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Ralph Fiennes likes contradictions in Coriolanus

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Ralph Fiennes heard his first Shakespeare as a child, initially on phonograph records, then in films.

"I saw (Sir Laurence) Olivier's Henry V in a small movie house. It was built up for me by my parents," the 48-year-old actor says, sitting in the conference room of a Manhattan hotel. "My mother would put on a record of Olivier doing the speeches of Hamlet. That voice led me into my theatrical world - the voice and the music take me back there."

It instilled a life-long love of the Bard's work, which ultimately led Fiennes to make his film-directing debut with Coriolanus, which opened Dec. 2 in limited release.

"Since I was introduced to it as a boy, I've thrilled at it," he says. "I would hear great actors, like Paul Scofield and Olivier, and I knew I'm not alone. There are people who share this love. There's something about actors on a stage. I've seen Judi Dench make Shakespeare so lucid on stage. Film has a different energy. There can be a tension because dense language on film can be a problem."

So Fiennes knows that actually luring a movie-going audience into a theater - to see one of Shakespeare's lesser-known tragedies, no less - is a challenge. It's not the quality of the writing that's the problem - rather, it's the audience's perception (or misperception) of how difficult it may be to understand.

"I believe Shakespeare and these stories are essential human drama," he says. "He created extraordinarily three-dimensional characters. You feel they come from him watching human life. He has an extraordinary understanding of the human heart - and the most extraordinary ability with language.

"If an audience hears that it is something they can connect with, if the drama can communicate, despite people being anxious about the language, they'll get on board. People are shocked and surprised that it's about them. The tricky thing is the language. Does the language have any traction?"

Coriolanus offers a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's tale of a Roman warrior, Caius Martius (played by Fiennes), who is vilified by the public for serving a regime that keeps food stores from the starving masses during a famine - until he is virtually deified for protecting his country against an invading horde. The war turns him into such a hero that he is proposed for public office - but cannot play the polite political games required to woo those same masses, causing his own downfall and eventual destruction.

"I always felt he was a very alone figure, who was locked into a view of the world," says Fiennes, who played the role onstage in England and in a touring production that played the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "In the film, that sense of remoteness just got stronger."

Asked whether Martius is meant to be admired or feared, whether he's a liberator or a fascist, Fiennes says, "He's bang in the middle."

This interview continues on my website.