August actor-director Alan Rickman effortlessly charmed audiences on a balmy London evening as he took a stroll down memory lane for the latest in BAFTA’s Life in Pictures series. Recalling a career that has seen him work with some of the film industry’s most talented and eclectic directors, including Neil Jordan, Alfonso Cuaron, Tim Burton, Ang Lee and the late Anthony Minghella, Rickman mused on his late start in the film business. “To be perfectly honest, having a film career is a bit of a surprise,” said the RADA alumni, who was in his 40s when he appeared in his first film. It didn’t hurt his career for that first film to be the era-defining Die Hard in 1988.
“I was extremely cheap,” quipped Rickman about what made the newbie thesp attractive to Die Hard producer Joel Silver, before remembering he almost turned the role down. “I read it and said, ‘What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie.” Thankfully for Rickman, and audiences, he was persuaded by friends to take that first role even though it might also have proven his last. Recalling how he had to perform his own stunt in the climactic fall from the top of the skyscraper — this was in the pre-CGI days — Rickman was given one afternoon’s training to prepare for the scene, “which was the very last shot — just in case.”
He also commended Die Hard for its ahead-of-its-time racial diversity. “Every single black character in that film was positive. So, 28 years ago, that was quite revolutionary and quietly so.”
The decade he spent working on the Harry Potter series, seven weeks a year for ten years as Snape, began with him having no idea where the initially ambiguous character was going. “People thought I knew a lot but I didn’t. There were only 3 three books (when we started), so I was learning with the readers, going, ‘Oh, he’s still in it,” joked Rickman. “At first I thought I can’t play this. I don’t know who Snape is. I’m going to need to speak to her (J.K. Rowling)….she gave me one piece of information I promised to never share and I never did but it made me know I had to drive down two roads at the same time.”
Britain’s child labour laws also meant that there were tight limits on how many hours the triumvirate of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint could work, so when the camera was focused on Rickman, “in would come the very small adult actors aged 33 with a wig on their heads…That ain’t the back of Daniel’s head.”
While Tim Burton was far calmer and more thoughtful than his appearance might suggest, Ang Lee, with whom Rickman worked on Sense and Sensibility opposite Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson (who also wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay), had an entirely idiosyncratic way of communicating with his actors. The Taiwanese-born director was still getting to grips with speaking in English when he started work on the film. “You had to interpret was Ang was saying,” said Rickman. He told Emma to try not to look so old….He told me to be more subtle. Do more.”
As for his scene-stealing turn as Nottingham opposite Kevin Costner in the 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he revealed how the late, great playwright Peter Barnes helped him with home lines scribbled over in Leicester Square’s Pizza Express. “He said, ‘well, you know here where it says you’re coming down the corridor and you’re wiping the scar off of the statue, you should have a wench in a doorway, and then you should say, “You, my room, 10.30,’ and then turn to the other wench and say, ‘You, 10.45.” said Rickman, before adding that friend and comedian Ruby Wax added in the kicker, “And bring a friend.”
Rickman’s talk came on the eve of the release of his second feature directorial effort A Little Chaos, where he stars as a grieving Louis XIV. The film reunites him with Winslet, who plays a landscape artist.
On the challenges of directing oneself, he quoted his good friend Ralph Fiennes, who told him, “The danger of directing yourself is that you are embarrassed about going for another take.”
The evening’s most poignant moment came his reminiscing about Anthony Minghella while working on Truly, Madly Deeply. “He gathered all the actors together on day one and said: ‘I have one word: help,” and also revealed that every “um and ah” of his much-celebrated monologue in that film was on the page courtesy of Anthony Minghella’s genius as a writer and filmmaker.
As for the appeal of cinema in general, Rickman found a typically eloquent way to encapsulate it.
“It’s the act of giving yourself over to once upon a time.”