Ralph Fiennes: What I've Learned

The prolific English actor likes yoga, stirred martinis and 'making a tit' out of himself on the dancefloor

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We're all defined by how we relate to each other. One of the best things about acting is that it calls on trust and transparency with a director or another actor. I've often felt happiest in ensemble situations because you have to be open. Weirdly, I find it hard in real life.

Vodka martinis are better stirred, not shaken.

I have huge anxiety attacks. I'll wake up early in the morning with my brain anxious about something and I don't even know what it is, just a general sense of profound uncertainty. It's from the unconscious, I suppose, fears about existence. A weird twilight panic. We feel we can organise our lives and have an order that we can control but really we can't; it's always paper-thin and underneath there's this lurking chaos. You think, "Fuck! This could come at me at any moment."

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Once in a while I like to watch some silly comedy, usually on airplanes. That movie with Mark Wahlberg and the bear was just excellent. Ted! I'd love to do something like that.

My mother wrote six novels and then another book about a trip to pilgrimage centres in France. She also painted. She was her own thinker; highly individual in the way she approached just who you are. For instance, I was at grammar school and there's a reasonable pressure to get good exam results and maybe go to university. My mother would say, "If that's what you want then go for it but don't feel that the system in place is the one that you have to adhere to. Be true to yourself, follow your path and give yourself 100 per cent. Don't dabble."

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I used to smoke socially and bum cigarettes off people at parties; the number of packets I've bought in my life I could count on both hands. Have I smoked marijuana? Yes. I think most people have had a drag on a joint.

When you meet women, don't pretend to be anything that you're not.

I reject the notion that there's a moral entity out there running the universe and judging us. I think there's energy, which is frightening and unpredictable. We'll never fully understand it – we're at the mercy of it – and whatever that thing is, that might be God.

Occasionally, I get mistaken for Liam Neeson.

Any sound from nature I find soothing. I'm based in London so I love it, when I'm out of the city, to hear birdsong or running water or the wind in the grass. Those souped-up motorbikes that people rev, it's as if they're designed to say, "I'm here!" Aaaraaangh-rraaar! I don't like that.

My father was a photographer. Before that, he worked as a tenant farmer in Suffolk. He was a profoundly sensitive man, very astute and brilliant with his hands; he could make a whole kitchen. I would work with him when we were doing up houses. He would run his hand down my paintwork on a sash window and say, "You shouldn't let it drip. You've got to sand it back again." It was always very gentle. He was, in the best sense, a perfectionist.

There's always room to be more understanding, generally less assuming and less judgmental. Every day is a lesson.

I don't like being isolated but I like the freedom to be alone. Sometimes solitude or feeling lonely confronts you with yourself. It can be a form of meditation. Active reflection is really important.

Politeness can be a form of repression.

Just as Schindler's List was coming out and I was on the receiving end of a whole lot of attention, my mother died of cancer. I would have loved her to have seen some of the stuff I've been part of. I know all my brothers and sisters feel the same. We often talk about it. My father was around for a bit but it will always be, for all of us as a family, a huge sadness that both our parents died when they did. There are moments when it surprises you; you think you're on top of it and the grief will suddenly come back.

Would I like to be a father? People say to me, "You can have children any time". I don't think I'm headed there.

I wouldn't have been a very good James Bond. There was a tentative conversation about the part a long time ago but it didn't go anywhere. What Daniel Craig does so brilliantly is the toughness, that killer streak. Funnily enough, when I was growing up Roger Moore had taken over. There was the sense that Connery had established this lean, catlike, cruel thing that nobody else could match. Now I take a nostalgic delight in Roger's tongue-in-cheek Bond. I think it has a priceless quality to it.

The sea is so vast and so overwhelming that it reminds you of your total insignificance. It's terrifying and comforting at the same time.

There was a young lady from Dallas / Who used a dynamite stick for a phallus / They found her vagina / In North Carolina / And her arsehole at Buckingham Palace.

I get accused of zoning out of conversations and gazing into the middle distance, which I do when I'm somehow not at ease. I often feel a bit lost in social situations and that's when I can button up. I have moments – not every day – when I feel myself retreating. Later on I'll think, "That person meant well. I didn't need to be like that".

There was a crunch time, when I was 16 or 17, when I had an idea of being in the army so I went on a school trip to the Royal Green Jackets barracks at Winchester. It was rainy, quite bleak. We went to a heath where they'd dug slit trenches in the chalk. I remember some benign teasing. It was fine – we were looked after – but I came away thinking, "I'm not sure that's for me".

Yoga is an all-round way of staying in shape and keeping yourself together mentally. I've been doing ashtanga yoga for years. It's a good discipline.

I feel freer, somehow, as I get older. I'm more comfortable in my own skin. Certain things have passed you by and you accept that. I don't feel old but you see your friends and they've got children and people's parents die… You make choices; you've been in and out of relationships; you've done stuff. Shit has happened and you move through it. This is what life is.

When the mood hits, I enjoy making a tit of myself on the dance floor.

The Invisible Woman is out 7 February.

Portrait by Rankin.

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