Though Alan Rickman has made his name portraying such compelling villains as the Vicomte de Valmont, the manipulative seducer in the London and Broadway versions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Hans Gruber, the viperish German pseudo-terrorist in the hit film Die Hard, the British actor visibly bristles when asked why he feels he's been most successful playing sinister characters.|
"The word 'villain' doesn't mean anything to me," says the 45-year-old Rickman, whose bold, insinuating stage and screen persona seems layers removed from the unassuming, barely audible actor now shifting uncomfortably in his chair over morning coffee at London's Blakes Hotel. Wearing blue jeans, a denim shirt, and a colorful Jean Paul Gautier tie, the actor quickly dismisses the subject of typecasting. Then, sensing perhaps that he should at least attempt an answer, he explains: "Each character I play has different dimensions. I'm not interested in words that pull them together. The whole business of laying yourself on the line is difficult whatever the character. It's my life as well as my work, so when people try to stick a label on my life, I think, 'It doesn't seem like that to me.'"
Rickman's gallery of rogues certainly hasn't been filled with the usual suspects. His specialty isn't the usual street thug or gangster, but rather the coldly elegant, calculating mastermind - the thinking man's villain. The Vicomte de Valmont, the sexually scheming French aristocrat that Rickman played in Christopher Hampton's stage play of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, plots various conquests merely to amuse himself - and to dishonor the many women who fall prey to his charms. In Die Hard, Rickman's ruthless Gruber is the dapper ringleader of a gang of European thieves intent on pulling off a major heist in an L.A. office tower. And in The Barchester Chronicles, the popular BBC miniseries that launched Rickman from the ranks of the unknown in 1982, the actor portrayed a creepy, conniving chaplain named Obadiah Slope.
"I'm a lot less serious than people think," says Rickman, whose narrow hazel eyes, long nose, and curling lip accented by a neat mustache do give off a certain air of menace. "It's probably because the way my face is put together."
If Rickman hopes to shed his constraining bad-guy image, his performance as the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, his latest move, is unlikely to advance him toward that goal. The $50-million adventure epic opened in June and stars Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Shot on location in England and France and at London's Shepperton Studios, this Robin Hood was four months in the making and provides a fresh and darker telling of the familiar seven-hundred-year-old tale, most memorably brought to the screen in 1938 with Errol Flynn in the leading role. Rickman's Sheriff ("the character you are not supposed to like," he allows) deals in black magic and spells, while Costner's Robin Hood is teamed up with a new companion, a princely Moor (Freeman) with whom he escapes from captivity during the Crusades.
"Our film is more like Raiders of the Lost Sherwood Forest," says the sandy-haired Rickman, brightening as he recalls the sheer energy and physicality that went into playing the Sheriff, a role that called for him to ride horses through "that" forest and to perform his own sword-fighting sequences.
"Kevin and I are essentially the bookends of the story. The Sheriff is pretty certifiable, but I think he's someone audiences can hate and laugh at. I tried to make him funny. I've also made him as black as possible - there are absolutely no colors on his costume. We tried using my own hair and that didn't work, so we put a raven-colored wig on him. I got the outline first and then put it all on and said, 'Now how does this feel? Yeah, this feels like somebody who kicks doors down and hits people and stamps his feet when he doesn't get what he wants.'"
According to the buzz at the time of the film's opening, Costner found Rickman's Sheriff a little too bookendish for his taste: There were reports that Costner was "concerned" that Rickman's performance was so strong that he'd steal the show, and that the film was re-edited at the last minute to flesh out Costner's character. Rickman, however, voices his admiration for Costner and his low-key approach to his own fame. "The first time I thought 'Well, there's a real person' was late one evening when Mary Elizabeth and I were standing on some platform delivering lines to nobody," says Rickman. "The next thing I knew, somebody was lying on the ground reading lines that weren't even his so that we would have someone to play off, and I looked down and it was Kevin Costner. He had just finished a long day of filming, and I thought, 'Three cheers for you.'"
Over the last year, Rickman has starred in four movies, shot in quick succession. In contrast to his loony caricature in Robin Hood, Rickman gave a charming and subtle performance in the chamber-size Truly, Madly, Deeply, which opened in May, an extremely affecting film about a woman (Juliet Stevenson) whose dead lover (Rickman) one day reappears in her flat; the plot may seem a bit stale in light of last year's Oscar-nominated hit Ghost, but many found it a good deal more inventive.
