Fiennes Takes on Intrigue in 'Constant Gardener' Robert Siegel talks to Ralph Fiennes, star of The Constant Gardener. Fiennes talks about his role as Justin Quayle, a British diplomat whose work in Nairobi leads him to discover a deadly conspiracy.
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Fiennes Takes on Intrigue in 'Constant Gardener'

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Fiennes Takes on Intrigue in 'Constant Gardener'

Fiennes Takes on Intrigue in 'Constant Gardener'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

For many of us the actor Ralph Fiennes entered our consciousness playing a sadistic concentration camp commander in "Schindler's List." Soon he'll be seen as Voldemort in the next "Harry Potter" movie. It is a far more benign, if banal, character he plays in "The Constant Gardener." It's a movie based on the John Le Carre novel set in Kenya. Fiennes plays a British diplomat, Justin Quayle, whose wife is played by Rachel Weisz.

(Soundbite of "The Constant Gardener")

Ms. RACHEL WEISZ: (As Tessa) I'm safe home now, sweetheart.

Mr. RALPH FIENNES: (As Justin Quayle) No, you're drenched. Look, take those wet things off, Tess, and come to bed with me please.

Ms. WEISZ: (As Tessa) I will, but there's something I have to do first. It's important.

Mr. FIENNES: (As Justin Quayle) Tess, whatever it is that you and Arnold are doing, I'd like it to stop.

Ms. WEISZ: (As Tessa) Wow. Who have you been talking to?

Mr. FIENNES: (As Justin Quayle) No one. These are my concerns, all right? I'm thinking of your health.

Ms. WEISZ: (As Tessa) No. No, you're not. They've asked you to rein me in, and you're doing it.

SIEGEL: Ralph, spelled R-A-L-P-H, Fiennes talked about his character, a passive man whose mind is in his work but not his heart.

Mr. FIENNES: Not a career diplomat, someone who's more interested in--well, hence the title--more interested in being a gardener. That's his pastime, and I think that provides a clue to him, I mean. So the constancy of being a gardener, the patience, the tenaciousness, persistence and gentleness--those, I think, are the qualities that Le Carre gives Justin. He's meek, but actually in the end in--his interior spirit is quite tough, I think, in the end.

SIEGEL: I gather that the British Foreign Office made the High Commission in--the embassy, in effect, Nairobi...


SIEGEL: ...Kenya, open to the cast to go and meet real British diplomats.

Mr. FIENNES: Yes, we did. I got in to the High Commission there and met the high commissioner and two or three other people working there. And they're working very hard actually to help Kenya...

SIEGEL: But...

Mr. FIENNES: ...a bit unlike the High Commission in our story.

SIEGEL: In your story. As an actor, when you do a piece of research like that and you go to look at the people who would be...


SIEGEL: ...the characters that you and your fellow cast members are going to represent...


SIEGEL: ...does it do anything for you? Do you actually see things that make you say, `I'm going to do that during the movie. I'm going to...'

Mr. FIENNES: Oh, actually, yes. It's fascinating. Well, you also often see things that are nothing like what--I mean, it helps you sort of sift your way through the choices you're going to make to do that job.

SIEGEL: So where does that lead you in terms of playing the character? What do you do that--on the basis of that insight?

Mr. FIENNES: It's a funny--a sort of magpie process. You're pinching bits of things you've come across in other books or bits of information--like, I sat down with John Le Carre, and he talked at length about Justin, how he imagined his background and the sort of tailor he might have gone to and what it is about Tessa that perhaps drew them to each other. And in all this is the kind of mix, and I--even having been to High Commissions, met the author, thought it mattered a lot, nothing prepares you in a way for the nakedness of the first day in front of the lens. And in a peculiar way, you've done your preparation, but you mustn't be too prepared, 'cause I think you can--you've got to be open to the moment.

SIEGEL: You divide your time between movies and stage, and I gather you're--you've been doing Marc Antony recently in "Julius Caesar."

Mr. FIENNES: Yes. Well, I love the theater, and that's why I wanted to be an actor--was because of the theater, because of--I mean, my mother comes in here. She put on records of Laurence Olivier doing speeches from "Hamlet" and "Henry V," which just shook me up, and I couldn't believe the sound of these words and this extraordinary voice. And although I've been very fortunate in the film work that's come my way, I need to get back to the stage. If I'm away for a maximum of two years, I feel something's wrong.

