'The White Crow' director Ralph Fiennes on learning ballet, Russian, and staying on for the next Bond

Stefan Pape
Contributor
Oleg Ivenko as Rudolf Nureyev, and The White Crow director Ralph Fiennes. (Studiocanal)

There are similarities to be made between English acting royalty Ralph Fiennes and Kenneth Branagh. Both are classically trained, and both have turned their hands to directing, yet while the latter had dipped his toes into franchise film-making with Thor, Jack Ryan, and Artemis Fowl the former plans to steer well clear.

Fiennes explained to Yahoo Movies UK why this is, when discussing his third film from behind the lens – following 2012’s Coriolanus and 2014’s The Invisible Woman – The White Crow; a biopic of Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, which is a tale far more akin to Fiennes’ directorial sensibilities.

“I don’t want to work for an entity who insists I have so and so in a role, and other stuff like that. That doesn’t appeal to me,” Fiennes declared. At odds somewhat with his acting choices, as he’s soon to revisit the role of M in the James Bond franchise, a role he also admits he’d be keen to continue on even after Daniel Craig departs the series.

On The White Crow (in cinemas 22 March) he also discusses his influences, and why he felt compelled to learn both Russian and ballet for his performance (he stars as ballet master Alexander Pushkin), while also commenting on the essential theme of dedication to the arts, which enriches this drama.


He talks about the challenges in directing Oleg Ivenko (Nureyev) in his acting debut, and admits there is another story of Nureyev’s life to be told, following the criticisms aimed at the film for not delving into the protagonist’s homosexuality. Though also says if there is a sequel, it’s not for him to tell it.

Yahoo Movies UK: Despite being quite a moving and profound tale, at its core, the film is a celebration of art and the unwavering pursuit of artistic expression. How much of an inspiration was Nureyev for you when making this? To have a central character who gave everything to his craft, does that filter through into the cast and crew?

Ralph Fiennes: Yes, it does. I think the reason I came to the film was not because of a love of ballet, but because there was something about the story of the young Nureyev, a student, who exemplified a devotion to art and the possibilities of us the audience having a transformative experience.

We know what it’s like when we sit in front of a screen and watch a film, or go to a play, or even read a book, where our whole inner life is changed, and we’re moved and provoked into another awareness. There are so many appalling things that mankind has done, but one of the better things is this ability to create stuff that enriches our human spirit. In the discipline of being an artist is the road to giving audiences, or the receiver I suppose, that experience of transformation.

Oleg Ivenko as Rudolf Nureyev (Studiocanal)

I guess I, as an actor, I live to be part of that experience. Even as an audience member I go to the cinema or the theatre because I want to have something happen to me. Somehow when I read this story I felt there was something in this, a parable, a little definition of the drive to make art, which I think is a vital food for the human soul, not some airy fairy little thing you do before dinner, it’s a vital thing that keeps us coherent and keeps us on the better side of things.

On the set, interestingly I felt, and I can’t talk for other people, that Nureyev’s determination and discipline to work himself against the odds helped me. The shooting of this was very tough and often I thought that I cannot wimp out here, because Rudolph wouldn’t, so I have got to keep driving through and finish the scene, there’s no time to think, or for a few hours of rest, you just have to keep going, and the effect of that permeates everyone.

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I think David’s script pulled people to the project, they loved the script and they loved what it was about, so we had a lot of heads of departments and actors just giving themselves because we’re all dreamers dreaming that we will help you have this transforming experience, and also the film is about someone who is not giving any quarter to themselves, they are driving themselves to the limit.

Do you remember the last time you had that transformative experience as an audience member?

I saw Three Tall Women with Glenda Jackson in New York, and that was extraordinary to see Glenda Jackson do that, and I felt very moved by the power of that piece. Another one that comes to me, which I revisited at home, was Ozu’s Late Spring, which just devastated me. That slow, precise build, and the way the emotions build and build while being so tightly controlled, it moved me to tears.

You speak Russian in the film – did you have any grasp of the language before getting involved? And how challenging it was to be speaking and performing in Russian, but thinking in English?

Ralph Fiennes as Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin in The White Crow (Studiocanal)

To clarify one thing very quickly, I have minimal Russian. I have enough to have to simplistic conversation, and with a few days in Russian I guess I get a little bit more confident, but I had to work on the basic Russian that I had to get to the standard for the film, so I have to correct people who think I’m fluent, because I’m not.

But yes, it is really hard. Unless your heart to mind to mouth connection is immediate, because it’s your native tongue, it’s very hard. I have to admit I don’t think in Russian, and therefore I have to drill the sentences so they’re in my mouth and the muscles of the mouth are absolutely ready to say them, they’ve learnt the shapes. Of course I learn it with the meaning, but also I’m aware that the nuances of inflection is the hardest thing. I can get the technical pronunciations close to accurate, but the nuances of delivery, that’s the giveaway.

