Ralph Fiennes (it's pronounced 'Rafe') fits comfortably into the 'Fantasy' section of Topic – just ask any of the women who swooned over his dashing-but-disfigured protagonist in The English Patient. But the man himself has little interest in being a pin-up boy – one of the most intense actors of his generation, he is drawn to intense and complicated works such as Schindler's List or Onegin. An actor's task – as he admits – is to fantasise, to lose himself completely in the character he plays, to "make sense of my life by pretending to be other people". Two of his recent roles make this connection even more explicit, seeing him play mentally damaged individuals who have replaced the real world with a fantasy world of their own construction – Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon, who dreams of becoming a creature of supernatural power, and the schizophrenic Spider (in David Cronenberg's eponymous film) who constructs layers of personal myth to hide from the truth of his past. Here, he discusses these characters, and the rest of his career.

First of all, what attracted you to these two roles?

Spider had a long-term interest for me. When I was first sent the script I was just drawn to this character – he's a bit like a Beckett character, really. I thought it would be a challenge to play that character with his madness, and the atmosphere. And then Red Dragon came to me out of the blue. I heard they were rethinking it – as you know, it's a remake of the Michael Mann film – and I picked it up rather sceptically. And then I read it. It's by Ted Tally, who wrote Silence of the Lambs, and it was a really good read – I couldn't stop turning the pages. I hadn't read Red Dragon, and didn't know who Francis Dolarhyde was, and then as I read the screenplay I thought it was a really great role. So I met Brett Ratner, a young director who's made his name with Jackie Chan films, and loved his enthusiasm and the cast. Most of it had been cast already – Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, Edward Norton, Tony Hopkins, Harvey Keitel – so I just thought that to be alongside that quality of cast would be good. It's a well-structured, genre film – a thriller – and I think it has more of the psychological terror of Silence of the Lambs and less of the rather Baroque horror of Hannibal. It's been turned back.

Is your work in Red Dragon a sign you're moving more towards the mainstream? Your most recent film is a romantic comedy co-starring Jennifer Lopez...

Well, I'm about to do two plays which will take me a whole year – one at the National (the National Theatre in London) and one with the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) and I'm developing screenplays with people that are not big budget. I don't think there's any reason an actor should avoid big budgets – I've always wanted to try my hand in a romantic comedy.

Was it hard working with 'J. Lo'?

She's a great actress, actually. Very good to work with, very generous, very responsive. I enjoyed working with her.

David Cronenberg is one of the most unique directors working today, in terms of his style and output. Did you find it strange to work with him?

It's the opposite of what you'd think from his films – from his previous films, anyway. The word 'clarity' keeps coming up, and that's what he gives – he has this great clarity of vision, this clarity in the way he talks to actors and calmness and the ability to listen. Not just 'I'll listen while the actor has his say' but really attentive and taking on board everything you say, or questions that you ask. And the calmness – a zen quality, almost. He has a creative pragmatism, where if things happen which he can't control he will use them.

The film mixes reality and fantasy on several different levels – the 'truth' and Spider's various layers of memory, however distorted. Was it hard to keep them all straight?

I found it quite confusing. Sometimes I remember saying to David: "Isn't this infected memory?" (the cast's term for Spider's inaccurate recollections) or "Should I not be in this scene?" and it did become a bit instinctive. He'd say: "Well, I think it's right that you're here now. However we broke it down it feels right that you should be there." That's what I meant by that pragmatic quality.

Did you do much research into schizophrenia?

I had to go through the right channels. I did actually meet some people with some extreme schizophrenia, but that was quite hard. I went to a place once where I met someone who went to a hospital where people are starting to try and reintegrate into the community. These are people who are suffering from schizophrenia but are living alone or trying to hold a job down. I was very open with them that I was making a film about schizophrenia and they were very open in return. It was monitored by a psychiatric doctor, and I think they got something out of it. She – the doctor – encouraged an interchange of views, so they could ask me about what I did and I could ask them what it was like to have schizophrenia.

What did they ask you?

What it was like being an actor – how much I earned, especially!

Is this an approach you try to bring to all your works – to get inside your characters' heads?

