MOVIES : Cerebral Vortex : Ralph Fiennes spends a lot of time in his head--for his roles in 'Schindler's List' and 'Quiz Show,' and as Hamlet. Thanks to 'Strange Days' ' virtual reality, we can go there too.

Bronwen Hruska, a New York-based free-lance writer, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Ralph Fiennes has seated himself smack dab in the center of the hotel room couch.

As the reluctant promoter for his films "Schindler's List" (1993), "Quiz Show" (1994) and now "Strange Days" (which opened Friday) begins to speak about his rapid rise to Hollywood's coveted elite, he unconsciously pulls two throw pillows close and clutches them, creating a sort of fortress around himself. Fiennes is notoriously private, afraid that through a glance or smile he might give away some secret to his soul and betray the man behind the facade.

He talks in hushed, proper-sounding British, addressing no one in particular as he stares straight ahead at a television that is not turned on. When he does face his guest, the effect of his intense gray eyes, sunken slightly into his hawkishly handsome face, is even greater.

It's those searching, intelligent eyes that have pierced the consciousness of American movie audiences and rocketed Fiennes, 32, from parochial British stage actor to Hollywood darling in a mere two years. And though he won the New York, Boston and Chicago film critics awards for "Schindler's List" plus nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, his success (and the inevitable comparisons to Laurence Olivier) only makes him wary.

"When actors start doing well, people want a bit of them," he says, sounding rather bored, as if he'd rather be anywhere than here today. "They become a commodity, you start to speak the language of the marketplace. I acknowledge and respect that is a part of it; I just think you have to be careful of the way people will shift perspective for you--they can be very persuasive--unless you're very clear about what you want to do."

The classically trained actor speaks in lofty, Shakespearean-sounding language about the importance of staying true to himself. "As a child, it's important to be accepted and praised--you need to hear the noise of success," he begins, legs crossed and slumping into the back of the couch.

He's paid his film dues with a bit part in the miniseries "Prime Suspect," a 1991 remake of "Wuthering Heights" with Juliette Binoche and a Peter Greenaway film, "The Baby of Macon" (1992). And now that he's receiving the hottest scripts around, he can afford to be ultra-selective. He recently turned down a role in Robert Evans' upcoming "The Saint." He even stopped reading reviews--to shield himself from the good ones as well as the bad.

"Every actor, of course, wants to be applauded at some level. But you do it because something is in you, not because you want a stamp of approval. It's sort of a nonentity, really. You've just got to try to hang onto what inspires you."

That's where theater comes in. Fiennes' passion for theater began at home where he played games and put on plays for his five younger siblings in Suffolk, just outside of London, where he grew up. His mother, a writer, and his father, a farmer-turned-photographer, had little money, but were major influences in their children's artistic endeavors (two of Fiennes' sisters work in the film industry and one of his brothers is an actor).

"The human imagination is so infinite, every person has their own universe inside them," says Fiennes, remembering his fascination even as a child. "And maybe acting is a way to know yourself, because even when you're acting, you're always yourself in some way--it's a very primitive impulse to inhabit who you are."

If it sounds like Fiennes has thought about his craft a good deal, it's probably because he has. Acting, for Fiennes, is more than the five-minute rehearsal before doing the shot. It's an intellectual exercise that's rooted in his top-notch training. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1985, joined Michael Rudman's company at the National Theatre in 1987 and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988.

His vast success on both stage and screen may have spurred the inevitable comparisons to Olivier--a comparison he recognizes as a compliment but shrugs off as "a waste of time." According to Jonathan Kent, who directed Fiennes in his Tony award-winning portrayal of "Hamlet" this year, Fiennes' natural secretiveness adds to his allure.

"I think Ralph is one of the few actors who can exist onstage and on-screen to equal effect," Kent says. "He has an immediacy and he fascinates audiences. He has a hidden quality, a secret heart, and most great actors have that. It's not intentional, it's just an elusive quality--there's something you can't pin down about him."

Perhaps that's why fans began sending him gifts in the mail--usually pieces of clothing like shirts and hats. It's something Fiennes can't quite seem to figure out. "It's slightly embarrassing," he says, cracking one of the first smiles of the day as the color rises in his cheeks. "I feel awkward someone would buy me something, spend money. And often it's not something you'd wear. . . ."

Liam Neeson, his co-star in "Schindler's List," says Fiennes' popularity and success has everything to do with his approach to his work. "I don't want to sound elitist, but Ralph has something theater actors have in common--they can kind of cut through the b.s. This project wasn't about satisfying personal egos you often find in Hollywood," Neeson says. "I've found that actors immediately get suspect when you want their input, but with Ralph we just pored over these characters."

To play Amon Goeth, the Nazi commander who shot Jews from his concentration camp veranda for target practice, Fiennes portrayed pure evil by, well, finding something to like about the guy. "He told me, 'I always have to remember this man was a baby who wore diapers that got changed,' " says Neeson. " 'He cooed and smiled, his parents thought he was wonderful. He said mama for the first time. And somewhere along the line, the hand of fate interfered to make him an incredibly evil human being.' Ralph knows that when you play evil you kind of play everything else but evil."

