clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

FIENNES' SHADOWED COMPLEXITY LANDED HIM A CLASSIC ROLE

Ralph Fiennes is a name we'll be seeing a lot, so we might as well learn to pronounce it: Rafe Fines.

Fiennes, on a bullet train to stardom, has grown weary of trying to explain that the pronunciation is Old English, not Welsh, and definitely not an affectation just to be different."I'm debating whether I should just change the spelling," he sighs, staring out the huge window of his hotel room 36 floors above Manhattan. He glances over to see whether an opinion will be offered.

No need. After director Robert Redford's new film "Quiz Show" opens, everyone will know Fiennes and how to say his name. He stars as Charles Van Doren, an American intellectual aristocrat who becomes involved in the TV quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. It's a classic role: handsome hero, smart but naive, seduced by dark forces.

Game shows were hugely popular in the early days of television, until federal investigation proved that several were rigged, including NBC's "Twenty-One," on which Van Doren was one of the biggest winners.

Fiennes' Van Doren is wonderfully charismatic and vulnerable, confused and shamed by his cheating but thrilled by the pop fame it brings him. It's a star-making part in a serious film, and Fiennes carries it off winningly.

This charming, almost delicate innocent is portrayed by the same man who won a best-supporting-actor nomination for his first role in a major film, as the brutal, heavy-gutted Amon Goeth, the Nazi commander who takes potshots at concentration-camp prisoners in "Schindler's List." That role proved he could command the screen. "Quiz Show" proves his star quality.

The media barrage has already begun. Fiennes' offbeat handsomeness stares from the covers of this month's GQ and Premiere magazines.

The Fiennes here this hot August day is not the carefully groomed GQ cover boy.

He has several days' growth of beard and longish, uncombed, dark blond hair that he occasionally runs his hands through as he searches for an answer. He speaks slowly and softly and tends to go on a bit while he gazes out the window. Now and then he glances over to make eye contact, checking for response. "I'm new to this stuff," the look seems to say. "Is this answer all right?"

It's disarming. You want to say, "Relax; being a rich, famous movie star won't be so awful."

Fiennes, 32, was born in Suffolk, the oldest of six kids. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1985, became a member of the National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and eventually got a bit part in the first "Prime Suspect" television movie.

Then came larger roles in TV and two obscure films. His big break came when he played T.E. Lawrence in English television's "A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia" (1992). Both Steven Spielberg and Redford saw it and decided Fiennes was right for their movies.

For Spielberg's "Schindler's List," Fiennes added 25 pounds to his usual 150 and created a complex villain, horrid yet strangely charming, a man battling inner demons on his way to hell.

He was still shooting that film in Poland when Redford saw him in "Lawrence."

"I had interviewed many actors," Redford says. "The multiple things I was looking for I could not put together: grace, elegance, to-the-manor-born, intellect . . . But with all that, (I wanted) at the heart something shadowed, something haunted, wounded."

Redford saw something in Fiennes' eyes that said his outer looks concealed inner secrets.

Like most of the main characters in "Quiz Show," Van Doren is still alive. Since the early 1960s, he has lived quietly, writing and working for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Fiennes' co-stars, Rob Morrow (Joel on "Northern Exposure") and John Turturro ("Miller's Crossing"), met with the people they play, but Fiennes couldn't do so without violating the man's privacy. He thinks meeting him might have been good, but might also have been a handicap.

"When I first read the script, I didn't know anything about the real Van Doren. . . . I saw him as a guy who made a mistake and got punished for it.

"When I read more about the real Van Doren, he got more complicated. He was a real person . . . I think in the end I probably played the character I read the first time. Otherwise, you begin to make a documentary."

In "Quiz Show," Van Doren relishes his newfound fame. Fiennes is still feeling his way about his.

"What is weird is how people keep looking at you to see how you are affected by the things they think should be affecting you," he says. "Well, I'm still myself."

Fiennes lives in London with his wife, actress Alex Kingston. He is staying in Los Angeles to film his next project, "Strange Days," in which he plays a former police officer.

He has rented a house, and yes, he says, it has a pool. But that doesn't mean he's gone Hollywood. He's out here and needs a house, and he can afford a pool.

"Of course I'm thrilled by the work opportunities that are making themselves available because of the success of `Schindler's List.' But the whole celebrity thing doesn't feel real to me."