Ralph Fiennes didn’t need a magic spell to bring gay ballet icon Rudolf Nureyev back to life. Instead, the actor/director relied on the talents of Ukrainian dancer-turned-actor Oleg Ivenko in dramatizing a pivotal chapter in Nureyev’s life: the months leading up to his 1961 defection from the Soviet Union at age 23 while he performed with the Kirov Ballet Company in Paris, had affairs with both men and women, and pissed off his oppressive KGB minders. Although famously arrogant, rude, and even abusive, the supremely talented and trailblazing dancer worked in London and Paris for three decades before he died from AIDS complications in 1993.
Inspired by Julie Kavanagh’s biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, produced by Gabrielle Tana (Philomena) and written for the screen by David Hare (The Hours), The White Crow is Fiennes’ third outing as director. He also appears on-screen as Nureyev’s mentor and instructor, Alexander Pushkin.
Fiennes sat down for a one-on-one chat at Manhattan’s Langham Hotel to discuss the film—and how he’ll feel if J.K. Rowling retcons his character Lord Voldemort as gay.
Lawrence Ferber: You focus on a very specific chapter in Nureyev’s life. Did you consider dramatizing other periods as well?
Ralph Fiennes: Nope, it was always very clear to me. Even when I was initially given the first five chapters of Kavanagh’s biography that she sent me 20 years ago before it was published, it hit me as a great possibility for a film. His life is interesting, but it was always clear to me that was the story I wanted to tell.
You don’t shy away from Nureyev’s arrogance and, frankly, his bitchiness.
I get really maddened by this sort of anxiety that audiences won’t like somebody if they have a ‘nasty’ side. I don’t think you can take on Nureyev [without revealing that] he was like this. David Hare and I loved embracing this arrogance and narcissism—I call it his jagged edges. I love it when sales agents say the distributors get anxious when he’s rude to the character Clara! There’s a purity to him. He’s totally uncompromising about who he is. That’s what I was drawn to—the will to realize himself, and nothing else matters, other people don’t matter. Just the dance.
You present Nureyev’s queer sexuality as a matter of fact, and not a point of big discussion or angst. But was his sexuality considered a threat to the Russians?
I think the Russians were paranoid about his total interest in Western lifestyle. When he got to Paris, they were reluctant for him to go. He showed himself to be highly individual and difficult. He disobeyed all the curfew rules, went to cinemas, nightclubs, restaurants, went to see other shows. They were just on his case—maybe about his sexuality, but they could see he was totally curious about the whole Western lifestyle and flouted all the rules. David and I believe he wasn’t originally planning to defect. He was just hungry for all these things unavailable in Russia.
Although we see Nureyev with male lovers, sometimes naked, it’s typically an after-the-fact sort of situation. Did you consider going even further in explicitly depicting his sex life?
It was a bit of a head-scratcher, because the Nureyev we know was clearly very promiscuous and embraced his gay libido without any constraint. Could I have shown more actual sex? Possibly. I suppose I just thought it’s there, and there’s only so much I can get into the film.
You’ve played gay characters before, notably butler Bernard Lafferty to Susan Sarandon’s Doris Duke in the 2006 biopic Bernard and Doris. But have you envisioned any other roles as queer, even if they weren’t necessarily written that way?
Did I imagine if roles I played were gay? That’s a good question. The character from The English Patient was meant to be gay, but he wasn’t in the script. Sorry! [Laughs] I’ve always been interested in what I thought was the subliminal gayness in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, my directorial debut. I think Tullus Aufidius’ language is definitely homoerotic. It might not be conscious, but I remember shooting a scene with Jessica Chastain as my wife. He’s lying there and not responding to her, and I don’t know if that’s because he’s gay or just a man whose sexual drive for his wife has slightly gone. I’m musing.
You first made a major blip on Hollywood’s radar by playing Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. Did you get offered a lot of villain roles after that?
I went to Quiz Show right after Schindler’s List. I tended to get offered intellectual villains or f–ked-up intellectuals or weird, cold, dry people filled with moral ambiguity. I suppose it must be something [people see in me], because they had a rundown of J.Lo’s films in the Guardian newspaper and they said about Maid in Manhattan, “One of her more successful films, only let down by the fact that Ralph Fiennes, as her love interest, comes across like a serial killer.” [Laughs]
J.K. Rowling loves retconning her Harry Potter characters, and we now know that Dumbledore is gay and had a thing with Grindelwald. Would you buy it if she also retconned Lord Voldemort as gay, with a thing for the teenaged Harry Potter? There’s a YouTube video that adds a romantic song to one of the characters’ meetings, after all!
Well, all these things are possible. If she said that about Voldemort, I would go “OK, I can buy that theory.” I wasn’t playing it at the time, though. I had the line “I can touch you now…” [Laughs] Does anyone realize what the undercurrent of this line could be? [Laughs] I was definitely aware.
We’ll see you as M again in the next James Bond film, which is to be Daniel Craig’s last outing. Would you like to continue on as M with whomever they cast next?
I would, yes. I wonder where they’re going to take the franchise, because Daniel has been iconic and successful as Bond.
I keep thinking a “008” film would be amazing, since they could totally go clean-slate with ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.
Who would you love to see become 008?
Certainly, there’s the big question—black, person of color, or a woman. Idris Elba has come up as a very persuasive 008, 007, whatever. But I haven’t thought about it much.
Although it seems like quite a few of your characters die, or are based on real people, are there any you would love to reprise in a sequel?
I suppose I thought for a while that it would be fun to play Mr. Gustav again, from The Grand Budapest Hotel. Or my Maid in Manhattan character, who is a serial killer. That would surprise people!
This article appears in the June 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.