In “The Invisible Woman,” adapted from a novel by Claire Tomalin, actor-director Ralph Fiennes tackles the salacious tale of noted British author Charles Dickens, and his affair with Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), an actress much younger than his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan). Recently, for ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to attend the film’s Los Angeles press day, and chat with Fiennes about pulling double duty in front of and behind the camera, as well as what he characterizes as Dickens’ “slightly sociopathological streak.” The conversation is excerpted below:
Question: Charles Dickens, particularly within this story, seems like such a meaty role. Is it true you approached playing the part with some resistance, and only wanted to direct?
Ralph Fiennes: I did, only because having done “Coriolanus” and acted and directed at the same time, I knew how it was very, very difficult. That was thrilling, and in many ways really great, but it was challenging, and when this script (came my way) to direct and also possibly to play Dickens if I was interested I was cautious and a bit reluctant. I could see Dickens was a great role and I loved that. But I was uncertain of whether I wanted to go there again — into the ring with myself, as it were.
Question: What was the hardest part of tackling both sets of responsibilities?
RF: You can’t do that thing of carrying two hats unless you have someone else there, and on “Coriolanus” I had a great lady called Joan Washington, who’s known in the U.K. as a dialect coach. But I’ve known her since I was in drama school and I think she’s brilliant on acting and insight into the truth of a performance. And once I decided that I was going to play Dickens the first thing I absolutely did was call her.
Question: What were your feelings about Dickens when you began, and what did you learn in the process of making the film that surprised you?
RF: Well initially I was quite ignorant about Dickens, I have to say. I didn’t know much about him. I knew some of the adaptations and had read “Little Dorrit” but I kind of had a blank on him. It wasn’t that I wasn’t a fan, it was just that I didn’t know enough to even know that I wasn’t a fan. But it was reading the script almost in synch with reading the book (by Claire Tomalin) that so arrested me — there was [such a] description of actresses in 19th century theater and then Dickens himself that I kind of had a wake-up call about it. I thought, “This is a brilliant and complicated man of such different emotional extremes.” He was on the one hand this incredibly vital, socially gregarious, very furiously active man. And he was a controlling father, and very self-oriented. I think his work ethic was frightening and brilliant, and no one could keep up with it. I think he was driven by his sense of injustice as a child — his father was heavily in debt and he’d been made to go work in this blacking factory on the banks of the Thames (River), and I think he felt the humiliation of this, from 9 or 10 at the time, all through his life. I think he had this sort of fury about it. I think he was someone who was quick to feel slighted, and at the same time could be a very, very loyal friend. One of the great things in researching this was reading Dickens’ letters — you get a great insight into his fastidiousness, his attention to detail. I got the sense of a man with an uncontainable, unstoppable energy for life, but if you crossed him there was a real toughness.
Question: Was Dickens’ love for Catherine sincere? There could have almost been another movie entirely just about them.
RF: That’s a really good question. Apparently there was a woman he had his sights set on as a young man, and she rejected him. And that was another case of him feeling rejection as a young man very strongly. He’d become friends with the Hogarth family — the parents of Catherine, and her sister. She was Scot, and — this is totally my opinion, just from what I’ve read and thought about — I think he felt this rejection as he was becoming successful and thought, “I shall have the family, the wife, the house.” I think he made a beeline for Catherine, and while I think there was affection there I think he was a bit like someone who wants to play the role of successful writer — having the pretty wife and pretty home. I don’t think there was much self-examination. We’re used to a time of self-examination, and maybe we’re in the age of shrinks and talking to people. I don’t think Dickens did that at all — that awareness was lacking quite a bit. I think there was affection, but a weird thing happened, too. Catherine has a younger sister who died very suddenly one night in her late 20s or early 30s, very young — she was living with Dickens and Catherine, and collapsed after having gone to the theater. When she died, Dickens’ remorse was weird and extreme — it was as if his own wife had died. All the biographers comment on it, so even speculate on whether he was in love with the sister more than [his] wife. I think there’s a sense of some emotions displaced — that nothing has connected for him at a profound level, and I think Nelly was it for him. For some reason she came into his life and that was the big love of his life.
Question: Is Dickens’ story, or personal character, inspiring on a certain level — the instinctive level on which he operates? Does that have any special lessons for when you’re both acting and directing on a movie?
RF: For sure, once I decided to take on acting and directing there’s a certain point where you can’t analyze too much. There’s a sort of heady adrenaline that takes over. It kind of bled over into (my performance as) Dickens. You have to make decisions and just go — the worst thing on a film set is that you stop to just ponder. (laughs) So there’s something to be said for it. At times you need to think, of course, but I could see how that could be quite addictive. …Every day you’re dancing with this thing, and you don’t know. In the end it’s often just instinct — I’m looking for some kind of emotional truth, some moment that I really believe is happening to that person.
Question: The celebrity of Charles Dickens, as presented in the film, was interesting — did you get a sense of how he dealt with it, and what he thought of it in his life?
RF: I think he loved it, actually. I think he was defined by his sense of his relationship with his readership. He was like the successful HBO series of today, if you will — everyone was addicted to him and what he would do next. Many of his works were written in installments, and I think these series have a huge sense of how their audience is going to go with them. He was writing for an audience, and I think he was very much concerned that his books sold (well). I think he was the sort of man who would be impatient with esoteric… well, for instance, the nuances of a novel like “Madame Bovary” I’m not sure at all would work for Dickens. I think he had a storyteller’s insistence that he holds his audience. This is speculation, but for sure he was a gifted actor and speaker and when he read his works for an audience, from what I can read, it was fantastic. Famously, he would read the murder of Nancy in “Oliver Twist” and it had people fainting.
Question: One of the scenes that is a big conversation-starter amongst viewers is when Charles sends Catherine to Nelly to deliver a piece of jewelry to her — it shows a rather jaw-dropping, if not outright cruelty, then certainly callousness. And yet by most accounts this actually happened. What was your impression of that scene, which is so amazing.
RF: I think there was a slightly sociopathological streak in Dickens. There’s a great essay by an English academic called “Dickens: The Violent Effigy,” and it looks at the motifs of violence and brutality in — people being pummeled, beaten, fires. I think there was a side of him that had real anger, and it was quite alarming. If this thing happened, and in Claire’s book it’s meant to have happened, I think he converted possible humiliation into attack, and I think it was a psychological thing — a defect, if you want. He might be exposed, with this gift for a girlfriend being sent to his wife. And Dickens just goes, “Nope, nothing wrong — you take it to her. I have nothing to apologize for.” It’s the same thing with his reaction when he wants to leave the marriage — he writes a letter to the [newspaper], and where he could have been the family man humiliated by the extramarital affair, he converts himself into an aggrieved party: “I’m the one who’s suffering, she was never a great mother, she never loved her children, I’m the one who’s doing it all — how could you possibly judge me?” It’s shocking and callous and cruel, but I think there was a sort of madness there.
Written by: Brent Simon