Alan Rickman has built his career playing sexy, sardonic villains, yet in real life he seems a paragon of loyalty, stability and monogamy. So what does a self-confessed control freak do with his emotional mayhem? He puts it all in his directorial film debut
I was present at the exact moment that Alan Rickman became a
star - though no one saw it coming, not even the man himself. It
was the evening of Thursday September 26, 1985, the venue was
the Other Place, the RSC studio in Stratford-on-Avon, and the
occasion was the first night of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Of
course, it is easy now to see that the play was destined to be a
hit. But back then, adaptations of novels were not the vogue;
Christopher Hampton was something of a maverick writer; Howard
Davies, the director, was on his way out of the RSC and the
whole enterprise - an 18th-century French period piece featuring
the sexual romps of a bunch of pampered, aristocratic perverts -
had the fin-de-siecle feel of a final festive fling. And, indeed, Les
Liaisons was the closing production of a lacklustre season - there
had been a self-conscious designer feel about the productions, as
if infected by the spirit of the times.
That night, the elements conspired to assist Rickman. It was cold, it was dark, and it was raining, making even the tinpot Other Place appear cosy, a safe haven. Inside, there was the aura of expectation that you get with an audience comprised mainly of other actors. What Hampton had written was a state-of-the-nation play. Laclos, writing seven years before the French Revolution, had borne witness to a society, driven by appetite, eating itself alive. Like Freud after him, Laclos took sexuality as the substructure of human activity, and through the sexual shenanigans of his Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Meurteuil could be inferred the corruption of the superstructure - society. It was a political play, but one dressed with consummate elegance - the iron hand in the velvet glove - something of the essence of Rickman himself.
What I remember of Rickman's performance as Valmont is that his body seemed to be hinged in all sorts of unexpected places, enabling him to fold and unfold it at will. That voice - poised, cadenced, raw and yet musical - came out of a mouth like a cave, creating these tilts of sound and body. He was frightening. Frightening, not because he was immoral, but because he made you want him. Within the moral vacuum that surrounded him - and that nothing could penetrate - he was irresistible.
That first night, as Lindsay Duncan, who played the Marquise, Valmont's partner in crime, has famously said: "A lot of people left the theatre wanting to have sex, and most of them wanted to have it with Alan Rickman." A lot of people must also have left the theatre wondering where the RSC had been hiding an actor of such calibre. In the 1985 season, his two Shakespearean roles were Jaques in As You Like It and Achilles in Troilus And Cressida. Even 12 years on, it still smarts to think of the roles he could have had - Hamlet (which he did at producer Thelma Holt's invitation in 1992), Prospero, Macbeth. And why hadn't the National picked him up - offered him a Chekhov. Or Ibsen. He would make a terrifying Judge Brack.
It wasn't a good time in the big subsidised theatres. There was a machismo among directors, particularly at the RSC, that actors rightly resented. Actresses on the whole fared better, especially if they chose to exploit the traditional male/female power structure. A number of wonderful actors were lost. Some, Jonathan Pryce, for example, simply left classical theatre - never to return. Kenneth Branagh, at the Riverside, and Ian McDiarmid, at the Almeida, established their own actor/manager companies. Rickman almost slipped through the net. As he says, "Perhaps the powers that be should look back at that time and ask if really the best was made of it. It was an amazing bunch of actors." And perhaps it is worth reflecting that Trevor Nunn, the man who ran the RSC then, is the man who runs the Royal National Theatre today.
There is an ancient Chinese proverb. If you sit long enough by the river bank, the body of your enemy may float by. Rickman waited almost 20 years for his first taste of triumph - he was 42 in 1985 when success came. Even then, it must have seemed to him that all too suddenly it was snatched out of his grasp. The part of Valmont in Stephen Frears' film Dangerous Liaisons went to John Malkovich - as Rickman says, "hot at the time". Now he can be philosophical about it. "You have to live in the real world. My getting that part was never on the cards, I know that." Then he was hurt. He never went to see the film: "Why would I?" And, as he points out, it was Les Liaisons that changed the course of his career. When the play transferred to Broadway for its brief, packed-out, American Equity-endorsed, 20-week run, it was seen by film producer Joel Silver, who was looking for a charismatic, serio-comic, sardonic villain to cast opposite his Die Hard star Bruce Willis. Someone has said that not getting Dangerous Liaisons saved Rickman, because it saved his sense of humour. Die Hard gave him it back. Watching Rickman in that brilliant cartoon of a film, he is irresistibly funny. And you see he can gauge the exact temperature at which the camera reacts. He doesn't shout at it - like Branagh - and for all his flamboyance, there is not a lot of fuss. The movements are nuanced, and something he does with the corner of his eye is reminiscent of the great Robert Mitchum. There is a tradition in British theatre for missing native talent, as if we can't tell how good it is until it has crossed the Atlantic. The Americans don't make that mistake. Rickman's next Hollywood film was Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, with Kevin Costner.
