Few would expect to see intense English actor Ralph Fiennes in a typical Hollywood romantic comedy. So his depiction of a jaunty charmer who sweeps Jennifer Lopez off her feet in Maid in Manhattan was quite a departure for the edgy 40-year-old.
“I had to find a whole other tone which I haven’t had in any other film I’ve done,” admits Fiennes, who plays a carefree candidate for the Senate named Christopher Marshall. Lopez plays working class Marisa, a maid in a swanky hotel who deceives Marshall into thinking she’s an eligible guest.
“It was odd because I kept thinking to myself, ‘Where’s the angst in this guy, where’s the stress and the trouble?”’ says Fiennes.
Without the subtext of darkness he’s used to in characters like the monstrous Nazi in Schindler’s List or the doomed adulterer in The English Patient, the theatre-trained Fiennes struggled at first.
“I actually found doing a romantic comedy challenging. I’d think, ‘Is this it? Do I smile and look like I love her?’ I got into the groove once I accepted that every scene is what it is.
“You can’t dig deep, there’s no great underlying substance about this,” he maintains. “You have to kind of let it go like you’re carrying this little bubble of happiness.”
Having done this film, he says he has a new appreciation of the art of the romantic comedy leads like Cary Grant.
“They had a throwaway lightness and this ability to let lines trickle off their tongue. It looks so easy when they’re doing it but it’s actually very hard.”
He went straight into shooting Maid In Manhattan after playing a psychotic serial killer in Red Dragon – and afterwards returned to familiar dark territory by playing a schizophrenic in David Cronenberg’s chilling Spider.
“It was actually refreshing to me. I’d just finished filming Red Dragon and four days later was playing Jennifer’s lover.
“It’s been a bit of a dark alley, having played Dolarhyde and Spider. It was like I opened a window and let in some fresh air when Maid In Manhattan came along.”
Fiennes found the bubbly Latino singer-actress a good foil in this tale of opposites attracting. Her character is from the Bronx, where Lopez grew up.
“We are from different backgrounds but I found her very funny and relaxed. She understands the demands of romantic comedy, and was very open and stimulating really.”
Rumours that sparks flew between them while filming are dismissed by Fiennes. She is engaged to Ben Affleck and Fiennes has been with actress Francesca Annis since 1995.
"I was the decoy. J-Lo has a whirlwind lifestyle and I just hung out with Stanley Tucci,” he laughs.
He insists that, despite her reputation as being something of a diva, he enjoyed working with her.
“She’s got all kinds of appealing attributes,” he says laughing. “She’s a very attractive woman, and she’s a great screen actress. I have to say that I was a little on the nervous side because I’ve never done light romantic comedy but I found her very inspirational to work with. She has a wonderful, natural ease.”
“I don’t want to tell you too much about the kissing, because Ben Affleck’s a big and strong man,” adds Fiennes, referring to J-Lo’s fiance. “But I would kiss her again for nothing. She’s quiet, unassuming, gentle and very generous as an actress. There was no diva-ish behaviour, none.”
It’s almost 10 years since Fiennes shot to fame and gained his first Oscar nomination for Schindler’s List. His portrayal of Nazi Amon Goeth took him onto the Hollywood A-list, a position cemented the following year with his sympathetic performance as Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show
Over the past decade Fiennes has continued to garner critical acclaim in films such as The English Patient (which won him a second Oscar nomination), The End of the Affair and Red Dragon.
He’s had a few miss-hits (notably The Avengers), but managed to retain his stardom and mix films with theatre performances (including an award winning Hamlet) too.
Fiennes, the oldest of six children, was born in Suffolk in December 1962. His father, Mark, was a photographer and his mother, Jini, a novelist. He has one sister, Sophie, a producer, and four brothers, including fellow actor Joseph.
Despite his desire to keep his private life to himself, Fiennes, to his dismay, has found that’s not always possible. He lived with ER actress Alex Kingston for 12 years, was married to her for four and left her for Francesca Annis, who is 18 years his senior. The couple met during rehearsals for Hamlet, where Annis played Fiennes’ mother.
“My private life, I consider private,” he says simply, suggesting that more questions on the subject will not be welcome. “My sense is that people can choose to be more in the public eye or not. There are actors or popstars who decide to work the publicity machine, but I really like the work to speak for itself.”
It’s quite a contrast to the private life of Lopez, whose marriage break-up (after less than a year) and subsequent engagement to Affleck appears to have been played out in full public view.
“I’ve never witnessed anything quite so extraordinary,” says Fiennes of a day when, while filming at New York’s’ Metropolitan Museum of Art, he and Lopez were visited on set by Affleck. It was soon after news of the couple’s relationship had broken and the place was surrounded by photographers and fans.
“People were crazy for her,” he adds, still sounding a little shell-shocked. “It was like an iconic moment.”
Next up for Fiennes are more West End plays, before a return to the big-screen, and possibly more comedies.
“I would like to do another,” he says thoughtfully. “But next time I might look for a romantic comedy with a little more edge. Maid in Manhattan is charming but it’s not going to shock anyone. Maybe I’ll look for something with a little more spice in it.”