The Guardian (UK) interview with Joseph Fiennes on his first time working on a fully Chinese production – ‘On Wings of Eagles’

Joseph Fiennes actor on film "On Wings of Eagles"

‘I looked at Eric and his beliefs as a set of principles that you can put in your daily life, which are not caught up in the dogma of religion'

The actor, in Cannes to promote follow-up to the 1981 Oscar-winning sensation, says he consulted original’s director, Hugh Hudson, and that Eric Liddell’s legacy was a duty of care not exclusive to his Christianity.

Despite ‘On Wings of Eagles’ (aka The Last Race) being billed as an “unofficial sequel” to Hugh Hudson’s Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire, Joseph Fiennes, who headlines the follow-up, said he sought the support of Hudson before embarking on the project. “I know Hugh well,” said Fiennes, on Saturday at the Cannes film festival, where he took part in a press conference to tout the Chinese production. “He’s a friend of mine.”

‘On Wings of Eagles’, which is set for release this year in China and the UK, sees Fiennes play Eric Liddell, aka the Flying Scotsman; the athlete played by Ian Charleson in Hudson’s drama. The deeply-religious Liddell was born in Tientsin, northern China, to Scottish missionaries, and returned there a year after his victory in the 400m at the Paris Olympics in 1924. He became a hero to the Chinese people, partly due to his athletic achievements – some consider him the first Chinese gold medallist.

As Fiennes revealed, the film, from Hong Kong director Stephen Shin, tracks his heroics while interned during the second world war at a Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1943. Liddell organised the smuggling of food into the camp for the 2,000 starving inmates, and refused an opportunity to leave after Winston Churchill intervened on his behalf. He asked instead that a pregnant prisoner be allowed to leave the site in Weifang in east China. He died in 1945, aged 43, from a brain tumour.

Fiennes dubbed his film a “continuation” of Liddell’s story following the events that transpire in Chariots of Fire. “What that film did was depict famously the moment up to the Olympics,” the actor said. “But what we’re doing is connected. But it also tells many other lives as well, it’s not just Eric’s story. It picks up and finishes at a place that I knew nothing about. We explore China, and we explore Eric.”

For Fiennes, the film marks his first time acting in a fully Chinese production. “For a few actors, you get invited into another culture; this is a really extraordinary thing to be invited and to be able to see that culture through the eyes of another culture,” Fiennes said. “You don’t get often get that. As an actor that’s a wonderful opportunity. But also as an individual, you get to open up your mind and see beyond the limits of your own culture.”

The actor jokingly said he resembles Liddell, due to his receding hairline, which he pointed to. As for training, Fiennes said he did have to do some, “being in my mid-40s,” but that he was grateful the film picked up following Liddell’s Olympics experience.

‘On Wings of Eagles’ has courted some controversy for potentially skirting over Liddell’s Christianity – Chariots of Fire describes how the runner refused to compete in his favoured 100m event in Paris because the heats were held on a Sunday – due to the Chinese government’s antipathy towards religion. Fiennes briefly addressed the matter during the discussion, saying that the film and Liddell’s legacy “transcend religion”.

“Whether you’re atheist, Buddhist, Catholic, I think we can all agree that what Eric did – and our beautiful film does – is promote a sense of care,” Fiennes said. “Care towards those who are less fortunate. I looked at Eric and his beliefs as a set of principles that you can put in your daily life, which are not caught up in the dogma of religion. It’s care towards your fellow human being and putting that fellow person before yourself.

“That’s something I try daily to struggle with,” Fiennes added. “I’m fallible. We are fallible. Eric is a wonderful example of a man who could raise the moral bar – and he did – and stick to it.”

ON WINGS OF EAGLES releases in the US in August.

CINESKY will release to airlines in November