In a decade full of villains, Alan Rickman has created two of the Eighties' most captivating ones. First he starred as Valmont. the amoral, manipulative seducer in Christopher Hampton's stage play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses which was a huge success both in London and New York. Then he played the suave, international criminal Hans Gruber in Die Hard, disdainful of the sweaty heroics of his all-American nemesis, Bruce Willis.|
Rickman may have been well-known to a select theatre-going audience, and for his role as another villain, the comic but odious Obadiah Slope in the BBC series The Barchester Chronicles, but the success of Die Hard, his first film, gave him a different level of fame. "I wasn't prepared for the reaction. I flew to New York for a preview and the audience just sttod up and cheered and threw things at the screen. I walked into that cinema and I could have been just someone with a ticket, but when I walked out, I couldn't get to the car. My girlfriens and I went to Anguilla at Christmas and you're on this little West Indian island and everyone knows who you are. You're not Alan, you're the guy in Die Hard." Yet Rickman has played decent characters - he went straight from Die Hard to a film called The January Man. "I was playing someone perfectly nice in that - Kevin's eccentric next door neighbour," he says. And for all the menace and piercing intensity he projects on both stage and screen, in person Alan Rickman is diffuse, amiable, tousled and gently bear-like. His voice remains a remarkable instrument - deep, soft and relaxed to the point of langour, with notes of musical delicacy. He gives an impression of having to crank his vocal chords into motion in order to answer my questions.
But in spite of the good guys he's played, people tend to remember his lustful Angelo in Measure for Measure and his title role in the stage version of Mephisto. Even his benevolent characters display hints of darkness, and his bad characters make evil sinuously intelligent and captivating. A female admirer of Rickman's describes the actor's unusual appeal this way: "He isn't obviously handsome, almost ugly, but when he played Valmont something about his passion and intelligence made him unbelievably sexy."
By his own account, after 500 performances, the intensity of this character, who destroys other people and then himself, almost consumed him. "It stopped being a play in a way, and became an event - especially on Broadway. People came with such high expectations that a mountain had to be climbed every night. You are up there manipulating the audience in the way Valmont manipulates the characters. And when you're playing someone as self-destructive as that night after night, it can't help but to get to you to some extent. The body doesn't always know when it's lying. You know from the neck up, but you send the rest of you actually through it."
Stepping from that to a major film in Hollywood was like a holiday. "It was like taking a vacuum cleaner to your brain but switching it the other way round so that it just blew everything out. It was good to work in a completely different way. Valmont had such a complicated psyche, you couldn't say that about Hans Gruber - his psyche was: 'Give me you money - now.' "
Rickman came into acting late. He went to RADA when he was 26 years old after he had first studied design at Chelsea and the Royal College of Art, and worked as a Soho-based graphics designer. He has no regrets about his late start in the profession. He speaks with a cool sense of having arrived when he was emotionally ready to deal with its pressures and rewards. Faced with a question about being a celebrity, he answers: "I enjoy what happens when you read a script and as an actor, if you're happy enough and open enough on a rehearsal floor or on a film set, something happens between you and the script. I enjoy that, I enjoy the nuts and bolts. As for the other stuff, you start to notice that if you get into a limousine that it's only there for as long as you're selling the movie."
Not much has been seen of Rickman in the past couple of years - but now he is becoming visible in a variety of roles. The different levels of his success allow him to take a peculiar variety of work from informal workshops to high-earning roles in major Hollywood films. When I met him he was padding around his fiendishly tidy flat in London's Westbourne Grove preparing to leave for LA for the opening of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner - and himself as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
About the film, which was shot in England, reputedly amid much conflict between director, star and studio, he speaks vaguely. Is his Sheriff of Nottingham another suave villain? "Not at all," replies Rickman, recalling a more theatrical, spluttering, flamboyantly wicked villain than the cerebral manipulators we are used to from him.
Rickman also stars in the recently released film Truly, Madly, Deeply written and directed by Anthony Minghella. Co-starring with Juliet Stevenson and Michael Maloney, Rickman plays a dead man returning to look after his ex-lover. Though produced by the BBC, the film has opened in the United States to much praise: "It's been described as a thinking man's Ghost," he says.
And opening this month is Close My Eyes, Stephen Poliakoff's tale of star-crossed lovers who happen to be brother and sister. In what otherwise looks like a glossy TV commercial for incest, Rickman is a welcome astringent presence as the cuckolded husband Sinclair, an egnimatic City whizz kid who reads Proust and is by turns sinister and affable. Rickman used his design background to collaborate closely with the costume and productiton designer to make it impossible to put Sinclair into any rigid social pigeon hole. "I didn't want people to learn anything about him through where he lived or who his friends were." It's a remarkable performance that adds a dimension to a character who might seem thin on the page.
But potentially his most interesting appearance is in the play Tango at the End of Winter, which is transferring to the West End after a run at the Edinburgh Festival. Tango is the first production in English of the great Japanese director Ninegawah, and Rickman's first stage appearance since he left Les Liaisons Dangereuses four years ago.
That's not to say that Rickman has been totally absent from the theatre during the years since Les Liaisons - during his spare time he has also been directing Ruby Wax's stage show.
How does he keep control over such a disparate career?
"I've never been able to plan my life. I just lurch from indecision to indecision," he laughs, clearly untroubled by such uncertainty. "It's just a matter of the next sandpit to climb into."
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