The story of a Russian ballerina captured Ralph Fiennes 20 years ago and now it's a big screen film

Cape Town - The extraordinary story of Rudolf Nureyev’s early years and his defection to the West – the international press called it the legendary ballet dancer’s "leap to freedom" – has fascinated Ralph Fiennes ever since he first read a vivid account of it some 20 years ago.

At the time, when he read Julie Kavanagh’s acclaimed biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life Fiennes instinctively knew that it would make a great film although back then he wasn’t looking to do it himself.

Down the years Fiennes did, of course, develop a desire to direct– he made his first film as a director, Coriolanus, in 2011 and his second, The Invisible Woman, in 2013.

When Fiennes felt the time was right to make his third feature, his filmmaking partner, producer Gaby Tana, reminded him of Kavanagh’s story of Nureyev – and in particular the first six chapters which recount his poverty-stricken childhood, his ballet training and the famous trip to Paris with the Kirov Ballet Company in 1961 when he defected – and The White Crow was born.

The screenplay by David Hare (a double Oscar nominee for The Hours and The Reader) is, says Fiennes, essentially the story that gripped him all those years ago.


In the following Q&A, Fiennes who also stars in the drama, shares more about how the story captured him and the process of making the film.

How did The White Crow start?

There was the biography (Rudolf Nureyev: The Life) by Julie Kavanagh, which is meant to be the official biography - I guess it’s approved by the Nureyev Foundation. I’ve known Julie for a few years, and about 20 years ago she sent me the first six chapters of her biography and I never quite knew why. I had no conscious desire to direct back then – I was an actor – but I think it was the love of Russia that she knew I had. I had no ballet knowledge, I had no knowledge of Nureyev, she just sent it to me, and maybe she had some sixth sense that it would turn into something. I just don’t know. She sent it to me saying, ‘I think this would interest you’ and it completely gripped me. And it was only the six chapters up to and including the chapter on the defection and the chapter on the defection is called ‘Six Steps Exactly’ which is supposedly the six steps he walked up to the policeman to say ‘I want to stay in your country.’ It was a riveting read. So in a way the film that David (Hare, screenwriter) has written, and that I worked with him on, is a reflection of those six chapters, which is this description of this boy from a remote provincial city, very, very poor, post Second World War, and with this weird, unusual spirit – a young boy who identifies his own need to be a dancer in the face of his father’s opposition. We couldn’t put everything in but the main beats of that progression to the defection was what it is.

So even though back then you didn’t think about making it as a film yourself it stayed with you?

Yes, and so it sat with me vaguely as something that someone should make a film about. And then having made with two films with Gaby Tana, the producer, she, having a love of ballet and a background in ballet, then said, ‘do you want to do this?’ And so with Gaby’s nurturing of my impulse to do it and David coming on board to write it, we started. And the first big step was David coming on board because I knew he would get the political complications and the sense of a difficult, what I call ‘high definition’ character with strong angles of arrogance and vulnerability and curiosity and passion – all the things that make up Nureyev. He was a moody fucker but he had something on stage, which was mesmeric as a performer.

A scene in The White Crow.

So you weren’t particularly an admirer of ballet?

No, I didn’t come to it through a love of ballet. I came to it because I was moved by this young boy’s sinewy, fiery desire to realise himself.

Did he have a sense of destiny?

He had a sense of destiny and a hunger to absorb all art forms: literature, he taught himself how to play the piano and read the score and going to the Hermitage (in Saint Petersburg) and looking at paintings and drinking in anything that would help him express himself as a dancer.

Could you relate to him on that level? As someone who was seeking to feed that creative drive?

I guess I have felt like that. I have gone to art galleries and I love it when everything feeds your imagination. I’m speaking as an actor – whether it’s another film, a painting – it feeds you and it all somehow goes into the current of the indefinable thing that you are trying to express. And at some level I identify with him.

You speak Russian in the film. When did you learn Russian?

My Russian isn’t as good as it seems in the film. I have a little bit of Russian and I had to work very, very hard. I know what I’m saying but I had to really refine it in post-production. I played it in Russian so the lip synch is there but I’m sure in Russia they will hear an accent and a slight awkwardness. I worked very hard with a wonderful translator and a Russian sound editor so I think it’s respectable but I have no problem if they re-voice me for Russia (laughs).

A scene in The White Crow.

You must have been thinking right from the start of this project, ‘who will I get to play Nureyev?’ Were you thinking of an actor who could be trained to dance or were you looking for a dancer who could act?

