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The Constant Gardener - Ralph Fiennes interview



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q: How emotional an experience was it out there in the biggest shanty town in sub-Sahara Africa?
RF:
It was a funny mix of feelings. On the one hand you see the poverty, the lack of sanitation, the lack of electricity, and you also - as Rachel was describing - get this extraordinary spirit and vitality from the people. This is their everyday life. Because we were on the receiving end of so much coverage of Africa and the suffering and disease that’s happening there, you can easily forget that there is a full life happening in these countries. Yes you see terrible poverty but also there is a life and a joy and a hospitality and a welcoming spirit that confronts you as well.
As a Western visitor you think you are going to be shocked and upset - often you are not, often it’s the opposite. I often had moments of great elation by being welcomed. The sense of human connection was very strong.

Q: Because you had worked together on Sunshine did that help with your collaboration on The Constant Gardener?
A:
I think the ice was broken on Sunshine which was a difficult shoot in some respects. We had a lot more to do with each other on this and I think we both loved our characters and we loved the relationships. With Fernando, between the three of us, what was great was that quite quickly there was an atmosphere - which Fernando encouraged - of not being too reverent to the text but being able to play around and improvise the dialogue with each other. And that sort of thing depends on having quite a strong degree of relaxation and ease and playfulness. We had a laugh.

Q: Here you play another internalised character. You are obviously affable and engaging so why do you think that people see you as deeply internalised characters?
A:
I don’t really know. I would say that the parts that people associate me with are people with shadowy conflicts inside them. But I don’t think Justin is repressed. He’s a decent guy going about his life as a diplomat, I don’t think he is a conflicted person at the beginning of the film at all. Certainly he is not an extrovert.
A part comes to you and you like it... I read the book, I loved it. I didn’t think of him particularly as an introvert, I just thought here is this British nice guy diplomat who goes on this amazing journey and changes and transfigures into something. He doesn’t change his essential spirit but something in him becomes more defined and stronger. So the appeal was not - here’s another introverted part - but what a great journey to go on.

Q: Is his great strength and sadness that he falls completely in love with his wife after she’s dead?
A:
Yeah, I also think that there were some scenes that we have that were quite giggly and warm and friendly. There is a bubble of energy and fun there.

Q: Danny Huston says he met Secret Service agents. What about you?
A:
We met a gentleman who had been a spy. I think it may be the same man that he is referring to. I wanted to meet some diplomats. The British High Commission in Kenya year ago was extremely helpful in setting up the movie in Kenya but they also gave me the chance to meet the real thing. They had some strong opinions about the way Le Carré portrays the high commission. I’m sure that John Le Carré would agree that the tone or nature of the high commission that he writes is a lot of people who tend to call each other ‘old chap’ and that doesn’t happen any more. I think the nuances of hierarchy and class is of another era and if you meet diplomats today it’s more about getting good people who are good at getting things done...good communicators who are socially astute. It was good just to get into the houses of these people and to see their gardens. It was a huge contrast to somewhere like Kibera. To see the way they dressed, very informal. None of the stereotypes of the sort found in a film that Alec Guinness might have done 30 years ago. Very different now.

Q: How moved were you by what you saw in Africa?
A:
Everyone felt affected in the way that you are talking about but Simon quickly gathered the momentum that we were feeling as a film unit and was the catalyst to form this trust which is in action. That will be the result of the way we were affected by being there.

Q: A lot of your films seem to be based on books, is that accident or design?
A:
I would love to do more original screen plays. in fact I have done some since, the Merchant Ivory film called The White Countess which is an original screen play and my sister Martha wrote a film called Chromophobia and also I have done a film called Land Of the Blind by a first time writer/director Bob Edwards, with Donald Sutherland and Tom Hollander in it. I have done lots of adaptations because I like the stories, there’s no design in it, it’s just the way it happened.

Q: Are you concerned that Africa may be this year’s fad?
A:
One of the things I learned meeting with the high commission is that a lot of work has been going on in Africa for a long, long time - prior to the focus that we have seen in the past few months - I think that will be ongoing. The British government has poured a lot of money into Kenya. One of the things that has been addressed is the level of corruption, which is a deeply sensitive area but it’s something aren’t going to write about.
The visibility may come and go in different degrees, depending on whether there is a G8 summit somewhere or a pop concert, but it has been ongoing for a long, long time and will continue to be. All the big aid organisations.. Medecin Sans Frontier, Unicef... they are all out there and have been there for ages and have no intention of leaving.

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