Ralph Fiennes

The Constant Gardener

Interviewed by Adrian Hennigan

“I don't get asked to do a lot of big studio movies, and when I have been I don't always want to do them ”

Ralph Fiennes has been a busy man. The Brit actor will soon be launching a one-man invasion on multiplexes, with roles in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (as the dreaded Lord Voldemort), Wallace And Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, and The Constant Gardener. The latter is adapted from the bestseller by John Le Carré and sees Fiennes playing the type of character he's made his own over the years - a starchy, reserved Brit who gets dragged into the murky world of Third World pharmaceuticals after the death of his young wife (Rachel Weisz).

What was it like making The Constant Gardener in Kenya?

I'd never filmed in sub-Saharan Africa before, and there was this sense of... this was a country that hadn't had a major movie filming there. One of the things you'd feel in somewhere like Tunisia is that they were used to films. We didn't feel that in Kenya. There was excitement - tangible excitement - that this film was being made, and although it was a controversial book when it came out because it was critical of President Moi's regime, a lot of people in Kenya remembered the controversy and were very, very curious to see how we would make it.

Given that director Fernando Meirelles' previous film was City Of God, were you surprised that he was offered The Constant Gardener?

I was surprised, but on reflection I thought it was great, because previous Le Carr&eacute films haven't quite made the magic we had hoped. And both Simon [Channing-Williams, producer] and I felt that having seen City Of God, Fernando would have had masses of offers of projects to choose from, and the odds were that if he were honing in on this, he had a very particular thing he wanted to exploit in it, which was the pharmaceutical companies in Africa, and he wanted to make a film rooted in Africa. Not being of a European or British film background, Fernando's whole take on it is not what you expect and yet he is true to the themes of the book and the story. He's given it a great sense of oomph!

What interested you most about your character in the film, Justin?

It was him and the journey he goes on. Here's this man that everyone doubts - is he a weak, slightly passive man? A nice sort of guy that the women like to talk to at the tea party and he's very charming, plays a good game of tennis but in the end is ineffectual? But then this thing happens and we discover - and he discovers - that he has this curious strength and determination and courage. I was very moved when I read the book, I loved that he went the distance. He didn't become an obvious hero, he didn't learn how to handle guns or learn martial arts [laughs] or anything like that, he becomes a man who honours the legacy of his wife.

Your character is a keen gardener who works in diplomacy but then gets sucked into pharmaceutical politics. Which areas did you research?

The diplomacy world was the one I really wanted to know about - the lifestyle in Kenya, what was expected, what your hours were, what your office was like. The British High Commission were brilliant with us, although they don't all like the way they're portrayed in the film, they don't think it's accurate. Personally I needed to get a smell of that life. I always like to imagine a character's background: where they've been to school; whether they've been to university; what their personal life is like. The drug thing, I didn't feel it necessary to become a big expert on the pharmaceutical industry. Gardening... my father was a brilliant gardener, but I'm not an expert on plants. But I did sense strongly that this was a big part of him, so I said, "Please can we see Justin the gardener as much as we can?" I thought that was very important; that is the root of him, it's what he loves.

You'd already worked with Rachel Weisz before...

We'd broken the ice on Sunshine, but this was some years later. We both just loved the parts, we loved Tessa and Justin, and we felt very easy together. She's got a wonderful warmth and ease and attractiveness, which Fernando encouraged between us. We were very relaxed with each other, and so far the feedback is very positive that the intimacy and relaxation between the couple is working on the screen. I think that's important, because for a lot of the film Justin is remembering Tessa and I think the audience have to remember what little they've had of these two people who are quite different but are very much in love.

You've had an incredibly intense year or two making movies. How come?

It's happened because a lot of projects came along that I wanted to do, and they were all crowding and jostling to be done within weeks of each other. It was one of the busiest years I've ever, ever had. I finished this at the end of July last year, then I had three or four weeks off and then went to do a week on my sister's film [Chromophobia]. Then I went straight from that to Shanghai to do The White Countess, and then came back in early January to work on Land Of The Blind, which is a small independent project. And in between that I was doing recording sessions for Wallace And Gromit. After Land Of The Blind I went straight into rehearsals for Julius Caesar, and took two weeks out from that to do Harry Potter! It wouldn't be something I'd like to make a habit of, it's just that these things came up and I wanted to honour my committments. Land Of The Blind I'd wanted to do for two years, and I just felt that if I didn't do it, I'd let Bob [Edwards, director] down but also I'd let myself down. This last year I had to bite the bullet and try and put them all together. Sometimes it was very stressful. Very stressful.

All of the films you mention are UK movies, or UK co-productions. Is that a coincidence, or did you consciously decide that you wanted a break from Hollywood after Maid In Manhattan and Red Dragon?

Well, the scripts that I've been most excited about have not come through the studio system. They may be out there, but they tend to come through other ways. I don't get asked to do a lot of big studio movies, and when I have been I don't always want to do them. But I don't discount them just because they're so-called Hollywood films. I'm completely open to them, but I just feel that with the bigger budgets, they have to be commercial, and if they have to be commercial they tend to want to conform to certain generic equations of how a film script should work, and it's not as interesting.

Do you ever look back at your performances?

I never look at them. Or very, very rarely.

Which roles live in your mind?

I think of Sunshine a lot. It was a very personal film for me for some reason and I don't know why. The English Patient lives in my mind, and Spider, definitely. And now this.

The Constant Gardener is released in UK cinemas on Friday 11th November 2005.