BAFTA’s A Life In Pictures series has had its fair share of revered talents reminiscing about their lives and experiences in the industry. This week’s guest was certainly no exception as actor-director Alan Rickman’s took to the stage for an entertaining and enlightening 90 minutes.
The RADA-trained actor was in his early forties when he made his debut on cinema screens as the iconic villain in 1988’s Die Hard (“I read the script and said, ‘What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie’”) but he’s since managed to traverse a surprising number of genres and films, whilst also balancing a career in the theatre. The Harry Potter series has made him instantly recognisable to children around the world, but he’s also been in hip comedies (Galaxy Quest, Dogma) popular, very British dramas (Truly, Madly, Deeply , Love Actually) and huge Hollywood blockbusters (the aforementioned Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).
Rickman was largely jovial and good-natured during the discussion, only becoming a little spiky when, like many performers, he expressed an unease of revisiting old scenes from his past work, particularly on a huge screen behind him. His second directorial effort A Little Chaos is out in cinemas this week, but owing to his background in the theatre, Rickman has always been a keen collaborator and eager to explore his characters and get the best out of them, as illustrated in the questions he asked about Hans Gruber before Die Hard went into production:
I was just thinking, if I was wearing a suit and not all of this terrorist gear, then maybe there could be a scene where I put on an American accent and [John McClane] thinks I’m one of the hostages. I left this note on Joel Silver’s table saying, ‘Please think about this, I think it might be interesting,’ and then I went back to England. I got the whole Joel Silver, “Get the hell out of here, you’ll wear what you’re told,” and I, “Okay, fine.”
And then I came back and they handed me the new script, so you know, it just pays to occasionally use a little bit of theatre training when you’re doing a movie.
But it wasn’t just the character quirks he wrestled with during his first cinematic outing. Gruber’s death scene was equally challenging.
This is before the days of CGI. [The stunt] had to be done for real. So I said, “How do we do this?” And they said, “Okay, well we’ll train you,” which meant one afternoon of dropping from ten feet, 15 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet and so on. I remember the guy coaching me saying I had to pull a cord to release myself from the building. I also had to remember to bring the gun up and get it in the frame. And then he said, “As you’re going down, make sure you spread your arms into a kind of star shape, because if you don’t you’ll start turning and you’ll land on your head and kill yourself.”
So it was sort of challenging, and we did it three times at three o’clock in the morning and it was the very last shot of mine in the film.
His insistence on trying to work more jokes into his role of the Sheriff of Nottingham resulted in one of the film’s most memorable moments, where the character requests a couple of wenches to join him in his quarters (“and bring a friend”).
Nobody knew was happening [in the scene] except the director Kevin Reynolds. I knew it had worked because as I cleared the camera I saw about 80 members of the crew in total shock.
He shared a number of other humorous on-set anecdotes, a particularly memorable one being about the poor grasp of English Ang Lee had whilst making Sense and Sensibility (“Alan, be more subtle, do more” ) and the downside of working with his young co-stars and all the Hogwarts students during the first film in the Harry Potter series:
In the first film you’ve got the problem of kids who can only work a certain number of hours, so sometimes there were 300 children on the set, and at certain points they all had to go off and do some schoolwork. If there were any scenes with me and Daniel, Rupert and Emma, they would shoot their faces first, and I’d be there to react to them. When we turned round to shoot me, very small actors aged 33 with wigs on their head. So that ain’t the back of Daniel’s head in those shots.
He was particularly complimentary towards the star of his new film, Kate Winslet, whom he’d previously worked with on Sense and Sensibility.
Kate is one of the greatest listeners. She’s the kind of actress you sit in an editing room thanking God for when you want to watch a character learn about herself.
On performing a duet with Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s foray into musical cinema, Sweeney Todd:
He’s great to act with. He’s very, very generous and shares himself on the set and really listens and doesn’t pull rank or anything. Of course what you’ve got to remember is we’re both lip-syncing, we’re miming for two days, and we recorded it separately, so I didn’t hear it put together until we got on the set.
Rickman turns 70 next year, but appears to be far from contemplating retirement. He expressed an interest getting back into the director’s chair once more now that his schedule has been freed up after the decade-long commitment to the Harry Potter films.
Performance-wise, he’ll next be seen co-starring alongside Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul in political action thriller Eye In The Sky which focuses on the use of drones against terrorists (“it’s terribly current”). If this enjoyable evening is anything to go by, there’s still plenty of roles in the future that this distinctive performer will be looking to inhabit and make his own.