Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dollarhyde, aka the Red Dragon, hastens, naked and tattooed, down a flight of stairs, his johnson wagging in every direction as if sketching an imaginary landscape. It’s like a character all its own in this scene, Fiennes’ member, with its own momentum and its own agenda (getting ready for the starving artist’s show in the lobby of the Marriott) and most likely its own spot in the end credits. I don’t know about the latter. I didn’t stay long enough to find out. There are some things you just don’t want to know about your friends, like the maximum circumference their penis can chart.
My friendship with Fiennes began the way most friendships begin, as a mere idea hatched in Jane Austen’s drawing room. “Take a turn about the room with me, my dear Margaret,” I said to my other friend who is not Ralph as I latched an arm around hers. “I’d hoped to touch upon the subject of one Mr. Fiennes. Or more to the point, how we might best make his acquaintance.” And thus we plotted as we ambled past the diminutive writing table with the “do not touch” sign amidst the inkwell and papers arranged to look as if Ms. Austen herself had just abandoned it for the loo. I scraped a finger along the table’s edge. Galway, London, Chawton, then the theater in Shoreditch. This was our travel agenda, and it ended with Ralph in Richard II.
“We can’t very well blurt out, ‘we love your movies, we’re such big fans,’ and have him think us common!” I gasped.
“Of course not,” Margaret said with the lingering sensibleness of her Mennonite upbringing. She’d grown up in a German colony in Mexico without ever having watched a single episode of the “The Love Boat.” I’m still not quite sure how she managed to be my friend without the common denominator of Captain Stubing. All of my Aloha-Deck jokes fall on deaf ears. “We’ll have to engage Mr. Fiennes in the sort of intellectual repartee befitting his status.” Or maybe she’d just pointed to a pot on the floor and asked, “Is that where they had to take a piss?” I don’t really remember.
But I do know that as we made our way into the Admiral’s room of the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton we’d decided we’d wait that next night near the stage and then say really smart, scripted things about Ralph Fiennes’ mother being a writer or us being writers or us having taught Shakespeare or the theater being Alfred Hitchcock’s old soundstage.
After the performance, however, there was no one left in the auditorium except the janitor sweeping between the aisles and around our feet. It wasn’t until we were finally thrown out that we found Ralph Fiennes swirling something in a glass at the bar in the lobby. He stood in a leather jacket with his ribs pressed against the padded edge, a bag at his feet. I signaled for Margaret to go order a drink, which put us right beside him. She sucked down a gin and tonic like someone who’d just belly-crawled across the Sahara, exhaled the smell of Christmas trees, and ordered another.
Then Ralph Fiennes turned to me beside him and asked, “How did you like this space for a theater? Wonderful, isn’t it? It was Alfred Hitchcock’s soundstage.”
Here’s the problem with meeting someone whose work you ardently admire. Someone is going to come away from this moment looking like a jackass. I can’t even begin to explain what happened next except maybe to say that Ralph Fiennes was to me as water is to a toaster. I could practically hear the sizzle and pop of my nervous system shorting out as one eye fluttered shut and my right shoulder began to twitch. When my teeth clamped down on my trembling lower lip, aching under the pressure of a vast smile, the tremors erupted in every other direction instead. My arms, my knees, my fingers – there was a blip on the seismology readings that evening, and it was all me.
What was that I was planning to say about Hitchcock? Gone. It was all right. I was just to follow Margaret’s lead. I didn’t have to think. I didn’t have to remember the script. I had Margaret. Margaret would remember the script. I turned to her, awaiting her answer to the question. It was all going to be okay.
“Oh my god!” Margaret yelled in Ralph Fiennes’ face. “You were so beautiful in Oscar and Lucinda! We loved it we love all your films we love you oh my god!”
As she took a long swig of the drink in her fist, Ralph Fiennes fixed his eyes on the theater program beginning to make an audible flapping noise in my hands. “Would you like me to autograph that?” he asked as he padded his pockets for something to write with.
Margaret rummaged through her handbag. “Found one!” When I scraped the pen from Margaret’s palm, I dropped the program. Ralph Fiennes caught it somewhere along its frenetic, flapping journey from my hand to the floor, narrowly missing a head-butt with me lunging after it. When both of us were upright again, he delicately worked at taking the pen from my wavering fist before the pen could stab him in the eye. All that’s missing here are the slide-whistle sound effects and the laugh track.
“Well,” he said, scribbling his name and then trying to fit the program and pen back into my hands, “I should go. It was nice to meet–”
“So nice to meet you too!” Margaret beamed with the empty glass in one hand and her handbag scrunched up in the other.
As he walked away and out the door, my eye magically fluttered open, my shoulder relaxed, my limbs went slack, and Margaret leaned to say, “I don’t know what happened. I just couldn’t remember all that shit we thought up.”
“That was bad,” I said in the pained wince this memory would elicit forever after. “I almost stabbed Ralph Fiennes. In the eye.”
“Oh, psh, it could have been worse,” she assured me.
She looped her arm in mine and out we walked, decidedly less Jane Austen and more Bridget Jones.
Following Ralph Fiennes’ path out the main entrance and onto the sidewalk, we stood in the lamplight watching his leather jacket retreat into the shadows as he walked further and further away from us. When it seemed he was well out of earshot, Margaret and I grabbed each other’s hands, jumped up and down, my heels clomping, her curls springing, both of us squealing something like, “We met Ralph Fiennes! We met Ralph Fiennes! And he was so totally into us, we could have easily been his hot little side dishes!” We stopped, slapped each other’s shoulders, caught our breath, and then realized that wasn’t Ralph Fiennes we’d watched walk down the street. That was another man in another leather jacket, because Ralph Fiennes was standing maybe three feet from us in the other direction, head ducked, fingertips to temple sheltering his face, waiting on a cab at the street corner.
“Oh shit,” I breathed and nudged Margaret’s arm to get her attention.
“Oh shit,” she said when she saw what I saw.
I’d had to work myself up to seeing Ralph Fiennes again in anything after that. I’d had to talk myself through buying the tickets to The Red Dragon. There are many factors at play here, but mostly it’s that when you’ve met an actor in person it’s so much harder not to see the person behind the act. Instead you see someone peering into the audience thinking, “Good gawd, there’s that American jackass from the bar.” It didn’t help that he forever became known in my house as “mommy’s friend Ralph” whenever everyone else needed a good laugh. A little time had passed, though, and I thought I could face it. Or pretend it never happened. And it was all going okay until he decided to bound down the stairs naked. Turns out what’s even worse than feeling embarrassed for myself is feeling embarrassed for Ralph Fiennes’ schlong.