ACTOR Alan Rickman is very comfortable behind the camera – and his advice to another auteur changed movie history
ALAN Rickman shoots me a look of withering disdain. The actor who redefined screen villainy as Hans Gruber in Die Hard and terrified a generation of kids as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films is sitting across from me in a hotel room ahead of the Glasgow Film Festival premiere of A Little Chaos. Though the movie marks his second outing as a director, our interview has coincided with his 69th birthday and it’s clear he does not wish to be reminded of this fact. Hence the aforementioned look – accompanied by a visible shudder – when I bring it up.
He’d rather get down to business, which is understandable. It has, after all, been a long time since he made The Winter Guest, his well-received directorial debut, which was shot in Scotland and released in cinemas way back in 1997. Was he always planning to get behind the camera again?
“Well, you always hope it’s not going to be just the one time,” he says. “But along came Harry Potter and when I agreed to do that there were only three books written, so I didn’t quite know when I’d have time.”
That decade-plus juggernaut came to an end in 2011 and while he makes a point of telling me that he was able to direct many times in the theatre the idea of directing movies has always seemed quite natural to him. Before he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he went to art school and trained as a graphic designer, which gave him a visual awareness that would prove beneficial in his later career. “If you put those things together you might come up with the notion of maybe directing something because you’ve got your hands on both reins.”
A Little Chaos is the first time he’s directed himself on screen. “I don’t know how people do it,” he says of appearing in the period romance set as Louis XIV. “Luckily I’m not in it very much.”
Revolving around the creation of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles, the film is really about Kate Winslet’s character, Sabine, the rather improbable proto-feminist landscape gardener who wins the commission to design the gardens. It was the character’s implausibility that Rickman liked. “That was deliberate,” he says of Sabine. “She could never have existed; it’s impossible and that intrigued me… She doesn’t even know she’s a feminist. She’s just trying to earn a crust.”
Rickman last worked with Winslet when she was 19 on Ang Lee’s adaptation of Sense And Sensibility (he was Colonel Brandon, she was Marianne Dashwood). What was it like directing her 20 years later?
“Well she’s fantastic to work with because once she commits you get her entire concentration and for a director she is the most enormous gift because she’s so prepared on set.”
Rickman and Winslet do have one amusing, prolonged scene in the film together. It occurs when Sabine mistakes the king for his gardener and the king, bored of ceremonial pomp, plays along. It was a “bloody nightmare” to shoot: “When you’re shooting a period film in England, you quickly realise you’re never far from a flight path or the M25. I think there was maybe one 30-second scene where we didn’t have to shout: ‘Cut’.”
I mention the scene largely because I want to segue into some Die Hard chat; it reminded me of the moment in the action classic when Rickman’s Gruber meets Bruce Willis’s John McClane for the first time and Gruber, adopting a terrible American accent, pretends to be an escaped party guest called Bill Clay. It’s a tenuous connection, granted, so instead I just flat out ask him about being cast in Die Hard after making his American breakthrough in the original Broadway stage production of Dangerous Liaisons.
“I’d just finished a year in this extraordinary play by Christopher Hampton and literally two weeks after I finished I’d gone to LA for some meetings and I was cast in an action movie.” This, he says, wasn’t the done thing back then. “Now of course everybody is doing a superhero or an action film in between their, quote, ‘serious’ projects. But then it was odd.”
Given that it was his first film, what did he remember about being on set?
“I knew so little that the director, John McTiernan, said, ‘I’ve learned that with you I need to be ready for the first take.’ Because I was like a greyhound: I didn’t really know what to do with take two and three. I thought, ‘I’ve done it. Now what? Oh, I’ll just do it again then.’”
One thing his theatre training did teach him was that the character had to have some kind of narrative behind him. He remembers attending early costume fittings and questioning why Gruber would be dressed like a terrorist when he had a crew of henchmen to do all the dirty work. “It was actually me that pushed for him to be in a suit,” he reveals. “And when that happened I said, ‘Well if I was in a suit there could be a scene where [Gruber and McClane] meet.’ I can pretend not to be a terrorist.’ That scene wasn’t in the original script.”
Wait, back up: is he saying he actually came up with the “Bill Clay” scene?
“Other people may claim otherwise,” he smiles, “and I didn’t write it. But I said that if I was in a suit we could meet.”
Die Hard had a seismic impact on the movie industry and Rickman became the default template for sophisticated screen villainy – to the point where Charles Dance once mistakenly received a script for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Last Action Hero (also directed by McTiernan) which described his own character’s introduction thus: “In Walks Alan Rickman.”
Was Rickman conscious of having to battle typecasting?
“Well I don’t think any actor is going to want to do what they did last next,” says the actor, whose first post-Die Hard lead was in Anthony Minghella’s heartbreaking romantic drama Truly Madly Deeply. Indeed, his actual screen villain count is pretty low; it’s just the parts he’s played – Hans Gruber, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Professor Snape – have connected with audiences in huge ways.
Mindful of the fact that these roles have made him a beacon for fan adoration (so much so that even should-know-better journalists get sidetracked asking him geeky Die Hard questions), I wonder how he feels now about Galaxy Quest, the cult sci-fi film in which he co-starred alongside Sigourney Weaver as a classically trained British actor stuck, hilariously, on the fan convention circuit after appearing on a Star Trek-style TV show.
“There was a scene,” he remembers, “where Sigourney and I were signing photographs in our stupid costumes. All these people in even more stupid costumes were coming up to us and I said to Sigourney, ‘This is a bit close for comfort.’” He roars with laughter. “But, no it was a treat. Actors are good at sending themselves up.”
• A Little Chaos is on general release from Friday