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Ralph Fiennes on acting (and directing) Shakespeare in “Coriolanus”

Ralph Fiennes on acting (and directing) Shakespeare in “Coriolanus” (photo)

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Actor Ralph Fiennes has played some powerful men: lords, dukes, the Greek god of the underworld, even the most evil wizard ever. But in his new movie, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” Fiennes plays his most powerful role to date: film director. When I asked Fiennes how he liked sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, he described it as something of a mixed bag. “It was scary and sometimes a headfuck. I knew it would be.” he said. “But I also knew it was possible. You just need to have the time and the support system. But unquestionably it was a challenge, especially in bigger scenes. Those were very tough days.”

The tough days produced a tough, intense film, one that doesn’t look like your typical Shakespearean adaptation — unless my memory’s spotty and I’m just forgetting the other Shakespeare movies with brutal and surprisingly badass modern warfare scenes to rival anything in “The Hurt Locker” or “Green Zone.” Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan preserved much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue while updating the setting, teasing out fascinating twenty-first century relevance in a text hundreds of years old.

Fiennes stars as the title character, a fearsome Roman general who gets exiled from his home and winds up forming an unlikely alliance with his former enemy, the Volscian general Aufidius (Gerard Butler). The film opens with a riot, where the disgruntled lower classes revolt against the government and Coriolanus and his black-clad mlilitary men are called in to restore order. The whole sequence, which was shot months ago, resonates with weirdly clairvoyant shades of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In our brief but stimulating conversation, Fiennes and I discussed the movie’s timely political commentary and his approach to the muscular action scenes, and we even spent a quick minute or two on “Skyfall,” the upcoming James Bond film by director Sam Mendes in which the actor plays an as-yet-undisclosed role (“I don’t get laid, that’s for sure,” Fiennes teased). As I sat down for our chat, Fiennes was thumbing through a recent issue of Cineaste with a “Shakespeare in the Movies” supplement, so I decided to start my questions right there.

Do you have a favorite film of a Shakespeare play?



I haven’t seen it in a long time, but the Russian director Grigori Kozintsev did an epic black and white “Hamlet” with a Russian actor called [Innokenti] Smoktunovsky that was amazing. I also love Peter Brook’s version of “King Lear” with Paul Scofield. It was fantastic; shot in Denmark, I think. There’s a brilliant opening with the camera tracking along all these static faces and the camera just tracks and tracks and tracks. Then it cuts to the back of this huge vertical shape, like a tree trunk or a sculpture. You see all these men facing it in a stone room but you don’t know what it is. Then you cut around to the front, and it’s actually a tall throne with Scofield sitting with this huge fur against his head. He just stares and stares and there’s this long pause. Then suddenly he says “No, it is our fast intent, to shake all cares and purpose from our age, conferring them on younger strengths…”

I’m sensing you’ve seen that a couple times.

[laughs] Yeah, it’s brilliant.

Well let’s talk about your Shakespearian adaptation. As I was sitting in the next room waiting to talk to you, I was looking at a pile of newspapers and every one had Occupy Wall Street on the front page, all with pictures that look like scenes from your film. It’s almost like you were looking into a crystal ball when you made this.


It’s weird. I just think “Coriolanus” is always quote-unquote relevant. The power play, the politics, etc. But now with everything going on, Egypt, the Middle East, what’s happening in Syria — I mean that’s a Coriolanian regime. Coriolanus is in the Syrian army somewhere.



But it is a tragedy; it’s the tragedy of Coriolanus. He’s not trying to be a dictator. He’s a soldier that doesn’t tolerate a democratic vision, but that’s because he’s a soldier. You can only understand him if you understand that he’s a part of that military ethos. I think military people can have a sense of that otherness from the civilian world, and in Coriolanus’ case, it’s extreme. But it is a man trying to hold to a sense of his warrior’s honor, which is completely out of place and doesn’t work, particularly in his reluctance to negotiate. And the tragedy is he agrees to negotiate when he shouldn’t and it’s counterproductive in every way. But I have a sympathy for him.

