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Ralph Fiennes’ constant shape-shifting

Actor built career on ability to play diverse roles

Who is Ralph Fiennes?

The shape-shifting actor is on course to have the most productive, and possibly most successful, year yet of an already illustrious career.

The last few months have seen the thesp play an East End gang boss in Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” opposite Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the real-life 18th-century Duke of Devonshire in Saul Dibb’s period drama “The Duchess” opposite Keira Knightley and a U.S. Army bomb squad officer in Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq drama “The Hurt Locker.”

Fiennes also stars in Stephen Daldry’s eagerly anticipated World War II drama “The Reader” with Kate Winslet, as well as his ongoing role as a certain boy wizard’s archnemesis Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise.

“It’s partly luck of the draw and also worrying that you’ll be seen as a certain type of actor,” says Fiennes about his eclectic range of roles. “One is looking for something different but not just for the sake of being different. You need to feel a connection with a role. It’s hard to articulate, but often it’s just a gut feeling about something.”

Fiennes’ instincts have served him well ever since his starmaking turn as T.E. Lawrence in the 1993 TV biopic “A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia.”

A series of critically acclaimed turns in such productions as Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” and Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” soon established him as one of the U.K.’s most versatile thesps.

While the ensuing years have contained their fair share of well-received perfs, notably in Neil Jordan’s 1999 Graham Greene adaptation “The End of the Affair” and Fernando Meirelles’ 2005 “The Constant Gardener,” Fiennes hasn’t enjoyed a stretch as fruitful as his current one since his breakout turn in the early 1990s.

What’s more, the thesp’s banner year is not only noteworthy for its diversity of material but also the fact that Fiennes seems to relish playing villains as much as heroic leading men.

“I hesitate to label the parts that some people called villains,” Fiennes explains. “Like the role of the Duke in ‘The Duchess.’ I just saw him as a man with certain characteristics. When you play a part, you have your initial, objective judgment of them. But once you’re trying to play the role, you have to be inside that person’s head.

“Even a character like Harry the gang boss in ‘In Bruges.’ He has his own weird sense of the moral code, a code of honor if you like. Yes he’s very violent, but he believes there’s a real order to the world which he follows.”

If there is one unifying theme to Fiennes’ work past and present, it is his continued exploration of his characters’ moral complexity. Even romantic lead roles in pics such as “The English Patient” and “The Constant Gardener” have been imbued with an ambiguity far removed from two-dimensional heroism.

“I loved the character in ‘The Constant Gardener’ for his courage and the fact that he didn’t get into fights or carry a gun,” he says. “He was extraordinarily brave, but everyone misread him as being diffident or passive. I suppose I’m just interested in how the world reads a character and what’s going on underneath that everyone could be mistaken about. What’s the other side of someone?”

Fiennes has even taken that fastidious approach into the big-budget fantasy world of the Harry Potter franchise. Thesp worked hard to develop a convincing backstory for Lord Voldemort that would ring psychologically true, despite the fact that Fiennes is virtually unrecognizable in the role under layers of ghoulish makeup.

“I hesitated for a bit before committing to the role because it sort of requires you to personify evil, and I don’t know how you do that,” Fiennes says. “I latched onto what was maybe crude psychology in working out Voldemort’s obsession with Harry. Harry was loved by his parents, which Voldemort can’t stand. He is, of course, a rejected person. It’s quite basic: the rejected child who’s emotionally been denied affection turns violent. You have to suggest there’s more there, a life, a spirit, a mind. It isn’t just a creepy voice and makeup. I always think you can find more in something. It’s good to just keep asking questions until someone says cut.”

While Fiennes is set to continue to balance his work onscreen and onstage, the thesp is keen to branch into directing as well. He is working on an untitled project, set to go into production next year, for what would be his feature helming debut. That development may turn out to be the constant shape-shifter’s most ambitious venture yet.