Ultimately, Neeson says, it was Fiennes' own personality that made Goeth work on-screen. "Ralph is one of the few actors who knows the power of the camera and isn't afraid to let it into his soul," Neeson says. "He was able to lay bare the inner turmoil of the character--he was never scared to do it, and I found it very brave in his first major screen role."

In fact, Fiennes' forte is inner turmoil. It's the flaws that have always attracted him to characters. And it's the humanity he brings to those flaws that has won him recognition in the industry. It also won him his major breaks.

Robert Redford was up against the clock, unable to find an appropriate Charles Van Doren for "Quiz Show," last year's critically acclaimed film about the rigging of the 1950s game show "Twenty-One." He'd auditioned more than 30 actors, none of whom had the right combination of qualities. Then he saw an early television movie Fiennes made, "A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia."

"The film was OK. It didn't knock me out," Redford remembers. But he was panicked he wouldn't find a Van Doren who could show the vulnerability at the center of this respected academic gone wrong. So he gave the unknown actor a shot. He flew Fiennes to the United States from Poland where he was filming "Schindler's," and after a weekend of working on the character together, Redford offered him the part.

"I just felt Ralph had something tricky and dark to him," Redford says. "That's what did it--he found the demon Van Doren carried inside him."

And once again, with "Strange Days," Fiennes has landed on a character with a troubled soul. Lenny Nero, the center of Kathryn Bigelow's new movie, is an ex-cop gone underground selling "clips," or outtakes from other people's lives.

The newest technology is a silly-looking hat that taps into one's cerebral cortex and records their experiences digitally for later playback. The bleak backdrop of Los Angeles in this not-too-distant future is filled with neon, smoke and nightcrawlers trying to outscam their buddies. The experiences--which are still safe--are reusable but detached snippets from other people's lives.

"I haven't done drugs, but I think it is similar to drugs--stimulating yourself artificially and actually you are destroying your soul," says Fiennes, rubbing his elegant hand distractedly on the seat cushion next to him in circular strokes. "Lenny is always thinking about the next clip he can sell, the next deal he can make. He can't bear to be on his own. I liked him because he was a little weak."

As Lenny, Fiennes looks completely different than he has in the past. His shaggy hair is stringy and his skin is constantly covered in a thin film of sweat. Like Lenny, Fiennes kept late hours, filming nights in desolate areas of L.A.--like one San Pedro location that faced a cat food factory. "That smell of fish being processed is one of the worst smells," Fiennes recalls almost wistfully.

"Characters creep into one's consciousness more than one thinks," says Fiennes, whose hair is back to its natural brown and combed back like a 1930s matinee idol minus the pomade. "You think about the person you're trying to become so much that there comes a point of merging. I'll be making tea or whatever, and suddenly I realize how much this person has changed my attitude, how I talk to people, even to an extent how I lead my life."

Lenny is constantly hustling, on the move to make a deal or flee from trouble. "I found I was very restless," says Fiennes, who now seems so still you have to fight the urge to check for a pulse. "I wasn't sleeping, and I had a lot of energy all the time. Then when I'd hit the bed I'd crash and get up at midnight. When I finished the film, I was so hungry for something . . . a friend gave me some music from Bach. A few days in the country playing Bach--which is so harmonious on every level--made me realize how I'd been L.A.-ed for so long."

Bigelow describes Fiennes' ability to disappear into his characters as "chameleonic." "He's incredibly thorough," she says. "He tackles this character with such intensity and passion. With a great actor it's not only reading lines, it's body-language nuances and it's in the way he captures the gaze of the actor he's working with in a scene. He's absolutely present and in the moment, you are not aware of any process. It's an invisible, pure, seamless transformation."

And once again, he's revamping personas in Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient," based on Michael Ondaatje's novel and due out next fall. As Almasy, a Hungarian count and explorer in the 1930s, Fiennes scrutinizes not only the desert landscapes of North Africa, but the internal landscape of a remote and obsessive man who cannot abide by societal conventions.

After that, he'll take a long and much-needed break at home in London with his wife of two years, Alex Kingston. Though she was a fellow student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he claims the acting is not the basis of their bond. But it can get in the way. "I think it has been a strain," he says, quietly, referring to the extraordinary success he's had with his career over the past two years. But he's getting glum at the topic, and stares down at the floor, wringing his wedding ring-free hands. "Um, I really prefer not to talk about my private life," he whispers.

He's clearly much happier talking about his work, and especially his love for the theater. Going back to London to play Hamlet after the release of "Quiz Show" wasn't a normal Hollywood maneuver. But then again, Fiennes isn't your normal Hollywood guy. In fact, instead of rushing into another film role, he's hoping to collaborate with Kent again in the next 18 months on another play.

Don't get him wrong, he likes the challenge of making movies, with one day to get a scene just right. But, he says, it doesn't fulfill his creative needs the way the theater does.

"Film is a director's medium. You're always at the mercy of the camera and the director," says Fiennes, sticking his hand down the crack between the seat cushions. "In theater you know you're telling a story to the audience in the present moment and they're receiving it. That moment is part of a communion between actor and audience. It's essentially religious--it has a very strong spiritual element, to be able to provoke and move people in the flesh. You can't beat that."

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