In his very first film, Alan Rickman’s intelligence and droll humor created the prototype for a decade’s worth of blockbuster action film villains with his turn as Hans Gruber in 1988’s Die Hard. He brought that confidence and style to a startling range of characters, from the caddish philanderer who broke Emma Thompson’s heart in Love Actually, to Harry Potter‘s Professor Snape, to Irish leader Eamon de Valera in Michael Collins. Why, the British actor even played Ronald Reagan in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. His final screen turn comes this weekend in the hot-button drone strike thriller Eye in the Sky from Bleecker Street. He plays a general trying to decide whether to allow a drone strike that could kill a terrorist but also risks violating the rules of engagement when an innocent child wanders into the kill zone. The film’s director, Gavin Hood, took time out to reminisce.
“The wonderful thing about Alan is he is a highly intelligent, very humble, very warm and funny and witty man,” Hood said. “If you look at the role of the general, given the film explores the characters from multiple points of view, there is not a lot of room for each character to have a great deal of backstory, or screen time. You need to craft scenes that reveal as much about a character as possible with the minimum amount of words, dialogue and action. Then, in order to avoid a stereotype, you need an actor who can create a character onscreen who feels fully rounded, and imbue a moment with layers of meaning. What Alan is so brilliant at and what is on display in this film is…he packs an enormous amount of punch into less screen time than if he’d been the lead character. And he pays absolute emotional truth while at the same time being able to give a twist to a line that adds an edge of sarcasm, wit, or humor and he can make you laugh without in any way taking you out of the seriousness of the moment. A lesser actor would have played a disgruntled general.”
Hood realized that unrelenting tension in Eye In The Sky could have had a droning effect on the audience. Rickman was genius at subtly mining comedy in serious scenes without mugging for the camera. It was a big reason Hood needed him.
“I’ve watched Alan’s work since I was young, but there was no specific role that matched this one,” Hood said. “What struck me was, this was an actor of high intelligence, with tremendous screen presence and who could fill the screen with authority as the general. I also knew we were going to be crafting very delicate moments of humor. This is a very intense thriller and you want to find moments where an audience can release tension through humor. I needed an actor with the gravitas to be believable as a senior general, but because we were going for moments where frustration spills over, you need to allow the audience to laugh. And you need an actor skilled enough to deliver a line with a twist that injects wit, or edge. He reveals, in a minimalist way, the frustration the character is feeling, and it allows the audience to connect with him. That’s a fine line. If you play those moments too broadly or in a slapstick way, it could have taken the audience right out of the film. The safe way would have been to make a deadly serious movie, but then you lose layers. This is what Alan brought. With a raise of an eyebrow, he says so much. With a slight change in the delivery of a line, he dismisses someone’s entire argument. And with a focused and poignant delivery of a line, which he does late in the film, he brings such quiet conviction and power that he almost steals the movie.”
Hood hadn’t met Rickman prior to the film, and didn’t know he was ailing. “The first time I became aware Alan was not well, though I didn’t realize how not well, came when he wrote a very sweet email saying, ‘Gavin, I won’t be able to attend the Toronto Film Festival, I have to keep my feet up for a bit.’ I thought it meant I’m not feeling well and I’ll see you soon. We had a drink when he came to L.A. to promote A Little Chaos and even then, I don’t know what he knew. So I only know Alan as a kind, decent dignified man I’m glad to have worked with.
“One thing that stands out though,” Hood said. ‘I always call the actors well in advance of shooting to ask if there’s anything in the script, dialogue or a scene they want to discuss. I do it selfishly because on a film with a budget and timeline as tight as this, there’s no time to spend an hour discussing a line with an actor. When I asked Alan that, he said, ‘No. I love the script. I just don’t want to get in the way of telling the story.’ Get in the way? Alan? The last thing you’re going to do is get in the way. That’s the humility and commitment he brought to being part of an ensemble in telling a story we really wanted to tell, based on Guy Hibberd’s fantastic script. He was just a joy to work with.”