These days, everyone is after Rickman. Theatre offers pour in from the RSC and the National, but so far Rickman has taken none. He can now divide his time between film and theatre at will. He has just returned from Los Angeles, where he was making the film Judas Kiss with his friend Emma Thompson, "A thriller in which she plays an FBI agent and I play a detective, and we're both from New Orleans." He will remain in London for the opening of his directorial film debut of Sharman Macdonald's The Winter Guest, a script he co-wrote with Macdonald, the writer whose first play he promoted when he was a reader all those years before at the Bush Theatre. The film features, among others, Emma Thompson. He plans a film of Maugham's The Moon And Sixpence, adapted by Christopher Hampton ... and so on. Ergo the cast list in his life is pretty constant, he is loyal. "I have loyal friends," he says. He has been in a relationship with the same woman, Rima Horton, for almost 30 years.
People sometimes describe Rickman as aloof, haughty, a 'guru', but instead of some bleak, intimidating oracle, I meet a warm, intelligent man who giggles a lot. He is not easy, he admits it himself ("Good luck with this one ..."). And his first words - following my standard "Pleased to meet you" - are an Eeyorish, "Whoever I may be". But he is candid. He will try to be honest, he says. He can't help it if there's a voice in the back of his head checking everything he says.
To list some of his hates: Talking about himself. "What is it about actors? God knows I get bored with actors talking about themselves." Being asked questions about himself. "I don't think it's right that everybody knows everything about me." From this you could assume that his primary purpose is to hold himself at bay - but the theme that recurs most frequently in his conversation is a horror of isolation. He hates theatres that aren't in cities, "because when you come off the stage, you want to walk out into life". He hates the limos he is routinely accorded in New York and Hollywood because the first time he got in one, "the black windows went up and I knew in a flash what it was all about: to keep me as far away from the next human being as possible - and what a terrible concept that is". The problem, he says, is that success is too often measured in terms of isolation. "In LA it is measured by the height of the walls around your home and by the size of the home inside its high walls. That's a kind of living death to me." The more success you have, the greater the pressure to remove yourself from the real world.
The desire for privacy is an entirely different instinct. Most people are private, he says, "if by private is meant wanting control over the way you are seen". But for an actor, privacy is essential. "Acting is about giving something away, handing yourself over to whatever role you are asked to play. I'm not hiding or escaping or seeking anonymity. I reserve the right not to have a rubber stamp on my forehead saying this is who I am. Because who I am gets in the way of people looking innocently at the parts I play." And he is probably right: it is possible to have too much information.
I remember once hearing a live recording of Elgar conducting Pomp And Circumstance Number Three. "I want you to play this," the old man chuckled, his voice rising to keep pace with that all-too familiar crescendo, "as if you had never heard it before." It was a joke, but it was also a stab at truth. How do you come to something fresh - or, to use Rickman's word, "innocently"? When he is acting Hamlet, he says, and he sees a young woman in the audience wearing a Truly, Madly, Deeply T-shirt, and also present is Juliet Stevenson, there is a clash of realities. It is all about fantasies, he says, the myths that follow actors around. "I cannot take responsibility for people's fantasy. I can't think about it, I can't live with it and I won't dwell on it." So what do you want, I ask him. "I want to be part of the storytelling chain," he says.
He knows that there are no new stories, nothing new under the sun; only new ways of telling them, playing them, painting them, acting them. Listening to him talk about his childhood, I am struck first by its familiarity - love, loss - then by its uniqueness.
I say that I didn't think he'd enjoy being a director because he wants to be loved too much. "Loved," he says, as startled as if I'd just invented the word. "No, it has nothing to do with love." Because, I realise later, love occupies a particular space in his mind. He uses the word only twice.
Of his companion, Rima. And of his mother.
It is by contrasts that we remember things.
A happy time is happy only as distinct from darker times. His early years, he says, were good years - though the family was poor and the house in Acton small and cramped with what became a family of six - his parents were happy. There was something of a clash of cultures - his mum a Methodist and Welsh, his dad an Irish Catholic - and a certain amount of banging and weeping behind doors. But he never doubted, as a child, that they were loved. He is clear about this. "We were not excluded, not at all."
Listening to people, it is hard sometimes not to pre-empt what they are going to say. I thought he said, "We are each the sum of the luck we have." But something about the tone of this phrase struck me as wrong, and when I asked him to repeat it, I heard that he had said "lack": "We are who we are. The sum of the lack we have." His lack - and not just his, but the lack of his two brothers, one sister, and, of course, his adored mum - is the death of his father from lung cancer when Rickman was eight years old, and his siblings nine, seven and five.
