Ralph Fiennes on The White Crow: 'It was always about this moment of choice in 1961'

Ralph Fiennes on The White Crow: 'It was always about this moment of choice in 1961'

Director Fiennes and lead actor Oleg Ivenko discuss the new film about the life of ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev

Marking his third film as director, Ralph Fiennes' The White Crow explores the young life of iconic Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev. Initially, Fiennes wasn't particularly au fait with Nureyev's art form. 'I had no interest in ballet as such,' he admits. 'I was ignorant. I couldn't say I didn't like it. I just didn't know ballet.' What compelled him was Julie Kavanagh's biography, particularly the chapter concerning Nureyev's famed defection at Le Bourget airport in Paris, when he refused to return to Russia. 'As a film it was always about this moment of choice in 1961.'

As he did for his two previous directorial outings, Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman, Fiennes took a key role – here as Nureyev's exacting tutor, Alexander Pushkin. But when it came to finding an actor to play the impetuous young ballet star, 'I was pretty convinced it should be an unknown face,' says Fiennes, who eventually cast Oleg Ivenko. Dancing since he was five, the Ukrainian-born star grew up watching videos of Nureyev when he was training. 'I think he remains an icon of Russian ballet still,' Ivenko notes.

Preparation for the role was intense, from swimming, boxing and gym work to intensive English lessons. Most importantly, given Ivenko had no previous acting experience, he had to learn how to get into his character. 'I wanted to have Nureyev wake up inside me,' he admits. Thankfully, he had the two-time Oscar-nominated Fiennes as his own private acting coach. 'I suppose it's a dream for any actor! I cannot imagine how much this one-on-one tuition with Ralph Fiennes would cost!'

For the 22 year-old, it was a life-changing – and even character-changing – experience. 'A completely different person' to the ego-driven Nureyev, 'softer and more open', Ivenko gradually felt the dancer's personality rub off. 'Nureyev influenced me a lot.' In what way? 'People who are jealous of your success. People who want you to fail…when this happened, I turned on my Nureyev inside of me.'

What of the defection? What is Nureyev's standing in Russia? 'I don't think he is perceived as a traitor now,' says Ivenko, who points out that his departure from Mother Russia led to his famed international career. While these triumphs – dancing with Margot Fontaine, running the Paris Opera House – had to be left out of the film, Fiennes was unconcerned. 'All I knew was that this journey of his childhood, student years and defection was an extraordinary story.'

The White Crow opens in cinemas on Fri 22 Mar.

The White Crow

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • UK / France
  • 2h 2min
  • Directed by: Ralph Fiennes
  • Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Ralph Fiennes, Louis Hofmann

The story of Rudolf Nureyev (Ivenko), delving into his work and sex life and how he defected from the Soviet Union in 1961. Ukrainian dancer Ivenko gives an intensely physical performance and Fiennes’ light touch as a director makes it something exciting, genuine and naturally sexy.