A Star Without Question

updated 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

VIRTUALLY ANY ROLE RALPH FIENNES PICKED TO FOLLOW his blood-chilling, Oscar-nominated performance in Schindler's List would have been a refreshing change. As Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant of the Plaszow labor camp in Krakow, Poland, Fiennes was a cold-hearted, potbellied 178 lbs., a man overripe with evil. Now, in Quiz Show, the Robert Redford-directed drama about the '50s game-show scandal, Fiennes plays a basically decent human being who makes an ethical misstep: Charles Van Doren, the Columbia instructor who accepted answers in advance from the producers of NBC's Twenty-One. As the patrician Van Doren, who enjoyed a 14-week reign as the national smarty-pants, the 31-year-old British actor (whose name is pronounced, in the Old English manner, Rafe Fines) is down to an imperially slim 150 lbs., and Goeth's German accent has been replaced with the flattened vowels of the East Coast elite.

The crucial difference, though, is in the eyes. In Schindler's List, shot in grainy black-and-white, they seemed icily light. In Quiz Show, they are a vibrant but piercing green-gray. Screenwriter Paul Attanasio recalls wanting to make a suggestion to Fiennes but finding the gaze too intimidating. "When Ralph fixes you with those eyes," says Attanasio, "he's so intense, you just don't really feel up to it."

Of course, it's the intelligence burning behind those eyes that, for many, is the real turn-on. Fiennes already is poised to take his place alongside fellow Brit Daniel Day-Lewis as the kind of heartthrob who can dazzle you with either his physical or intellectual profile. "Women go for him in droves," says Quiz costar Christopher McDonald, who plays Twenty-One host Jack Barry. "He doesn't say a hell of a lot, but when he opens his mouth he has this beautiful accent—then he's got 'em."

Nor is it just female fans who are charmed. Consider Fiennes's first-ever trip to America, to audition for the role of Van Doren last spring: He arrived in New York City on a long flight out of Europe, where he hadn't yet finished shooting Schindler's. "He was fat and sweaty, and he had this Nazi haircut," says Attanasio. "But then he read, and you felt like getting down on your knees to the gods. Redford just said, 'Well, that's it. It's Ralph.' "

Between ending Schindler's and starting Quiz, Fiennes had three weeks to work off the pounds he had packed on (using weight-gain products and draughts of Guinness). He also had to develop an Ivy League accent. Redford supplied a trainer and dialect coach, but to get a true fix on Van Doren—now 68, retired as an editor at the Encyclopedia Brittanica and definitely not cooperating with the film—Fiennes made a bold move. He drove to Van Doren's house in Cornwall, Conn., where he asked for directions—and for a minute got to observe Van Doren's speech and manner.

Fiennes is "a sweet guy," says McDonald. The star, though, warns that he's not as easygoing as he seems. "People who know me," he has said, "especially my family, know how unpleasant, nasty, moody, selfish and monosyllabic I can be."

Fiennes grew up in a bustling, artistic family in rural Suffolk, England, the eldest of six children, all born in just seven years. His father, Mark, a landscape photographer, moved the family all around the United Kingdom. His mother, Jennifer, a painter and writer, died of breast cancer last year at age 58. Fiennes had planned to become an artist himself, but, according to his sister Martha, 30, "He just said at the time, I don't feel I could be original' " Instead, taking a different route, he auditioned successfully for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1982, then in 1988 joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was rhapsodically reviewed in classical roles. His magnetic turn as T.E. Lawrence in a 1992 TV movie, A Dangerous Man, won him the notice of Schindler's director Steven Spielberg.

He came to the (romantic) attention of British actress Alex Kingston while the two were studying at RADA about 10 years ago. They married last September, share a modest house in London and socialize with Schindler's costar Liam Neeson. Fiennes and Kingston reportedly plan to move to the U.S. but don't want to settle in L.A. David Paymer, another Quiz Show co-star, says he got a sense that Fiennes wants to work in film, but he also was struck by "Ralph's awe at how quickly things were moving."

Indeed, Fiennes is now in Hollywood shooting his next film, Strange Days, a futuristic thriller in which he plays an ex-cop. Then, in February, he plans to return to the London stage to play that most tormented of souls, Hamlet. He should be able to handle it. "Ralph," concludes Attanasio, "is a deep guy."

TOM GLIATTO
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles and ELIZABETH TERRY in London

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