Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

How Ralph Fiennes Transformed Into Voldemort

Shortly after hitting bookshelves in the late 1990s, the Harry Potter series became a worldwide sensation, spawning spin-offs, theme parks, and of course, a film franchise, which started its run with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 2001. After falling in love with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and a whole slew of other characters from the books, excited fans would get to see what the story looked like on the big screen, and new finds like Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson were paired alongside legends like Dame Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and more.

One of the most important roles to cast, however, was the role of Voldemort, Harry's eternal nemesis who tries to kill him at the end of every school year. (If nothing else, Voldemort is consistently considerate when it comes to Harry's studies.) Thanks to a backfiring Killing Curse, Voldemort isn't seen in any kind of human form until the franchise's fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and producers found the perfect choice to portray the Dark Lord upon his return: acclaimed British actor Ralph Fiennes. However, Fiennes had to undergo a radical transformation to become Tom "Marvolo" Riddle, from his appearance to his mannerisms to his costume. So for all of those curious Potter fans, here's how Fiennes truly transformed into Lord Voldemort.

He almost turned the role down of Voldemort

It goes without saying that Ralph Fiennes is an extremely established and talented actor, one who's appeared in everything from The English Patient to Maid in Manhattan. In retrospect, it's obvious that he'd be a great choice to play the dynamic yet heartless villain of the Potter series, but believe it or not, he almost didn't step into Lord Voldemort's imposing shoes at all.

In the spring of 2019, Fiennes admitted to Digital Spy's Jonathan Ross that he very nearly said no to the role, mostly thanks to the fact that he wasn't familiar with the Potter books or films up until that point. For an actor who's appeared in legendary films like Schindler's List, he probably thought a children's series wouldn't be of much interest to him, but ultimately, his sister talked him into taking the role. After all, she had three kids and knew what a big deal Harry Potter was. Audiences around the world are lucky that Fiennes has younger relatives, or we might never have seen his frightening yet cheeky take on Tom Riddle.

Fiennes didn't spend much time in the makeup chair

Considering that the original Potter film franchise spanned an entire decade and ran for a whopping eight films (the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was split in two), you might think that once Fiennes made his debut in Goblet of Fire, he would've spent most of his time prepping to become Lord Voldemort, with all the makeup and prosthetics.

However, thanks to Voldemort's relatively low profile throughout the final books — in order to prevent the wizarding world at large from realizing he's returned, he remains largely quiet until he stages a successful coup of the Ministry of Magic in Deathly Hallows — Fiennes only had the makeup applied around 60 to 70 times, many of which were for the final two films. Really, that makes a whole lot of sense. Voldemort doesn't appear at all in the sixth book or movie (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), and with only a brief cameo in the previous installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, it checks out that Fiennes didn't have to spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in hair and makeup. And honestly, when he does show up on-screen, it's clear the makeup crew did a magical job.

His makeup transformation had to be quick for legal reasons

Fiennes may have donned Voldemort's full look just 70 times in total, but his makeup application also needed to be pretty brisk, and there was a very good reason for that. Obviously, the Potter series takes place during Harry's years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and even though the series still appeals to readers of all ages, the focus was squarely on the children attending this magical school. In other words, the movies were going to feature a lot of kids, which presented a small legal problem as far as filming was concerned.

Between mandatory classroom time and general child labor laws, kids aren't allowed to spend the entire day on set like adults can, and as such, Fiennes' makeup needed to be expedited every time it was applied so he could squeeze in as much filming as possible while younger co-stars like Daniel Radcliffe were allowed to be on the set. According to two-time Oscar-winning makeup artist Mark Coulier, who was personally responsible for getting Fiennes made-up, he managed to cut the application time down to a mere two hours. In fact, Coulier says some of the effects only took ten minutes to finish, which is an incredibly impressive accomplishment.

A lot of his Voldemort makeup was real

Voldemort was once just a regular human, but after ending up on the wrong side of a Killing Curse, he turned into a twisted, unreal being. While Ralph Fiennes is an incredibly handsome gent, "He Who Must Not Be Named" looks demented, terrifying, and just downright wrong, as if he made some sort of horrifying deal with the devil (which he basically did). When you're messing around with Horcruxes, homicide, and souls, it's never good for your look.

