Getting a new role down cold, Alan Rickman makes his debut as a director
You'd know the languid, chiseled, resonant drawl
with your eyes closed. It belongs to Alan
Rickman, who has managed the difficult feat of
remaining a respected British stage presence while
launching a Hollywood career based on playing
indolently sexy villains who seem amused by
evil-doing. Perhaps because he holds strong
socialist convictions, and to this day feels a conflict
between Hollywood's high-priced glitz and his
egalitarian principles, he has not exactly been
extroversion incarnate when talking about himself.
Maybe the reason Rickman is relaxed on a recent cold afternoon is that there is no audience except for a lone journalist in the tiny office borrowed from a theater manager. Certainly it helps that he isn't going to have to talk about why women find him sexy or what his next big career move will be. He's playing what for him is a new role: film director. Rickman's debut film, The Winter Guest, about a mother who trudges through the frozen streets of a Scottish fishing village to thaw her recently widowed daughter out of her grief, opens Friday. He's quite happy to remain behind the camera, deferring to his stars, Emma Thompson and her real-life mother, Phyllida Law, who play daughter and mother in the film.
''We only had to film five lines a day,'' Rickman says, purring. ''I was like a kid in a toy shop. Strangely enough, Phyllida, who actually grew up in Glasgow, could not have done this until we asked her two years ago. She had spent the last five years looking after her own aging parents. She and her husband had summered in Scotland with their daughters, Emma and Sophie. Emma and her sister preferred to think of themselves as Scots who just happened to go to school in England. Emma and Phyllida had appeared together in Much Ado and Peter's Friends and were looking for another film they could do together. I suggested to Phyllida, who was in the play the film comes from, that the natural rhythms of mother and daughter might suit them, Phyllida said, `Ask her. She's a sensible girl.'
''When our production designer, who grew up there, showed us the village of Pittenweem, it sort of answered what our problems were. It looked very uninhabited due to the demise of the fishing there. It just felt right. For the frozen sea, we were able to use an airfield 3 miles away, covered with brilliant white foam. We had to relocate a few boats. There were sea gulls. It felt right. Sort of like a Bruegel painting. Emma, who plays a photographer, felt the town was helping you, wanting to be photographed.'' Although he commissioned and directed the original play, by Sharman Macdonald, Rickman says, ''I couldn't imagine anyone was going to throw it at me to direct.
''I found the actual work of directing had very little to do with going up to actors and saying things. My friend Bob Hoskins says filmmaking is like being pecked to death by pigeons. I would use a more violent bird. We could spend hours setting up the beach. Luckily, I was surrounded by experts. You're too busy sensing other people's fear rather than your own. Of course, in the film you have close-ups. That meant I could include a lot of stillness. Having the realistic images made quite a difference. Onstage, we had a steeply raked, stylized surface, quite different. People said of the stage production, `Oh, it's so filmic.' I'm not sure it was much of a compliment. It's not that one medium is more collaborative than the other. One makes suggestions as an actor, although friends in the theater have said that when it's not your name on the program, it's called interfering.''
He'd do it again, Rickman says of directing, if the right project came along. ''But acting is not something I'll stop doing. I can't see how. You're always reacting as well as performing.'' If Rickman's grasp of the respective visual worlds of stage and film is secure, it's because he began as an art student. His focus on acting bespeaks the fact that he's a late bloomer. Rickman, a young-looking 50, glumly saw himself going nowhere at the age of 38. Then along came his breakthrough role as the cruel, silken Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It made him a star in London and on Broadway. In 1988, he made his film debut in Die Hard, stealing the film from Bruce Willis as a German terrorist, Hans Gruber, putting steely, rakish spin on cliche after cliche.
He did the same thing three years later as the outrageously entertaining Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He could have gone on in that vein. Ceertainly he was glad to bid goodbye to the malignant Valmont after playing the role for two years. ''It was time to stop,'' he says. ''You cannot go on playing a self-destructive character night after night without destroying something in yourself.'' Intentionally, he chose a small English film, Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply, disarmingly playing the ghost of Juliet Stevenson's dead lover, then joined Thompson and director Ang Lee in Sense and Sensibility before playing a cold, repressed Eamon De Valera to Liam Neeson's title character in Michael Collins. If the Hannibal Lecter role in The Silence of the Lambs hadn't gone to Anthony Hopkins, Rickman would have been cast. Soon, he'll be seen in another modestly scaled film, Kevin Smith's Dogma, with Linda Fiorentino and the Good Will Hunting team of Ben Afleck and Matt Damon.
''It's a sort of moral debate about Catholicism mixed up with special effects. I play an angel preventing them from getting back into heaven, the issue being that if they get back in, there's no such thing as divine retribution. It's a deeply funny film,'' says Rickman, who more than once has had the bad luck to be described as too intelligent to be an actor. Rickman says he hasn't decided what he'll do after that - ''I've never had a strategy'' - but says he'd like to film a remake of The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham's novel based on the life of Gauguin. He feels a certain kinship with mavericks. He's proud that Thomas Paine completed The Rights of Man while lodging with one of his radical ancestors. Partly, impeccable working-class credentials and Labor Party loyalties keep him at a certain distance from the glitz factor, although, he says, he's not one of those tiresome types who humorlessly fulminate about Hollywood. ''I like David Hare's phrase: `Show business thins the mind,''' Rickan says. ''But I enjoy being in LA. I drive a car there and don't at home. It's disgusting and wonderful, like going to Dunkin' Donuts every day.''
What Rickman doesn't like is being reduced to a few quick labels or sound bites. He lives alone in a London house three tube stops away from the council flat where he and his siblings grew up (his mother now owns it). But in a business of ephemeral ties, he and Rima Horton, a political activist and university lecturer, have been partnered for 31 years. Shaped by the '60s, he's free-form, a man of contradictions, idealistic, pessimistic, sensitive, durable. The egalitarian in him likes the fact that his longtime friend playwright Peter Barnes has switched from writing at the British Museum to writing in the McDonald's in Leicester Square. Rickman never wants to feel he's out of touch with the world he comes from. ''I've always existed on fairly thin ice,'' he says. ''One gets used to living by the seat of one's pants. What I've got to do now is create space. In my head and in my living room. The kitchen and dining room are now my office. I have this feeling that if I could sort out what's on my dining room table, everything would fall into place."
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