Ralph Fiennes, who could just be the new spymaster M in future Bond films, talks to Kate Kellaway about meeting his match with Charles Dickens, his personal life... and then there was the time he could have played James Bond

Ralph Fiennes could have been a diplomat in a previous life - the low, patrician voice and the clothes. The morning we meet in London, at a nondescript editing suite of all places, he is dressed elegantly in a neat cardigan, fresh shirt and polished boots.

A youthful-looking 50-year-old, Fiennes has a smile of such disarming sweetness that the first impression is that something has gone bizarrely wrong.

It is only retrospectively that the oddity makes sense: what he does best as an actor is torment.

His eyes can convey a troubled history in a glance. They mark him out in every part - from MI6 agent, Gareth Mallory, in the last Bond film, Skyfall; to Voldemort in Harry Potter, an SS officer in Schindler's List, and Coriolanus, in the film he also directed from last year. They are extraordinary.


But if the lightness in his face this morning is unfamiliar, it should not be taken as encouragement. By repute, Fiennes is anything but biddable. It is as if he really were an ambassador, overseeing a country of unrest.

It is breakfast time and we begin with Dickens because Fiennes is in the middle of a Dickens-fest. In Mike Newell's new film, Great Expectations, opening on Thursday, he is one of a starry cast alongside Helena Bonham Carter's zany cobweb of a Miss Havisham, Robbie Coltrane's bullish Mr Jaggers and Jeremy Irvine, still fresh-faced after War Horse, as Pip.

Fiennes plays the unnerving convict Magwitch, and captures perfectly that uniquely Dickensian mixture of the sinister and benign.

But he is also involved in a project even dearer to his heart. He is directing his second film, The Invisible Woman, in which he also stars - as Dickens. The screenplay, by Abi Morgan, is inspired by Claire Tomalin's splendid biography about Dickens and the secret love of his life: Nelly Ternan.

I ask how it would be were Dickens able to join us for breakfast. Would we like him?

"I think we would be greatly taken with him. He would amuse us with his anecdotes. He would be very much the host. He would want to make sure we were all right and had enough to eat. We would be charmed."

But would we get any sense of who he really was? "Possibly not. Whenever I meet people who are projecting one quality, I always think: what is the other side?"

It is a question with which Fiennes has been preoccupied during the making of his film, and will be my question too - but about Fiennes himself.

"Everyone is quick to say Dickens was a bit of a shit, did not treat his wife very nicely ... but he was churning with creative imagination. And if you don't have that inside you, it is hard to get your head around it."

Dickens was a compulsive walker, Fiennes says. "He wore himself out." He had an "obsessive quality, and when pushed into a corner could act with emotional violence". He was "profoundly sensitive, easily slighted, incredibly generous". Fiennes talks of the "yearning" in the novels, Dickens' recurring dream of finding a "perfect, harmonious place to live".

It is wrong, he believes, to dismiss this as sentimentality. Dickens' obsessive quality is something Fiennes understands. He is famous for his tireless approach to work, the self-criticism, the lack of complacency.

What is most striking on meeting Fiennes is his concentrated quality. However, what drew him to The Invisible Woman was not Dickens, but the character of Nelly (to be played by the effervescent Felicity Jones). And now he springs to his feet and paces up and down, talking about Nelly, trying to imagine how it was for her: "He was 45 ... she was only 18. And this man, this force that came at her, happened to be someone called Charles Dickens. And he came with his alpha-male charisma and imagination, and she had to weather it. And that was the story of her heart."

He adds in a quieter tone: "And that made me want to do it."

Fiennes hadn't read much Dickens before the film got under way but he has put that right. And he talks about Dickens' feelings: the "shame, doubt and anguish" felt by a married Victorian in a love affair out of wedlock; the conflict between desire and duty, and the plain fact he "adored Nell".

Dickens would have "worked hard to show he was there for her". I can hear in his voice his wish to believe in the unassailability of their love, yet he is swift to acknowledge how hard Nelly's lot became: "Here was a woman harbouring the secret of a past life. She lived with what I call a 'wound of intimacy'."

Quite a phrase. It makes one wonder about the "wounds of intimacy" in his own life. He lived for 12 years with actress Alex Kingston, whom he married in 1993 but then left for Francesca Annis, 17 years his senior (she was playing Gertrude to his Hamlet on Broadway), until that relationship also ended. The rest is mainly gossip. And to spare Fiennes, I have devised - for light relief - a multiple-choice question. I tell him what he is in for and he laughs and sits forward on the sofa.

You don't like talking about your private life because:

a) It is a bloody impertinence to be asked about it and it's not the interviewer's business.
b) You are shy.
c) You prefer to be in control of the material yourself.
d) It involves other people and that makes it uncomfortable.
e) None of the above.

He considers: "A combination ... a, c and d."

His mother, who died of cancer when she was 55 and he was 31, is one woman he will gladly talk about. "I was very close to my mother."

Jennifer Lash, Jini to her friends, was a painter and novelist (Bloomsbury published her last novel, Blood Ties). Born in England, she spent her early years in India, and seems to have been creative, unconventional and a huge influence on her seven children, of whom Fiennes is the eldest.

"She was an enthusiast," he says. "She encouraged us all to engage. To really go into whatever we were doing, not to skate on the surface. To become impassioned."

But she had "an emotional fragility, often present, that we all felt strongly".

When he was a teenager, Fiennes would have liked to play James Bond. "I was obsessed with him," he says, although these days he's more realistic. "When I was younger I might have fancied my chances ... and actually, there was a moment 15 years ago when a few phone calls were made ..."

But he is too much of a thinker to play Bond and, by his own admission, a lousy sportsman. And where would the torment fit in? Bond doesn't do torment, no matter how tough the going.

So, in lieu of any action man openings, he is about to star in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, a comedy about Monsieur Gustave, a concierge. "I love the shooting: ready - turnover - action. You don't know what is going to happen, and I don't just mean the acting but the weather, the light ..."

What does he do to get away? "I love to travel away from this culture and be in India or Greece, or Jordan or Russia, or China."

He lives in Shoreditch, in trendy east London, where his brother Magnus was once memorably quoted as saying Fiennes lived "like a monk who has won the lottery".

"I like solitude. I live on my own. It seems to work. It gives me a kind of headspace. Which I feel I need."

He doesn't know how much longer he will be there though.

"It makes me feel so old," he laughs.

Who: Ralph Fiennes
What: MI6 agent Gareth Mallory in Skyfall, in cinemas now. Plays Magwitch in Great Expectations, out in New Zealand early next year.
Key roles: Schindler's List (1993); The English Patient (1996); The Constant Gardener (2005); Harry Potter (2005-2011); The Reader (2008)

- TimeOut / Observer