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Running from stardom: Joseph Fiennes's star is on the rise again, thanks to a role as the real-life lover of author Augusten Burroughs in this fall's Running With Scissors.

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. I'm enormously proud of that production and that amazing, complex character. Marlowe celebrates Edward's sexuality, and the character and writing are so muscular and masculine, they make Shakespeare's work seem effeminate."

After a moment Fiennes muses, "It's such a weird myth about gay being effeminate. Well, I guess it's not a complete myth, but the attributes and behavior of gay men vary as hugely as with heterosexual people. One shouldn't be caught up about a character's or a person's sexuality. We're kind of obsessed now with pigeonholing people as this or that."

Fiennes, a very private guy who has been linked romantically with actresses such as Natalie Jackson Mendoza and Catherine McCormack, clearly doesn't obsess about being perceived as "this or that." He hotly pursued Brokeback Mountain, meeting with three different directors who were attached to direct it over seven years, "because it's such a powerful, gut-wrenching love story irrespective of sexuality." Instead, his adventurous spirit led him to tackle the dicey role of the gay schizoid pederast in Running With Scissors. "I read it and thought it was off-the-wall, horrific, explicit. Maybe every seven years or so you get a script that really turns you on, so I said, 'This is what I'm after' and didn't look back. It was a knife-edge kind of role--one you had to tread cautiously and with bravery. In Burroughs's book, Nell Bookman is such a graphic character. The challenge was to make him human ultimately."

What was it like to play such a controversial figure in the life of writer Burroughs? Fiennes says, after a long pause, "Augusten maintains that Nell was his first love, however abhorrent that is in terms of the age difference, the brutality, and way that Neil seduced him. I would talk to Augusten while I was sitting in the makeup chair and on the set. He's got the most incredible piercing blue eyes. I have a feeling it took him a while to talk to and to even look at me because, even if I didn't look like Neil Bookman, just my playing him was bringing back a whole episode in his life. I asked Augusten what happened to Nell after he left for New York and, although no one really knows, I think he would either have taken his life or taken it indirectly through drugs or sex. I've got a terrifying feeling he's going to come out of the woodwork because of the film."

Juicier screen opportunities are now much more likely to come out of the woodwork for Fiennes, who has completed a film in which he plays Nelson Mandela's jailer and who is gearing up for an international stage tour in Hamlet. In other words, tough luck to those pining to see him don tights for a superhero flick or making macho goo-goo eyes in a romantic comedy. His reason: "We have a kind of family motto that comes from my mother, which is, "Get your guts into it."

Rebello also writes for Playboy, Spin, and Hollywood Life.
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Title Annotation:Fall Entertainment special
Author:Rebello, Stephen
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 12, 2006
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