Ralph Fiennes explains why he initially didn’t want to appear in his new film ‘The White Crow’: ‘It was a challenge’

Ralph Fiennes spent two decades dreaming about bringing the story of one of the most legendary ballet dancers of the 20th century to the big screen.

He was deeply captivated, he said, by the brief life of Rudolf Nureyev, whose defection from the Soviet Union in 1961 made headlines around the world. The passionate dancer who tantalized socialites, was a fixture in discos, developed an infamous temperament, and fiercely protected his privacy, passed away in 1993 from AIDS. He was only 54.

The 56-year-old British actor, who is recognized in films such as “Schindler’s List,” “The English Patient,” as well as the “Harry Potter” franchise as Lord Voldemort, is the director of the biopic “The White Crow.” He told Fox News he knew right away Nureyev’s life was movie material.

“It’s his spirit that moved me, and the spirit of this boy Nureyev… takes us to this extraordinary moment at the Burgas Airport where there was an explosive decision to not return to Soviet Russian, and to stay in the West. I suppose that the precise unfolding of events at Burgas, which has been well documented… was very cinematic.”

“I think it’s the story of this young boy from a very poor part of Russian who has within himself this ferocious need to dance, to become a dancer, an artist, a performing artist, one of the of the most difficult disciplines there are, which is traditional, classical ballet,” explained the Oscar-nominated star.

“But I think it’s his spirit,” continued Fiennes.

Despite his determination, Fiennes admitted he didn’t want to star in “The White Crow” and instead yearned to work behind the camera. However, he faced pressure from investors to cast big stars to draw audiences — like himself. Reluctantly, Fiennes played Nureyev’s ballet teacher and mentor Alexander Pushkin

Soviet-born ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev performs with Ghislaine Thesmar during a scene from the ballet “Afternoon of a Faun ” at Le Bourget for the “Fete de la Liberté.” (DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

“I wanted Russian actors to be in Russian roles,” explained Fiennes. “And I didn’t want to be again the third time around directing myself which I’ve done twice before this and it was hard. I just was enthusiastic [about] … just being the director, but [there were] financial challenges.”

“I had pushed away from the question of me playing his teacher,” Fiennes said, “but I think at a certain point, you have to listen, and so I did it. It was a challenge, but that’s why I did it.”

When it came to playing the stage icon, Fiennes was no-nonsense in finding an unknown ballet dancer to play Nureyev. Still, he admitted it required a leap of faith to put his trust on casting Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko, an acting newcomer.

“… We were a relatively small production, and I thought if I can find a young dancer who has a screen acting ability and can give a plausible persuasive performance on the young Rudolf Nureyev, then I think that’s the way to make it,” said Fiennes. “And so, we initiated the big casting sweep through all the Russian-speaking dance world, Russian theater companies, Russian ballet schools — Oleg was on the short list… I felt convinced he could do it.”

Acting newcomer Oleg Ivenko impressed actor/film director Ralph Fiennes. — Sony Pictures Classics.

Fiennes said he also struggled to convince others that Ivenko, 22, was right for the role.

“Of course, I realized there were a lot of people second-guessing my choice,” said Fiennes. “But I looked at him on-screen and trusted friends of mine were persuaded too and said, ‘Yes, he’s got it.’ If you have a very strong belief, I think you have to follow your belief. A bit like Rudolf Nureyev in fact, who… willed himself to dance. And to some extent, [it took] a lot of will into making this film, and believing in Oleg and willing to work. He himself, Oleg, has a lot of will, so he worked very, very, very hard with me to prepare himself for the role.”

But “The White Crow” has recently sparked interest for a completely different reason. Sergei Polunin, the Ukrainian “bad boy of ballet” who plays Russian dancer Yuri Solovjev, stirred headlines earlier this year for posting around a dozen Instagram messages displaying his alleged dislike for homosexuals, overweight people and “females trying to take on man role.”

Royal Ballet principal dancer Sergei Polunin attends the BUILD Speaker Series to discuss the film “Dancer” at AOL HQ on Sept. 15, 2016, in New York City. (Mike Pont/WireImage)

The New York Times reported the 29-year-old also used social media to address his admiration for Vladimir Putin, whose image is tattooed on his chest, as well as his support for President Trump. Consequently, the newspaper shared that in January of this year, his statements may have cost him a role at the Paris Opera Ballet.


Some may question whether Polunin was an appropriate pick to appear in a film about a man who the New Yorker described as bisexual. Still, Fiennes doesn’t believe Polunin’s comments have cast a shadow over “The White Crow.”

“Sergei said some silly things,” said Fiennes. “… I think it’ll take a lot to take the focus away from Rudolf Nureyev quite honestly. I think his own story of his own desire to realize himself as an artist and of course as a gay man — that’s what this is about.”

Ralph Fiennes said the wait to film “The White Crow” was worth it. (Reuters)

These days, Fiennes is more focused on bringing Nureyev’s legacy at the forefront. And he believes the star’s rise to stardom against all odds still holds many lessons for today’s audiences.

“We’re relatively lucky here that individuals have freedom of expression,” explained Fiennes. “… I think we need artists, whatever they are, whether they’re composers, or writers, or novelists, or dancers, or singers. I think the artist is the sort of the poetic expression that society needs… and I think it doesn’t have to be any kind of political statement.”

“It’s a statement of the soul, an expression of the soul, and that’s what I think we want as audiences,” continued Fiennes. “We want to be moved and taken out of ourselves and our souls to be touched. Nureyev did that.”

“The White Crow” is currently playing in theaters.