Why is that?

I suppose he has the tragic flaw of arrogance or pride, but he’s a man trying to hold to who he is. And that always moved me when I saw it. He’s this remote, flinty, confrontational person. In a way, you weep for him because he’s so alone. He’s incapable of embracing any kind of intimacy with anyone, except with his enemy Aufidius. And that’s the closest he gets to any kind of meaningful, intimate interaction.

You played the role on the stage about a decade ago. Has your interpretation of the character changed in that time?

Probably it hasn’t essentially changed, but the film gives you opportunity to show things that are not in the play that help the audience build a picture of who this person is. I can show the “remove-ness” of him, which I’m drawn to, in his exile, in his walking or camping out in the swamp. I loved doing those things.

I’m guessing there’s probably a little more action in this film than there was in the stage version you did.

Yeah, but in Shakespeare’s play, within the first 20 minutes, there’s a war. We pretty much followed Shakespeare’s structure, but we actually simplified the battle from the play to the film. In the play, Coriolanus captures the town, then goes out from the town into the plain to help Cominius win another battle and then he fights Aufidius. I mean, it’s relentless, and that’s all just the beginning of the play.

I think Shakespeare’s trying to say “You think you don’t like him, but look at what he is. He has got the most extreme, physical warrior’s courage you’ll ever see. Now try to figure out what we’re going to do with him.” I think there’s a mischievous side of Shakespeare showing us different sides of things, presenting us with a problem of behavior. How do we respond to that?

The battle scenes look incredible. I’m sitting there going, “Wow, this is like ‘The Hurt Locker.'” Then I looked at the credits and I realize your director of cinematography was Barry Ackroyd, who was the cinematographer of “The Hurt Locker.” And you were in that film as well.

That’s true, but people latch on to Barry’s great skill for that kind of cinematography and ignore the quieter things he does brilliantly as well. Barry works a lot for Ken Loach. The simpler scenes are beautifully shot. People don’t notice him there. I wanted that kind of cameraman.

The other very visual part of the movie that I responded to were the close-ups. They felt unusually close, at least to my eye, and very intimate in a way that also makes a movie different than a play, because you could never get that close to an actor on the stage. In that sense, they’re actually very cinematic close-ups.

Some people say to use your close-ups sparingly. Don’t overdo them. But a lot of them were just instinctive gut choices on the day. I had the camera and could have shown a lot more, but the drama is happening inside people’s eyes when they’re speaking. When Brian Cox says “I know what you are, I’ve got your number,” and he leans in, you want to be in close. I was constantly making that choice. There are wider shots but, for key moments anyway, we stay close. The face is a landscape on film.

I’ve seen great actors do not-so-great versions of Shakespeare. Is there a separate set of skills an actor needs to do this kind of work?

Shakespeare’s use of English is increasingly alien. You start a sentence and you have all these clauses before you get to where the sentence is to arrive at. In some pieces that’s truly challenging. Other times, he writes very simply. Sometimes I think people come to Shakespeare with an inhibition or fear. I think that’s more the problem than they don’t have the skills to do it.

They just get intimidated?

It’s often simpler than people think.

They build it up as this grand thing in their mind.

They build it up that it needs some kind of weird inflection. It doesn’t. There are certainly heightened moments when there is a musical quality. I’ve just done Prospero in “The Tempest,” and there are a couple places, certainly one famous speech where he lets go of his spells, where there is that sort of structure, a build that has to happen. And if you flatline that in a kind of nonchalant way, it disappears. So there are certain so-called “arias,” that are there. Those are often the great passages. But it has to come from a real place. One of my notes to myself and to everyone on “Coriolanus” was “Keep it simple.” Don’t over-inflect. The speech needed to be naturalistic and simple and accessible as much as possible.

“Coriolanus” opens tomorrow in limited release. If you see it let us know what you think. Leave us a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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