In 2011, Fiennes made his directorial debut with his film adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy Coriolanus, in which he also played the title character. Fiennes won a Tony Award for playing Prince Hamlet on Broadway. Since 1999, Fiennes has served as an ambassador for UNICEF UK. One of the highest profile actors in contemporary British popular culture, Fiennes appeared on Debrett's 2017 list of the most influential people in the UK.
Fiennes was born in Ipswich, on 22 December 1962. He is the eldest child of Mark Fiennes (1933–2004), a farmer and photographer, and Jennifer Lash (1938–1993), a writer. He has English, Irish, and Scottish ancestry. His surname is of Norman origin. His grandfathers were industrialist Sir Maurice Fiennes (1907–1994) and Brigadier Henry Alleyne Lash (1901–1975). His great-great-uncle was Edward Pomeroy Colley, a Civil Engineer and first class passenger who died in the sinking of RMS Titanic.
Fiennes is an eighth cousin of Charles, Prince of Wales, and a third cousin of adventurer Ranulph Fiennes and author William Fiennes. He is the eldest of six children. His siblings are actor Joseph Fiennes; Martha Fiennes, a director (in her film Onegin, he played the title role); Magnus Fiennes, a composer; Sophie Fiennes, a filmmaker; and Jacob Fiennes, a conservationist. His foster brother, Michael Emery, is an archaeologist. His nephew Hero Fiennes-Tiffin played Tom Riddle, young Lord Voldemort, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The Fiennes family moved to Ireland in 1973, living in West Cork and County Kilkenny for some years. Fiennes was educated at St Kieran's College for one year, followed by Newtown School, a Quaker independent school in County Waterford. They moved to Salisbury in England, where Fiennes finished his schooling at Bishop Wordsworth's School. He went on to pursue painting at Chelsea College of Art before deciding that acting was his true passion.
Fiennes trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art between 1983 and 1985. He began his career at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park and also at the National Theatre before achieving prominence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Fiennes first worked on screen in 1990 and made his film debut in 1992 as Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights opposite Juliette Binoche.
1993 was his "breakout year". He had a major role in Peter Greenaway's film The Baby of Mâcon with Julia Ormond, which provoked controversy and was poorly received. Later that year he became known internationally for portraying the amoral Nazi concentration camp commandant Amon Göth in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. For this he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He did not win the Oscar, but did win the Best Supporting Actor BAFTA Award for the role. His portrayal of Göth also earned him a spot on the American Film Institute's list of Top 50 Film Villains. Fiennes gained weight to represent Göth, but shed it afterwards.
Fiennes later stated that playing the role had a profoundly disturbing effect on him. In a subsequent interview, Fiennes recalled,
Evil is cumulative. It happens. People believe that they've got to do a job, they've got to take on an ideology, that they've got a life to lead; they've got to survive, a job to do, it's every day inch by inch, little compromises, little ways of telling yourself this is how you should lead your life and suddenly then these things can happen. I mean, I could make a judgment myself privately, this is a terrible, evil, horrific man. But the job was to portray the man, the human being. There’s a sort of banality, that everydayness, that I think was important. And it was in the screenplay. In fact, one of the first scenes with Oskar Schindler, with Liam Neeson, was a scene where I'm saying, "You don't understand how hard it is, I have to order so many-so many meters of barbed wire and so many fencing posts and I have to get so many people from A to B." And, you know, he's sort of letting off steam about the difficulties of the job.
In 1994, he portrayed American academic Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show. In 1996 he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for the epic World War II romance The English Patient, in which he starred with Kristin Scott-Thomas. Fiennes' film work has encompassed a variety of genres, including thrillers (Spider), an animated Biblical epic (The Prince of Egypt), camp nostalgia (The Avengers), romantic comedy (Maid in Manhattan), and historical drama (Sunshine).
In 1999, Fiennes had the title role in Onegin, a film which he also helped produce. His sister Martha Fiennes directed, and brother Magnus composed the score. Fiennes portrayed Francis Dolarhyde in the 2002 film, Red Dragon, a prequel to 'Silence Of The Lambs' and 'Hannibal'. The film received very positive reviews and Ralph's performance as a sympathetic serial killer with a romantic relationship with a blind girl, played by Emily Watson, was lauded as one of the best aspects of the film.
The Constant Gardener was released in 2005, with Fiennes in the central role. The film is set in Kenya. It was filmed in part with the actual residents of the slums of Kibera and Loiyangalani. The situation affected the cast and crew to such an extent that they set up the Constant Gardener Trust to provide basic education for children of these villages. Fiennes is a patron of the charity.
He is also a patron of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, a charity that enables school children across the UK to perform Shakespeare in professional theatres.
Fiennes portrayed Lord Voldemort in the 2005 fantasy film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He returned to the role for other films of the series: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and both Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Part 2.
Fiennes' 2006 performance in the play Faith Healer gained him a nomination for a 2007 Tony Award. In 2008, Fiennes worked with frequent collaborator director Jonathan Kent, playing the title role in Oedipus the King by Sophocles, at the National Theatre in London. In 2008, he played the Duke of Devonshire in the film The Duchess; he also played the protagonist in The Reader, adapted from the novel of the same name.
In February 2009, Fiennes was the special guest of the Belgrade's Film Festival FEST. He filmed his version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.
