Evil Elegance

by John Lahr

Lear's Magazine - 1992

"I DON'T MIND SEDUCING as long as at the end of the seduction there's an idea or a shock," says Alan Rickman, one of England's boldest and most cunning actors. "You can lull the paying customers as long as they get slapped."

Rickman's performances always come with a jolt. To complicated characters like the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which he created on the West End and on Broadway, Rickman brings the shock of clarity. And to the memorable evil characters in his repertoire, like the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or the international terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Rickman brings the astonishment of humanity. "The best thing anybody said about Die Hard was 'We really wanted you to get away with it.' I think that's great. It meant that some ambiguity had been introduced into the good guy/bad guy Hollywood action movie. I like the fact that people got confused."

Rickman exudes the irony he purveys; it gives him an aura of mystery and danger. Talking backstage at London's Piccadilly Theatre during his run in the Japanese play Tango at the End of Winter, Rickman watches over his words, which rumble slowly out of him in a clipped clear voice tinged at once with authority and ennui. Both the cramped dressing room and Rickman are unprepossessing and make no concessions to comfort. "I like getting ambiguous responses from people," he says, enjoying the drama of his feistiness. "I'm not up there in a glass cage to be admired and for people to be enchanted by me. I like to mix it up. Audiences shouldn't be passive creatures. They come to work."

On stage and off, Rickman doesn't easily give himself away. He doesn't have what Charlie Chaplin called "that come-hither thing." Instead, Rickman teases the world with his maverick intelligence. "Thank God for Alan Rickman," wrote Anthony Lane in London's Independent on Sunday, comparing him to that select band of English actors - James Mason, Robert Donat, and George Sanders - who are "sensual, unhurried, turning everyone else into jitterbugs. Their villains are played like lovers, and vice versa; you don't trust them for a minute, but they won't give you a minute to look away."

Rickman thinks on his feet, and he has the ability to convey thought, which makes both audiences and personal acquaintances wait on his words. Tall, with reddish hair graying at the temples, a nose aspiring to aquiline, and a crenulated row of lower teeth that bite hard on consonants to give postures of flattery and fury their special piquancy, Rickman compels by the fierceness of his contradictory nature. "I'm a Piscan. In every area of my life complete opposites are at work all the time," he says. "I stagger myself sometimes. Who is this person? The 'you' who can't organize picking up the laundry - and you know that 'you' very well - watches the other one in a rehearsal situation and says, 'Who is this person who has all these ideas and all this invention?' There's a very, very instinctive person and a very, very practical person. It depends on what time of day it is, I think."

Like all outstanding performers, Rickman has the ability to be properly sensational. He has a love of rich language and an orotund voice capable of delivering verbal fun and ferment with equal musical power. "I am my own instrument," he says. Rickman also knows how to exploit both his irregular looks and his fine sound to take the focus of a scene and make it memorable - as he did in what he calls his one-eyebrow-raised, one-nostril-flared performances in Die Hard and Robin Hood. "Your Mr. Takagi, alas, will not be joining us for the rest of his life," he said with chilling sibilance to the assembled group at the company Christmas party in Die Hard - having just executed their boss. And as the seething Sheriff of Nottingham, Rickman got a chance to put his full lips around such comic fulminations as "No more merciful beheadings!"

In his latest film, the political satire Bob Roberts, Rickman is Lukas Hart III, venal campaign manager to the eponymous Roberts, a reactionary folk singer who gets elected to the Senate. Roberts is played by Tim Robbins, who also directed the film. "The people behind candidates tend to be transparent," says Robbins. "I was interested in casting someone who was a cross between Dr. Strangelove and William Casey. I don't like safe actors, which is why I chose Alan, who has the courage to make bold choices and chew on the scenery a little bit. He's also got a whimsy to him when he plays evil that's very seductive. I'd like to play opposite him in a movie about competing psychopaths. I'd like to try and out-psychopath Alan Rickman." The movie was a sensation at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where the critic for the trade paper Variety described Rickman as "ferociously good."

Rickman sees himself as "a quite serious actor who doesn't mind being ridiculously comic"; indeed, he takes his characters to the brink of vulgarity. In Les Liaisons, vulgarity was at the heart of the game of sexual manipulation. "The whole essence of the play was surface: dirt under polished fingernails," says Rickman. The role earned him a Tony award nomination in 1987 and brought a new amperage to his star and to his reputation for intellectual menace.

