It is more than a year since he locked his directorial debut Coriolanus, and Ralph Fiennes is keen for it to be in front of audiences, he tells Mike Goodridge

Ralph Fiennes is keen for his directorial debut Coriolanus to open in theatres, which it does in both the US and UK on January 20 next year. In fact, he is itching for it to reach audiences over a year after he locked the film in late 2010.

“I want it to be out there and living whatever life the film’s meant to live and then be doing something else, because whatever people say, good or bad, it’s done now,” he says. “It’s been a very long wait for it to come out on screens and that’s odd because you have to keep it on the back burner as something you are going to have to be present with and talk about.”

Fiennes first screened Coriolanus for close friends and crew in the first week of December 2010. It had its world premiere to warm reviews in competition at Berlin in February 2011, but when The Weinstein Company picked it up for domestic and Lionsgate for the UK, it became clear that an awards qualifying run at the end of the year and an early 2012 release would be the best roll-out plan for the film.

“Berlin was nerve-wracking,” says Fiennes. “We got mostly very good critical response there, which was a good thing. I’m now at the point where I don’t want to read any more responses because it’s exhausting. It’s hugely personal when you are the director. Every time you read the responses, it’s mentally draining to negotiate around them.”

‘Contemporary relevance’

Fiennes’ film of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedies is set in a Rome that bears a striking resemblance to a contemporary war-torn Balkan state and was indeed shot in Serbia. As played by Fiennes, Coriolanus is a warrior who refuses to lead his people with sugar-coated words or PR propaganda. In that respect, said Screen’s critic Lee Marshall at Berlin this year, he has made “a complex character study that is brimful of contemporary relevance”.

Fiennes also managed to attract a dazzling supporting cast including Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, Jessica Chastain as his wife Virgilia, Brian Cox as senator and friend Menenius and Gerard Butler as rebel general Tullus Aufidius.

“It seems people have been surprised by something they thought they wouldn’t like,” Fiennes says. “I have heard how people feel surprised by how much they were engaged by it. The modern setting has worked for many people.

‘It seems people have been surprised by something they thought they wouldn’t like’

Ralph Fiennes

“A minority of people just don’t get it,” he continues. “They don’t get the play, they don’t like Coriolanus as a play or a man. Some people simply want their Shakespeare in togas or doublets and hose. I’m nonplussed by that because Shakespeare has been done in so many different ways for so long that it’s odd that people still feel that.”

The Coriolanus effect

Since completing Coriolanus and presenting it at Berlin, Fiennes hasn’t stopped working as an actor. He polished off the Harry Potter series in which he starred in four episodes as the evil Lord Voldemort, reprised his role as Hades in the Clash Of The Titans sequel Wrath Of The Titans, shot a role as the prime minister in David Hare’s TV film Page Eight and is currently doing double duty on Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, in which he plays Magwitch, and on Sam Mendes’ James Bond spectacular Skyfall. That is in addition to an acclaimed nine-week run as Prospero in Trevor Nunn’s London production of The Tempest.

Does he view Newell and Mendes differently now he has been in their shoes?

“I look at them differently but in the best way,” he says. “Somebody asked if I felt demoted, and I said no, not at all. It’s a relief in some part but you also appreciate what they are having to do. It’s given me a whole new appreciation and sense and actually it’s really interesting to see how choices are made.”

Having worked closely with Barry Ackroyd on Coriolanus, he is also newly attuned to the cinematography on each film. “It’s really interesting to see how John Mathieson on Great Expectations and Roger Deakins on Skyfall are shooting,” says Fiennes. “My alertness to camera choices and coverage is completely different. I just see it as more stuff to absorb. On both these films, I’ve often drifted to the monitor to see a playback and actually I don’t want to. I had too much of it on Coriolanus.”

Fiennes is revelling in the positive response to one of his actors, the venerable Redgrave, who is getting awards heat for her towering performance as Volumnia. She has already won the British Independent Film Award (BIFA) for best supporting actress.

“The response to her is properly and rightly magnificent,” he enthuses. “She brought everything I hoped and more. She has so many infinite layers that seem to be going on in her face and eyes, so many spirits, as it were. I always felt that for the person that doesn’t know Coriolanus, they needed to learn who Volumnia was and that’s a part that often lends itself to a dominating presence. But Vanessa herself didn’t want to make those choices and I was completely in agreement. What I love about her performance is that there is a quality of intimacy in it.”

Fiennes won the Richard Harris award at the BIFA ceremony in London in early December, a trophy which honours outstanding contribution to British film by an actor. He was also nominated for a BIFA for best debut director. No doubt encouraged by these endorsements, Fiennes hopes to return to directing next year with The Invisible Woman, a film based on Claire Tomalin’s book about the love affair between Charles Dickens and actress Nelly Ternan.

“I feel a great excitement about doing it again and some confidence,” he says. “Then of course you have to get inside the film and work everything out and break it down. But I loved looking for locations. It’s a long process and a slog but all the time you are looking, you are being forced to rethink and question everything. Then a designer comes on and has their view and makes you rethink a scene in a different way.”

Fiennes has blocked out several months in 2012 to prepare the project, and it is not yet clear whether he will direct and also act in the film. “Directing and acting was hard [on Coriolanus], but it was thrilling and hard in equal measure,” he smiles.