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MOVIES Wing man Ralph Fiennes on his Nureyev biopic 'The White Crow'
by Lawrence Ferber
2019-05-04

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Ralph Fiennes didn't need a magic spell to bring gay ballet icon Rudolf Nureyev back to life.

Instead, the actor/director relied on the talents of Ukrainian dancer-turned-actor Oleg Ivenko in dramatizing a pivotal chapter in Nureyev's life: the months leading up to his 1961 defection from the Soviet Union at age 23, while he performed with the Kirov Ballet Company in Paris, had affairs with both men and women, and pissed off his oppressive KGB minders.

Inspired by Julie Kavanagh's biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, produced by Gabrielle Tana ( Philomena ) and written for the screen by David Hare ( The Hours ), The White Crow is Fiennes' third outing as director—and, here, he also appears as Nureyev's mentor and instructor, Pushkin.

To get the scoop on bringing the famously arrogant, rude and even abusive, yet supremely talented and trailblazing Nureyev to life ( he died from AIDS complications in 1993 ), and how he'll feel if J.K. Rowling retcons Lord Voldemort as gay, Fiennes sat down for a one-on-one chat at Manhattan's Langham Hotel.

Windy City Times: You focus on a very specific chapter in Nureyev's life. Did you consider dramatizing other periods as well?

Ralph Fiennes: Nope—it was always very clear to me. Even when I was initially given the first five chapters of Kavanagh's biography, before it was published she sent them to me 20 years ago, it hit me as a great possibility for a film. His life's interesting, but it was always clear to me that was the story I wanted to tell.

WCT: You don't shy away from Nureyev's arrogance and, frankly, bitchiness.

RF: I get really maddened by this sort of anxiety that audiences won't like somebody if they have a "nasty" side. I don't think you can take on Nureyev and not say he was like this. David Hare and I loved embracing this side, the arrogance, narcissism, I call it his jagged edges.

But some sales agents were saying the distributers get anxious when he's rude to the character Clara, and I love it! There's a purity to him. He's totally uncompromising about who he is, and that's what I was drawn to. A will to realize himself and nothing else matters, other people don't matter. Just the dance.

WCT: You present Nureyev's queer sexuality as a matter of fact and not a point of big discussion or angst. But was his sexuality considered a threat to the Russians?

RF: I think the Russians were paranoid about his total interest in the Western lifestyle. When he got to Paris, they were reluctant for him to go. He showed himself to be highly individual and difficult, he disobeyed all the curfew rules, went to cinemas, nightclubs, restaurants, went to see other shows. They were just on his case—maybe about his sexuality—but they could see he was totally curious about the whole Western lifestyle and flouted all the rules. David and I believe he wasn't originally planning to defect. He was just hungry for all these things unavailable in Russia."

WCT: Although we see Nureyev with male lovers, it's typically an after-the-fact sort of situation. Did you consider going even further in explicitly depicting his sex life?

RF: It was a bit of a head-scratcher, because the Nureyev we know was clearly very promiscuous and embraced his gay libido without any constraint. Could I have shown more actual sex? Possibly. I didn't, I suppose. I just thought it's there and there's only so much I can get into the film.

WCT: You've played gay characters before—notably butler Bernard Lafferty to Susan Sarandon's Doris Duke in the 2006 biopic Bernard and Doris. But have you envisioned any other roles as queer even if they weren't necessarily written that way?

RF: Did I imagine if roles I played were gay? That's a good question. The character from The English Patient was meant to be gay, but he wasn't in the script. Sorry! [Laughs]

I've always been interested in what I thought was the subliminal gayness in Shakespeare's Coriolanus, my directorial debut. I think Tullus Aufidius, his language is definitely homoerotic. It might not be conscious, but I remember shooting a scene with Jessica Chastain as my wife. He's lying there and not responding to her, and I don't know if that's because he's gay or just a man whose sexual drive for his wife has slightly gone. I'm musing.

WCT: You first made a major blip on Hollywood's radar by playing Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. Did you get offered a lot of villains after that?

RF: I went to Quiz Show right after. I tended to get offered intellectual villains or fucked-up intellectuals or weird, cold, dry people filled with moral ambiguity. I suppose it must be something [people see in me] because they had a rundown of J. Lo's films in The Guardian newspaper and they said about Maid in Manhattan, "one of her more successful films, only let down by the fact Ralph Fiennes, as her love interest, comes across like a serial killer." [Laughs] )

WCT: J.K. Rowling loves retconning her Harry Potter characters, and we now know that Dumbledore is gay and had a thing with Grindelwald. Would you buy it if she retconned Lord Voldemort as gay, too, with a thing for the teenaged Harry Potter? There's a YouTube video that adds a romantic song to one of the characters' meetings, after all!

RF: Well, all these things are possible. If she said that about Voldemort I would go OK, I can buy that theory. I wasn't playing it at the time, but. I always thought though, I had the line, "I can touch you now…" [Laughs]Does anyone realize what the undercurrent of this line could be? [Laughs] I was definitely aware.

WCT: We'll see you as M again in the next James Bond film, which is to be Daniel Craig's last outing. Would you like to continue on as M with whomever they cast next?

RF: I would, yes. I wonder where they're going to take the franchise because Daniel has been iconic and successful as Bond.

WCT: I keep thinking a 008 film would be amazing since they could totally go clean slate with ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

RF: I agree.

WCT: Who would you love to see become 008?

RF: Certainly there's the big question [the character being] Black or POC or a woman. Idris Elba has come up as a very persuasive 008, 007, whatever. But I haven't thought about it much.

WCT: Although it seems quite a few of your characters die, or are based on real people, are there any you would love to reprise in a sequel?

RF: I suppose I thought for a while it would be fun to play Mr. Gustav again, from The Grand Budapest Hotel. Or my Maid in Manhattan character, who is a serial killer. That would surprise people!

The White Crow is showing in Chicago theaters through Thursday, May 9.


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