And you also took ballet lessons? This must be one of the great perks to being an actor, is acquiring all of these skills along the way that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

It is, it’s a perk, a great perk. To dip your toe into other set of skills and ultimately have no pressure to master them because it’s all smoke and mirrors. I just thought, I might as well get a sense for what is being asked of the body, so the ballet lessons were incredibly basic, but I loved them. I mean I was terrible, but I like exercise and I like the presentational aspect, you’re presenting yourself in this highly stylised way.


We did actually have ballet based movement classes at RADA and we all thought they were horrible, that we had to wear tights and do these positions, and nobody actually made it clear that it was actually about how you hold your body, and now I’m very interested all the time in how the body expresses. A couple of ballet lessons would give an actor another dimension on how they can express themselves.

Oleg Ivenko is excellent in the lead role, and you’ve spoken about the importance in hiring a dancer who can act as opposed to an actor who can dance, because of the nuances in movement. But were there any challenges in directing a first-time actor?

Oh huge challenges. The discipline of screen acting which I think is about sustaining your focus over a 10-12 hour day, the waiting time and downtime when people are moving scenery or shifting location or whatever, is to keep your interior focus sharp and that’s something I had to keep pressure Oleg in.

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Just because he had done that emotion well, he was going to have to do it again from another angle, and that was a challenge. And just to keep him aware of the interior life, to keep it cooking. The camera is coming in to you as an actor, it’s really reading everything in your face and so the activity within you has to be full. Of course there’s a point with very skilled actors where they can learn what they’re showing and control the minute degrees, but I think for a novice screen actor, just to say ‘it’s inside you, that’s what is important’ was the challenge, to keep that cooking.

In your last directorial outings, you were very much the lead role, almost in every scene. Was it quite nice to alleviate some of those pressures in this instance in not being the central character?

Fiennes gives instructions to Oleg Ivenko on the set of The White Crow (Studiocanal)

Yes it was. I mean, I didn’t want to be in this, but luckily the Pushkin days of shooting were not very many or very hard when we were doing them, so I was so relieved when we shot it. If I direct another film, and I’m not sure I will, but if I do, I really don’t want to be in it. You never know what’s going to happen when you’re squeezed on finance like I was on this, but I have memories of happy days without the pressure and anxieties of being an actor, and I could just focus on the other actors and work with the team around me, and that was great.

It feels like the film is an opportunity to comment on the current situation for gay people in Russia, yet this is primarily about his early life and his career, but do you think there is scope in this story for a sequel, to look into those elements?

I don’t have that impulse to make a sequel, I feel that this was a very particular story, a standalone moment in his life. I have come across one aspect of his later life which occurred to me could also have been a film, but at the moment I would leave Nureyev alone and let someone else make the sequel or the next instalment.

In your acting career, you’ve always struck a balance in making films that serve as escapism, and those which need to be told. But as a director you’ve only explored the latter. Do you harbour any feelings towards doing an escapist piece of cinema, much like Kenneth Branagh has done with Thor?

Maybe. It’s been difficult but I’ve worked with wonderful producers and worked in situations where I’ve made the film I’ve wanted to make. I mean there have been struggles and arguments and tussles, but I haven’t had a great corporation or business or executive producer insisting on a piece of casting.

I’ve seen Mike Leigh is very vocal, and quite rightly, about casting who he wants, and I don’t want to work for an entity who insists I have so and so in a role, and other stuff like that.

So something in me is fearful of taking on a job for a studio, whereby I am at the mercy of these other big forces. That doesn’t appeal to me.

One of the big studio films you are in of course in James Bond. It sounds like Bond 25 will be a major turning point for the franchise. Based on what you know about it, how do you think fans are going to react?

Ralph Fiennes Bond’s boss M in Spectre (Sony Pictures)

The thing is, I don’t know anything about it. I think Cary [Fukunaga] is a great choice for director, but I really don’t know, I haven’t seen the script. This is the usual pattern, where cards are held very close to the chest of the producers, writer and director, and I think when the moment is right then I’ll be allowed to read something.

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I just guess that the challenge of keeping the films intelligently alive with a contemporary twist that is entertaining to audiences, that’s a challenge. I’ve seen articles where he is increasingly written off as a dinosaur from another era, so it’s a juggling act to keep him in the conversation.

It’s set to be Daniel Craig’s last outing at Bond, but do you intend to carry on as M?

I like playing M, yes. I would be very happy to continue on.

You’ve also expressed an interest in playing the live-action Alfred in the Batman franchise? Is that just that, an interest? Or have any conversations taken place?

No, somebody out of the blue asked me about playing the real flesh and blood Alfred, and I’ve always loved him, Michael Gough, Michael Caine, Jeremy Irons, I’ve always liked the character, so if someone wanted me to be the real-life Alfred, I would have to take it very seriously.

The White Crow is in cinemas from 22 March.