By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated May 30, 2012 at 12:53 PM EDT
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What the Dickens is going on with Ralph Fiennes? Not only is he playing Magwitch in Mike Newell’s upcoming adaptation of Great Expectations, but he’s also starring in and directing The Invisible Woman, a movie about the great author’s secret mistress. EW caught up with Fiennes to ask him not only about Dickens, but also two other great English writers: Shakespeare (Fiennes’ adaptation of Coriolanus is out on DVD this week) and Fleming (he’s got a top secret part in Skyfall, the new James Bond film).

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Coriolanus was your first attempt at directing a movie. Why choose Shakespeare? And why that particular play? For your first time, why not pick something easy — maybe Vacation of the Titans?

RALPH FIENNES: Its challenging nature is what I love about it. I performed it onstage years ago and have been thinking about it as a film ever since. Shakespeare is challenging for a lot of people but I find it thrilling. The language is like music.

You’ve given it a modern-day setting. And the political themes feel very modern…

I wanted the audience to have an immediate connection to the world they were seeing. And there are scenes and characters and situations in the play that we are experiencing in the world today. What’s going on in Syria, for instance. And the authoritative regime in Iran.

You not only directed, you starred in the movie. How hard is it to direct yourself?

It’s very hard. You have to have enough compartments in your brain to perform different functions simultaneously. You have to step in front of a camera, step back, watch yourself. But there’s all these other things, as well. Looking after the other actors, nurturing their performances, being on top of what’s in the frame at any moment. I loved it — it’s wonderful to feel you’re steering the ship — but it is a big ask of anyone.

And yet you’re doing it again, directing and starring in The Invisible Woman.

Yes, it’s based on the story of Ellen Ternan, the young actress that Dickens met and became infatuated with. He was about 45 years old. She was 18. Dickens, who fancied himself an actor, mounted an amateur play in which he needed professional actresses. He and his male friends played the male roles, but he employed professional actresses. And that’s when he met her. From that point on, his life went into a huge, massive about-face. He separated from his wife, even though he never admitted to an affair. He finally got Ellen as his mistress but he never publicly acknowledged her. The film is really her story. He died and she lived on. So it’s about her remembering him and his impact on her life. It’s her heart and her spirit.

One last question. Could you please tell us every single plot point in Skyfall, starting on page one?

[Laughs] All I can say is that it is not based on any single Ian Fleming novel you have read.

You know there’s a rumor that you’re going to be taking over as M?

Ah, well, that’s interesting.

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