Originally created 02/16/99

Breathing life into `Shakespeare'



NEW YORK -- O, what's in a name?

Joseph Fiennes, the United Kingdom's latest "It Boy," has a very modern answer for that old William Shakespeare verse: not so jolly much, actually.

Yes, that's right: He's Ralph's kid brother.

"The name gets the door open, but you still have to pass through it," Mr. Fiennes says. "Does it hinder? Enhance? I don't know. I still have to do the work."

As the latest addition to the burgeoning Britpack of stars that includes Ewan McGregor and Jude Law, the broodingly handsome Mr. Fiennes is well aware of the pitfalls of a famous moniker.

"I can understand the interest and the parallels drawn, but I can't rely on them. People care or they don't -- it's really up to others to make up their minds."

Happily, they already have. The 28-year-old thespian has won praise from critics and audiences for his performances in Elizabeth opposite Cate Blanchett and Shakespeare in Love with Gwyneth Paltrow. While Mr. Fiennes' performances didn't earn Oscar nominations, both films are up for Best Picture and other Academy Awards.

"I'm more than a little frightened at all this attention," says Mr. Fiennes. "Hollywood is such a machine. It's a beast which I'm very wary of because I've got nothing to say, nothing to want, nothing which is sensible or that's going to change anyone's life."

Joseph is the youngest -- along with his twin brother Jake -- of seven Fiennes, a clan that moved more than a dozen times around England and Ireland during their early childhood.

That nomadic upbringing, Mr. Fiennes says, prepared him perfectly for a career in acting. "When you're thrown into a new school every few years, you hone all your communication skills, you learn tricks at adapting. I was forever reinventing myself."

The experience also seems to have rubbed off on his siblings. All except one of the Fiennes brood is employed in the arts. "We're a little mafia," he says happily.

Word that Ralph wasn't the only talented Fiennes was cemented during Joseph's six-month stint on London's West End in A View From the Bridge and his prized role opposite Helen Mirren in A Month in the Country.

Mr. Fiennes won raves during his two-year tour at the acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company, where he tackled the prickly Troilus -- just five years after Ralph, star of The English Patient, had taken the part.

So when director John Madden -- armed with a crackling script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard -- began casting about for a young man to portray Will Shakespeare, Mr. Fiennes emerged as a perfect candidate.

"I began to wonder whether I was ever going to be able to find anybody of whom one would believe that he had written the plays," says Mr. Madden, who also directed Mrs. Brown.

"You look at him, and he somehow seems perfect," adds Mr. Madden. "Shakespeare's been in his blood for a long time. He understands and celebrates the language. The role so unquestionably belongs to him. Joe is the man."

Mr. Fiennes is part Heathcliff, part Romeo in black leather.

"I have such a passion for Shakespeare that I didn't want to sell him out as a cheap cartoon character with floppy hair and that goatee," Mr. Fiennes says. "I wanted him modern and sexy and dynamic and slightly enigmatic. Not a Disney idea of what he is."

In other words, a makeover of Elizabethan proportions.

"Look, he was a genius. Yes, of course. But he was also a gypsy and a wheeler-dealer, and he stole and he plagiarized. He was a survivor," Mr. Fiennes says. "He was a normal young guy who was exactly my age when he wrote these plays. He drank; he fought; he fell madly in love; he cursed. We have to humanize him."