Interview: Ralph Fiennes
The cover story of our January/February issue is Amy Taubin’s feature on The Invisible Woman (available only in print, with a sidebar by Graham Fuller). The following interview took place last November at the Sony Pictures Classics offices in New York.
Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman is based on Claire Tomalin’s 1991 investigative biography of the same name. The book details the 13-year affair between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, called Nelly for short. The fact that Dickens had a mistress nearly 30 years his junior, for love of whom he separated from the wife who was mother to his 10 children, was a well-kept secret in Victorian England and for nearly the entire century that followed. Ternan’s importance in Dickens's life (she may have been his first and best reader beginning with Great Expectations as well as his devoted, secret lover) was the great unmentionable for almost all Dickens scholars until Tomalin’s book put the irrefutable evidence together. The book and Fiennes’s film—its screenplay adapted by Abi Morgan from Tomalin’s study—are focused on Ternan. Dickens is an important figure in her life rather than, as might be expected, the reverse. Fiennes has given himself the co-starring role, and as director and the character, Charles Dickens, he places Nelly (played by Felicity Jones) at the center of his attention.
You’ve directed two movies now—Coriolanus  and The Invisible Woman. They are very different from each other, the only obvious similarity being that you directed and starred in both. Why did you want to direct and why did you feel it necessary to play a crucial acting role in both?
Okay, how did it happen?
I found myself increasingly curious about what directing is because of films I’d been making by people like Fernando Meirelles and Istvan Szabo and David Cronenberg. And also because of less satisfactory experiences, where I wondered, “Why did that not work? Or what was the problem with that?” That fascinated me. When you start out acting, you just think about the role, but later I began to worry about things being missed because the camera wasn’t in the right place or worrying about how a scene was going to be cut. Over time, I became curious about what it would be like to direct. A person who was instrumental in all this was the producer of The Constant Gardener, Simon Channing Williams, who produced Mike Leigh’s films. He lobbied hard to produce The Constant Gardener because he felt that too many of le Carré’s books had gone to big studios. He embraced me to play the leading male character, and a great friendship grew up between us. He took me on location scouts and included me as a friend and colleague in the whole process of putting the film together. I think he must have intuited that I was probing the idea of directing—I don’t recall saying that to him directly, although maybe one drunken night I did. But toward the end of the shoot, he said, I’d like to produce your first film as a director. And he sent me a script that his company had. For a while we worked on it, went on location scouts for it and so forth. But it didn’t happen for a number of reasons, primarily and sadly, that Simon died. But his proposal and the work we did gave me confidence, because in those moments I was starting to direct. You sit down with a writer, you scout locations, you start the process.
Since I played it on the stage, I’d carried this belief about Coriolanus, that if you edited it and gave it a high-definition context or concept—for me, that was the modern setting—that it would be a great political thriller and parable about the failure of our power structures globally today—about our failure to represent ourselves as peoples, tribes, nations. Coriolanus by Shakespeare is a great demolition of humankind. It works as a political thriller on one level and as a Greek tragedy on another level.
So in answer to your question, I had the support of Simon, a highly experienced producer from the U.K., saying, I think there is something here for you to pursue. And although it didn’t happen precisely as he would have wanted it, it took me to Coriolanus. And to John Logan who got on board after I pitched him and wrote an amazing screenplay.
It’s really a strong film; the concept is politically powerful and devastating because it is so contemporary.
Thank you. Putting aside all the noise about another actor directing himself in a Shakespeare film, I just thought that this play by Shakespeare based on one of Plutarch’s figures is so relevant. Virtually every day, the front-page photograph in the Herald Tribune could have been of something in the film. It was an idea that took me through Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and prior to my latching on to it, could have been applied to Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and even before that, to failed authoritarian right-wing states in Latin America. They all played into this idea of generals, the military. At the time I was making the film, I had photographs of General Stanley McChrystal on the wall. And it is interesting what happened with him, which was subsequent to making the film. He bad-mouthed the White House. [Laughs] This was arguably a component of our story.
But moving on to Dickens: I didn’t for a million years think I’d be doing a film about Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan, prior to being given the screenplay by Gabrielle Tana, one of the producers of Coriolanus. I liked it, read the book [Claire Tomalin’s 1991 biography of Ternan, The Invisible Woman], was intrigued by it. I didn’t know anything about Dickens at all.
You didn’t? Aren’t English children required to read him in school?
