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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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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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