"Ralph Fiennes: Charles Dickens 'absolutely had a child' with Nelly Ternan"
Speaking after the Toronto film festival premiere of The Invisible Woman, actor/director says evidence strongly suggests Dickens's affair bore offspring, and reveals his own complex relationship with the writer
September 7th, 2013
Contrary to his image as avuncular national treasure, Charles Dickens was a tormented figure, who likely fathered at least one illegitimate child and may have projected his affairs into his novels, says the actor Ralph Fiennes.
Speaking at the Toronto film festival the afternoon after the premiere of The Invisible Woman, in which Fiennes plays Dickens as he pursues an affair with much-younger actress Nelly Ternan, the actor said the gap between brand and man is much wider with Dickens than most people realise. "Dickens was tormented, he had huge extremes of emotion. We tend to get the sort of Christmas card Dickens – the smiling, jolly father-figure, entertaining the family. But when you read about him, you can identify this very disturbed man: a man in anguish."
Adapted by Abi Morgan from a biography by Claire Tomalin, the film's portrayal of Nelly (played by Felicity Jones) as a complex character torn between love and social suicide has reverberations in the novelist's work, Fiennes said.
"Great Expectations was written when we know he was involved with Ellen Ternan. And Felicity and I had a lot of conversations about the degree to which Estella might be inspired by Nelly. It's very interesting the extent to which you can identify elements of Nelly in many of his female characters, especially in his later books."
"I actually feel that his female characters get much better after his affair with Nelly," Jones joked.
Though Tomalin's biography stops short of declaring the couple definitely suffered a miscarriage, Fiennes is confident in his film's version of events. "Claire argues that although there is no absolute proof, she believes there was certainly consummation. And absolutely she believes there was a child, even possibly two. Other biographers have started to acknowledge that this is probably the best bet."
The couple also spent time in France, and great chunks of time are unaccounted for in Dickens's diaries. "France was the place people went to in England when they had to deal with illegitimate births. So I just followed the hints and the leads that Claire writes."
But Fiennes also felt it was important not to sensationalise the story. "I was wary of the quick leap to judgment – 'Dickens was a scoundrel.' An Irish friend of mine said, 'Oh he was a bit of a bollocks, wasn't he.' But there's a whole spectrum of Dickens. He was very loyal to his friends, incredibly generous, devoted to social causes that he really delivered on, wrote these amazing books, and then at home possibly was a very difficult father figure."
One of the Britain's leading stars of stage and screen, Fiennes had nevertheless had barely any contact with the country's most famous novelist until he started work on the film. "It's true that I was pretty ignorant about Dickens. I'd read Little Dorritt and seen some films, but Dickens had never been prescribed to me and I had never chosen to go through the canon of his work - and in a way that may have been a plus, I came open, and became completely fascinated."
The film casts Nelly's torment within the contemporary context of the struggles women faced in Victorian England, almost entirely dependent on the earnings of men. "Mrs Ternan, the mother, tacitly allows this relationship to happen," Fiennes said. "What's she going to do? She risks social ostracisiation for her daughter, but the security and the benefits of support of Dickens perhaps outweigh the risk of breaking the taboo."
It wasn't all strum and drag on set, however. "I had to wear this huge bow tie. I kept saying, it's too much it's too much – but then I looked at the pictures of Dickens and of course it's huge, out to here. So I embraced it." And, as both actor and director, Fiennes was able to weigh in on the two sides of himself. "Ralph Fiennes the actor is very difficult, he's very moody, tempestuous, storms off the set. And Ralph Fiennes the director … is also very difficult."
"Felicity Jones On 'The Invisible Woman' & The Strangest Christmas Gift She Ever Received"
December 23rd, 2013
Felicity Jones has starred alongside some of Hollywood's most buzzed about young actors, including Andrew Garfield in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and Eddie Redmayne in the Stephen Hawking biopic "Theory of Everything." She's pretty open about the latter movie, but, like much of the gossip surrounding the next "Spider-Man" installment, mum's the word for the 29-year-old Jones when it comes to her debut Peter Parker adventure.
All of that, however, is secondary to Jones' latest movie, "The Invisible Woman." A period piece directed by and co-starring Ralph Fiennes, "Woman" tells the oft-forgotten true story of Nelly Ternan, the mistress of Charles Dickens. The illicit love story is based on Claire Tomalin's book of the same name, and it marks Fiennes' second venture from behind the camera following 2011's "Coriolanus." HuffPost Entertainment sat down with Jones to discuss the new movie, and along the way we discovered she's not a fan of physics but she does enjoy kitsch.
“Like Crazy,” your breakout role, was a low-budget picture heavy on improv. This is not. Which do you prefer?
I like both. They test different things in you as an actor, so I’m happy to move between both styles. I mean, the main thing is just being truthful with the character and caring about them, and that’s sort of the focus. And then as an actor, you want to be in different films and different styles and work with different directors, so that’s always the focus.
Do you find an improv setting to be natural for you?
I love improvising. I love collaborating in that way. It’s like extreme sports -- you never know quite what’s going to happen, so there’s a lot of excitement in working that way.
You’ve done a ton of literary projects: “Northanger Abbey,” “Brideshead Revisited,” “The Tempest.” Are you a big reader yourself?
I love reading, yeah. I studied literature at university, and since a young age that’s always been a passion of mine.
Have you read anything lately that you’d recommend to us?
Yeah, I just read a book called “Life After God,” which I thought was really beautifully written, and I’m just starting “Crime and Punishment.”
That’s a big undertaking.
Dostoevsky is a bit heavy, yeah. I don’t just read nihilistic books, though.
What did you know about Nelly before being associated with "Invisible Woman"? Were you familiar with her story at all?
I didn’t know about her, and the film in many ways is bringing her to the fore. I’m so happy she’s not going to be buried in history. I do think she wanted to tell her story, of her relationship with Dickens. She was a big, big part of his life, and she shouldn’t be forgotten.
What were your assessments of who Nelly was as a woman?
A lot of it is your gut instinct. I think she was very proud, I think she was very willful, had a very strong sense of self. She didn’t want to be just some floozy mistress; she wanted to retain her dignity and her strength within their relationship. But from the outside, obviously Dickens had a lot of power, and it was a difficult relationship. But I think she had enormous inner strength. I just think about her now if I’m worried, and I think, “What would Nelly do?” She was a real survivor. She had no money. They were so poor, her family, that she sort of struggled for survival and did it.
Even though he’s known for such serious work, I picture working with Ralph Fiennes to be fun-loving. What was his presence like on the set?
He’s very committed and very devoted to his work. He doesn’t take it lightly -- he knows that he’s very privileged to be doing what he’s doing. It’s the seriousness of the endeavor that I respect in him. And it’s not taken on lightly, and I love the way he approaches both acting and directing. It’s absolute focus, and he wants to tell a story as honestly as possible.
What was it like working on someone’s film who’s also acting in the project?
Well, it’s obviously a different environment than I’m used to, but Ralph just created a set where we were really free to explore, and it was very focused and it was just totally about performance, which was a luxury. You don’t get that. Directors often have a million things to be thinking about, so you don’t get that laser focus on creating a performance of integrity. That was an intense but fascinating experience.
Is there a recent part you wish you could have played, or perhaps a famous one you’d love to take on?
I don’t know, I think there’s going to be a fashion of women playing men’s parts. Like, I’d love to play Hamlet.
A reverse Shakespearean kind of thing?
Yeah! Or something just to try. Obviously people like Tilda Swinton have done it. I think that’d be fascinating to try a different psychology.
You recently wrapped “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which I assume required much more physicality than something like “The Invisible Woman” or “Like Crazy.” Did you have to adopt any particular physical regimen to prepare?
I really can’t say that much about it. So, you’ll have to wait and see. It was really good, I had a great time. I really respect everyone involved in the project; they’re all wonderful, and I loved the comics growing up.
Oh, did you read them?
Yeah, my brother had the Spider-Man pajama set, and like all kids, we loved cartoons. So it was really cool to put a part of.
Can you tell us whether you’re returning for “Amazing Spider-Man 3”?
You’ll have to wait and see.
You also have “Theory of Everything" coming up. Did you have any physics knowledge before taking the role of Hawking’s wife?
I was so bad at physics in school. Physics and math and chemistry, I was like, “No, I’ll just stick to English and history, thank you very much.” It’s definitely not my world, and I think Stephen Hawking actually is someone who’s made physics a lot more accessible to people. That’s really his legacy, so I enjoyed reading his books.
So we should all go read “A Brief History of Time”?
Yeah, it’s fantastic. But the character I was playing was much more literary and artistic, and so much of the film is about their different attitudes toward the world, their different ideologies.
In keeping with the season, what’s the strangest Christmas present you’ve received?
I once got a vase from an aunt that had a monkey on it.
Do you still have it?
You know what, when I first got it, I hated it. But now I think it’s quite kitsch, so now it has a presence in my life. It’s like fashion -- it’s always changing.
Kill, marry or bang: Andrew Garfield, Eddie Redmayne, James Franco.
[laughs] I am definitely not even entertaining that question.
Okay, at least tell us which of the three you find the hunkiest.
I can’t, I’ll get into so much trouble. I’m friends with all of them, they’re all lovely.
So they’ll all want to know which of them wins your heart.
They’re all very talented actors.
Of course. Favorite movies of the year?
“Blue is the Warmest Color,” and I actually loved “The Look of Love,” the Michael Winterbottom movie, as well.
What sense would you be most afraid to lose?
I think touch. Can you lose one? Yeah, you can lose sensation. Am I going mad? Touch is a sense, right?
What are the five senses? This is how gone from my own humanity I am.
Oh no, you’re not a science person, I get it. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
Yeah. It’s a good name for a movie.
There: your first writing project.
Yeah, let’s do it.
Do you want to write or direct at any point?
At the moment, acting is my focus. But I wouldn’t want to rule anything out.
Well, if so, we just developed the title for your first movie, so you can figure out what that’ll entail. Not physics probably.
Yeah, no way.
I better get some kind of producer credit on that.
Oh, for sure.
Ellen Ternan [Wikipedia]