Alan Rickman Interview NOBEL SON

     December 5, 2008

Written by Heather Huntington

In Nobel Son, Alan Rickman plays the unbelievably egotistical and horrid professor/husband/father/Nobel Laureate Eli Michaelson, who it turns out, is based in many ways on director Randall Miller’s own father (that poor man). Of course, if you want a shitty, snobby intellectual, Rickman is essentially ideal casting—although, as you can see, he likes to screw with you when you mention that to him.

Rickman clearly enjoys wielding his power and his persona to put people off kilter a little, but just as you start to tap dance, enough of a smile creeps over his face that you know he is just giving you a hard time. Therefore, I pronounce him: a slightly thorny character, but mostly good fun.

SPOILER ALERT: There is a little bit of a discussion about his Harry Potter character of Severus Snape that you probably will not want to read if you haven’t read the entire series. There is also some discussion of his part in the upcoming Tim Burton production of Alice in Wonderland, which he seemed pretty excited about.

Nobel Son opens in select theaters December 5.

ALAN RICKMAN: Warm enough?

QUESTION: I said Alan’s going to think we’re very funny because we’re from California; we’re cold if it’s like 65. You’re cold?

RICKMAN: This is ridiculous.

It’s been noisy, too.

RICKMAN: Noisy and cold. Like London.

They [Randall Miller and Jody Savin] were telling us the story of how you first met. When you first worked with them, could you imagine this was going to become such a long collaboration on so many projects?

RICKMAN: I dunno. I guess you say things like Woody Allen, and yesterday I was here watching Tim Burton shooting Alice [in Wonderland], and I’m involved in that. And who knew that was going to happen when I did Sweeney Todd, so I like collaborations. It at least involves a measure of trust, which is a good thing.

Is there a shorthand you have with the director now? Whether it’s somebody like Randy or Tim? You kind of know how they work?

RICKMAN: No because I think they’ll change and so will you. It just means there’s a sort of atmosphere of possibility and play and ‘let’s try this.’ I feel quite free with them.

Do you find it keeps you creatively fresh doing independent projects like this and then doing the larger feature films?

RICKMAN: To be perfectly honest, my head doesn’t know what’s different.

That’s what Bill said.

RICKMAN: I have no clue. You’re just working and you’re trying to do the work. It doesn’t matter what the size of the budget is, everybody’s always looking at their watch and screaming that they don’t have enough time.

But isn’t it with an independent, you really are moving on a faster—there’s not so many takes, it’s a much faster pace than a big film?


Really? Wow.

RICKMAN: Money is everything. In my experience, anyway. I suppose there are more set ups maybe on a big movie, so scenes will be shot for longer because there are many more angles used.

Is it nice returning to work with the same group of people? It’s like a repertory company in a sense.

RICKMAN: Yeah, it was. Exactly. Again, it’s about trust and respect as much as anything. For me to get to work with people—of course Brian [Greenberg] and Shawn [Hatosy] and Eliza [Dushku] are new people to me. But as an actor in England coming to America, of course I know of Danny [DeVito] and Bill [Pullman] and Mary [Steenburgen]. They’re part of American film royalty.

What was fun about playing a character that’s as pompous and egotistical as Eli? (giggles)

RICKMAN: What’s your problem with him? (laughs) No, it was fun because there’s no area of judgment to be made. He makes no judgments on himself; everything is possible as long as it suits him. Big old playground to jump into. Good fun.

When you got this script, you didn’t know them or anything. Apparently a lot of people turned it down here before they gave it to you in London. What was it? Was it the script that you thought was so lovely, written? Or was it the role? What was it?

RICKMAN: Yeah. The whole script. And the fact that what I really like about Jody and Randy’s scripts is that they don’t have easy labels. It doesn’t fit into a genre particularly, which is hard for you guys—you can’t get a rubber stamp out. It’s got a bit of this, and a bit of that. It’s uniquely itself. And so I like that very much.

You do seem to pick a lot of these snobby, sleazy roles.

RICKMAN: Name them.

What is it you find so enjoyable about them?

RICKMAN: Name them. No, I actually don‘t play a lot of them, as it happens. It’s just some of the ones that get more publicity. But the majority of the work that I’ve done is perfectly ordinary people.


RICKMAN: Yeah. Do you want me to list them?


RICKMAN: Put it this way, for every Nobel Son, there’s a couple of Sense and Sensibilities, Truly, Madly, Deeplys, Perfume. You know.

It just seems like you have a … I’m totally failing at the word, I don’t want to say pigeonholed, but you’re so well known at least here for the bad parts. For Snape or the Sheriff of Nottingham.

RICKMAN: Is Snape bad?

Well, ultimately obviously not.

RICKMAN: I didn’t say anything.

But you don’t know that until the last book.

RICKMAN: So therefore you just said ‘bad’ like—

Well, he does not appear to be tremendously likeable, at least through Harry’s eyes, for most of the time.

RICKMAN: So your point is? (giggles)

I’m just backing her up.

