Ralph Fiennes Wasn’t a Charles Dickens Fan Before ‘The Invisible Woman’

Actor-director, Felicity Jones and producer Gabrielle Tana discuss Dickens at Variety Screening Series Q&A

Ralph Fiennes Invisible Woman-Q-and-A-Variety
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Ralph Fiennes was no fan of Charles Dickens.

Before portraying the legendary English writer in his sophomore directorial effort, “The Invisible Woman,” Fiennes wasn’t well-versed in Dickens.

“You were not a big Dickens fan necessarily when (producer Gabrielle Tana) brought (the script) to you,” Variety awards editor Tim Gray said during a Q&A following the Variety Screening Series showing of “The Invisible Woman” on Dec. 3.

“No, I wasn’t,” Fiennes said unapologetically as the audience at ArcLight Hollywood erupted in laughter. “I didn’t know much about Dickens. I’d only read ‘Little Dorrit,’ which I’d liked, but for some reason, I hadn’t chosen to read a lot of Dickens. You’ll be surprised to hear and I’m surprised, on reflection, that although I studied English in my high school, I was never asked on my syllabus to read any Dickens.”

He later immersed himself in Dickens’ body of work as well as biographies on the renowned author. Fiennes ultimately decided that Abi Morgan’s screenplay should stay true to Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name as well as the real-life events surrounding Dickens’ affair with aspiring actress Nelly Ternan. One of the many script revisions included eliminating a fictitious character.

“It felt like this fictitious element started to stand oddly in the screenplay,” he said. “Although, of course, there are scenes that are imagined in the film, essentially it follows the key story moments of the biography. … I felt more and more inclined to go to what was known or even what was surmised by Claire rather than bringing something that was very, very fictional.”

According to Tana, the original screenplay needed to be developed further.

“It needed a sergeant,” Tana said. “Or more than that, it needed the artist that Ralph is to come in and take it on. We weren’t dismissing what had been done; we were embracing that and just giving it more.”

Felicity Jones, who plays Fiennes’ secret love interest (“We first met on ‘Cemetery Junction’ and we were playing father and daughter so it was quite strange and Freudian playing lovers”), praised Fiennes for his integrity as both an actor and a director.

“Ralph’s very good at being very honest,” Jones said. “If there was a take, he would come up and say, ‘I don’t like that at all.’ … Immediately, we had a very honest, straightforward dialogue with each other.”

Jones also noted Fiennes’ focused directorial style, which brought out the same kind of resolve from his actors.

“We would do lots of takes,” she said. “He wouldn’t let us be phony, which is a good thing as an actor. You couldn’t do anything that was just unthought. It was done with depth and integrity.”

And when he stepped behind the camera, Fiennes said he looked to the holy trifecta of Tana, dialect coach Joan Washington and script supervisor Susanna Lenton for honest advice.

“Joan and Susanna and Gabi would be there on the other side of the camera while I was doing scenes with Felicity,” he said. “I would look and the three muses would be either [gestures thumb down], occasionally like that [gestures thumb up].”

Because Fiennes is an actor, first and foremost, Jones said he treated the audition process with the utmost seriousness.

“No matter how many auditions you do, I find that they’re all just always petrifying,” Jones said. “You just feel like you’re on some sort of strange trial that you’re going to fail at somehow. With Ralph, obviously because you have such empathy for what it’s like, it did feel, and that was such a feature of the whole film, that there was time to explore the character.”

Taking a page from actor-director Robert Redford’s playbook, Fiennes said he likes to give thesps plenty of time during auditions.

“Actors come with all their neurosis, their vulnerabilities, their uncertainties and then their gift,” he said. “It seems to me, the best of it should be some kind of positive union between two or three people in a room seeing what can happen with a piece of text.”