NEW YORK – Ralph Fiennes, the slightly built Englishman of such genteel period pieces as The English Patient and The End of the Affair bulked up to play a serial killer in the upcoming Red Dragon, the latest installment in the Hannibal Lecter saga.
Audiences will see a whole lot more of Fiennes' newly buff physique when Red Dragon opens Oct. 4. The two-time Oscar-nominated actor spends much of the film naked, the better to show off a freaky tattoo.
"I'm certainly bigger than I normally am in the movie. I had to work out a lot," Fiennes says during a recent stop in New York to talk about the eagerly anticipated film.
In Thomas Harris' book Red Dragon, on which this prequel to The Silence of the Lambs is based, much is made of killer Francis Dolarhyde's Herculean strength and imposing physicality (the far bigger Tom Noonan played the part in Manhunter, Michael Mann's earlier adaptation of the same novel.)
"He's described as a bodybuilder in the novel," Fiennes says.
"And I only had 21/2 months from when I accepted the role to when I knew I'd be doing that scene with the tattoos, so I just did everything I could to put on more muscle.
"Lifting heavy weights for someone of my build was difficult," continues Fiennes, who has just wrapped the romantic comedy Maid in New York, opposite Jennifer Lopez.
"Ideally, I would have liked to have had six months to get really big, but I think it tells the story enough."
Aesthetics aside, Fiennes makes an indelible impression as the multifaceted serial killer who was driven insane by a childhood deformity and an emotionally abusive grandmother.
He manages to make this messed-up puppy human, equally effective as the shy charmer his blind co-worker (Emily Watson) falls in love with, and the tormented murderer who slays sleeping families by the light of the full moon.
"Ralph has the vulnerability," says Red Dragon director Brett Ratner.
"There are a lot of actors who could be the dark Francis Dolarhyde, but to be the dark Dolarhyde and have humanity is a much harder talent.
"When I saw the completed film alone, I was choking up a little bit. Ralph made me really care about that character."
Fiennes deliberately avoided watching Manhunter, preferring to create the character from the novel's extensive descriptions.
"One thing I said to Brett Ratner when I met him was that I have to play right against anything that says, 'I'm a psycho,' " Fiennes says.
"One of the reasons I wanted to do it was, I got to play someone genuinely confused and emotionally uncertain and torn.
"To me, he becomes a tragic figure, not necessarily sympathetic, but that was the appeal of the role to me -- it had a real heart to it."
Fiennes admits to having felt emotionally "wrung out" after filming some of the horror thriller's more intense scenes.
More troubling, however, was the audience's reaction at a preview screening he attended last week.
"I found it very disturbing that they laughed" during a scene in which Dolarhyde tortures a tabloid journalist played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
"When we did that scene, it was not funny," he says. "Phillip was seriously stressed at the end of it, and I felt like I wanted to take a shower to wash off Dolarhyde.
"I couldn't believe they were laughing. I find that very spooky."