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The player

The Times (London)
January 9, 1999
BY Martyn Palmer

All the world's a stage to Joseph Fiennes. Born into bohemia, he left school to help out backstage at the National Theatre while big brother Ralph trod the boards. But now it's his turn to play the romantic lead.

According to director John Madden, there really was only one actor who could play a young, obsessed, lovestruck William Shakespeare on the big screen. Witha script to die for - courtesy of Tom Stoppard - circulating Hollywood, there were certainly plenty of contenders from the A-list who would have given their agent's right arm to star in a romantic comedy that has Oscar stamped all over it. The female lead, playing the delectable Viola De Lesseps - a woman who inspires Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet, no less - was already in place; Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress who's proved that her birth as a New Yorker is not in any way a handicap when it comes to delivering a flawless English accent (she's pulled it off twice before in Emma and Sliding Doors, of course) knew a good thing when she saw it.

"Quite simply, this was the best script I'd ever read by far," she says. "It's very funny, it's beautifully romantic and it's accessible. I was completely taken with it from the very first page." Paltrow is, of course, box-office gold. She would guarantee bums on seats in the States, where a film titled Shakespeare in Love would, for some, be the kiss of death. Geoffrey Rush, the Australian-born Oscar winner for his performance in Shine, was another early recruit. Rush, in fine form as a hard-pressed theatre owner desperate for new work from up-and-coming playwright Will, admits that on set the cast would have a joke about which alternative titles might work for the Americans. "The cynics among us thought that the word 'Shakespeare' in the title might be box-office poison in America," explains Rush, "so I came up with a game where we had to invent different ones. My personal favourites were Good Will Humping and The Full Montague..." W X The wonderful ensemble cast assembled also included Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Anthony Sher, Rupert Everett and Martin Clunes. But who then, among the cream of American and English acting talent (think Daniel Day Lewis, Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor) would inspire John Madden to stamp his directorial foot and insist that this most succulent of plum parts be given to? Step forward one Joseph Fiennes, younger brother of the more successful - so far - Ralph (who, according to film gossip, was rejected for the role).

"Joe was the unchallenged candidate from a very wide search," says Madden, who also directed the acclaimed Mrs Brown. "He just stood out head and shoulders above the rest. He was the only person remotely believable as the man who wrote the plays. He has the romance and the humour and the looks - and so much more. The part belongs to him. He was my choice and I made it very clear that I didn't want to make the movie unless I could find the right person. Joe was the one." Now, normally you would expect a director to back his leading man and deliver that kind of eulogy as a matter of course. But in this instance, Madden happens to be right. In Shakespeare in Love, Fiennes is that good. Displaying the perfect combination of vulnerability, passion and comic deftness, he can brood with the best of them and his timing - albeit in possession of some of the best one-liners written for the screen in a long, long time - is perfect. All the more remarkable when you think that this is only his fourth film (his others being Stealing Beauty, Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence and the excellent Elizabeth I).

And despite fears that Americans will not quite get the joke, the signs are very good indeed. The critics, at early screenings in New York and Los Angeles, and - more importantly for this 28-year-old - the industry movers and shakers loved it. And rightly so. There is already talk that come Oscar time in March, Shakespeare in Love will be a serious challenger. Fiennes the younger can now expect scripts of the heart-throb and blockbuster variety to plop with a resounding thud on the doormat at his agent's office along with offers of telephone-number proportions. He is about to become a star, make no mistake, whether he likes it or not.

"I don't believe in the next 'big deal'. I don't believe in 'new hot things'," Fiennes says defiantly. "So many people are labelled and bandied around in that way, it's lost its potency. I mean, there's another guy out there who is the next new hot thing and another one has been that for a while - there's a whole corridor full of us. I'm aware of that. The great thing is to be allowed the privilege to work. To do good work, that's the joy."

Today, in a New York hotel room where he's holed up for a round of press interviews, Fiennes looks rather dishevelled. He obviously started the day suited and booted, but now, in late afternoon, has the look of a man who has spent the night on the town. His tie is askew, like a schoolboy at the end of playtime, an impressive growth of stubble is shading half of his face and his hair seems to be defying the laws of gravity, shooting off in all sorts of unlikely directions. It doesn't seem to matter much, though. One female American journalist who has just had the pleasure of his company is positively cooing. "He's so mysterious," she says. "He's so enigmatic and so good-looking... And, boy, I love that film."

It must be me, but to these eyes he also looks ever-so knackered. It has to be said that compared with his older brother - notorious among film journalists as a painfully reluctant interviewee - young Joseph is open to the point of being gushing. But that's only compared with his brother. It is, perhaps, watching his sibling's experience with the media at close range (especially when Ralph's marriage to actress Alex Kingston broke down and his relationship with Francesca Annis attracted the attention of the tabloids) that makes him so guarded at times. Ask him, for instance, his views on romance and marriage (he appears to be wearing a gold band on his wedding finger) and you get short shrift. "My ring is on a different finger," he points out. So you're not married? "No, I'm not... (pause) but I could be. I wouldn't tell you if I was, so I could be lying. After all, I am an actor..." He does, however, begin to thaw. And it would be wrong to suggest that he is unfriendly and humourless, rather he has a fear of coming over like a bit of a luvvie tosspot in print. "I try not to read the things that are written about me. I think there's something very dangerous about an actor when he speaks. And, however honest the journalist is in translating what he says on to the page, especially if he speaks passionately about his work, he will always come across somehow as er... a... I can't think of another word to use, but he always comes across as a wanker. I mean, I can speak to you now, but once it's in print I don't know what it is, it just looks naff. I just think: 'Oh, shut up...' So I prefer not to look at it and cringe."

He has also had to contend with the fact that his older brother is not just another actor, but a very good and a successful one, too. It's never easy to follow in a sibling's famous footsteps, and Joseph can see the journalistic traps a mile off. "No, Ralph and I don't discuss acting or careers when we meet," he says firmly. "It's very rare that all of us get together because everybody is so busy, and when we do we usually talk domestics. I'm doing a bit of DIY on my flat in London at the moment so we, you know, talk about that sort of thing..."

Joseph, 28, and his twin brother, Jake, are the joint-youngest of the Fiennes clan (Ralph is eight years older). Father Mark, a photographer, and novelist and painter Jini, who died six years ago while Joseph was still at college, had six children and a somewhat unconventional lifestyle, moving frequently from homes in the West Country, London and Ireland. "I think I had a privileged yet strange upbringing," he says. "It was bohemian but it was also functional. We were surrounded by constant stimulus from my parents and from their friends. It was the whole creative gamut - actors, musicians, sculptors, whatever. In some ways they all have the same key, observation, and they kind of blended with each other.

"I mean, to me as a kid it was phenomenal and a great adventure. We moved 14 times and it was always a challenge to reinvent yourself at school. I know a lot of friends who were unhappy at school. They'd probably been to two schools in their whole life, and you get labelled like that. Your identity comes from other people, not yourself. But I sort of relished our life. I guess it was good preparation for acting, too. There is the gypsy element to living an actor's life, and I definitely had that. Also, my childhood gave me a love of the arts. I suppose that's where it started."

That "constant stimulus" has certainly had an effect on the children: Ralph, the eldest, is an actor, of course; Martha is a director; Magnus a musician and composer; Sophie an actress. Only Jake has bucked the arts trend - he's a gamekeeper. "He has a love of the country, which I share," says Joseph by way of some kind of explanation. Last year Martha directed Ralph in a screen adaptation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and Magnus composed the music. There was even a small part for Sophie. "I wasn't in it," says Joseph, grinning. "Actually, I'm sure that they don't want to work with each other ever again..."

Joseph left school at 16 - at first to study art, but acting was always at the back of his mind. After a year at art college (and by this time Ralph was already winning plaudits on stage in London), Joseph was helping out backstage while big brother was out front. "I used to go to the National to see him and that was wonderful. I was doing youth theatre as well and I really loved it. I just knew it was what I wanted to do."

After a spell with the Young Vic and then three years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Joseph concentrated almost entirely on the theatre, notably with the RSC with acclaimed roles as Troilus in Troilus and Cressida and Silvius in As You Like It. It is, he says, where he feelsmost at home and, no matter what happens as a result of Shakespeare in Love, where he will always return. "In theatre it's easier to get parts where you age up and down. There doesn't seem to be that much pressure on typecasting. In film, I think you have to prove other things. I like to respond to material, wherever it is, but really film wasn't on my agenda.

"I made a choice to concentrate on theatre and there were times - believe me, because theatre pays so badly - when I was in debt and I would lust for a television job or something to pay the bills. But I stuck with theatre. In the end, though, it's the written word that I find deeply fascinating and compelling. I respond to the material, whether it's in theatre or film."

His reluctance to venture into films earlier does seem to come from a genuine fear of being famous. If that's the case, then he's in big trouble. Stealing Beauty passed with hardly a mention of Fiennes, Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence (he was Laurence) received an extraordinary amount of attention, and his portrayal of the Earl of Leicester in the dark, moody Elizabeth I won him good reviews. By the time Shakespeare in Love hits British cinemas at the end of this month, it's going to be difficult to avoid him. And for him to avoid us.

"I think one has to try and keep a fine equilibrium between the myth of Hollywood and the reality of life," he says. "I mean, I know, as does every other actor of my generation, about Hollywood hype. Celluloid pushes you, demands you to take on a persona which you are not. People have said to me, 'You've come out of nowhere.' But you look at most actors, including me, and I guarantee you it's taken years of hard work to achieve a certain level of notoriety, or respect, or whatever. Those who do come out of nowhere don't always survive that.

"I don't get recognised on the streets. If you go on the Tube in London with a hat on your head, it's fine. I mean, I haven't had to worry about recognition and I would hate to. But, I guess, yeah, it could happen. And I do worry about it. I'm not particularly fond of it. There's an extraordinary fascination with the business and how it works, and as actors we are affected by that. We're like a commodity and you have to try and work that out."

Whatever happens, he insists that he's staying put in London. Right now he's working on a small-budget British film, Rancid Aluminium, about a man with a complicated love life who gets mixed up with the Russian mafia. He admits that he's already had "one or two" offers from Hollywood as a result of early screenings of Shakespeare in Love. There will be a lot more. Just like Hugh Grant before him, the Americans will try to cast him as a romantic lead. And with those looks, who can blame them?

On romance, he is as guarded as ever. A six-year relationship with the actress Sarah Griffiths ended earlier this year. He is, apparently, on his own. But, like he said earlier, he could be telling porkies about that. Is he, you wonder, a romantic? "I guess there is a romantic hidden in here somewhere," he smiles. "I hope there is, anyway. But don't ask me what the most romantic thing I've ever done is. I don't know. I do know the most romantic thing that someone has ever done for me. They cooked me pasta..."

He's easily pleased, this Mr Fiennes. Either that or he's developing a neat way of keeping journalists at bay. Perhaps it's that comic touch that he shows so well in Shakespeare in Love. Based on an idea by American writer Marc Norman, it was originally to have been filmed by director Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall) for Universal five years ago with Julia Roberts as the female lead. The script, however, was not considered to be in the best of shape, and Tom Stoppard was called in to weave his magic. The project, in the meantime, fell by the wayside. But Zwick and Stoppard were convinced that it would work and the director persuaded his friend Harvey Weinstein, chairman of Miramax, to take a look. Zwick was no longer able to direct - he was committed to another film, although remains attached as a producer - and Weinstein, impressed by John Madden's work with Mrs Brown, called in the Briton and the film was back on again.

"A script like this comes along once in a lifetime," says Madden. "I never expected to find something that I would feel so strongly about. I've spent my life around Shakespeare - I've acted in it, directed it, I've studied it and I've even taught Shakespeare at university - and to find a script that actually gets behind it all and is so incredibly funny and fresh and brilliantly imagined is just wonderful. I am very proud of this film. We all are."

In the film, Shakespeare is suffering from writer's block at a time when he could be making money. He needs a muse. In a whirl of mistaken identities, mixed-up messages and misbegotten desires - along with some frankly raunchy love making scenes and some hilarious send-ups of the acting profession - we see the young Bard find his inspiration and write Romeo and Juliet as the love of his life is slowly slipping through his ink-stained fingers. "Strangely enough, I didn't do much research for this. I mean research is great and it's an opportunity not only to invest in the character but broaden one's own personal knowledge," says Joseph. "But with Tom's unique script, I mean he is such a brilliant wordsmith, it's all there, it's watertight.

"At first I did look at what the academics have to say about Shakespeare's life, but it's a can of worms. It's seductive but it drives you up the wall! There was talk about whether he was the illegitimate child of Elizabeth I and then you would read something else and find a completely contradictory theory. The truth is that we don't know an awful lot about his life, so in the end I just closed the books and embraced Tom's script."

At first, he admits, he was rather intimidated by the prospect of playing the great man. "He's sacred ground for a lot of people worldwide, and especially in the UK. It's a great opportunity to infuriate them all..." But then he decided it wasn't so much about an icon, more about a young man named Will trying to make his way in the world.

"I never felt like it was Shakespeare but a guy called Will, and he was a hustler. Rather like a journalist, he's a reporter of the human psyche, and he's constantly looking for inspiration and Gwyneth becomes his muse. Once you look at it like that, it becomes a lot easier. We see Shakespeare as a writer of exceptional talent, but we also see him as a man. The love scenes are very real, and in that way the man is very real too. As soon as I put on the tights I knew that."