Ralph Fiennes for “The White Countess”

Ralph Fiennes sits back in his Beverly Hills hotel room, a half smile creeping on a face that tends to reveal little. That is until we discuss his big scene with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in the latest Potter adventure, Goblet of Fire, in which he plays the prince of all literary villains, Lord Voldemort.

“The poor guy had to be sort of in the grip of a statue of death holding him, while I pranced about telling him how evil I was and the genius I was, threatening him and he had to go “aagh, aagh, aagh,” and I had to go ha-ha-ha-ha,” he says, with a self-mocking evil laugh. Hearing the esteemed actor regale one with tales of Potter goings-on, it is clear that the star of such less mainstream fare as The English Patient, The Chumscrubber, Spider and the upcoming The White Countess, is occasionally more than content to occasionally slip over into Hollywood’s veritable dark side.

The actor says that there is a clear difference between working on something such as The White Countess, the new film from Merchant Ivory, and the latest multi-million dollar installment in the Potter franchise. “Well, the atmosphere of the movie is completely different, in that they have so much money on Harry Potter that they can take their time. You can get three or four set-ups a day and things are very leisurely and it’s also compounded by the fact that the children have different hours to the adults, so, it’s a whole different ballgame,” explains the actor., further conceding that he enjoyed the fact that on Potter, “I was grateful to have two weeks to shoot this one scene in Harry Potter.”

Fiennes is referring to the film’s climax, in which his demonic Lord Voldemort is fully revealed, with bald head and sweat pouring down an evil visage. “It’s a big, big scene, but they have to deliver and, as I’m continually being made aware by everyone I talk to, they have high expectations.” It’s quite a moment for Potter films, and he hopes for the desired response from his target audience. “I have no doubt children will be afraid of me now if they weren’t before,” he says, with a dry chuckle.

As for the pressure and hype of being the major antagonist in the latest Potter yarn, Fiennes’ philosophy is to “kind of” ignore the hype and get on with the business of acting. “I don’t really feel the hype for this particular Harry Potter film. I mean, I’m told about it, but I don’t have a fan’s investment in the books myself. I like them, I admire the world of the books, and the characters that she’s created, but I’m not, as it were, an addict of Harry Potter so I guess I don’t feel that sort of thing where you feel slightly possessive about something.” Fiennes read the novel Goblet of Fire when cast in the film version, but laughingly concedes “I was only interested in my scene, and I had to go through thousands and thousands of other scenes which I did, dutifully, until I got to my scene and I read it many, many, many, many, many times and that was my research.”

He recalls being on the Potter set, as so much larger than life. “I think a bit of me on the Harry Potter set is like a kid sort of entering into the fantasy set that when you’re young you watch those movies, and it all becomes so remarkable. The Harry Potter sets are brilliant and when you walk on to them they just are amazing, so for a second you do get transported.” Fiennes says he has the greatest respect for the film’s director, Mike Newell, the first British director on the franchise. “That was one of the blessings of a part like this, where you’re meant to be playing the distillation of evil, which can be anything, so I got lots of takes. I think the one thing we were aiming for was a sort of question, a certain amount of unpredictability in him so no one quite knows what he’s going to do next or say next which I hope makes him slightly sort of dangerous.”

It’s quite a time for Fiennes, what with Harry Potter and another family film doing nicely in theatres, albeit slightly different, as one of the voices in the new Wallace and Gromit film. Of course it’s pure coincidence that the actor would find himself in two family films. “It’s just weird how things have happened. I was approached about Wallace and Gromit maybe two and a half years ago now and they started recording the voice then and the release of it seemed years away, so it’s just timed out that it’s the same. I don’t think when I committed to Wallace and Gromit I almost certainly hadn’t committed to Harry Potter, so there’s no plan to it, it’s just that last year, from summer, April ’04, through to this last summer finishing Julius Caesar, just one year was just packed with a lot of things to do.”

One of those was the James Ivory-directed The White Countess, starring Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, in which he plays a blind, American diplomat in 1930s Shanghai. He says he was attracted to this quietly evocative tale simply because he “just liked the screenplay Kazuo Ishiguro wrote. It’s very complex, develops rounded characters and an interesting background.” Fiennes says he also identified with his character’s sense of idealism. “He’s a bruised idealist and I could identify with that.” Fiennes says that his own sense of ‘bruised idealism’ has to do with the futility of war. “I think we’d all like to believe, as Jackson does, that perhaps people could stop killing each other for a start. When you get to over 40 and people are still killing each other around the world and blowing each other up it gets a bit sort of depressing.”

So Fiennes escapes that reality by turning to a profession with which he has immersed for over a decade, choosing his roles, on screen or stage, as carefully as he can. “It matters to me that I feel happy about what I’ve chosen to do,” including the theatre, which he returns to as often as he can. “I started work as an actor in the theatre, for five years solid and when I wanted to be an actor I was only conscious of wanting to be in the theatre. I guess it never occurred to me that films and “Hollywood” would enter into my life, as I just thought that was another world away. Then I wanted to be an actor because I was a Shakespeare fan.”

Fiennes will remain in the US to shoot “this film with Susan Sarandon in New York starting in two weeks time, called Bernard and Doris. It’s about Doris Duke who left her estate to her butler, an Irishman, and it was a big scandal at the time as to whether he had maneuvered her or manipulated her into doing this and it’s really a look at what that relationship might have been.’ Then Fiennes returns to the stage, “in Dublin where I’m doing a Brian Friel play called Faith Healer which is a revival of one of his great plays which we’re starting in Dublin and taking it to New York.”

Then perhaps he’ll return to the fantastical world of Harry Potter? Fans will have to wait till 2007 to find out.