An Oscar-nominated thesp like Ralph Fiennes knows how to do his homework. So when it came to playing two seriously deranged characters in a row — Red Dragon and Spider (opening today) — he decided to add some rather disturbing realism to his madmen by interviewing patients in mental hospitals.

"I met people who suffered from schizophrenia, who knew I was an actor and knew I was playing this role," Fiennes tells TV Guide Online. "They talked very openly about the voices that they heard, the hallucinations that they had."

To play Spider, a schizophrenic man haunted by the murder of his mother, Fiennes chose to mimick the constant mumbling he witnessed in a couple of patients. But he was always wary of overplaying these mannerisms. "I was always asking David [Cronenberg, the director,] 'Is that too much or too little?'" he says. "Because that's the sort of thing that could become too distracting. Some people have fixated on the mumbling, but it's what I encountered."

After such emotionally taxing work, it's no wonder Fiennes relished the chance to step into the urban fairy tale of Maid in Manhattan, in which he starred opposite Jennifer Lopez. "I did Spider and then Red Dragon, one right after the other," he sighs. "That was heavy. I would have put on a dress after that!"

Does that mean we'll see more of the light-hearted side of this intense Brit? Maaaybe. "I liked the process [of making Maid in Manhattan], but I'd like it to be a bit spicier and a bit more hard-edged," he admits. "I thought it was a sweet film, and I'm glad it was successful. But I wished it had pushed the envelope and was a bit naughtier, a bit more risqu&#233."