With his father's death everything changed. "What do you want me to say? Yes, I remember certain things about him, but the memories I have of my father are those you have as an eight-year-old. Yes, his death was a huge thing to happen to four kids under ten." I asked him if he felt his father as an absence in his life. "No," he said, making it more a question than an answer, "you can't feel that." You can't feel it, he explains, because you have to be present in your own life. You don't will yourself out of your own life.
There are times, he says, when the past appears to him as a snapshot, a frozen moment in time: A small boy in a classroom. The headmaster walking across the front of the class, speaking quietly to the teacher as both turn to look at the boy. "And I know what they are going to say. They are going to tell me to go home, where I will be told that my father is dead."
Or the moment after the funeral, which the children didn't go to, when he saw his mother for the first time since the death. "Some friends drove us to meet her. They said 'Look, there's your mother' and we all said 'Where?' Because we didn't recognise this woman dressed head to foot in black." He describes a scene from Gorky's My Childhood in which a boy opens a door and looks into a long room. At the end of the room sits a woman naked to the waist and wearing a red skirt. In her arms, she is cradling the body of a man who has pennies over his eyes. Her husband, Gorky's father. "Maybe," Rickman says, "my story is not as dramatic as that. But you see. I was always used to seeing my mother in the brightest of colours. For me, that was the biggest shock."
Probably none of us ever recovers from shock. Shock is like a crater in the mind, and you spend the rest of your life trying not to slip over the edge. His mother never got over it. She married again, briefly, for three years. "All that can be said about that is that it didn't work out. There was one love in her life." His mother became fiercely protective of her children, "like a tigress". She treated them equally, he says; there were no favourites.
And then, this happens. He gets a scholarship to a direct-grant school, Latymer Upper in Hammersmith. "A different world, with different rules from the ones I grew up with." He does well, is made a prefect. He discovers that the cool detachment, what he calls "the airiness of the truly English" suits his temperament better than Celtic emotional mayhem. "Latymer was like a cold gust of wind to the brain." And suddenly he finds himself being drawn away from his background. "You want to run away, you know you've got to come to terms with it. You find yourself becoming middle class, and you have to deal with that. You feel guilty and you have to come out the other side of that. And then some success starts to attend ..." In fact, he didn't choose theatre first. From school he went to art college. He wanted to be a designer, and, with a group of friends, he set up a studio in Soho. "We had a great time, even though we didn't make a lot of money." Then, at 24, he looked around him, thought, "Is this it for the rest of my life?" and promptly chucked it in and won a scholarship to RADA.
Looking back, he says, the theatre, acting, was always going to be his world. It wasn't even a conscious desire. "For me, it was simply finding the place where I functioned on all cylinders." It was about discovering himself. "Maybe that's why it took me some time to decide to do it." And though he doesn't say so, acting must have provided him with a way back to his roots. People describe how, in his early years, he was wooden, uncomfortable, diffident on stage. If stage acting is the art of unfurling yourself in public, for Rickman, a self-confessed control freak - "Just ask Juliet Stevenson" - the theatre was the one place where he could be out of control without the emotional chaos spinning him over the edge.
There has never been any jealousy or competitiveness, he says, from anyone in his family. "On the contrary. All I get from them is the fiercest pride. And I for them." They supported him, particularly his mum. "She was incredibly talented herself. She would have had a career as a singer herself - in another world, and given a different mother."
The point he is making is that talent is not enough. What is also needed, apart from dedication, are the conditions in which talent can flourish. His mother gave him something extraordinary from a parent to child - generosity. Talented herself, even if thwarted in her talent, she didn't begrudge him his. As a present for her 80th birthday, he arranged for her to go and see Phantom Of The Opera - it's what she wanted, a musical. Afterwards, there was a huge party that she entered "like the star she was. I've never seen anyone enter a room like that." She died, he tells me, last year. In the middle of the editing of his film The Winter Guest.
His work is his autobiography he says. "If people want to know who I am, it is all in the work." There was a time when he was overtly political, a staunch Labour Party supporter, and prepared to speak out. Less so now. "I find myself becoming less and less enamoured of public statement - I'd rather see it in action."
So if The Winter Guest is autobiographical, in the sense that he means above - not literally - what does it say about Rickman? It is Sharman Macdonald's play adapted for screen, he points out. It is her vision, her words. But clearly, something must have drawn him back to it after directing the play. He is not a man who easily repeats himself. There must have been something new, or something he missed, that he felt he could bring to it the second time around.
