The celebrated actor discusses stepping behind the camera for the second time, making peace with the past and why he decided to play Dickens.
For his second film as director Ralph Fiennes takes on British literary giant Charles Dickens and his secret love affair with a young wannabe actress. Fiennes, 51, plays the writer with Felicity Jones as the young muse and Joanna Scanlan as the writer’s wife and mother of his children. Kristen Scott Thomas and Tom Hollander also star in the Abi Morgan-penned script based on Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name. The divorced Fiennes, who makes his home in East London, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his second time behind the lens, celebrity and secrets and whether he’d ever make movies in Hollywood.
How did the Invisible Woman project come to you? Was it as a directing proposition or as a vehicle for you to play Dickens?
It came from the BBC to Gaby Tana, who was one of the producers on Coriolanus. So she and the BBC as it were came to me with it as a sort of proposal to direct and act in if I wanted to do both. I initially responded to directing it and not to play Charles Dickens, but as I worked on it I became more and more interested in playing Dickens.
What changed your mind?
I worked on the script in great detail with Abi [Morgan]. I found myself pacing around my kitchen, talking to her and improvising all the different roles and obviously the Dickens part became more and more interesting to me and I became more and more curious in the end and wanted to have a go at it. I did approach one actor to do it and that didn’t go anywhere. I think after that I became more excited with the idea of playing him. The ﬁlm is a portrayal of love and of celebrity and the restrictions fame can put on personal freedom.
Was that something you wanted to explore?
A little bit. The thing that I would like to stress is the first thing that moved me — the essential element of the idea of a woman who must hold her past as a secret and the idea we can all live with the past in us and have lives we don’t ever talk about. We keep the intimacies of past relationships, whether it is with friends, lovers, family, brothers, sisters, inside us. These things sort of mark us, and I think we carry them with us and we often don’t get to talk about them more and get to understand what they mean — in some cases they can leave a sort of wound.
Is directing and starring in a film as onerous as it sounds?
It’s really hard. It’s easy once you finish to forget how hard it is. People ask me, “Will you do it again?” and I say, “Absolutely not,” but of course I don’t know. But I would love to experience directing a film and not be in it.
How did you find your second time behind the camera directing yet another accomplished cast?
I guess I was lucky. We don’t know what’s going to happen until the day. Kristin Scott Thomas and Tom Hollander are people I know well and were incredibly supportive to me and both of them were very generous in being open to me suggesting things to them. But I do think that between the cast and the crew there was a good atmosphere and Felicity [Jones] is someone I have a very high regard for.
And Joanna Scanlan?
She was genius. She came in and very sweetly agreed to read for me in casting and she just absolutely got it I felt the moment she started the reading. She’s incredible. The Invisible Woman has strong performances from women.
Do you feel you direct women in a different way from men?
I don’t think so. This script happens to be full of important parts for women. I don’t think I have a gender-specific way of directing. (Laughs.) I hope I don’t.
How important is it to build trust between the actors and the director?
You can’t make trust happen. I think you have to be open about what you think you need and stay open about the position. I think I’m quite alert and if I feel I am going against my instincts I will stop. If I feel something is just not right, like a note or a nuance, then you have to say it, don’t you.
The ﬁlm has hopped from Telluride to Toronto. Are you getting used to promoting a ﬁlm as a ﬁlmmaker and do you enjoy it?
(Laughs.) I think I’m a bit more relaxed this time around. With Coriolanus being the first time out there, I guess I felt a degree of anxiety about how the film would be perceived. I feel a bit more sanguine about it, but again it’s still nervy about what the reaction is going to be.
What kind of reaction would you like Invisible Woman to receive?
I hope people want to see it and I am hoping it gets the sort of response critically and word of mouth where people want to see it. I do think it looks great on the big screen and I’m a great believer in people going to the cinema. So we’ll see.
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