful leap to the big screen with such Oscar-nominated roles as the evil and alluring Amon Goeth in "Schindler's List" and the sorrowful, sexy hero of "The English Patient." During the last decade, he has made 17 films, rarely receiving a bad review. He has often been drawn to smaller films that he has chosen based on the strength of a script or the allure of a strong director, from Peter Greenaway ("The Baby of Macon") to Robert Redford ("Quiz Show"). In 1997, he took time out to promote the posthumous publication of his mother's novel "Blood Ties" (Jini Fiennes, who wrote under the pen name Jennifer Lash, died of breast cancer in 1993). And part of the past eight years was spent making a film version of Pushkin's "Onegin," which he and his sister Martha adapted. Fiennes was producer and star; his sister was director.
Fiennes gives more than his share of interviews, and he is seen about town in London or Los Angeles at yoga class, the health-food store and the theater. But he has developed a reputation as somewhat of an emotional recluse, most weary in the role of himself. Interviewers often characterize him as shy and aloof, cordial but stoic, quick to snap at any hint of a personal question.
On this day Fiennes often looks away while he is thinking, occupying his impatient, pointy fingers by stacking five fat one-pound coins on top of one another and spreading them out again, or worrying your business card into unrealized origami. But what he withholds in personal anecdotes he makes up for in intellectual banter. He gives dense, articulate answers, navigating his way to the ends of his thoughts as if paddling a rowboat on a slow lake. And often when he reaches the shore, he searches your eyes for comprehension; then, the lovely face comes unhinged into what can only be described as a big, loud smile. His smiles are audible; there is breath in them.
We have met to discuss Fiennes' latest screen role, in which he plays three members of the Sonnenschein family in Istvan Szabo's "Sunshine," the epic tale of Hungarian Jews who struggle with identity and assimilation through the political upheaval and religious persecution of 20th century Europe.
Szabo is best-known for his powerful film "Mephisto," the first in a trilogy (with "Colonel Redl" and "Hanussen," which he made in German in the '80s). In the early '90s, he began his foray into English-language films.
Szabo's first film in eight years began when he started to write a draft of the highly personal "Sunshine" in Hungarian. "From the beginning I was sure that I needed one great actor with the face to represent three generations of this family," says Szabo in his accented English, by phone from home in his native Budapest, where "Sunshine" was filmed.