SIEGEL: Well, when you play, say, Marc Antony in "Julius Caesar"...

Mr. FIENNES: Yeah.

SIEGEL: can, at every performance, do something a little bit different.


SIEGEL: If you played Justin Quayle, the character from the movie "The Constant Gardener"--if you played him night after night on the stage...


SIEGEL: ...would you be--would there be things you'd be trying differently about the character?

Mr. FIENNES: Oh, absolutely.


Mr. FIENNES: Don't ask me what, but, I mean, I think you have to keep fresh, and I need to be able to have some freedom just to--I mean, not to the point of completely disturbing the production but just within the bounds of what's been agreed that--to keep reinventing things.

SIEGEL: But a movie sounds like the exact opposite. There is going to be exactly one take of that part that will be frozen in amber forever.

Mr. FIENNES: Yeah.

SIEGEL: That's the way Justin Quayle will be. That's the way you got it when you shot that day, period.

Mr. FIENNES: Well, one of the things that Rachel and I both--we were laughing. I mean, I think Fernando knows quite quickly what he wants.

SIEGEL: Now Fernando Meirelles--you have to explain--is the director.

Mr. FIENNES: Fernando Meirelles, who directs the movie--he directed "City of Gold"--knows--I think he has an incredibly strong instinct for when he has the take he needs. I think Rachel and I both felt that sometimes he wanted to move on, and we thought we still had more to offer up. So we would sometimes be rather neurotic in nudging Fernando to give us two or three more takes.

SIEGEL: We really can't be that far away from the digitally assembled movie at home, where we can pick our version of the take and scramble them up and see it differently every time, you know.

Mr. FIENNES: Well, yeah. I hadn't thought of that. Yeah, I'm sure that--well, that's why the stage is always--it's the last bastion of the actors' independence maybe or control. You can't do that on stage yet anyway.

SIEGEL: Was it unusual to have a Brazilian director eliciting from you the epitome of the British diplomat?

Mr. FIENNES: Well, I think it was a fantastic stroke of luck that Fernando came on board to do this because I think that there is, at the heart of this book particularly, a kind of Britishness which Le Carre does brilliantly. Some of it's a little dated, the portrayals of some of the people working in the High Commission in the book. Greatly and massively entertaining to read, but I think in transferring to film, that it could get just a bit heavy. And I think that Fernando wasn't interested in that at all, that English thing of hierarchy, class and all that stuff. That's in the book very strongly, and Fernando had no interest in that at all. He wanted a film about Africa set in Africa, with Africa as a strong background, almost...

SIEGEL: Almost foreground.

Mr. FIENNES: the--oh, yeah, foreground. Yeah, totally. I mean, he really wanted to get his camera into Kenya. And I think he cut away a lot of what could have been, in adapting the way he--a lot of deadwood went away just 'cause he wanted to sort of get urgently into the heart of Kenya. I think it was a great choice. And, also, his camera work, his style of editing, his style of using the camera is the antithesis of sort of maybe, perhaps, a more traditional approach that would come with maybe an English or American director.

SIEGEL: Now I have to say I was reminded of a very different film, of "Lost in Translation"; that the place is a character here. This is about...

Mr. FIENNES: Oh, I love that film, "Lost in Translation."

SIEGEL: This is about Kenya--yeah, in which Tokyo is not just a backdrop, but it's so much a part of the story.

Mr. FIENNES: Yeah. It's very--I mean, I think that's wonderful when you feel it in a film, you feel a sense of place is really strong, and you feel you can be there, or if you've been there yourself, you can be really reminded of it and brought back there. I love that.

SIEGEL: Before I let you go, I want to ask you the inevitable question. The reason that we say Ralph (pronounced rafe) Fiennes as opposed to Ralph (pronounced ralph) Fiennes is just 'cause that's how you say it. That's how you say that.

Mr. FIENNES: That's how you say it. There's very few people calling themselves Rafe and spelling their name Ralph, but it is a traditional, older way of pronouncing that spelling.

SIEGEL: Well, Ralph Fiennes, thanks a lot for talking with us about...

Mr. FIENNES: Great talking to you.

SIEGEL: ..."The Constant Gardener" and much else.

Mr. FIENNES: Thank you. Thank you very much.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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