Directed by Ralph Fiennes and written by Abi Morgan (Shame), The Invisible Woman tells the story of Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones), a happily married mother and schoolteacher with a secret past. Haunted by remorse and guilt, Nelly was a young actress who caught the eye of Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), becoming both his muse and secret lover.
At the film’s press day, actor/director Ralph Fiennes spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what drew him to this story, why he ultimately decided to direct and act in the film, his collaboration with the screenwriter, the challenge of editing the film down to two hours, including credits, the process of editing his own performance, and why Felicity Jones was the perfect actress for this role. He also talked about working with the detail-oriented and very prepared Wes Anderson on The Grand Budapest Hotel. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
RALPH FIENNES: I didn’t expect to be doing a Victorian piece about Charles Dickens, but it just came at me. I fell in love with Ellen Ternan, in a way. Not in the obvious sense, but emotionally. She moved me. And then, Dickens, in himself, was a complicated, fascinating man. It’s a fascinating period. We have this sense of starchy Victorians. They have their rules, which is the starchy bit, but underneath, all this stuff was going on.
When you first read this script, what did you see in it that made you want to take it on?
FIENNES: Yeah, it was Nelly. Visually, that emerged, over time. What really hit me was a woman on a beach by the sea, alone. Something about it was almost like a painting. That stuck me as a loneliness with the elements and a vast, infinite space of sky and sea, and someone wrestling with their life and having closure with a part of their life. I responded to that in ways that I probably couldn’t rationalize. Somewhere in me, there’s probably a sense of the human soul looking for understanding about one’s self. The German painter Caspar David Friedrich paints early to mid-19th century figures against a massive sky or mountain tops. He’s famously done “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” with a man standing on a precipice with his back to us, looking out, or “Monk on the Seashore,” which is a tiny figure. If you see that, you’ll see the connection to the opening shot of the film. They speak to me, those paintings.
When you read something like this, as a director, do you immediately start thinking about all of the things you can change or add?
FIENNES: Yes, but in this case, I didn’t expect to do it. It came to me and I liked it. It’s about, “Do I like this? How much do I like it? I like it, but I’m not sure about that.” With different readings and questionings, things emerge. You start to identify the things that you like and the things that you question. Thankfully, Abi Morgan was very, very open and, I believe, wanting a director’s input. She had developed it with producers, but the main connection in a film has to be writer-director. The director is going to give it its filmic coherence, visually. That was the relationship that was waiting to happen, I think.
I made choices where, with time and distance you think, “Should I have done that? Should I have included this?” There were some people who thought we should have included the death of Dickens. He died roughly five or six years after he put Nelly in that house. But, I tried to do that and I couldn’t make it work. It just seemed like it stuck it out there, in the wrong way.
I know people come away from the film saying, “Well, what happened?” I suppose I’ve dealt with it obliquely because she talks about his death in the graveyard to Benham. She says, “He knew he would leave me first, and that he would die first.” It doesn’t tell the audience when or how, but we know it happened. So, all those things still play. They’re like endless puzzles. There’s no right answer. There are just choices. But you’re left with, “How could I have figured that out?”
FIENNES: We cut it down. I think only one scene is cut out, but scenes have been reduced a lot. I think we had to contractually deliver a two-hour film, including credits. It was good discipline, in a way. Films are quite long now. I like that discipline of delivering a two-hour film. I think it’s good. If it was longer, it would have to include different things, but it doesn’t.
How challenging is the editing process for you, when you have to edit your own performance?
FIENNES: Well, I have a great editor and I enjoy, in a masochistic way, being ruthless about my own performance. How do I know, but I think I’m quite good at saying, “That’s no good. That’s no good. That’s it. That’s it. That’s good.” And I’m with the editor who goes, “No, I think you’re wrong. That’s not your best.” There’s an initial point in the editing, if you’re directing yourself, especially in my case, where you go, “Ouch, ouch, ouch, I can’t watch this.” And then, there’s a point where you become hard-nosed and just take your neurosis away and go, “What’s working? That’s okay. That’s okay. We can lose that, and lose that.” You get objective about it. I really value the relationship I had with my editor on this. That was really crucial to me.
What was it like to have Felicity Jones, as your female lead? Did you have a whole audition process, or did you know that you wanted her for the role?
FIENNES: Once I had decided that I would like to direct the film, then there was a list of young actresses out there, who are contenders, who are names, and as they say, who are starting to mean something, which is a terrible phrase. It’s so weird. But, I learned on Coriolanus. I’ve even felt it before in acting things. It’s terrible. But at the moment, there is a crop of young actresses, in their early 20’s to early 30’s, that are really exciting. I won’t name names, but you can guess at obvious ones. Felicity wanted, very much, to be considered, very seriously. She came and did a fantastic audition with me, and I felt her intelligence and interior life, and the quality of suggesting complicated stuff happening inside of someone without demonstrating it, but you feel it. For instance, in the scenes where she’s reacting to Dickens reading Great Expectations, or she’s looking at the play at the end, or she’s smiling to herself as Dickens is telling an anecdote, late at night, is just the best kind of screen acting, and she has that. It was a no-brainer, within minutes of her reading with me.
How was the experience of working on The Grand Budapest Hotel with Wes Anderson? Did you find him to be as detail-oriented a director as you are?
FIENNES: More so! I was inspired and, in the best sense, freaked out. I was like, “Wow, that’s a level of preparation.” Wes is so thorough and particular. He’s very, very, very prepared. He’s awesomely prepared. On set, you can feel him sticking to his plan, but he’s also smart enough and wise enough to see the value of playing. It’s like, “This is my frame. This is what the text is. But, we’ll do lots and lots of takes.” You can bring stuff in and rein stuff out, and find the level. It was great. He’s great to work for. He’s one of a kind.
The Invisible Woman opens in theaters on December 25th.