David Appleby
Jeff Labrecque
August 11, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Ralph Fiennes hadn’t read much Charles Dickens until he learned about Nelly Ternan, the author’s secret young mistress and muse. But once Fiennes decided to direct a film about their illicit affair, he tore into the canon, paying special attention to the novels written after the 45-year-old married Dickens took up with the 18-year-old actress (Felicity Jones). ”I had fun trying to identify the Nelly elements in Our Mutual Friend,” says Fiennes, who also plays the writer and amateur stage impresario. ”He was fastidiously obsessive about every element of production, and apparently he was a very good actor,” he says. ”So I sort of felt that my double duty was a bit Dickens-like.”

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