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A Minute With: Ralph Fiennes on Dickens, Shakespeare and Bond

British actor Ralph Fiennes poses for a portrait in Beverly Hills, California, December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
British actor Ralph Fiennes poses for a portrait in Beverly Hills, California, December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - From Shakespeare to "Harry Potter" to the new head of MI6 in the "James Bond" film franchise, Ralph Fiennes has mined the complexity of his characters.

The 51-year-old British actor most recently turned his talents to unearthing the details of British author Charles Dickens' extramarital affair.

Fiennes stars and takes his second turn as director on "The Invisible Woman," out in limited release in U.S. theaters on Christmas Day, chronicling the hushed liaison between 19th century author Dickens and actress Nelly Ternan.

Lounging in the courtyard at Hollywood's famed Chateau Marmont hotel, Fiennes spoke to Reuters about deconstructing Dickens, playing heroes and villains and the next "Bond" film.

Q: What inspired you to want to bring this story of Dickens' life and affair with Nelly Ternan to the screen?

A: Audiences have a vague sense of a jolly man writing slightly sentimental, big sagas which are good entertainment and good stories, but they see the darkness of Dickens in this film. The domestic, arguably we'd say, cruelty of Dickens. Dickens is a man of massive contrast and contradictions, and I like that it might stir it up a bit, people might talk about it.

Q: How do you think Dickens' relationship with Nelly impacted his portrayal of women in his novels?

A: Estella in "Great Expectations" is not a portrait of Nelly, but is Nelly filtered through Dickens' anxiety about wanting and trying to reach her. I think Nelly probably resisted Dickens for a bit, and that resistance plays out in, quote unquote, "Estella's cold heart." ... Nelly was quite tough, she was quite a strong-willed young girl, and I think (his literary heroines) all have bits of her in them.

Q. You've depicted literary characters before, but in playing a renowned author such as Charles Dickens, were you nervous?

A: You're always nervous, you just want any part to be truthful and alive and you just want to honor what you think its truth is ... All the scenes paint a portrait of the Dickens that I felt I got to know reading - a vital family man, center of the party, center of attention, quite a controlling father, authoritative, capable of great kindness and charitable events. He can be a very genial host, charming, very funny, attentive, and he can be ruthless and tough and bossy and really cruel, he has a potential for cruelty there.

Q: You've played both heroes and villains, from Shakespeare's Romeo on stage to J.K. Rowling's deadly Lord Voldemort in "Harry Potter." Which do you enjoy better?

A: I don't want to play any more villains, I don't enjoy playing them, I've done it. I enjoy playing complicated people. We talk about good guys and bad guys, but it's reductive. I think I wanted to be an actor because of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's characters are full of ambivalence and ambiguity. They start out as one thing and end up another, so if there's an interesting journey for a character and the audience have to work hard to follow the path of a character, I like that.

Q: You're well known for your portrayals of Shakespearean leads on stage, but how has Shakespeare evolved for audiences now?

A: My sense is that it's going to be harder and harder for younger people to feel excited by the brilliant, athletic complexity of Shakespeare's language, which for so many centuries has excited people by its beauty and its accuracy and its inventiveness of English, which is so extraordinary.

But we learn in times where English is so reduced by the ... awful communications of Twitter and Facebook that people are dumbing themselves down. The delight of expressing yourself in language or listening to someone, that's being diluted.

Q: You're going to be in the next installment of the James Bond franchise as the new head of MI6. Can you tell us any more about the new 'M' or the film?

A: I can't, I know nothing, I've not been told anything, I have no information, no dates, no sense of the journey of my character at all! I don't!

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Andrew Hay)

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