Ralph Fiennes was born in Ipswich (England), 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 (like Dame Judi Dench) 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.
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.
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 theaters.
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 mercenary. 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 played in the twenty-third James Bond film, Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes where replace Dame Judi Dench as M in future Bond films. He was M again in Spectre (2015). Dench had also starred alongside Fiennes’ brother, Joseph, in Shakespeare in Love in 1998, where Judi won the Oscar.
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 and the BAFTA Award for Best Actor.
In 2015, Fiennes starred in Luca Guadagnino’s thriller A Bigger Splash.
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. Fiennes had an 11-year relationship with Annis that ended in 2006. He has been single ever since.