The story is a curious, multi-layered, poetic meditation on life and death, a kind of seven ages of man, viewed through the relationships of four couples: mother/daughter; boy/girl; two young schoolboys; two old ladies. There is no father figure - the father has just died - but more interesting than this, there is no mature male character. I ask Rickman what drew him to this material specifically. He is hesitant at first. Being a director, he says, is a job in which you harness other people's talents.
It was a surprising coalition of many different elements in his life, 'a chain'. The idea for the play arose from a story told to him by his friend Lindsay Duncan, whose mother was sick with Alzheimer's disease. "She found her one day in the garden, pruning roses in wellington boots and her wedding hat." Rickman put Duncan in touch with writer Sharman Macdonald. "Years passed, I was filming in America and the Almeida theatre asked if I would like to direct a play. Sharman had completed The Winter Guest and was waiting for an opportunity for me to direct it." In the role of the dying mother, Rickman cast Phyllida Law, Emma Thompson's mother. "What was extraordinary was that it was the first time for five years that Phyllida had been free. She had been nursing her own mother, who was dying." In a way, and if you believe in these things, he says, it was as if the play was waiting for her.
And maybe, he adds, it is to do with becoming successful. "In this world, in which people pass each other without contact, I like the idea of focusing on eight voices, isolated in a small town in a bitter winter. Maybe, as I move increasingly in a world of publicity launches and films and plane travel, I just find it reassuring." There is a point in the film for each couple where one holds out a hand to the other and is rejected. Then comes the moment where the hand is grasped. "And, yes, I like that," he says. "It seems to make some sense of why we are here."
I tell him that I find the end of the film, where the little boys walk out over the ice sheet, terribly depressing. I don't want them to die. "Then they don't die," he says. What is interesting about this is that in the original play it is unequivocal - the two boys walk off into the mist and they die. The film ending is much more ambiguous. It was he, Rickman says, who took that decision. "The play was too explicit, too melodramatic. I wanted the ending of the film to be optimistic. Even joyful."
"Of course," he says, resigned, "I identify with the boy in the film whose father has died." For that boy, what is happening is a sexual awakening - a whole realm of possibility, the rest of his life, is opening up to him. There is a wonderful moment when the young girl comes to his house to make love to him while his mother is out, and she deliberately turns around all the photos, the shrine to his father, as if to absolve the boy from any further guilt or grief. As Rickman says, this is a film about human possibility, one that acknowledges that we can't achieve the impossible - alter the past.
"As we get older," he says, "we are all waiting on the shore. It's the young who walk out into the world we have made for them. That's what I think the film is about. Its last line is 'Wait for me'."
This makes me wonder why he had never had children. It was not a choice, he says. "You should remember I am not the only one involved. There is another person here." He says he would have loved a family. "Sometimes I think that in an ideal world, three children, aged 12, ten and eight, would be dropped on us and we would be great parents for that family." But when I say that he could leave for a 20-year-old starlet, start a family ... "Er, no," he says. Never been tempted? "No."
I am just thinking what an incredibly sensible, level-headed man he is, when he suddenly veers off course. Recently, he tells me, "someone who knows about these things" informed him that all the problems and indecisions in his life stem from the fact that he is a Piscean. "I want to swim in both directions at once. Desire success, court failure." But even worse, he says, is the fact that he has no earth in his sign. "It's all air and water. Nothing to hold me down." I am still trying to work out if he is taking the piss when he says, "Luckily, there is some fire there. That must be from my mum - she was a Sagittarian." So he has a daft side, too.
It seems to him now, he says, that for the first time in his life, all his energies have come together, cohered, "so that whatever this career is that I have, it appears to be acquiring some shape." He is still chaotic, he says. "In the sense that I don't know what I'm going to be doing in the next half hour." But he is enjoying him, the filming, travelling. If success gives you anything, he says, it is the chance to do what you want. What he wants is to live till he is old. "And still be out there as an actor doing something somewhere at 70." But he has no ambitions to move to Hollywood. The things that he likes best are simple things: "Good friends, good food, good wine."
There are those who don't know Rickman and don't like him. And those who know him and adore him. This, a friend of his informs me, is because he is gracious, a real gentleman. "He will hate me for saying this, but he embodies all those old-fashioned Christian virtues." He is also immensely teasable. In the 12 years since Liaisons, he has gained a reputation for playing the sardonic, sexy villain - almost creating his own sub-genre in this role. But mention the word sex to him, and he looks instantly trapped. No, he says, he has never been remotely sexually voracious, whatever that is ... Then, lightening up, "but maybe I'll be sexually voracious next week." His next role, he tells me, is in a movie scripted by Kevin Smith, who wrote and directed Clerks and Chasing Amy. He plays an angel. "Do you know," he says, "angels have no genitals." For some reason, he finds this uproariously funny.
The Winter Guest opens January 9.
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