Ralph Fiennes has earned two Academy Award nominations, for Schindler’s List and The English Patient. His extensive filmography includes Strange Days, The End of the Affair, Red Dragon, The Constant Gardener, In Bruges, The Reader, Great Expectations and The Grand Budapest Hotel. He has directed Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman and has also featured in the Harry Potter film series as Lord Voldemort. After debuting in the James Bond series during Skyfall, he returns as M in Spectre…
Was it at all intimidating stepping into a role played so illustriously by the likes of Judi Dench and Bernard Lee?
Well, I was very aware of the legacy. I grew up watching Bond films with Bernard Lee, and then Judi Dench was so fantastic. She made her mark so indelibly on the role and I knew that it would be a hard act to follow. But when she exited, I was delighted that they asked me. Judi brought a real toughness to the part, which I’m keen to carry on, but also I want to bring a little bit of uncertainty to the character.
We’re introduced to M in his office, which is a return to the old Whitehall office, the Bernard Lee-style office…
That’s right. I think that the character has got a real old-school feeling about him. You get a feel for that from the office with the pictures on the wall. We will see what happens — maybe that office can stay in the series now, but who knows? I think this M is probably a public school boy, he has been in the army, was an officer, and has gone into covert operations. Maybe he was in the SAS. I think he has what we might call traditional values of patriotism — strong military values. But I still think he is ‘of today’. I think those men still do exist today, though we sometimes project onto them a sense of another era.
M faces a lot of conflict and turmoil at the start of Spectre. That must be very rewarding for you as an actor?
Yes. We are aware that there is an upheaval going on in the security services. M’s role as the head of MI6, and specifically the double-O section, the section where you’re licensed to kill, is under threat because of a new makeover, a new rethink of how the security services manage themselves. M is under pressure because of this imminent upheaval and Bond is party to it. Also, Bond has been going rogue and my M is already relatively new in the seat. He’s got upheaval in the security services to deal with and a Bond who’s doing his own thing, so he’s a man under pressure.
Even though he’s gone rogue, M still wants to protect Bond and believes in the double-O programme, right?
Even though the double-O section is the ‘licence to kill’ section, this is more about the man on the ground. In rather simplistic terms, there’s a debate about the value of a man going in on the ground and intermixing as opposed to us relying on digital surveillance through mobile phones and computers, which we now know is very sophisticated. We can be followed through our mobile phones and through our computers and that is what the character of Denbigh [Andrew Scott] is representing — the arm of the intelligence services that we know to be into mass surveillance. They see Bond and the double-O section as prehistoric and useless and an irrelevance, really. But M still believes that the man or woman on the ground has real value still in espionage and in covert operations.
The debate over surveillance, which permeates the film, taps into current affairs. The security services have been in the news quite a lot…
Sam Mendes’ intention was to make the themes in Spectre very current and was very much building on what we learn from the Snowden revelations, and the way that it threw a spotlight on the security services and how the NSA and GCHQ operate. It is no secret that the intelligence services were very compromised by the Snowden revelations. There was a lot of tension regarding the Snowden leaks. That real life situation influenced this picture, for sure.
Do you feel as though that makes Spectre the most relevant James Bond film of recent years?
Sam has done a great job of rooting Bond in something that is less a fantasy. There is a reality check that has gone on and although it still has to honour its extraordinary fight sequences and impossible car chases, and its high definition villains, I think Sam wants to root it in something that feels quite current and quite real.
How would you describe M’s relationship with Andrew Scott’s character, Denbigh/C?
A relationship in a drama usually should change or evolve. Theirs starts off as a wary respect. M is a professional and has got to get on with this man who is technically of a higher status and a higher rank than M. And M is aware that there’s a reality that he can’t do anything about. The two services are going to be pulled together into one. That said, when he sees that his own agents are being put under surveillance — indeed 007 is put under surveillance — then his wary respect turns into outright distrust. At the end, they have pretty much locked horns through the revelation that C is in fact the enemy, or is working for the enemy. So it goes from a professional but wary respect and caution to total animosity.
As the film reaches its climax, M steps into the action. Given his military background is this very much within his comfort zone?
I think it is in M’s comfort zone. It is in his comfort zone to go out into the field. It is just not what he is used to. I would argue that as head of MI6 he is not required to do that, ordinarily. But he himself would enjoy that. That’s how he has been previously, serving in the field. He has been out there in the past undertaking dangerous undercover missions.
What do you feel Daniel Craig has brought to the series across the last decade?
Daniel has given a whole new impetus to Bond. There have been many great Bonds and they’ve all had great qualities but Daniel has an interior intensity alongside an extraordinary physical presence and physical expressiveness. His is a high-definition Bond. I thought that the moment I saw Casino Royale. I totally believed him as this character.
I know you were a fan of the books, but did you ever have any of the little toys?
I had the toy car at one point, I am sure I did. I had the DB5 with the little ejector seat!
Do the classic James Bond cars mean much to you?
I am not a car person at all. I like the old cars because they seem to me so aesthetically pleasing with their lines and their design. Anything up until the mid-sixties, I just think is fantastic. I don’t like car designs from the mid-seventies onwards so much. I suppose that even though I am not a car person I can appreciate the Aston Martin and the Jaguar and the Bentley. But I don’t have a car!
007’s Latest Mission Available on Blu-ray™, DVD & Digital March 9