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Joseph Fiennes lives an ode to joy


NEW YORK -- The photographer is not scheduled to arrive for another four hours, so we have no way of recording the look on Joseph Fiennes' face as he contemplates his Internet Web site for the first time.

Cobbled together by rabid fans, the adoring page is headed "The Joy of Joseph Fiennes." As the actor flips though the printout, his eyes register that inseparable blend of amusement, flattery and heebie-jeebies one experiences when one realizes a complete stranger has been amassing every last detail of one's life.

Fiennes speaks a great deal about joy. When he does, however, it is not about the joy of being the youngest sibling (along with his twin brother, Jacob) of that brooding English star Ralph Fiennes. Nor is it the joy of finding himself the romantic magnet of the moment in the season's two hot British screen exports, playing Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in "Elizabeth" and the greatest English-speaking playwright of all time in "Shakespeare Love." Rather, he speaks of the elemental pleasures: the joy of work, learning, music and the written word.

"I've got a vendetta to destroy the Net," he says in a half-mocking tone from a mid-Manhattan hotel suite recently. "To make everyone go to the library. I love the organic thing of pen and paper, ink on canvas. I love going down to the library, the feel and smell of books."

Joseph Fiennes doesn't look a bit like a fusty academe. Out of the Elizabethan tights of his two movie roles and into a black suit and neon-blue shirt and necktie, he emits a low-burning sensuality that is neither contemporary nor particularly British. With full lips, penetrating cedar-brown eyes and dark brown hair, there is an air of Italian High Renaissance about him.

At 28, he may be the only actor of his generation to have portrayed both William Shakespeare and Jesus Christ ("I know, there is nowhere to go now," he muses). The latter part was in a Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Dennis Potter's controversial "Son of Man" in 1995, adapted from a teleplay that provoked threats of prosecution from the government on charges of blasphemy when it first aired in 1969.

Winding down from a brain-frying weekend publicity blitz for "Shakespeare in Love," Tom Stoppard's rambunctious imagining of the creation of "Romeo and Juliet," Fiennes' tank of joy is running low. He has been held hostage to three questions: (1) Tell us about the differences between your two current film roles; (2) Tell us about the differences between acting for stage and screen; and (3) Tell us about the differences between you and your famous brother.

At the mention of the Jesus play, Fiennes smiles and turns off his automatic response button. "Part of their success," he says, linking it with his current stint as Shakespeare, "and part of what triggered the kind of rage and fury that surrounded 'Son of Man' when it was first produced, is their success in humanizing the mythic icons."

The warmth and athleticism of his screen persona stand in marked contrast with the cool, reflective image projected by his brother Ralph. Fiennes concedes that all of that swordplay and rousting about is a chore for him.

"It is a task, especially in a movie. I found the acute concentration one has to achieve over a span of 30 seconds for 15 weeks grueling. But part of Shakespeare's robust physicality (in the movie) was a metaphor for the mercurial brilliance of his brain."

When asked if he is equally uncomfortable having to contend with the nude lovemaking demands of both movies, he responds dryly, "Give me a sword fight any day."

The joy of acting for Fiennes, in great part, is the research -- "the chance for me to catch up on my lack of academic background." That said, he kept his excavation of Shakespeare's life to a minimum. "There is next to nothing known about him. For every expert on Shakespeare there is another one to cancel his theory out. It drives you up the wall. I think the greatest form of finding out the truth is through fantasy."

Joseph Fiennes' propensity for fantasy and pretend may have been fertilized by his gypsy-like upbringing with six brothers and sisters by photographer Mark Fiennes and the late writer and painter Jennifer Lash. They moved 14 times, nurturing a family interdependence that flourished through literature, art and the imagination.

"I think what I discovered from an early age was the joy of the written word. I just found that life-enhancing, that you could hold hands with poets from different centuries, different ages, different backgrounds, and they would take you places that you never really knew or understood existed."

When he speaks of the legacy of his latest character, William Shakespeare, one can't help but discern a self-referential plea underneath. "At the end of the day, it's his work. He says at the beginning of the Folio, 'Look not upon this picture, but look upon the work.' Through the work, I will live. And that's the kind of joy of being an actor."

Pub Date: 12/25/98

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