Well, certainly doing Schindler's List I put a lot of time into reading up about the character, into researching Amon Goeth. I didn't see Spider as in that kind of psychopathic extreme, but certainly in Red Dragon I was wary of going down that path again. Because when you play people like Amon Goeth or Dolarhyde you have to enter into the way they see the world, and the way they are emotionally disjointed and disconnected, and that's always weird and disturbing. I didn't find that with Spider – I found it quite a positive experience.

The book (from which Spider is adapted) is written like an internal monologue, so it's like a reference to me playing Spider. To read the thoughts of this man – it's connected to the muttering and the mumbling, which are little bits of his ongoing internal monologue erupting out of his mouth.

Was that all in the script?

Some of it is scripted, and some of it's not. I tried to meet – well, I did meet – people who are afflicted with schizophrenia, and there's a whole spectrum of behaviour that you'll encounter. Some of it was twitches and spasms of movement, but I thought if you really did it on film you'd draw attention to yourself in the wrong way. I tried to find a balance – the muttering just evolved, I think. Partly it's semi-familiar rants, and partly it's inaudible. The words you hear which are coherent were written, but the rest which you can't quite hear is improvised.

You must have found it hard to retreat from that mindset at the end of the day.

I think you take it home subliminally. I don't go home like that. I liked Spider as a man, I think that although he's done this thing that he's done he's a benign person, he's a confused person. I don't think he's malign. Whereas Dolarhyde in Red Dragon is very perverse indeed. I find it exhausting to conjure up that way of looking at the world and that way of looking at people. It's very draining.

The fact you've been offered these roles shows madness is a subject which still fascinates us. Why do you think that is?

There's a fascination with disturbed minds. Sometimes when people are disturbed psychiatrically they can have very strong insight into life and emotion – which can come at terrible cost. In Spider the book – and certainly in Samuel Beckett's writing – they deal with the extremely isolated psyche that most of us would nervously distance ourselves from. But sometimes we are also drawn to it – in film, or in literature. One of the women that I met at the hospital – they'd created their own magazine, and in it she wrote these wonderful poems. Incredible poems, right to the heart. It was about her – she was a barge-lady who saw herself in these poems as possessing great beauty, great attractiveness. They were wonderful. It was disturbing on one level, but the images and visions in the writing were compelling. I think it's dangerous territory to go into, but sometimes when people are suffering they can recognise things which are very close to the surface in ourselves.

Finally, and very generally, why is it that you're so keen on portraying this kind of behaviour – and on acting in general? You've said that you don't know why you act, and don't like to analyse it too closely.

It occurred to me earlier, when I was talking about Spider having to write and trying to make sense of life in his writing. I sometimes feel acting is – in ways that I don't want to question too much – I find I can make sense of my life by pretending to be other people. Because I'm not, really – I'm putting my self and my imagination into it, but it's a channel or a conduit for something. I've always been too apprehensive to question why I act. Also, stage and film are so different, and the feedback or the results you want to get from the two different kinds of acting are very different. I do think that theatre is the true territory of the actor, to play out in a sequence characters, events and you do possess that sequence and inhabit it with other actors. That's very different from the chopped-up process of filmmaking and I find the theatre much more invigorating and cathartic. I don't get the same from film, or if it is it's distilled down to two minutes or seconds or whatever.

What can film offer you, then?

The detail. What an actor can do with the close-up, and the eyes. It's what you can't do in the theatre, and what theatre can't give you. But in theatre it's the continuum. There's a terror in that – trying to stay in character for two or three hours, and the thrill when it works. In one given moment in a stage performance you don't quite know how it's going to come out – there are so many unknowables, and you can't edit it, you can't put a soundtrack over it, you can't adjust the lighting, it's just there and it exists.

I like trying to pretend – to imagine myself into someone else's head, and why that is I don't know.

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Ralph Fiennes is one of the most gifted English actors working today. He first rose to international prominence with his role as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List, and has since played many screen roles (Quiz Show, The English Patient, Red Dragon). He also has an extremely impressive stage career both in Britain and America, which includes a Tony Award for his portrayal of Hamlet (which was transferred to Broadway from London's Almeida Theatre).

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Topic Magazine is a quarterly non-fiction publication of unparalleled variety of voice. Each issue invites an international collection of writers and photographers to comment on a timely topic. In keeping with its mission, Topic respects the original spelling of its authors. Texts written by American authors are edited in American style; texts by British authors in British style. Topic is edited in Cambridge and New York.

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