Most moviegoers, gay and straight, took a good, long look at Joseph Fiennes in the Oscar-winning films Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love and figured him for a big new movie star. Eight years later, despite his slow-burning screen mojo, soulful-eyed looks, and impressive acting chops, Fiennes isn't quite a household name. That's mostly because of some spotty follow-up films like Enemy at the Gates, Killing Me Softly, and The Great Raid. No matter. Audiences will rediscover him in Running With Scissors, the big-screen version of Augusten Burroughs's hair-raisingly funny memoir of growing up in the '70s with a wildly unstable mother who adopted him out to her crackpot psychiatrist and his bizarre extended family. Adapted from the book and directed by gay Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, the film also stars a who's who of the acting world that includes Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood. Still, Fiennes stands out as the heartbreaking, terrifying, oddly tender, rampantly sexy, troubled, volatile, and delusional 35-year-old psychiatric patient who becomes the first lover of 14-year-old Burroughs (Joseph Cross). He so nails a role that could have been irredeemably creepy--the guy is a predatory pedophile, after all--that it'd be criminal if his agents aren't plotting a stealth campaign for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Why exactly is Fiennes, at 36, not a bigger deal in movies? After all, word is that he declined a five-movie deal after Shakespeare in Love and that he turned down director Roman Polanski's offer to star him in The Pianist, a role for which Adrien Brody went on to win a Best Actor Oscar. For one thing, he is in love with the theater. Born in Salisbury, England, and raised in West Cork, Ireland, Fiennes, whose brother is the actor Ralph Fiennes, spent a decade with prestigious outfits such as the Royal Shakespeare Company before movie roles came calling. "The freedom that theater gives you allows for scope and range for the actor that you don't get in film," he says.
Besides, when it comes to film, Fiennes has been purposefully all over the map instead of settling down into typecastings. "If you've made a success in a particular genre or a particular role," he says, "you're pigeonholed and not allowed to break free. I very much felt that happening when Shakespeare in Love exploded, and I've spent almost the last decade being adamant in keeping my range open by working with the sort of quirky European or world directors that, nine times out of 10, I'll go to the cinema to see."
Still, Fiennes is hip to how working only with highly original filmmakers can be risky too. Some very good costarring work with Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice and some not-so-good work in the crime thriller Rancid Aluminum barely got seen in America. Asked why he side-stopped an Oscar-level role in The Pianist, he says, "That was a horrible situation. I had already committed to doing Christopher Marlowe's Edward II onstage in Britain. Being, sadly, a man of my word, I couldn't let the theater down." But Fiennes is quick to point out, "I did one of the great Elizabethan plays written by Christopher Marlowe, who was gay, about a monarch who was gay and was murdered because he flaunted his sexuality in front of the court. …