Fiennes reunited with Kathryn Bigelow for her Iraq War film The Hurt Locker, released in 2009, appearing as an English Private Military Contractor. They had previously worked together on Strange Days (1995). In April 2010, he played Hades in Clash of the Titans, a remake of the 1981 film of the same name. In 2012, he starred in the twenty-third James Bond film, Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes. He will replace Dame Judi Dench as M in future Bond films. Dench had also starred alongside Fiennes' brother, Joseph, in Shakespeare in Love in 1998. In 2013 Fiennes was both the director and the leading actor (in the role of Charles Dickens) in the well-received film The Invisible Woman (2013 film).
Though he is not noted as a comic actor, in 2014 he made an impression for his farcical turn in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Said one critic about the film, "In the end it's Fiennes who makes the biggest impression. His stylized, rapid-fire delivery, dry wit and cheerful profanity keep the film bubbling along." For his performance, Fiennes was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and the BAFTA Award for Best Actor.
In 2015, Fiennes starred in Luca Guadagnino's thriller A Bigger Splash. In 2016, Fiennes starred in the animation film Kubo and the Two Strings where he voiced Raiden the Moon King, Kubo's grandfather.
Fiennes is a UNICEF UK ambassador and has done work in India, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, and Romania.
Fiennes met English actress Alex Kingston while they were both students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After dating for ten years, they married in 1993 and divorced in 1997 following his affair with Francesca Annis. On 7th September 2017 he was granted Serbian citizenship. The decision was signed by Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić.Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (1985) – Role: Curio – Directed by Richard Digby Day – New Shakespeare Company – Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London
A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (1985) – Role: Cobweb – Directed by Toby Robertson – New Shakespeare Company – Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London
A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (1986) – Role: Lysander – Directed by David Conville and Emma Freud – New Shakespeare Company – Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London and New Shakespeare Company's European Tour
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1986) – Role: Romeo – Directed by Declan Donnellan – New Shakespeare Company – Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London
Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (1987) – Role: Son – Directed by Michael Rudman – National Theatre's Olivier Theatre, London
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (1987) – Role: Arkady Nikolayevich Kirsanov – Directed by Michael Rudman – National Theatre's Lyttelton Theatre, London
Ting Tang Mine by Nick Darke (1987) – Role: Lisha Ball – Directed by Michael Rudman – National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre, London
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (1988) – Role: Claudio – Directed by Di Trevis – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The Plantagenets: Henry VI, The Rise of Edward IV, Richard III His Death by William Shakespeare (1988–1989) – Role: Henry VI, ghost of Henry VI – Directed by Adrian Noble – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and Barbican Theatre, London
King John (1989) by William Shakespeare – Role: Dauphin – Directed by Deborah Warner – The Other Place Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and The Pit Theatre, London
The Man Who Came to Dinner by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman (1989) – Role: Bert Jefferson – Directed by Ron Gene Saks – The Royal Shakespeare Company – Barbican Theatre, London
Playing with Trains by Stephen Poliakoff (1989) – Role: Gant – Directed by Ron Daniels – The Royal Shakespeare Company – The Pit Theatre, London
Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare (1990) – Role: Troilus – Directed by Sam Mendes – The Royal Shakespeare Company – Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
King Lear by William Shakespeare (1990) – Role: Edmund – Directed by Nicholas Hytner – The Royal Shakespeare Company – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare (1991) – Role: King of Navarre – Directed by Terry Hands – The Royal Shakespeare Company – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and Barbican Theatre, London
Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1995) – Role: Hamlet, with Francesca Annis as Gertrude – Directed by Jonathan Kent – The Almeida Theatre Company – Hackney Empire, London and Belasco Theatre on Broadway, NY
Ivanov by Anton Chekhov translated by David Hare (February–April 1997) – Role: Ivanov – Directed by Jonathan Kent – The Almeida Theatre Company – Almeida Theatre, London
Coriolanus by William Shakespeare (2000) – Role: Coriolanus – Directed by Jonathan Kent – The Almeida Theatre Company – Gainsborough Film Studios in Shoreditch, London and BAM Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn, New York City
Richard II by William Shakespeare (2000) – Role: Richard II – Directed by Jonathan Kent – The Almeida Theatre Company – Gainsborough Film Studios in Shoreditch, London and BAM Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn, New York City
The Play What I Wrote by Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and Eddie Braben (2001) – Role: Sir Ralph Fiennes – Directed by Kenneth Branagh – The Duo The Right Size – Wyndham's Theatre, West End
The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton (2003) – Role: Carl Jung – Directed by Howard Davies – National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre, London
Brand by Henrik Ibsen (2003) – Role: Brand – Directed by Adrian Noble – The Royal Shakespeare Company – Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and Theatre Royal Haymarket, West End
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (2005) – Role: Mark Antony – Directed by Deborah Warner – Barbican Centre, London & tour
Faith Healer by Brian Friel (2006) – Role: Frank Hardy – Directed by Jonathan Kent – Gate Theatre, Dublin and Booth Theatre on Broadway, New York City
First Love by Samuel Beckett – Sydney Festival 2007
God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza (2008) – Role: Alain Reille – Gielgud Theatre, West End
Oedipus the King by Sophocles (2008) – Role: Oedipus – National Theatre, London
The Tempest by William Shakespeare (2011) – Role: Prospero – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage (2013) – Role: Lambert Le Roux (Pravda) – National Theatre, London
Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw (2015) – Role: Jack Tanner – National Theatre, London
The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen (2016) – Role: Halvard Solness – Directed by Matthew Warchus – Old Vic, London
Richard III by William Shakespeare (2016) – Role: Richard, Duke of Gloucester – Directed by Rupert Goold – Almeida Theatre, London
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (2018 - upcoming) – Role: Antony – Directed by Simon Godwin – National Theatre, London
When Love Speaks (2002, EMI Classics) – "Sonnet 129" ("Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame")