The White Crow
by actor/director Ralph Fiennes
Although I had no great interest in ballet and I didn’t know much about Rudolf Nureyev, I was gripped by the story of his early life. His youth in Ufa in central Russia in the 1940s, his student years studying dance in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and then culminating in his decision to defect to the West in 1961. That story got under my skin. The story sat with me as a great possibility for a film. I didn’t really see myself directing it. It was just the idea. It’s so dramatic and is about so many things. It has an interior personal dynamic, the drive to realize himself and the ruthlessness that goes with it. It’s also within the context of the ideological divide between East and West at the height of the Cold War. It was that character, that will of Nureyev’s that made him realize who he was—an artist that really grabbed me.
David Hare was our ideal writer. David writes what I call ‘high-definition’, provocative characters who have strong contrasting elements that are challenging for an audience. He writes those big spirits and he writes them brilliantly. Also, David is known for writing things that have a strong political and social context. He has an instinctive understanding of the political climate in our story. I feel I have a good connection with David. We batted many ideas back and forth, feeling the temperature and the tone and the shifts of what we wanted to do. It was very inspiring to sit with him and wrangle the challenges of structure and drama. We asked ourselves, ‘What was the essential story we were trying to tell?’ We were clear this was the story of young Rudolf’s defection. I first thought it should be linear. What emerged in our discussion was the three time frame structure: Paris 1961, the Leningrad years from ’55-’61, and the childhood years in the late ‘40s. These time frames interweave giving us a portrait of the evolution of this boy and leading us to a point at La Bourget in June ’61. The timeframes come together at this point.
We employed two casting directors in Russia to do a big sweep which ended up with four or five candidates and I identified this young Ukrainian dancer, Oleg Ivenko, from the Tartar State Ballet company. I felt he had a latent acting ability and he is a strong ballet dancer who has a physical proximity to Rudolf Nureyev. When I did the screen tests, I could see Oleg picked up immediately on direction. If I demonstrated something, he got it very quickly. A couple of times I would say ‘No, this is what I want’ and I would demonstrate an attitude or a feeling and he very quickly got it. There was something about the way he sat in front of the camera, some ‘X factor’ that made me think ‘That could be Rudi’. I pushed him to understand the best screen acting is rooted in being really present and in the moment. You’re reacting and listening, so the thing to get him to feel is ‘don’t show me you’re angry or shy or irritated or whatever; just feel it, be it. Have it inside. If you really have it or are close to having it, it will reveal itself’. It sounds quite simple, but it’s hard to be really present and the beauty of his work is that he is very present. It’s an uncluttered performance. He was very generous and allowed me to steer him a bit, but he has a real pure screen acting instinct.
In the end I felt we were comfortable with each other quite quickly, there was a good working relationship.