- Photography by Mr Blair Getz Mezibov
- Styling by Mr Dan May, Style Director, MR PORTER
- Words by Mr Alex Bilmes, editor, British Esquire
For six months in 1983, as a stop-gap between finishing an art foundation course and beginning his studies at RADA, Britain's most prestigious drama school, the unknown Mr Ralph Fiennes, then 20 years old, worked as a house porter at the venerable Brown's Hotel in Mayfair in London, changing shower curtains and light bulbs and performing other menial but essential tasks.
Mr Fiennes, who three decades later plays perhaps the most soulful, most effervescent hotel concierge in movie history in Mr Wes Anderson's new madcap fancy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, tells me about his brief sojourn in the hospitality trade. It is a preamble to a story that illustrates something about the self-importance of certain senior hotel staff, as well as about the colourful characters he met during his time vacuuming the corridors at Brown's.
Here's the story, as Mr Fiennes tells it:
"I was polishing a glass chandelier outside the men's loo and Jeremy Irons appeared. He was just becoming a big star with Brideshead [Revisited] at the time, and I loved Brideshead. He spoke first:
'I need to clean some glass at home. What are you using?'
I showed him some generic glass-cleaning product.
'Thank you very much,' he said.
I said, 'Excuse me, are you Jeremy Irons?'
He said, 'Yes.'
I said, 'Could I have your autograph?'
He said, 'Well, listen, I'll leave it for you at the front desk.'
I said, 'Oh, thank you very much.'
"And then I finished polishing my chandelier and I went up to the front desk where the concierge - a very pompous man in a brown and gold braid uniform - looked down his nose at me, because I was the lowest of the low in my white house coat, and said (very curtly), 'What do you want?'
I said, 'Did Jeremy Irons leave an autograph for me?'
'Yes (even more curtly). Here it is.'
And he passed me a piece of Brown's notepaper. I opened it. It said, 'Dear Ralph, Keep polishing. Jeremy Irons.'"
From left: Mr Fiennes, Ms Saoirse Ronan and Mr Tony Revolori
in comedy drama The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014
Monsieur Gustave, the maverick concierge at The Grand Budapest Hotel, would not have approved, Mr Fiennes confirms, of a houseboy asking a celebrity for his autograph. Fastidious, moustachioed, liberally perfumed and clad in a purple frock coat, his parted hair streaked with blond, Gustave is a ladies man with a difference - he likes them blonde, needy, rich and very, very elderly - as well as a stickler for process.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a nostalgic portrait of an elegant, prelapsarian Mitteleuropa, and, in Gustave, a camp and courageous man trying desperately to preserve its values. Numerous familiar faces pop up to jolly the story along - Ms Tilda Swinton, Messrs Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel and many more. But this is undoubtedly Mr Fiennes' film.
It's been suggested that Gustave is an unusual role for him. But Mr Fiennes is an actor full of surprises - on stage and screen and in person, too, where he can be dreamily withdrawn one moment and then suddenly animated and engaged.
We meet at the London photo studio where the MR PORTER team has been taking his picture. Mr Fiennes has a firm handshake and a sympathetic smile. Lean and youthful at 51, his is not, initially, an imposing presence. He is dressed in standard off-duty menswear - jeans, sweater, navy peacoat - and he's wearing a dark beard, liberally flecked with grey. His distinguishing features are his pale blue-green eyes, full of understanding, and that familiar, softly mellifluous voice.
As an actor you can access a bit of you that you never carry around in normal life but you sort of know is there
We talk over tea, no milk, in an anteroom on a battered leather sofa, into which he first sinks and then shrinks, staring into the middle distance and appearing to almost evaporate from the room. I tell him that the previous evening I'd watched The Invisible Woman, his most recent film and only his second as director, completed just before he began work on Budapest. I wonder how he managed to achieve an atmosphere of such intimacy, and to bring such high emotion to what is, on the surface, such a measured, even reserved movie.
Quickly he comes to life, leaning toward me, eyes locked on mine, hands dancing, showing me how the camera is positioned, where the characters are placed in a scene. It's the word "intimacy" and the phrase "on the surface" that set him alight; in some sense, Mr Fiennes' career to date has been an attempt to see beneath the surface, or perhaps to use the surface to express depth. In this way he is the most English of actors: the manner in which people stand or smile or speak, and what that tells us about them, is what intrigues him most, more than what they are actually saying. "It's about subtext," he says.
