The story of “The White Crow,” Ralph Fiennes’ latest directorial effort, is as topical as anything currently sitting on the desk of a studio head. It tells of a rebellious artist grappling with his sexuality during turbulent political times rife with tensions between the United States and an agitated Russia.  But though the upcoming film, which Sony Pictures Classics will release Stateside on April 26, may be weirdly timely, it is actually set nearly 60 years ago and depicts the true tale of late ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev. 

Known for performances that were sinewy and sensual, Nureyev inflamed Cold War tensions when he became one of the first megastars to defect from the Soviet Union in 1961. Once in the United States, the ballet and contemporary dancer and choreographer became a household name, partnering with Margot Fonteyn in acclaimed productions of “Giselle” and “Swan Lake,” appearing on “The Muppet Show” and playing Rudolph Valentino in an ill-fated biopic about the silent screen star. His was a complicated life. 

Fiennes, the Oscar-nominated star of “Schindler’s List” and the “Harry Potter” franchise, has spent 20 years trying to bring Nureyev’s story to the big screen. 

“It’s almost an impossible task to replicate dramatically someone who is so unique,” the director tells Variety. “What struck me was the sheer presentational, charismatic, sexual force of him as a spirit onstage.” Fiennes first became obsessed with the dancer after reading an early version of Julie Kavanagh’s 2007 biography “Nureyev: The Life.” 

Not unlike his subject, who toiled for years in the corps de ballet perfecting his technique, Fiennes had to overcome considerable hurdles to make the film. He had to contend with everything from shooting technically intricate ballet performances on a modest budget to finding a Russian- and English-speaking leading man who could also convincingly play one of the world’s most famous dancers.

The director says he also faced pressure from investors to cast big stars at the expense of historical accuracy. One name kept floating to the top of the list — his own. 

“I didn’t really want to be in the film,” confesses Fiennes. “I’ve acted and directed twice, and it’s hard. I really wanted to have an experience where I didn’t have to worry about being an actor.” Instead, Fiennes took a supporting role as Alexander Pushkin, an influential instructor of Nureyev’s. Pushkin’s interest in the brilliant, petulant young dancer was so intense that he allowed him to move into the studio apartment he shared with his wife. 

For the role of Nureyev, Fiennes had numerous offers out to “wonderful” French and Russian actors who were largely unknown to global audiences.

“[The] distributors and sales agents, the investors, are all saying, ‘Who are your stars?’ and ‘Are you in it, Ralph?’” recalls Fiennes. “I said no, and I could see the light fading behind their eyes. I realized they were being asked to put money in a Russian-language film with no major names. So finally I folded.” 

Casting Ukrainian dancer and acting newcomer Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev required a leap of faith. To hire an actor with no dance training would have been too great a compromise, Fiennes says, as his budget and schedule would be eaten up by the cost and complications of using visual effects to paste an actor’s face on a dancer’s body. Fiennes put Ivenko through the ringer with rehearsals and screen tests, but he still worried that he might be asking the impossible.

“He was outside the Louvre, he’s chewing on a croissant and he asks a cleaning lady what time the museum will open. And as the camera was on him, all of us just said, ‘Wow. He’s got it,’” Fiennes says of Ivenko’s first of day shooting. “It’s a cliché, but the camera loves him.” 

Ivenko took Fiennes’ trust seriously, and now refers to the director as his “film father,” saying when the men first met in St. Petersburg, “I understood I had to work very hard. 

Another point of contention was the role of Clara Saint, a 21-year-old socialite and daughter of a notable Chilean artist, who was residing in Paris while Nureyev was on tour there with the Mariinsky Ballet. Saint played a pivotal part in the dancer’s decision to flee his homeland. In the film, she is crucial to both his artistic awakening and his renouncing of his Russian citizenship. Fiennes chose exalted indie actress Adèle Exarchopoulos (“Blue Is the Warmest Color”) for the part, but his backers were wary.

Ralph Fiennes cast dancer Oleg Ivenko, who had no prior film experience, as Rudolf Nureyev.
Courtesy of Jessica Forde

“Financiers are like an endlessly hungry mouth. They are never happy,” says Fiennes. “They just say, ‘Yes, we like her, but who else have you got?’ or ‘Have you seen this actress?’ or ‘Could you not cast Marion Cotillard?’”

Original ballet sequences for the film would need to be ruthlessly paired down to bare essentials, due to the sheer amount — and cost — of footage required. Such sequences are so notoriously difficult to shoot that solid execution can earn a director massive street cred (see Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s genre classic “The Red Shoes”). Rather than studying other cinematic attempts at shooting ballet, Fiennes cobbled together the little footage that exists of Nureyev in action. 

“It’s great because it doesn’t sentimentalize history,” says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “It’s impressive to see what Ralph has been able to do. We saw in ‘Coriolanus’ how he could modernize Shakespeare. We saw him bring a new dimension to Charles Dickens in ‘The Invisible Woman,’” Barker says of Fiennes’ previous directorial outings.

For “The White Crow,” Fiennes hired prolific Oscar-winning screenwriter David Hare to adapt the movie from Kavanagh’s book, and he’s the first to admit that he suffered a bumpy learning curve.

“I realized our resources were quite limited, and that my shooting time would be limited,” notes the director. “We couldn’t afford to have great corps de ballet sequences, and we had only one very briefly glimpsed pas de deux.”

Challenges of this sort are nothing new in the realm of high-brow dramas made for adult audiences, especially those meant to be seen in theaters. SPC is a vital independent distributor of niche dramas such as the “The White Crow” (a Russian expression that roughly equates to “odd bird,” by the way). Content of this ilk is increasingly migrating to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. 

A story like Nureyev’s is important to experience in a theater, Fiennes says, because ballet is a medium best appreciated “in the flesh.”

“I really don’t believe that when people watch films at home they are having a pure experience,” he says, “because the phone rings, someone puts the kettle on, the kids come home from school, the dog is puking on the carpet. It’s not pure.”

Fiennes says he finds modern cinemas aren’t making it any easier to leave the couch, and suggests the major chains and art-house theaters launch a movement to entice audiences back into their seats. 

“[For] cinema owners, maybe it’s good to have some campaign to advocate the cinema experience. I find some cinemas, though, quite soulless and depressing. I think that going into a cinema, you want to feel that you’re welcomed, and I can’t bear the choice of bad candy and popcorn. How can we get the sense that the cinema feels special? Then maybe we can feel it’s worthwhile to leave home,” he says. 

A glaring question might be why Fiennes would endure what was a grueling filmmaking process, given how fruitful his career in front of the camera has been. At the time of this interview, the actor is halfway through filming the next installment of Legendary’s “Kingsman” franchise. Then he heads to “The Dig,” an archaeological romance with Nicole Kidman, before trotting off to reprise his role as M in the next entry in the James Bond franchise under the direction of Cary Fukunaga. (Fiennes says he’s excited but has yet to hear from Fukunaga about his vision for the character or the film, which is slated to roll by May.

Surely a star of Fiennes’ stature need not bother with casting headaches, budgets or begging for another pas de deux.

“It was the spirit,” Fiennes says of why he chased Nureyev’s story through the years. “A ferocious desire of this young boy with very minimal, negligible sophisticated education finding within himself the desire to realize himself.”