In Ralph Fiennes' lengthy filmography, funny movies are few and far between, but now, the brilliant British actor has the best kind of comedy under his belt: a Wes Anderson film. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fiennes plays M. Gustave, the earnest and expert concierge of the titular resort.
Inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, the latest Anderson installment has murder, the threat of fascism and nostalgia all brewing underneath a wry deadpan sensibility decorated with his usual opulent mise-en-scène. As a competent director himself (Coriolanus and this year's The Invisible Woman), Fiennes confesses to a sense of amazement in Anderson's method.
Speaking over the phone from his London home, Fiennes also reveals great affection for his character. He sees beyond Gustave's uniform and obsession with perfume to find a man of great quality. It's that humanity that makes this latest Anderson film yet another brilliant work for the increasingly respected filmmaker.
Fiennes counts himself among the director's many fans. During our chat, he offers perceptive insight into what makes Anderson interesting as a filmmaker. He often pauses after questions. Cultist knows it's not just long-distance lag. We're talking five-second pauses that might make others nervous. His rich responses, however, prove Fiennes -- one of this era's more generous actors -- is giving careful thought to each question and how he might respond. Be warned, one of his answers may include what some might consider a spoiler, but it also speaks to the love he has for Gustave.
Cultist: How familiar were you with the films of Wes Anderson when you were approached for this?
Ralph Fiennes: I knew his films. I admired his films. I love his films. More and more in cinema, it's rare, especially in the west, that there are filmmakers who can be true authors of their films that are not being amended by studios. I mean, Wes is a true auteur in the best sense, which I've always admired, so I was very happy when he said, "hey, do you want to come and do this?"
His films are often described as quirky, as an easy descriptor, but I think they cut to essential human desires for relevance. Please tell me what you thought of his films before working with him?
I think they're often about loneliness, about people looking for contact. I think there's a lot about people looking for a friendship or intimacy that has some kind of permanence.
Was it easy getting into M. Gustave skin?
It was fun. It was challenging to know if I was getting it. I think, on the page, it always seems like such a wonderful, comic part, but the problem or the challenge is to try to get the level right, so that it was comically satisfying but also, so he's a real person, you know? It's a part that you could easily over give, and you could sort of be too affected in it. I relied a lot on Wes' guidance, and he seemed to like it when I was simpler with it. He seemed to like the more understated takes, and I thought that was great. The thing I felt I had to hold on to was the sense that this was a real human being. He may be a bit of a poseur with his uniform and his love of perfume, but again the loneliness, and the fact that he's a man alone. You see him sleeping alone in a little room, and I thought my job was to root him in something real -- that I thought was real, anyway. There's a man we know, a guy who's a friend of Wes', who was quietly a model for this guy.
What comes first for Gustave, his duty to serve or his desire to benefit from his relationships with these older women?
Well, I think he sees himself as serving these older women, and I think he has genuine affection for these old ladies. You can probably leave him a generous tip, as Madame D. does, but I think he cares for them. I don't think he's like some cold-hearted person who's just pursuing them for just some financial gain.
Wes writes characters who you can't help but love despite their flaws. What did you find in Gustave to like? [Spoiler Alert].
Well, that's a hard one to answer in a sort of simple way. Often, it's a bit like meeting someone. You meet someone, they walk through the door, and after a few seconds, you don't really know them, but you've decided that you've liked them because of their energy and their quality. You trust them, so I kinda trusted Gustave. I thought that when you read the screenplay, here's a man that when the chips are down, and his young protégé is going to be hauled off a train for having the wrong papers, he stands up, and he's prepared to get sort of roughed up by the police, and in the end, he knows that he might die, and he does die, so how can you not admire someone who, despite their vanities and their insecurities and little neuroses, ends up a hero, so I guess I liked him for that.
You've acted in only a few comedies compared to dramatic films. What does it take for you to find a comedy appealing, is there a certain brand of humor?
I don't know what label to give different kinds of humor. I think the best comedies are things that are usually rooted in something, sort of vaguely real. I enjoy a good satire. Really crazy, whacky, cynical, sort of screwball comedy, I'm not always entertained by it. I kind of like something more ironical and satirical, I suppose. I don't know, if something works, it works. You don't really question it. I don't know what label to put on Wes' comedy. It seems to me rooted in more real people, slightly heightened, especially a character like Murray Abraham as the older Zero. He wrote a beautiful performance, and you feel that the memories he carries are totally real. It weaves the film, I think. When you witness the early love between Zero and Agatha, you really feel it. Tony [Revolori] is a lovely young actor and Saoirse Ronan is a very, very gifted, beautiful young actress. I think there's real heart to Wes. Of course he has a great sense of humor and a very wonderful, sort of an individual brand of comedy, but I wouldn't call it satire. But I know what it is: it's Wes Anderson. I love it, it's fueled by such sort of fine, odd, quirky intelligence, and I respond to it.
There's a certain deadpan quality to the delivery of the material, isn't there?
Yeah, he likes that. He likes the deadpan delivery. It's kind of a staple comic technique, but I think it's often connected to having good writing, good one-liners delivered in a deadpan way usually are quite effective, and that's me talking as a spectator watching good comic performances.
Were there laughs on the set when you were doing these jokes with these deliveries?
Yeah, sometimes there's a laugh. Maybe the first two or three times people smile, and by the 14th time, no one finds it funny anymore.
You, too, are a mighty director. Was there anything you took away from Wes that you may apply to your work as a director?
I love how specific he is. I would never attempt to mimic Wes Anderson, but I was inspired by how precise he was on every area of the film. I have tried to be, but it's another level of incredible involvement of every single detail, and his story-boarding. I'm not sure I would ever strive at everything, but I certainly felt, wow, to have actually gone through the discipline, as it would, to having drawn out every possible shot for a scene and even having them very simply animated. That was something to think about if ever I was to have another chance behind the camera again. I just loved his attention to detail.
Have you talked about working together again?
No, not really. I think we talked about how great it would be. We only just got this one out, so I think I hope so. I'd certainly love to be involved, even in a small way. I loved being part of that team.
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The Grand Budapest Hotel opens city-wide Thursday, March 20.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.