By Ian Spelling
Joseph Fiennes believes in destiny. Somehow, he says, he always seems to end up in the right place at the right time.
"I must have been 7 or 8 years old the first time I felt that way," the actor says, his serious demeanor giving way to a smile at the memory. "I was in primary school in England, and my teacher cast a play. It was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
"She cast me as Joseph," he recalls, "and I felt, 'It was meant to be.' I was so elated by that opportunity, and that feeling stuck with me. So that was maybe the seed of this course I've been on."
That course has taken Fiennes, the 30-year-old brother of actor Ralph Fiennes and director Martha Fiennes, from obscurity to stardom, from stage plays to independent films and then major features such as Stealing Beauty (1996) and Elizabeth (1998). The Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love<(i> (1998) made him an honest-to-goodness movie star.
The trouble is, he's not sure he wants to be a movie star. Fiennes kept a low profile in the wake of Shakespeare, working only on the stage for the next couple of years, but will return to the big screen on March 16 in the World War II saga Enemy at the Gates.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and inspired by real events, Enemy at the Gates unfolds in besieged Stalingrad, as the Russians battle desperately to stop Nazi Germany's thrust eastward. Fiennes plays Danilov, a political officer who befriends Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a sharpshooter whom Danilov transforms into a hero by printing glamorized accounts of his many kills.
However, circumstances cause the relationship between the two men to grow tense. As the war rages on, both fall for the beautiful Russian fighter Tanya (Rachel Weisz). Zaitsev struggles to live up to the public image of him created by Danilov, while Danilov must deal with his increasingly frustrated boss, future Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins). Meanwhile, the Nazis bring in a master sniper (Ed Harris) specifically to eliminate Zaitsev.
"The film works on so many levels," says the soft-spoken Fiennes, who's dressed in head-to-toe black for a conversation at New York's Essex House. "It's an extreme epic and a very human, intimate story about the interaction of three characters. It's about mortality and pressure, how we deal with impending death and extreme conditions.
"We've also got the element of two gunslingers, Jude and Ed Harris, going at it," he adds. "Even that's an intimate story in its own way.
"Anywhere along the line in the moviemaking process, the more intimate aspects can get lost in the spectacle," Fiennes says, "but I didn't worry about that in this case. The personal story was there in the script, and I felt that drove the bigger picture.
"I also trusted Jean-Jacques," the actor says. "He wanted to tell the story that was in the script, and I think he has done that."
Fiennes signed on for Enemy because he relished the challenge of depicting Danilov's flaws and contradictions, he says. The character is a man fighting a war, but he can't handle a gun. He's an intellectual, a skilled political communicator, but he struggles to express his own feelings.
"Danilov believed deeply, lived for and gave everything to the party," Fiennes says. "I felt part of his journey was learning about his manipulations, which he did for the right reasons, in his mind, to boost the morale of the troops.
"But it gets out of hand," he continues. "Stalin leans on Khrushchev, who leans on Danilov, who is puppeteering Vassili into a fabricated hero. The combination of that and the demons that come up force Danilov to confront all of what he does to those he loves, really."
Fiennes describes working with Law and Weisz as "a joy," but isn't so complimentary toward the production itself. Budgeted at more than $80 million, the film was shot on frigid locations throughout Germany, with Annaud studiously working to recreate the most hellish battle of World War II.
Not that Fiennes is complaining.
"There was a degree of reality to it, but I'm not going to pretend it was so grueling," the actor says. "Danilov was not on the front lines, like some of the other characters. We were very well catered for - there was a Winnebago and a cup of coffee for when we heard 'Cut.'
"So I'm not going to pretend to you that it was tough," he says, "but it was tougher than most, to be honest. I imagine that for Rachel and Jude it was far more extreme.
"What the sets and locations and the weather did was to allow the actor just to submerge into the texture of that time," Fiennes adds. "It lent a flavor, an inkling, an insight into what it might have been like."
Sitting in an oversized chair, with the lights turned down and the curtains drawn, and with a five o'clock shadow covering much of his face, Fiennes practically disappears. It's all very much in keeping with his status as a reluctant star, as a character actor in leading man's clothes.
That last phrase clearly appeals to him.
"Great," Fiennes says, smiling again as he mulls it over. "I like the sound of that.
"I withdrew after Shakespeare in Love and went back to the theater, to what I know," he says. "I went back to what my initial voice was, which was to find a range and freedom and a creative energy. If that meant not following up with a typical leading-man role, then that's what it is.
"I'm an actor, and whatever speaks to me I will do."
The spotlight, Fiennes acknowledges, is something with which he has yet to become comfortable.
"The danger is that people become too familiar," says the actor, due next in the thriller Killing Me Softly, co-starring Heather Graham, and on stage in a production of Edward II. "There should be a distance, and it's hard to negotiate that. The more success, the more press.
"And when I say familiar," he adds, "I mean the audience becoming too familiar with me in a kind of role, with my face, with my life story. I want to see a character on the screen, not the personality of the actor.
"So I need to keep a distance."
Try as he might to maintain that distance - he won't discuss his private life or his famous family, except to say that family gatherings are "no time for talking shop" - Fiennes nonetheless puts much of himself into his performances. And, whether he likes it or not, his serious demeanor and passion for acting come across almost in spite of himself.
"Acting is my pathway to personal knowledge, really, I guess, ultimately," he says hesitantly. "It's an exploration of the human psyche. To write with the quill of Shakespeare, to walk in the heels of Danilov, it lends an understanding about what drives us."
(Ian Spelling is a New York-based free-lance writer.)