Ralph Fiennes on his role in 'The King's Man' and the desire for a good sword fight

The celebrated actor's historical spy prequel will finally land in cinemas following delays brought on by the pandemic

Ralph Fiennes as super spy Orlando Oxford in 'The King's Man'. Photo Credit: 20th Century Studios
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It’s November 2019, and British spy franchise James Bond's No Time to Die is scheduled to release in cinemas worldwide. But then delay follows delay, and a pandemic hits the world. The film was finally released this September. For The King's Man, the third film in the Kingsman franchise, which began with 2015’s The Secret Service, the wait has been a little longer, but hopefully worth it for fans.

Kingsman, based on Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’s comic books, takes us back in time for a prequel movie set in the early 20th century, and featuring none other than James Bond’s own M, actor Ralph Fiennes in the lead role of Kingsman trailblazer Orlando Oxford.

Director Matthew Vaughn, the man behind such irreverent, ultra-violent comedy as Kick-Ass and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, has, it seems, gone thoroughly period drama on us this time around, though he insists we shouldn’t read too much into his newfound love of historical epics.

“It wasn’t really planned about what’s best for the franchise or next, it was just what I really wanted to do,” he tells The National.

“I just thought it was time to try and make an epic, adventure, historical movie, and as much as I love DC and Marvel and these big superhero movies, they are so CGI-based and all have a certain style, which is, shall we say, relatable to each other. I thought, ‘Let’s try and do something different.’ It was purely an itch that I had to scratch hard.”

With the film’s period setting established, it probably made sense to bring in a Bafta-winning, Oscar-nominated, Shakespearian actor to play the lead role of Orlando Oxford, a pacifist and conscientious objector to the fomenting World War, who seems an unlikely starting point for an international cabal of super spies.

“It was a great proposal – a man who is a committed, almost a ferocious pacifist,” Fiennes tells The National. “He’s lost his wife, which is not a spoiler, we learn that early on. As events unfold in the film, he recognises there is a point where you actually have to – you have to pick up a weapon. But what’s great about any role that has a big shift, a big gear change, it says to the audience: ‘I am this. I am this person and I am absolutely this. I am never going to change.’

I want – I need – another good swordfight
Actor Ralph Fiennes

"And then of course, dramatically, ‘Ah, I have to now completely change because this is how I now feel and this is what’s happened’. Dramatically, that is always a strong thing, and when I read the script, that was very appealing to me, the way that Matthew tracks the story of Oxford, that was a great enticement.”

There was further enticement for Fiennes. The actor may have been a Bond regular in recent years, but only in M’s desk job. He’s best known for his award-winning roles such as The English Patient and Schindler’s List. This time around, the actor gets to have a go at an action role.

“I’ve had a few failed attempts, possibly, but I’ve always loved stage fighting, or any kind of fictional sword fighting,” he says with a laugh.

“You get to do quite a bit in the theatre, often in Shakespeare plays, but leaving the swordplay of Shakespeare, not many films have offered me the chance, except that I read this and at the end of this film my character is required to defend himself with a sword in an extended swordplay sequence. I guess there’s a little boy in me that just likes a good sword fight, and I love Errol Flynn, Robin Hood, all that stuff. They are extraordinary, and I have no shame or apology for that.”

Rhys Ifans as Rasputin, centre, with Alexander Shefler as Tsaravich Alexei (being carried), Tom Hollander, left, as Tsar Nicholas, and Branka Katic, as Tsarina Alix in 'The King's Man'. Photo: 20th Century Studios

The mention of Robin Hood appears to have ignited a similar desire to admit a fondness for legendary historical characters in Fiennes’s co-star Rhys Ifans. The Welsh actor is undoubtedly best-known so far for smashing box office records in his role as Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis Lizard in No Way Home, but he’s about to be back on screen portraying Russian villain, mad monk and Bee Gees-inspiration, Rasputin.

“I was aware of Rasputin the figure and he’s someone I’ve been mildly interested in, you know, since school really,” Ifans says.

“There was always this figure of Rasputin who was more kind of mythical than factual, even in a history lesson. I’ve always been kind of intrigued by him, and he had this great look, you know? Those early photographs of Rasputin, really early use of cameras, he seemed to be someone who was, even then, aware of the impact his own image might have in a photograph.

"There’s this kind of performative element to him as a person and he grew up from a deeply impoverished upbringing to work his way through Russian high society to a position of great power – the power to start and end wars, in fact. It’s a great story.”

So, as Kingsman moves from knockabout spy comedy to historical drama, can we expect more trips into the past from the franchise? Would Vaughn consider an origins story, too?

“I’d love to go through the history because history keeps getting more and more interesting,” the director says. “And the history of espionage is fascinating.”

For Fiennes, there’s an apparently somewhat less cerebral reason to return to the history of the franchise.

“I want – I need – another good swordfight. Please.”

The King’s Man is out in UAE cinemas from December 30

Updated: December 28, 2021, 12:52 PM