I kept circling around it. It was, ‘how do you do this? How do you find Nureyev?’ And it’s sort of impossible and I think I was prepared to fail in that search. I guess I had an overriding view that the story was very strong and that David’s script, as it developed, got stronger and stronger so I sort of thought ‘if I get this right, whoever plays it the story and the character are so strong that the odds are it can work.’ But clearly I needed a strong presence at the centre. And logistically, too, I knew I had a tight schedule and there’s a lot of foreign languages, there’s a lot of sub-titles and I was pushing for an unknown as the lead and that was really tricky. But I wanted to be able to put Nureyev at the bar doing a practice and I don’t want to have to cut to the legs of a dancer and the head and shoulders of an actor. And an actor, no matter how hard they work, hasn’t trained and it isn’t in them since they were a child and the moment they raise their arm someone is going to know.

Were you always going to play Pushkin in the film?

I didn’t want to be in it at all. I had done that twice and I was determined not to be in it. It is really hard. We did try to look for Russian investment and there was interest but it never crystalized. I met a Russian woman executive producer who made it clear to me that Russian investment would not be forthcoming unless there were stars in it and I didn’t have any stars in it. They knew I had Chulpan Khamatova who is a star in Russia but they knew that outside Russia her name doesn’t really mean very much in the commercial world. So she said, ‘Ralph, why aren’t you playing Pushkin?’ And at that point I was looking for Russian investment and I wanted to shoot in Russia, which is full of complications, and at that point I said, ‘OK, the money is not forthcoming, I’ll do it.’ And David had written a lovely part and so I decided to do it. And I started to work on the Russian. It was really tough because once you are in the part on the day – to be properly in it as an actor - you don’t want to think about camera angles and stuff like that. So it really stretches your focus to go to the cinematographer and have to talk about shots and framing and camera positions etc and luckily with (cinematographer) Mike Eley I quickly realised that I had someone who I trusted. His compositional taste, his sense of what I was trying to do was exactly the same as mine and we were in synch. I guess I have quite strong compositional instinct but I learnt to let go and Mike was always delivering stuff that was pleasing. It worked. I had amazing people around me who were incredibly supportive like script supervisor Susanna Lenton who has been with me on my other two films and I really trust her judgement on screen performance. She is very hardnosed and very supportive and we have a short hand. I would do something and she would go, ‘good, let’s go again’ or ‘good Ralph, I like this.’ And I can just tell and there would be a point when she would go ‘that’s it.’ And I would feel it, too. I think I have a relatively good sense when the performance is sitting in a good place. I have a feeling and she would confirm that.

A scene in The White Crow.

You met with people who knew Nureyev. What did that give you?

There’s a scene in the film where he goes to lunch with the twins in Leningrad – they are in the scene as the older couple at the table. So when you see that scene and the girl says ‘this is my twin brother’ and there is a shot of two older people, that’s the real twins. And they have been very supportive and helpful to me. They were amazing, wonderful, very special people. And their loyalty to Nureyev and their love of him shines through. They would say ‘he was a shy boy and he loved coming to our family for these meals because he heard conversation, discussion about ideas and art and life.’ Leningrad sort of considers itself a city of learning and intellectual refinement and I think it had a Soviet version of that. They still live in the family’s apartment and they’ve had since the early 20th century. I think they represented to me a vital youth that are not bowed down by being in an oppressive system. Even though their story doesn’t continue in the film I love that scene because he is clearly moved by this other life and the vitality around the table and he comes out of it with the idea that there are all these things he can learn and can inspire him.

Have you grown to love ballet?

I have grown to love ballet and I want to go and see a whole load of ballet now. I think it’s brilliant. It was tough for me and I was out of my comfort zone shooting the dances. For a number of reasons it was very difficult. I don’t think Oleg quite realised how much he would have to do repeatedly so we were dealing with fatigue and the need to shoot. I thought I knew a way to shoot it and I wanted to come in very close to the dancer’s body, which we did, but funnily enough that’s interesting but it doesn’t show the dance and I realised that what we like to see is the whole body in flight making a shape and dancers’ make a shape precisely for the audience. If you go behind them it’s not as interesting or as beautiful. If dancers’ see footage of themselves they go ‘my foot isn’t right’ so it’s incredibly precise in what they choose to represent. I made mistakes about how to sell his height so we went back and re-shot some and I realised I’ve just got to show him in flight and we did it better second time around.The White Crow is currently showing in cinemas nationwide.


(Photos supplied: Film Finity)