At the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Rickman was seen in Stephen Poliakoff's Close My Eyes, the British playwright and director's film about a man, played by Rickman, whose wife is having an affair with her brother. Last spring, the actor also starred as a government interrogator in Closet Land, a chilling two-character film about an author of children's books who has been summoned for questioning because her latest story is thought to be subversive. Reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial but not nearly so effective, the film met with largely poor reviews. "When we were making the film, I thought, 'This could be too relentless,'" Rickman noted. "I mean, there wasn't a single joke in it."
Trained as a stage actor, Rickman didn't begin making films until 1987, when the director and producer of Die Hard saw him in Liaisons on Broadway and promptly cast him in their film opposite Bruce Willis. "All sorts of people asked me why I wanted to be in a movie like Die Hard," says the actor, whose follow-up films - Norman Jewison's January Man, and Quigley Down Under with Tom Selleck - were short-lived. "Doing Die Hard was a big holiday for me because I didn't have to go onstage every night. It was also something I'd never done before, and I like all that in life."
Die Hard grossed $80 million and stamped Rickman, then 42, as a bankable movie actor. But when Les Liaisons Dangereuses was released the following year as Dangerous Liaisons, the film featured an all-American cast, with John Malkovich in the role Rickman had originated. The minute the subject is raised, Rickman cuts it short: "I haven't seen the film, and I don't like to talk about it because it's in the past now," he says.
Rickman put in a grueling two-year stint in Liaisons, first in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Company, then in the West End, and finally on Broadway, where he did eight shows a week for six months and was onstage for virtually the entire three hours. "Valmont was a cruel part to play for a long time, and I don't think it was entirely healthy for me," he says now. "It would take a lot to get me to do that again. Valmont is so self-destructive, yet he doesn't know it, so you have to play a lie all the time. I wasn't very pleasant to live with during that period."
Though the original Lacros novel was written in 1782, Rickman was all too aware of its contemporary resonance. "I thought it was interesting that the audiences hated the Marquise and let the Vicomte off the hook," he says. "People still allow Valmonts in this world. Of course, our job was to not let the audience off the hook, because the play is about the audience. We had to get them to love these two monsters, and it was fascinating to watch that kind of evil being so entertaining an erotic. There we were, hardly taking off any clothes, and, as a friend put it, there wasn't a dry seat in the house."
Christopher Hampton recalls that it was Rickman's mesmerizing quality that convinced him that the actor was ideally suited to play the Vicomte. At the time, Rickman was well known in the profession "as a coming man," says Hampton, who had seen him in several productions at the Royal Court, but not to the general public. "Alan was able to transfix not only the viewer, but he also seemed to have a kind of hypnotic effect on the people he was playing his scenes with." Hampton, in fact, had so wanted to see Rickman in the role that he purposely turned in his script to coincide with the RSC's cyclical hiring of new actors. That way, he says, he would be able to suggest Rickman, who was then not a member of the company.
Rickman didn't turn to acting until he was 26, when he was already established as a graphic artist with his own firm. "there was an inevitability about my being an actor since about the age of 7, but there were other roads that had to be traveled first," explains the first-generation Londoner, son of an Irish factory worker father and Welsh mother. When he finally decided it was possible to pursue an acting career, he went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and got by with free-lance design jobs and stints as a dresser in the evenings. (The highlight, he says, was a production of the John Osborne play West of Suez, which gave him the chance to stand in the wings nightly and study his hero, Ralph Richardson.) Rickman later joined the RSC, where he performed both classic and contemporary plays before leaving to work on the fringe for nearly seven years. Following his successful turn in The Barchester Chronicles, he returned to the RSC, where Hampton was on hand to help him land the plum role of Valmont.
While Rickman acknowledges that his growing renown has opened important doors, the business of publicity is something he approaches with a great deal of discomfort. "Celebrity is a minefield," he says, adding, a little naively, that he finds it curious that "so much newsprint is devoted to the lives and opinions of actors. I'm still really unsure about how much of that is relevant."
Home for Rickman is still London, where he lives with his girlfriend, an economist. "It's been more like a trampoline lately," he admits. "I love to travel and I don't have children, so there is a certain freedom." For the first time in a year, Rickman is taking a break from moviemaking and this month returns to the stage in Tango at the End of Winter, which opens August 8 at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh and then moves to the Picadilly in London's West End. Written by Kunio Shimizu, adapted by Peter Barnes, and directed by Yukio Ninagawa, the darkly humorous Tango centers on Rickman's character, Sei, a successful Japanese actor who, feeling his life is empty, tries to recover something of his roots by returning to the town where he grew up and where his family still runs the local movie house.
But after that, there's no telling what Rickman may be up to.
"I love not knowing what I'm going to be doing," he says. "I just enjoy any kind of mad scheme that comes up. I'll happily spend a day going round and round on roller coaster rides, the more dangerous the better."
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