To turn Fiennes into a sub-human monster, Coulier and his team used eyebrow blockers, and they created veins with temporary tattoos. They used dark eye makeup around Fiennes' eyes, as well as fake fingernails, fake teeth, and even some paint on his hands. To test out this gruesome look before putting Fiennes in the makeup chair, Coulier and his crew used a plaster cast made from Fiennes' head, which gave them the practice they needed to execute Fiennes' makeup job at super speed. We're sure Fiennes appreciated the gesture, as nobody enjoys spending hours and hours getting transformed into a monster.

The nose goes

Ever the dedicated actor, Ralph Fiennes spent two hours in the makeup chair every time he appeared as Lord Voldemort. However, there was one element that couldn't be created through the magic of makeup. That was his flat, snakelike nose, which becomes more and more exaggerated as the series continues. So instead of relying on practical effects, the filmmakers had to use a bit of digital wizardry. 

To make Fiennes' nose vanish entirely, it took some impressive work from the film's special effects team. Every time that Fiennes appeared in a shot, his nose had to be carefully edited out. After erasing his schnoz from the scene, the editors had to enhance the snakelike slits on Fiennes' face in every single frame. According to the film's visual effects supervisor, Paul Franklin, it was "like creating a Renaissance painting," and ultimately, the crew's artistic efforts paid off, as they managed to keep Fiennes recognizable while still transforming him into the darkest wizard in cinematic history.

Fiennes had an unusual situation under those robes

One of the most unique aspects of the wizarding world is that every wizard and witch dons a distinctive robe, and naturally, Voldemort is no exception. With his sweeping black get-up, Voldemort looks more imposing than ever once he resumes his semi-human form, but if viewers had known about the entire construction of Fiennes' costume, they might've been a little less frightened.

Despite playing one of the most formidable villains of all time (one who was so fearsome that his enemies wouldn't even say his name out loud), Fiennes had a fairly comical situation happening under his flowing robes. In an interview with Graham Norton, Fiennes admitted that he couldn't handle the women's tights in which he was originally outfitted, so he begged the costume designer to cut part of them out, leaving him with a garter belt and suspenders throughout the entire production. This was a wise move on Fiennes' part when you consider that he had trouble performing Voldemort's smooth, powerful walk without this adjustment. But still, it's amusing to think about Fiennes' clothing situation under those robes. A garter belt is guaranteed to make an evil wizard far less intimidating.

His wand had its own special effects

Aside from Albus Dumbledore (who was played by both Richard Harris and Michael Gambon, with the latter taking over after the former's untimely passing), Voldemort was known as one of the most powerful wizards to have ever lived. That's pretty bad news for basically everybody else in the wizarding world. Though the measure of power between witches and wizards is a topic of some dispute, it's clear that Voldemort is among the top dog sorcerers, which makes him even harder to ultimately defeat.

For the film adaptation, another element was added to make it clear that Voldemort was an especially strong wizard: his wand. Whenever the Dark Lord shows up, his wand often seems to float underneath his hand without ever tumbling to the ground. As it turns out, Fiennes worked with the production designer to ensure his wand would never fall, thanks to a handy hook connected to his finger. It gave him the illusion of always keeping control of his wand, even when it was hovering around. By giving Fiennes an extra element of comfort by keeping the wand light in his hand, it gave Voldemort more visual power, which worked perfectly for the character.

Fiennes made a child cry on set

As far as literary villains go, Voldemort is definitely up there in the ranks of "most terrifying." In the aftermath of his meteoric rise from humble half-blood student to the leader of the Death Eaters, Tom Riddle personally murdered countless innocents, ordered the slaughter of many more, and orchestrated a reign of terror until he was unexpectedly felled by an infant. (Everybody owes a big debt of gratitude to Harry Potter's mother, Lily, for giving her life to protect her son and imbuing him with a shield even Voldemort couldn't break.) With that being said, upon Voldemort's return, he was more insidious than ever, and it took the ultimate sacrifice from Harry — that is, giving his life — to destroy all of Voldemort's Horcruxes and take him down for good.

In other words, Voldemort is a really bad dude who's nothing at all like Ralph Fiennes ... right? Well, it seems that Fiennes has more in common with his character than he would have most viewers believe. While the actor seems like a pretty nice guy, he apparently couldn't resist the urge to give some people on set a little scare. Specifically, while he was in costume and outfitted in full prosthetics, he made a little boy cry, which gave him the confidence he needed and let him know his disguise was working. But even so, it seems like maybe Fiennes' dark side lent itself to playing Voldemort a little too well.