I’m at the midway point of a cappuccino-heavy interview with Ralph Fiennes, he of Schindler’s List, The English Patient, and He Who Must Not Be Named fame, when he begins chortling with glee. The catalyst for this rare burst of gaiety is Seinfeld—more specifically, the eighth-season episode entitled “The English Patient” wherein Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) becomes alienated from her friends and boss due to her hatred of the aforementioned desert-set romance.
“How could you not love that movie?” asks one of her friends. “How about, it sucked?”
Sadly, Fiennes, the star of the Best Picture Oscar winner, has never seen the episode.
“I’ve never seen it!” he exclaims, grinning from ear to ear. He leans back in a hotel room chair and motions to his assistant, who’s also cackling. “We should get that! Can we? We need to get this.”
It’s a bit jarring to see Fiennes exhibit any sense of mirth. The 51-year-old English actor has, after all, treated us to a coterie of iconic villains: the repulsive Nazi, the tattooed serial killer, Harry Potter’s no-nosed nemesis. And yet, in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, he turns in his funniest—and perhaps, best—performance to date as Gustave H., a rakish concierge at the titular establishment, located in the fictional Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka. After one of his octogenarian lovers, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, in aging makeup), croaks, bequeathing a priceless painting to Gustave, it sets off a series of wacky events involving killer henchmen, shoot-outs, SS-like squadrons, a secret fraternity of concierges, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), a devoted lobby boy.
Fiennes sat down with The Daily Beast at a hotel in Downtown New York to discuss his deadpanning dilettante, villains vs. comedy, and how he ended up in Maid in Manhattan.
You haven’t done a ton of comedy. Had you wanted to flex that muscle for a while?
I was thrilled that Wes considered me just to be in his film, let alone a role with such great stuff to do. I was apprehensive because quite a lot of it rides on Gustave, and thank God Wes has a really good ear and knows what he’s chasing. For the comedic element, I needed Wes there to conduct it, but Wes also wants actors to come with their own stuff, so you’re not just hitting marks. Wes finds his comedy through what his actors give him.
Gustave H. is this fascinating character from an entirely different era, and a lot of the people who encounter him find his Old World nature charming.
He’s got little contradictions. He’s essentially a good guy, but what stops him from being prim or boring is he’s a little snobby, a little vain, a little fastidious and neurotic, and a little precious. He’s not just a pompous concierge, but has a great sense of humor. A bit campy!
Some of his preciousness is a veneer, however, for his fatalistic streak.
That’s absolutely right. I think underneath he’s quite alone, and a lot of people need a persona to keep them afloat.
They say that about a lot of comedians—that the humor and their boisterousness and need and want to generate laughter comes from a place of hurt.
They need the energy of performing—presentation—some comic persona, and they’re “on” in a way that stops them from sitting and being alone in a room with themselves. I think there’s a bit of that in Gustave, for sure.
Do you ever feel that you, like Gustave, are living in the wrong era?
Oh, yeah. I should have been born in the 19th century. Technology is too much. Sure, healthcare was terrible compared to today, but something in me feels that in a past life, I was living in the early-19th century. The Regency Period. I’d love to have lived in the early-1800s to the 1830s.
Are you, like Gustave, a fatalist?
I am, yeah. I don’t know how it manifests itself … you’d have to ask people who have to suffer being around me! There’s the scene where Gustave’s just been on the train and Edward Norton’s character has saved him from the soldiers and he says, “You see? There are glimpses of decency in this slaughterhouse that we used to call humanity, and what we aim to provide in our simple, humble, dignified … oh, fuck it.” I think that oh, fuck it says it all, really. One can go on keeping up the illusion, but in the end the shit’s going to hit the fan and we’re all going to die and rot, and you have to keep up this pretense that there’s a thing called happiness, a thing called love, and a thing called a happy ending, and there isn’t really—but we keep up the illusion.
Gustave also has a taste for very older women. He’s not so much interested in physical beauty as their humor, intelligence, and essence. What do you find most attractive in a woman?
[Long Pause] In the end, we’re all human beings and what’s most attractive is someone’s brain, their mind, and their spirit. Bodies come and go. We do live in an age where women—and men now—have this obsession that your physical life is something that needs to be held onto. I think it’s who someone is—the spirit that’s inside their eyes, and who they are. That’s my point of attraction. You can have superficial points of attraction, but that’s not the thing, is it? It has to be who someone is—the heart, the head. That connection is paramount.
Have you ever had a bizarre experience with a hotel concierge?
