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Ralph Fiennes makes directing debut with 'Coriolanus'

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in “Coriolanus.” (Larry

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in “Coriolanus.” (Larry D. Horricks) Credit: Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in “Coriolanus.” (Larry D. Horricks)

Ralph Fiennes has made a career out of playing imposing figures, from the Nazi commandant in "Schindler's List" to "Harry Potter's" Lord Voldemort.

So it's not much of a stretch for the Oscar nominee to star as Shakespeare's tough-as-nails general Caius Martius in the cinematic adaptation of the Bard's "Coriolanus."

It's a far greater leap of faith for the 48-year-old to make his directorial debut with the challenging film, which opens tomorrow for a one-week Oscar qualifying run before returning to theaters on Jan. 20.

We spoke with Fiennes about working behind the camera on the movie, which employs Shakespearean language and a modern setting to chart the fall from grace of his prideful character.

Why isn't "Coriolanus" among the better known Shakespeare plays? As a play, uncut, it's tough because some of the speeches go on and some of the language that Shakespeare's using is very compacted and knotty, grammatically funky and weird. ... Audiences in the theater experience a dense text, a lot of men talking and their leading man being very angry with language that's inaccessible.

What made you think there was a compelling movie there? My instinct and work, shared with [screenwriter] John Logan, is that if you culled away a lot of the dense dialogue, you're left with quite a dynamic political thriller. It sort of has a pulse to it that's compelling, with a challenging central protagonist.

Did your experience starring in "Coriolanus" onstage [in 2000] have anything to do with it? I don't apologize - I wanted to play it again. I wanted to play it on film. I thought, filmically, the face for Coriolanus and everyone - you can go in here [holds hands in the shape of a camera close to his face], which you can't do onstage.

Were there any worries in directing it? I made that leap - I wanted to do it and sort of had to put away any [thoughts of] "Oh, I shouldn't be doing this, it's a bit ambitious, it's a big headstrong." I felt it very strongly - I just thought, "---- it," you know?

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