British actor Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes had long established himself in front of the camera before stepping behind it. Known for tackling a wide variety of parts – from Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” to Lenny Nero in “Strange Days,” from Justin Quayle in “The Constant Gardener” to Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series – Fiennes went the director-actor route in 2011 in a screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” Now he’s at it again, both directing and starring in “The Invisible Woman,” the based-on-fact story of a lengthy affair between the married author Charles Dickens (Fiennes) and the much-younger actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). Fiennes, 51, spoke about acting and directing and Dickens in Toronto.
Not many people knew this woman existed. How did you find out about her?
I first came across this as a screenplay by Abi Morgan, which was based on a book by Claire Tomalin, in its relatively early stages, and I became fascinated by the story. I was relatively ignorant of Dickens, and of this love affair. After Dickens’ death, Nelly married again, and the idea that someone keeps within themself the history and the markings of an intimate relationship – which they kept secret – was what moved me to make it.
So you hadn’t read Dickens before?
I had read “Little Dorrit” and I had seen some Dickens films, but I hadn’t ever been on an English literature course, and I had never chosen to go through the canon of his work. I think maybe that was a plus, because I came to this open. I read Abi’s script and then Claire’s book, and became fascinated by him, and then I read some of the books that I thought were closer to the time that he was meeting Nelly.
It’s fairly common for a director to see a script in its early development, but not so much for an actor. Did it help you as an actor?
What is great is that as an actor I can attempt to read the dialogue with the writer – with Abi – and to start to play out the scenes and to test and to sort of feel where the scene is going. She was really into that. Sometimes directors will very much embrace a method to bring actors in to do exactly this, to let the actors improvise, to let the actors suggest changes in the writing and let things emerge.
What does Ralph Fiennes the actor think of the director, and what does Ralph Fiennes the director think of the actor?
Ralph Fiennes the actor is very difficult. He’s very moody, tempestuous, storms off the set (laughs). And Ralph Fiennes the director is also very difficult, and fractious (laughs again).
What are your thoughts on Dickens now that you’ve done this film?
Page 2 of 2 - I think it was difficult for Dickens to come to terms with what he was doing. I think it was difficult for both of them. As far as leaving his wife, I think he was possibly in denial about the level of cruelty, and it was difficult for Nelly – how did she come to accept to be the mistress of Dickens? I think you can see within some of his books that he had huge extremes of emotion within him. I think what we tend to perceive is the Christmas card Dickens – the smiling, jolly, family man, the father figure. But when you read about Dickens, or read his later novels, you can identify a man in anguish.
How did you go about dealing with the sensationalism of the story?
I think it was very important not to overly sensationalize it. I wanted to find the right balance in Dickens. I was wary of the quick leap to judgment that some people would make: “Oh, Dickens was a scoundrel!” I thought yes, maybe, but there’s a whole spectrum of Dickens. He was very loyal to his friends, incredibly generous, devoted to social causes where he really delivered on them, and he wrote these amazing books. And then at home he possibly was a difficult father figure. But I wanted to try and indicate or suggest all of his sides.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.