“I’m interested in the spirits of people,” Ralph Fiennes says.
“In the theater, there’s the acting part of acting – and I’m not saying that can’t be great – and there’s the essence. To explore that essence, you need a key, a look, a gesture, an insight that unlocks the person’s soul.
“You just want to find that little thing,” he says, narrowing his laser-like, sea-blue gaze and the space between his thumb and index finger.
Fiennes – star of films epic (“Schindler’s List,” “The English Patient”), offbeat (“Spider”) and underrated (“Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights”) – has always been good at finding that little thing.
In “The Constant Gardener,” the new movie adaptation of the John le Carre novel, the little thing is the manner in which Fiennes’ Justin Quayle rises from planting to greet visitors in the lush backyard of his African home, his body bent like a question mark.
Quayle, a middling British diplomat in Kenya, is a seemingly tentative man married to a woman who is anything but. Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) is a fiery relief worker with a penchant for trouble and confrontation, a gardener of souls amid Africa’s impoverished, disease-riddled populace.
When she’s horrifically murdered in circumstances that suggest she was a less-than-loving wife, he must summon the wherewithal to solve not only the puzzle of her death but the mystery of her life.
“Justin isn’t going to respond angrily,” Fiennes says. “He’s going to carefully say, ‘What was she doing?’ “
And that makes him a 180-degree turn from the unsettling but charismatic characters that are Fiennes’ trademark: the chilling Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List,” the Gatsby-esque Charles Van Doren in “Quiz Show,” the enigmatic Count Almasy in “The English Patient.”
Indeed, Fiennes’ Justin is just the kind of playing-against-type role that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tends to reward on Oscar night.
“The Constant Gardener” is just one of a half-dozen movies in which fans will see Fiennes this year and the next. He lends his voice to the big-haired, gun-toting Victor Quartermaine in the stop-motion animated feature “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (Oct. 7) and plays a very different diplomat, blind and embittered in ‘30s China, in Merchant Ivory‘s “The White Countess” (Nov. 11).
But his most-anticipated film is “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (Nov. 18), in which Fiennes embodies Lord Voldemort, the boy wizard’s archenemy.
He’s not a big Harry Potter fan. But then, flippancy gives way to the hallmark Fiennes seriousness.
“I’m not a psychiatrist,” he says. “But I do think childhood is the answer. And thank God, J.K. Rowling has done the work for us. Lord Voldemort is a rejected child. Once I understood that, I could locate the rage.”
It’s that little thing, you see. And another essence is unleashed.
The birthday bunch
Radio personality Paul Harvey is 87. Actress Mitzi Gaynor is 74. Actress Judith Ivey is 54. Actor-comedian Damon Wayans is 45. Actress Ione Skye is 34. Actor Wes Bentley (“American Beauty”) is 27. Singer Beyonce Knowles is 24.