RICKMAN, WHO LIVES IN WEST LONDON with Rima Horton, an economics teacher who recently made an unsuccessful run for Parliament, did not hit upon his life's work until the relatively late age of 26. He characterizes himself as "a dreamy kid," the second of four children whose father - a decorator - died of cancer when he was eight. At first Rickman gravitated to the visual arts. After attending the Latymer Upper School in West London, to which he won a scholarship at the age of 11, he enrolled at the Chelsea School of Art and then the Royal College of Art. He parlayed his art studies into a successful Soho graphics-design business. Rickman reclines on the gray dressing room sofa and pictures the pillar-box on Berwick Street outside his design firm in Soho where he mailed his application to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). "My life changed the moment I posted that letter," he says. There's a voice inside you that tells you what you should do. I'd been doing some amateur theater. Our design group was very successful, but I could also see that it was just going to repeat itself. And then that voice came up and said, 'It's now or never to change.'"

Rickman did two years at RADA, earning his way as a dresser for Sir Ralph Richardson and Nigel Hawthorne and winning RADA's highest performing award, the Bancroft Medal. But Rickman's real reward was psychological. "Most of our lives, we function with a big divide between here and here," he says, drawing an imaginary line between his head and torso. "When I went to RADA, my body was saying, "About time." It was being used, and I was aware that I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do, and just in time. In acting, you can't hang about too long."

Rickman spent four years working the length and breadth of England in repertory before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1979. During those journeyman years, in addition to suffering the embarrassment of playing a squirrel in a Christmas pantomime and having to sing "She's Pooped Without Her Porridge," he appeared in a wide range of rigorous roles, in such plays as Jarry's Ubu Rex and Brecht's Man is Man (at the Bristol Old Vic), as well as Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken (at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield).

Now in his mid-40s, Rickman is bankable on both sides of the Atlantic, and at a time when England's entertainment industry is on its uppers, he is flush with offers of stage and screen work. But his ascent has not been effortless. "Some actors have opportunities and shapes given to them. Not me," says Rickman. "I've had to guide my career and seize any opportunity that came my way." Indeed, his commercial success in Hollywood has put him at a curious crossroads. "The Sheriff and Hans Gruber were fun to do, but they're cartoon characters. You press that button when required, but it's not the sum of what I've done, or what I can do." As an antidote to typecasting and the public's perception of him, Rickman turned up last year in a couple of highly ambitious, low-budget English films. He was the sardonic cello-playing ghost haunting his mourning lover, Juliet Stevenson, in Anthony Minghella's Truly Madly Deeply. And writer-director Stephen Poliakoff wrote the urbane, intellectual Sinclair in Close My Eyes for Rickman, who managed, amid this overheated tale of incest, to keep the audience's attention to his own restrained perplexity.

If American film audiences haven't yet taken the full measure of Rickman's abilities, Rickman has the measure of America, which exhilarates him. "When you get off the plane in England, you've got to shrug a little bit, hug yourself into your coat a bit more," he says. "I stand straighter in L.A. It's something about how the English are brought up, and what we're told we can expect. Maybe it's because I drive a car in L.A., and I don't here. I feel more in charge of myself. I wouldn't dream of being out there as an actor looking for work. To actually say 'OK, I'm going to pitch a tent here and wave a flag saying EMPLOY ME' - I couldn't do that. But I enjoy being there: It's disgusting and wonderful. Like going to Dunkin' Donuts for lunch every day."

STYLE IS METABOLISM, and Rickman's edgy fascination with extremes reflects the curious mixture of repression and anger that percolates beneath the surface of his cool facade. "Oh, yeah, I'm angry," says Rickman, who attributes his bumptiousness to his Celtic gene pool, a mixture of Irish and Welsh. "I'm passionately angry at this country. Twelve years of a Tory government has left the theater in tatters. The infrastructure has been eroded. Where are the new playwrights? The new fringe theaters? The serious plays on the West End? There are no great playwrights coming up, as far as I can see. I want England to wake up."

Rickman's own contributions to the theater include playing a benign Svengali to the American comedienne Ruby Wax, whose one-woman show he directed last spring on the West End. Wax, a brazen, caustic motor mouth, has had several popular TV series in England (four specials culled from a recent one are currently airing in this country on the A&E cable channel). She met Rickman in 1977 at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, and it was he who helped her create and shape her comic persona. "His sense of comedy is outstanding," she says. "He's given me a kind of class that I never would have had." One might have predicted what Rickman likes about her: "Ruby is so reckless," he says admiringly, "and so daring."

After a four year absence from the stage, Rickman himself seems to be gravitating back. In September, he opens in Hamlet at the Riverside Studios in London; next year, he hopes to team up with Isabelle Huppert in a production of Strindberg's Miss Julie, and there's talk of him taking on Ibsen's Peer Gynt. "I just want bigger challenges," he says, "to touch that unknown part where you're not just a collection of other people's preconceptions."

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