I went to a grammar school, an old-fashioned kind of school which the Labor governments have been trying to phase out, idealistically for the right reasons—because they were a two-tier system—but the educational fallout hasn’t always been great. The grammar schools are very old—Shakespeare went to grammar school—and they got good academic results. I did English A levels. We did King Lear and The Tempest and E.M. Forster, and poetry by Yeats and, I think, Eliot. But no Dickens on the syllabus. There are different exams boards so I think there are schools where Dickens or Austen or Thackeray might be required, but not at mine. I was very familiar with the stories of the novels [condensed versions] but the only novel I had read in full prior to getting involved with the film was Little Dorrit. I’m kind of happy about that because I was unencumbered by any kind of baggage. I just read the screenplay, read Claire’s book about Ellen Ternan, and a biography of Dickens himself. And I just latched onto this character of Dickens. I love the fact that I’ve come to the novels through making the film. I’ve since read four or five of them.
And did you go to university or straight to drama school?
Drama school. I think if I had done English in university I would have had to read Dickens. I’m almost tempted to ring up my English teacher and ask “Where was Dickens?” Shakespeare was everywhere, and I had read Shakespeare even before we did in school. But this has been a great discovery. I still have a lot of Dickens to read.
The Talking Cure
I also wanted to ask you about Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, which you did on the stage in London, and which was subsequently adapted into the David Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method. You played Jung, who, like Dickens, was married but had an affair with a young woman that he was desperate to keep secret. Partly as a result of the secrecy, Sabina Spielrein, who had the potential to be a truly brilliant psychoanalyst, was lost to history, as Ellen Ternan had been. No one knew about Spielrein until her papers were discovered decades after she was murdered by the Nazis. Did you ever think of the relation between the two stories of these two women?
It’s interesting because in the conversations I’ve been having about the film—trying to create awareness before it opens—the talk always goes to Dickens. But the reason I wanted to make the film was to tell the story of Nelly. Dickens was a fascinating firework—clearly a thing—but what moved my heart was the journey of Ellen Ternan to becoming the mistress of Dickens and then, after his death, living with her memory of him. But it’s funny how Dickens always takes over the conversation.
Well, probably because people are talking to you, and you are also the director and a great actor and a movie star.
Yes, but I directed it to make Nelly’s story a little bit more important than Dickens’s.
Well, I’m more interested in Nelly, and Felicity Jones is wonderful, and all the more so because she’s not a very experienced actor. She hasn’t done many films.
The scene I really love is where the film tries to set up this idyll that they had in France—the sun and the fields—and then one evening at dinner, he tells her that he’s been invited to Paris to do some readings, and she says, “I’ll go with you,” and he says, “Well, there are whispers.” What I love about the way she plays that and how Abi [Morgan] has written it, is that he is basically saying, “I have my life and I can’t risk that,” and what Felicity plays brilliantly is her interior disappointment that she can’t be present and she has to accept it. You see something drop in her, some sadness, some realization. I think that’s a great moment, very subtly done. I have to say that I think Nelly wanted this relationship. She went into it knowingly. She wasn’t forced.
And she’s not stupid.
No, she’s not. And she’s tough. I think if Claire were here she would say, “They are complicit in this secrecy.” It wasn’t just his patriarchal manipulation of her. Certainly there must have been days when her life was painful, that she couldn’t be public. You see that in their last scene together, when she asks him, “Will you come to see me?” That’s when you feel this sense of the love she has for Dickens but also this compromised life that she’s going into.
The Invisible Woman
The book is very interesting about what happens after that. Because he did often come to be with her—it was a serious relationship—but she also spent a great deal of time alone.
I think she would have been visited by her sisters. I wanted to have as much as I could in the film of the sense of family. The Ternan sisters and their mother were very close.
When you were preparing the film, did you look at other films set in the same period?
Yes. There were quite a few. I like Visconti’s films for this. But I looked at many others—Age of Innocence and other Dickens adaptations. Barry Lyndon, which is interesting because there is a coolness to Kubrick’s eye. I like that quite considered compositional approach. But the filmmaker who I love has nothing to do with this period. It’s Ozu. If you are dealing with scenes of familial relationships and intimacy, then I think it’s all in the performances—what’s happening between two people within rooms. And that’s what you have in Ozu. And in this film, most of the scenes happen inside rooms, and the conversation is kind of loaded. Often it’s not about what is stated, but what is going on underneath and the way people watch each other. You just need to find the right frame to capture that. A lot of period films are a celebration of the dresses and the period décor, but I wanted this to be about what’s going on inside, between people.
One’s awareness of the subtext is very strong. You know what she is thinking and not saying. But I asked about period film, because this film also gives you such a strong sense of the rituals and mores of that time. How that kind of repression takes its toll on people—you feel that very strongly.
