It's the Voice.
You're phoning up from the hotel lobby - Carlyle, that bastion of New York's Upper East Side affluence - to Alan Rickman's room.
"Hello?" The Voice intones.
Whoa. This is a hello unlike any you've ever heard. Two puny syllables infused with a swirling conflation of emotion: at once seductive, disdainful, imperious.
Upstairs, in the British actor's $550-a-night, no-view suite, you realize why the 40ish Rickman has, in a few short years, become the man Hollywood calls upon when it needs a bad guy. The arch terrorist of Die Hard, the snide Australian of Quigley Down Under, and, June 14, the dark, door-kicking Sheriff of Nottingham opposite Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
It's not just the voice, you realize - it's his look, his manner. Dry, ironic, honey-coated contemptuousness. Hawklike features. He's the Basil rathbone of the '90s, and, alas, he's already in danger of the typecasting that mired Rathbone in villainy for a score of Hollywood productions.
Rickman's obviously aware of the precarious position. How else to explain his trip stateside to talk up his starring role in the romance, Truly, Madly, Deeply?
In Anthony Minghella's sugary first feature, Rickman is cast as a sensitive cellist who, dispatched to the beyond, returns to haunt his lover's life. Juliet Stevenson (who appeared opposite Rickman in the London production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is the grief-stricken woman.
You suggest it may have been a nice change of pace, playing a sympathetic character for once.
"Inevitably, I get asked that," he says with strained patience, "and it so isn't what my experience is. It's just that certain things that one does get more focus than others, but in actual fact, if you look at the movies that I've done, it's like three good guys to three bad guys - and one unnameable."
Good guys: The January man (1989), Truly, Madly, Deeply and Close MY Eyes (a small English film, yet to be released). Bad guys: Already noted. One unnameable: the fascist interrogator in the torture drama Closet Land.
"It's just that the three bad guys I've done have been in big, Hollywood expensive things, and the good guys are in small movies - small budgets, at least," he says.
For the time being, the villainous image lingers. It is said, from those who have seen bits of Robin Hood, that Rickman, as the neurotic lord of the shire, chews up the film sublimely.
"Yeah, why not?" he says of playing the villain. "It's fun being naughty."
Rickman, smiling, says he harbors no core of evil that might explain his charismatic sinisterness on the screen. His success in imparting such malevolence, he observes, can be traced to matters more mundane. Like camera angles.
"If a camera is placed endlessly on the floor in all your shots, and looks up your nostrils - you know, it's not just me."
Rickman concedes that he does have "certain features, that if they're lit from certain angles" take on a look of menace. "it's out of story books, it's out of The Wizard of Oz. Somebody with Debbie Reynolds' features doesn't get cast as the Wicked Witch, although maybe they should."
In Truly, Madly, Deeply, Rickman's features assume, appropriately enough, a ghostly glow. The film, made for British television but blown up to 35mm, has been described as "the thinking person's Ghost." But there are those who think comparing Truly, Madly, deeply to Ghost might scare off as many moviegoers as it attracts.
"It's just sort of a strange world we describe when we think people are saying, 'Well, I saw Ghost. I'm therefore not going to go to see this other movie.' You know, 'I saw Anna Karenina, so I ain't going to see Boris Godunov.' It's so different, and I hope that people tell each other that it is. Then they'll go see why."
Rickman's scenes with Stevenson are particularly affecting. The two have worked together often - in Liaisons (Rickman as the Vicomte, Stevenson as Madame de Tourvel) and other Royal Shakespeare Company endeavors - and the actor remains in awe of his colleague. For Rickman, one scene in Truly, Madly, Deeply confirms Stevenson's power. It comes early on, when her character, Nina, wracked by the loss of her loved one, breaks down and cries. And cries. And cries. And cries.
"That scene earns the movie," Rickman observes. "I think you need to have that scene to ground the film in reality, and for her to be as uncompromising as she is with it. Everybody gets a purging. It's a bit like an emotional car wash that she gives you - and then you can get on with the movie, really. You've got to see her grief, and so Anthony (Minghella) really lets you see it, and so does Juliet."
Rickman was born in London, where he still resides. Nonetheless, he calls himself a "full-blooded Celt" - his parents were Irish and Welsh. And "they certainly didn't have anything to do with the theater. I'm some kind of accident."
That accident occured when Rickman was still in grade school. "I was 7, and I remember being given a part in a play and thinking, 'This is exciting.' "
Art school and five years in a graphics studio got in the way, however, and it wasn't until his mid-20s that Rickman turned to acting.
An audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art led to his appointment to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he essayed a gamut of roles. His portrait of the sinister Vicomte in Liaisonswon him accolades in London and on Broadway.
After Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the actor will be seen in Close My Eyes, slated for fall release.
"It's another love story," he reports. "I'm part of a triangle. It's me, my wife and her brother. I discover a little later - rather a lot later than the audience does - that she's having an affair with her brother."
Alan Rickman, victim, not villain. Hollywood, please take note.
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