Casting directors have known for decades that Ralph Fiennes was the go-to guy for intense, pensive or villainous star turns. The key to an actor's longevity, however, is the ability to continually surprise people, and as the debonair, unflappable concierge of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," he's a lighter-than-air charmer. Director Wes Anderson used the Fiennes persona as something to complicate and play with, emphasizing his cracked, camera-dazzling grin rather than his laser-beam stare and glowering brow.
In a phone interview, Fiennes confessed that he wasn't especially confident of his comic gifts, but saw the witty, refined and randy Monsieur Gustave as a role he simply had to play.
"It's a lot to do with Wes and what is written on the page. A very strong impression was in the screenplay of who this guy was. It felt like he should move like a dancer, lightly and deftly and unobtrusively. The first question I asked was, 'How does one pitch this so it doesn't become too flamboyant, too campy?' You need a bit of those things, but not too much," he said.
M. Gustave, the chief of staff in the opulent make-believe 1930s hotel, wears a prim, fully buttoned tail coat of royal purple, stretched ever-so-slightly by his self-inflated dignity. Fiennes worked intensively with the costumer, Oscar-winner Milena Canonero, to ensure that it moved well and looked impressive.
"It had to be not too heavy, not too tight, but at the same time have a formality to it. For concierges in hotels, the sense of presentation is very important. It appeals to a certain kind of men who might be frustrated actors. They want to put on a show, play a role." He became quite frustrated in the four-hour fittings as he was being "prodded and poked and pinned into these things. They had to be of a heavy fabric so they would hang properly and not crinkle and crease. But I had to feel light and sharp and free."
The acid test came in a scene when M. Gustave is confronted by police in the hotel lobby. From a dead standstill, Fiennes bolts across the vast hall and up the stairs, legs wheeling like the Warner Bros. Road Runner. "I quite liked that scene," Fiennes said, chuckling at the memory. "We did that several times. There was a great sense of fun on the set."
A visually meticulous director, Anderson would work closely with the actors to achieve just the effect he desired. In fact, he recommended the urbane 1930s comedies of Ernst Lubitsch as a study guide for his cast. "It was a particular style of playing he wanted us to consider," Fiennes said.
Anderson shot all of Fiennes' scenes in the squared-off format of that era's studio films. It was a choice that required Fiennes to forget modern camera blocking techniques and present himself to the camera differently.
"It's all on very wide lenses and it definitely affected where you were in the frame. It was weird. If it was a close-up on me looking at young Tony Revolori," who plays the hotel's lobby boy, "my eyes would appear to be looking weirdly off to the right or left." To fix the problem, Anderson stuck squares of electrician's tape directly beside the camera lens, representing the offscreen character's position.
He was equally fastidious about performance. "He would from time to time offer line readings, which normally one would find rather irritating," Fiennes said. "We agreed on a process where he would give me the first two takes free, don't say anything, just let me try what I thought was the way in. Then he would offer his notes. Then after he felt he'd got it, I would be allowed one or two more takes to chuck it around again. He loved to let actors explore, and I loved that opportunity to go again and again."
Fiennes would also enjoy going again with Anderson. Over the course of his eight features, Anderson has recruited a stock troupe of actors who appear in film after film. "I think it would be great to be part of his company" on upcoming projects, Fiennes said. "I would love that, actually."