Ralph Fiennes is a man in touch with his dark side. He was Oscar-nominated for the film Schindler’s List, in which he put on two stone to play SS officer Amon Goeth, a man who casually shoots Jews from his balcony for sport. And when Harry Potter’s producers wanted to give life to the terrifying Dark Lord Voldemort, it was Fiennes they pestered until he gave in.
So it was something of a surprise to see him give a hilarious turn in Wes Anderson’s whimsical Grand Budapest Hotel last year, and even more so to find him treading the boards at the National Theatre in George Bernard Shaw’s comedy Man And Superman (17 February-17 May).
"I’m certainly not someone who can stand up and say, 'I’m funny. I’ll make you laugh,'" Fiennes admitted recently. "That’s not me, but I think if I’ve got the right words and situation, coupled with a good director, I can make it work."
In Man And Superman Fiennes plays Jack Tanner, a revolutionary firebrand, confirmed bachelor and descendant of Don Juan, who may have met his match in a strong-minded woman who determines to make her his husband. Fiennes has big shoes to fill: the definitive version for many was Peter O’Toole’s, who played Tanner both on stage and in the television version of 1982.
Fiennes is known as being fiercely private and guarded. Even friends and family recognise this in him. Angela Bassett, his co-star in 1995’s cyberpunk sci-fi flick Strange Days, said: "He’s this beautiful house, but there are a couple of rooms that are locked. You can't go in." His sister Martha uses a similar metaphor: "Ralph has to have his hut at the end of the garden, whatever relationship he’s in."
He brings some of that depth to the James Bond series, too. As a child, Fiennes says, "I was infatuated with this whole world of cars and women and fights, gun barrels dripping blood." Now he is more interested in the emotional resonance that director Sam Mendes brings to the franchise. When Fiennes was first cast in Skyfall, people speculated that he would play arch-villain Blofeld; in fact, in the forthcoming film Spectre, he takes over from Judi Dench as head of MI6, though his relationship with Bond is ambiguous and combative.
When playing both Goeth in Schindler’s List and Voldemort in Harry Potter, he sought to understand why they had become evil; his starting point for both was that they were unloved as children. Back in 1994 he said of Goeth, "He was a kid in diapers at one point, and he had all this potential to be something, and he went the wrong way." And, more recently of Voldemort: "I always think there has to be the possibility of good in someone, too. Everyone has the potential to be corrupted. Everyone."
Perhaps this does all sound too heavy for someone about to appear in a comedy. But as his co-stars know, behind Fiennes’s very British reserve lies an impish strain of humour. At a press conference for the final Harry Potter film, he had Emma Watson in fits of uncontrollable giggles when describing how his costume for Lord Voldemort’s robes was uncomfortable and the gusset of the tights "kept dropping down between my thighs, and this made it difficult to walk with any kind of dignity."