The Invisible Woman is the story of the mature Mr Charles Dickens' affair with a young aspiring actress, Ms Nelly Ternan - an affair that poisoned Mr Dickens' marriage and threatened to ruin Ms Ternan's life. Played by Ms Felicity Jones, she is the film's principal character, but Mr Fiennes' Dickens is a monumental figure - a superstar, a magician, full of ferocious energy. The film plunges him into in crisis, throws him off balance, and Mr Fiennes is terrific at dramatising his struggle.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (2013)
Director Mr Fiennes also stars as the writer Mr Charles Dickens opposite Ms Felicity Jones in the romantic drama
SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993)
Mr Fiennes received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Nazi war criminal Amon Goeth
MAID IN MANHATTAN (2002)
The romantic comedy stars Mr Fiennes as a senatorial candidate who falls for a hotel maid, played by Ms Jennifer Lopez
THE DUCHESS (2008)
Mr Fiennes stars in the drama based on Ms Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire
RED DRAGON (2002)
Mr Fiennes plays serial killer Francis Dolarhyde opposite Ms Emily Watson in the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs
The Invisible Woman is another of Mr Fiennes' surprises. His debut as director, Coriolanus (2011), was twitchy, kinetic, shot in Belgrade in documentary style. This is much more delicate. The camera inches towards the characters just as they inch towards each other - falling in love "incrementally", to use Mr Fiennes' word for it.
Mr Fiennes is a new director discovering his own aesthetic: "There are tiny compositional moments in Coriolanus where I felt, 'Oh, yes! This is what I like!' It's not just her face/ his face, it's what the frame is showing and what that can do as emotion, storytelling, character. I think I brought some of that excitement to The Invisible Woman."
A leading Shakespearean since his twenties, on stage Mr Fiennes has worked with the finest directors of our time. He was Troilus for Mr Sam Mendes and Edmund in Mr Nicholas Hytner's King Lear. With the director Mr Jonathan Kent he has been Hamlet, Richard II and Coriolanus. Mr Fiennes has been Romeo, Prospero and Julius Caesar's Mark Anthony. He has acted in Chekhov, Ibsen, Beckett. It is a spectacular career.
On film, his international break was in Mr Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, as the Nazi death camp commandant Amon Goeth - a terrifying study in what Ms Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. His first film as romantic lead was the late Mr Anthony Minghella's epic weepie The English Patient. Mr Fiennes is no snob: he was also Ms Jennifer Lopez's love interest in Maid in Manhattan; a psycho killer in Red Dragon; Hades in Clash of the Titans. He is an expert in the high-impact cameo: a cockney gangster in In Bruges; a British mercenary in The Hurt Locker; Mallory in Skyfall. Perhaps most famously he's Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. In the British tradition, Mr Fiennes does a fine black hat.
I'm not a tough guy but everyone's got a bit of rage inside. If I'm offered a part like that it's exciting, it's a challenge - it's not normally what I get asked to do
But grown-up cinemagoers will associate him chiefly, I think, with his intense, intelligent, fine-grained portraits of reticent, diffident men in extreme circumstances: the academic cheat in Quiz Show; the jealous lover in The End of the Affair; the bereaved diplomat in The Constant Gardener.
I wonder if the reason he plays such men so well is that he is one himself. "That's a hard question to answer," he says. "When you say 'diffident' I think of Justin Quayle in A Constant Gardener. And that was a part I did feel quite close to. But as an actor you can access a bit of you that you never carry around in normal life but you sort of know is there." Everyone, Mr Fiennes suggests, has a quiet man inside. And everyone has a dormant Voldemort, too. Or a cockney gangster: "There's a bit in me that liked exploring Harry in In Bruges. I'm not a tough guy but everyone's got a bit of rage inside. If I'm offered a part like that it's exciting, it's a challenge - it's not what I normally get asked to do."
And neither is The Grand Budapest Hotel's Gustave, another character he feels close to. "In a way he's sort of an actor," Mr Fiennes says. "He presents himself in his role of concierge. He inhabits it fully but I think underneath he's a rather lonely soul. Like a lot of performers who are defined by the moment when they are performing, and when they're not they're slightly adrift."
I tell Mr Fiennes that as I was watching the film, I scribbled down the word "luvvie" to describe Gustave. He takes very polite offence on his character's behalf. "That's a word that most actors refuse to utter. I detest it. I detest that expression. It's a Daily Mail expression."
There's a kind of director you work with because they are auteurs. If you work with Wes Anderson you go knowing and wanting to be part of the thing they do. I loved trying to be part of his world
And in any case, he says, it doesn't apply to Gustave, for all his vanity and his affectations. "Gustave's sense of principle is very profoundly rooted and in his own way, he's a man of honour and principle. Wes has written an unusual hero, a man who has a moral code, an unforced nobility."
I wondered if it wasn't difficult, as an actor, to fit into Mr Anderson's scheme, so precisely ordered are the worlds he creates.
"Wes is incredibly precise," says Mr Fiennes. "But as an actor you learn to accept that there's a kind of director you work with because they are auteurs. If you work with Wes Anderson you go knowing and wanting to be part of the thing they do. I loved trying to be part of his world."
It sounds as if he had fun doing it, too. "Wes likes everyone to stay close," he says, "ideally in the same hotel, which most of us were. There were no individual trailers, and in the evening everyone gathered for a very good meal. It's very civilised. I think Wes engenders a great warmth and a good spirit."
Stupidly, I neglected to ask if any of the house porters asked for his autograph while he was filming The Grand Budapest Hotel. I imagine if they did, he left it for them at the front desk.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is out on 7 March in the US and UK.