Good. It’s a story of the human heart and what happens between people. Dickens and Nelly; Nelly and her mother; Dickens and his wife. And to a lesser degree, between the mother and her son and between sisters too. What I’m learning is where you put your camera on a human face to record what I hope will be a rich and full interior present moment. What that camera sees—that’s what the discussion with the DP should be about because I want the audience to ask what’s going on inside. The inner life is the thing to have present on the screen. That for me was the scene with Dickens and Nelly over the table.
You mean the money-counting scene?
Yes. He listens, she listens, he talks, she talks. I’m probably too close to it but I love it.
How did you manage to do that kind of extremely focused acting—where you are in the moment and letting whatever happens to you then and there happen—when you are also directing the movie?
I’d signed off on the shot. Basically in technical terms, there was a table, they had to be opposite each other, they weren’t going to move. There was the lighting to create the sense of night time intimacy—candles, fireplace, all that. I felt that the close-ups needn’t be complicated for the reasons I just described—I just wanted the camera to be in the optimum position. There’s this little monitor—they call it a clamshell, you can hold it in your hand, and I could look down and see the shot.
I wouldn’t like to be acting with you if you were looking down at a monitor all the time.
No, no, I’m not looking at it while we are doing the scene. I look at it before we start, to check the framing. So I say, Yes, that’s the shot, and then we start. But if I’m off camera, then Felicity had to know that I’m also watching her as a director. But that’s all right, because I think actors want to be directed. And there were two women, an acting advisor and a script supervisor, there to check my performance.
Did you rehearse a lot?
No, we had two weeks of rehearsal before we started, and that was useful.
And why did you shoot it in film?
I think there is a density to the colors in film, a thickness of texture that Rob Hardy [the cinematographer] and I felt was right, a kind of mystery and softness to what film does with colors and light. It might have been tinted with some nostalgia for film, but I think it was the right decision. There is that crystalline look that one can get with digital cameras, a high-definition quality, that wasn’t right for this. I wanted the painterly look of film, the softness, like brushstrokes.
Now I will ask you about Dickens. Your Dickens. He’s not such a sympathetic character, which is what I like about him.
It’s what I like about him too.
He’s a bit disconnected. I mean he’s connected to his work, but in his relationships to other people, he’s so busy presenting himself as he wants to be seen that he doesn’t notice much about how others are presenting themselves. He doesn’t really see them, and I thought that was really interesting.
I think he sees Nelly. I think he was impatient with his children and frustrated with his marriage. I also think a lot of the time, he’s motivated by order. He wants order. He orders life in his books. But in his life, he could have a jocularity or a vitality, or a gregariousness, but he was very fastidious and correct about how things should happen. I also think he sees the people on the streets of London as he walks through the city. I think when he talks to the young prostitute, he sees her for sure.
I agree that he sees Nelly, but in part that’s because she cares so much for his work and that’s irresistible for him.
Yes, but in that moment where they are at the window together—and this was hard and took a long time to get—and she says something about people sharing a secret, and he looks at her. Where a second before, he had been, as you say, Dickens being Dickens, I look at her and realize that I didn’t expect to get that from her. Suddenly someone has returned his observation to him with another spin on it. I suppose I felt that there was a man caught up in ordering his life and making sure that the rehearsals were okay and then he was taking care of the party with the children’s games and then he was making formal speeches to potential donors to the hospital—as you say, he was caught up in presenting Dickens. I think that when I was playing Dickens, I was thinking different things depending on the demands of each scene. So you get Dickens the host, bringing the Ternan family back to his house, and then he has that moment alone with Nelly and I felt that the Dickens I was playing was really happy to have a moment where there could be this gentle inquiry about each other. He hasn’t had that. I think it’s Dickens wanting to be loved really.
But he is much loved by the public.
But not on a personal level. To be loved for your heart, for the exceptional thing that is you, to be seen for what you are and to be loved for that, and not because you’re a famous this or a successful that—that’s another thing.
What I found really interesting in your performance is that this guy knows on some level that he’s not the person who people imagine he is. That’s what was remarkable—that he’d have these moments where he’d respond as he thought he should and then be puzzled about why his response didn’t feel quite satisfactory to him. And that’s where she can come into it. Because she seems to see him for what he really is.
That’s right. He’s built up a persona. Charles Dickens. You meet people like that. They come in with this persona they’ve built up and you want to say, “Who’s there, who’s really there?” I think I found my own version of that with Dickens. The energy of that organizational impulse. Some elements of my father came to me—“Come on then, do this, sit down there.” It was fun.