I worked in a hotel years ago, in 1982, before I went to acting college. I was working in Brown’s Hotel in London, which was quite an old, well-known Mayfair hotel, and I was a House Porter. There were two of us and we had white coats and were the lowest of the low—we changed shower curtains, cleaned windows, moved furniture, helped chambermaids, and occasionally, when they were short-staffed with the uniformed porters, I was promoted to wearing a uniform and getting people out of taxis. I remember I had to take Jack Palance’s suitcases to his car. He made me stand and wait as he fastidiously counted his English coins into the palm of my hand, which I found a bit humiliating. And I remember Leonard Nimoy walking underneath me as I cleaned some windows.
Spock! That’s wild. Wes is also known to have his actors stick very closely to the script and, since most of the shots are prearranged, you have to hit very specific marks. Was that difficult for you?
Yes, it’s the brand of Wes Anderson with all that that carries with it, but it’s also particularly referencing a comedic style in old films like Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder for that rhythm, pacing, and delivery. The architecture of those comedy films is very rigorous, and a lot of precision and thought has gone into it. We all knew that’s what the deal is. At the same time, you’ve got to fight your corner to acknowledge that, but also push back—otherwise you just feel robotic. So sometimes, one had to go, “Yeah, OK—but just let me find this.” I developed a good collaborative system with Wes where I’d say, “Let me come in and do two or three takes the way I’ve rehearsed and thought about it, and then absolutely direct me. And then, when you think you’ve got it, let me have two more free to shake it up again.”
Was there a moment where Wes’s formal, choreographed approach clashed with your acting sensibilities?
There was one example where it was absolutely satisfying to try to nail it, which is the scene where Bill Murray drops us off at the railway station. There were two cars, so the camera sees one taxi go under the bridge, then it pans and sees another car drive up to the station. And this train, which was just a bunch of cardboard with a cowcatcher attached to it, was pushed into view by a bunch of people. It’s a beautiful piece of performance and process, and it all works. We rushed to the monitor and were so happy.
Another example was the scene with Tony Revolori where I lose it because I’ve just escaped from prison and he’s forgotten the disguises, and I get mad at him and say, “Go back to where you came from!” and that was a beautifully-written scene, but it was a scene where Wes had come up with a sequence of 45-degree pans where we’d all be framed, so he asked us to find a motivation to move to accommodate the camera movements, but I just felt like it was counterintuitive in every way. And Wes, to his credit, saw that it worked better my way. It was a rare occasion where the preordained sequence of moves wasn’t the final result.
You did film in Görlitz, and Wes discussed big cast dinners. Do you have any cherished memories from filming?
It was this time of year—a year ago at the end of February we were in the thick of it. It was very cold and there was a lot of snow. It was a small-town existence. The morning ritual of getting dressed in our costume in our hotel room, then makeup, then going to the set. Walking around in Görlitz in the middle of winter, it was very pretty, and has not been fucked up by modern development at all. And there’s a bridge in it that divides Germany and Poland, so you can walk right over and have lunch in Poland. It was Bruges-ish. Lots of old buildings kept in tact.
But there were times where all these actors were sitting around in the hotel lobby, and it was a riot. I remember times when there was Harvey [Keitel], Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, and Edward Norton, and it was lovely to feel the camaraderie. Wes brought some cooks in who did some great food, wine, and spirits… and you could drink as much as you wanted! You didn’t have to go to the dinners, sometimes I went elsewhere, but it was nice to go back to your room after a long day, slip on some slippers, and go and eat.
One of your most impressive performances was as a repulsive Nazi in Schindler’s List. Was it tough to unpack that?
The English Patient was a film that was very different, as was Strange Days. I didn’t feel it sat. I was offered a bunch of roles after that were very different. People say I’ve played lots of villains, but often it’s someone morally flawed or ethically challenged, but really, really bad guys? I’ve only done a few. The Voldemort factor is strong, as is Schindler’s List and Red Dragon. People look at those and say, “You’ve played a ton of villains!”
As far as one of your nice-guy roles goes, my little sister loved Maid in Manhattan. But … how did that happen?
Funnily enough … I’m thrilled that it still plays and seemed to play commercially successfully—not critically successfully, I know that for sure. It’s quite fun when you’re in a movie that the critics didn’t really like but it still does business. It was a funny old experience because I’d wanted, in a way, to find something lighter after doing the Cronenberg film Spider and Red Dragon, so I figured, “Yeah, I’ll be in a romantic comedy with this gorgeous superstar.” I didn’t feel quite at ease in the comic tone of it. I knew in my head that I should be this Cary Grant-like Prince Charming, but … he was a Republican politician! It’s even harder to find a connection point! [Laughs] But I loved making the movie, and got to be with my dear friends Stanley Tucci and Natasha Richardson. And I’m happy that it’s still playing on cable!