Ralph Fiennes exploded onto the movie scene with an Oscar-nominated performance in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” 23 years ago. Becoming a prestige mainstay in dramas like “Quiz Show,” “The English Patient,” “The End of the Affair” and “The Constant Gardener,” he established a bit of a brand for himself before his work as the villainous Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series introduced him to a whole new genre and audience.
But with three recent films — Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” and Luca Guadagnino ‘s “A Bigger Splash,” which opens May 4 — Fiennes may have found a new calling in comedy.
In “Grand Budapest” and “Hail, Caesar!,” it was the opportunity to play the straight man amid humorous circumstances that shined a light on the actor’s untapped wit. Martin McDonagh’s 2008 dark comedy “In Bruges” hinted at the quality, but curiously, it’s one that few other filmmakers have clued onto.
“I would love to have done a comedy, but I haven’t really gone through a process,” Fiennes says. “I’ve always felt that if it’s a character that I can get my head around and if the writing is witty and has humor in it, then I feel I can have a go. I’ve just been lucky that I understood these three parts myself. I had a way into the characters.”
Fiennes’ hotel concierge M. Gustave was so delightfully of a piece with Anderson’s general brand of dry comedy that there were calls throughout 2014 for supporting (or even lead) Oscar recognition. He did receive a BAFTA nomination, however.
As for the Coens’ February release, plenty of tickets may well have been sold on a hilariously arid exchange in the trailer between Fiennes’ movie director Laurence Laurentz and young actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) over a line reading. The directors allowed the back-and-forth to play out so long that the crew was in stitches and poor Ehrenreich could hardly keep a straight face as he was left wondering when they would finally yell “cut.”
But Fiennes demurs in particular when it comes to praising his comedic chops in these two films.
“If there’s any way that I can land anything comedic with any degree of success, it’s if the writing is comedically great,” he says with a laugh. “You can have an awareness of timing and stuff, but a lot of the times you play it straight and it will be funny. If it’s as well-written as I believe it is then the comedy will be better served in that way.”
But “A Bigger Splash,” which co-stars Tilda Swinton, is a different beast altogether. It’s Fiennes on fire, totally possessed as record producer Harry Hawkes (a character he attempted to infuse with a bit of his brother, Magnus, also a record producer). It’s a much darker shade, however, as Harry is haunted by love lost and, for all the amenities of his lush life, an deep unhappiness.
“Harry is a larger-than-life character,” Fiennes says. “He has an in-your-face sense of humor, but I felt it was a dark piece. I think Luca treads a very interesting line with the darkly comic. There’s an atmosphere in the film that has a slight sense of unease or threat or uncertainty. The performances I like, there’s often a sort of weirdly dark comedic element, even for things that are not intended to be.”
Again Fiennes points to the script, in which he found Harry to be “very vivid on the page.” That and the prospect of doing something fresh was what sold him on the project — not to mention a cushy retreat to the Italian isle of Pantelleria for production.
“It was contemporary and it was a character I don’t feel I had ever been asked to play, that sort of live-wire personality that he is,” he says.
Going forward, Fiennes says he’d like to direct more. He also name-checks back-to-back Oscar winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu as a filmmaker he’d particularly like to work with. (“I think he’s fantastic.”) But he has more comedy on the way in the form of voice work in Warner Animation Group’s upcoming “The Lego Batman Movie.” He plays the Caped Crusader’s trusty butler Alfred in the film, and giggles when thinking about the script and his lines in particular.
“I’m trying not to go back and retread similar roles, I suppose,” Fiennes says. “I’m just waiting for parts to be offered that have something different about them.”