RICKMAN: No. Look, I don’t judge characters anyway for anything. I just get on and play them. And if you were sitting inside my skin, and I can’t sit inside yours or deny what you’re saying because that’s your perception. But if you were sitting in my skin, you’d look at the work you’ve done and go, ‘Well, wait a minute…. Look at all of those against those.’ And it’s just that some of them get a lot of publicity. That’s all.

The one thing they all have in common though is they’re all complex characters.

RICKMAN: I hope so. I hope they live through three dimensions. I resist the labeling, that’s all, because I think it’s too easy to do that to characters and stories. Wrap them up. I like it when stories are left open. That’s what I like about Jo Rowling as a storyteller, it’s full of possibilities.

Is there a genre or a type of film or literary work or character that you would like to play that you haven’t played?

RICKMAN: Not really. The trouble with that is that if you make a list like that, in a way it means you’ve made some decisions already and I like coming to something with no decisions made and to look at it like a kind of marketplace as much as possible. And also new writing excites me. That’s very much the area I operate in in the theater back in England. It’s always great to read something absolutely new. But having said that, I’ve just directed a play by Strindberg, which was written 120 years ago and you’re shocked, as the audiences were, by how incredibly modern it was.

What was that and where was it?

RICKMAN: It’s a play called Creditors and I did it at the Donmar Warehouse. I think that it probably will come to New York next year.

What are you playing in Alice in Wonderland?

RICKMAN: The caterpillar.

A caterpillar? How do you get into something like that?

RICKMAN: Well, fortunately it’s animated.

Oh, okay.

RICKMAN: But it’s my face on an animated caterpillar. So, it’s a mixture. The movie is a mixture of live action, animation, and stop motion, so it’s very complicated and I don’t think all three have been put together ever before.

Oh, I don’t think so. No.

RICKMAN: So I’ll be with a live action Alice. I will be a construct.

Who is the Alice that you’re playing opposite?

RICKMAN: Mia [Wasikowska] is her name. I don’t know what I know her surname. I met her yesterday because they’re shooting right here. If you make yourself into the invisible person, you can go in and have a look. She’s a young 19-year-old, apparently absolutely brilliant and certainly delightful person.

As somebody coming from England and you’re coming and working at this studio, do you get a kick out of the fact that Gone With the Wind was made here? Or does that mean anything to you?

RICKMAN: I means—I didn’t know that actually. Wow. No, absolutely, totally. When I was shooting, I forget which movie it was now, but when I was shooting something here and it was so much, there was so much history clinging to the walls, and you went into some of those sound studios and you could really feel… And people would name movies that had been there, or you would go to the commissary and you could feel the ‘30s architecture still around. Absolutely. I mean, I’m staying I apartment in Hollywood at the moment and it was built in the 1930s. To touch old Hollywood like that is a thrill.

Randall had told us about how when he first contacted you with the script through your London agent because they were kind of blocked by the whole Hollywood system. Do you think that the system in place here often prevents actors from getting really good scripts or scripts that they might not otherwise have known about?

RICKMAN: I don’t know. From my experience, I think that every actor has to make sure that they’re in charge of their own career somehow or other. But the system is such that you can divide that responsibility up between a lot of people, and a lot of people have to justify their cut. And so they think that they’re protecting you maybe, and actually they’re not. But I really don’t know. I think it’s very much different for somebody who’s 25 and fashionable, it’s a different—well, the options are greater and you’re being exploited possibly on a different level. And people have different agendas. The kind of movies that are made are different, you know? There’s an area of movie that’s a product for young audiences and I guess Nobel Son wouldn’t fit into that (laughs).

Now you’re going to work with them again next summer? Or is that not a definite thing?

RICKMAN: I don’t know. No.

They’re doing two films in New Zealand and they said they want you for both of them.

RICKMAN: Yeah well, read ‘em first and them am I free? No, I’m due to direct a movie myself this year, hopefully. But in the world of the independent movies, you never know until the last second when it all comes together, but it’s on the way.

Will that be shot in England or here?

RICKMAN: It’ll be shot… actually, it won’t be here. It’s set in Paris. But in the world that we live in now, Paris may suddenly become Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Lithuania. As long as the architecture matches, it’s fine.

Is there a lot of filming in Lithuania?

RICKMAN: There is at the moment. Huge. I think any country that comes up with tax breaks. It’s like Brian was just saying about New York. Everything’s moved to New York because there are huge tax breaks for filming there.

Would you be in the film as well or just direct it?


Would you ever direct yourself?

RICKMAN: Yes. But only if I was sitting in a chair behind a desk in the shot and didn’t have to move.

Do you one particular scene from this movie that was your favorite to work on?

RICKMAN: I related to going to the gift basket and looking for the chocolate. I think that was born out of personal experience. I mean, I brought that to the movie.

Was there a lot of ad libbing?

RICKMAN: I don’t know that there was, really. Quite tight, their writing. Sometimes here and there you’ll change a word. I mean, language fascinates me anyway, and different words have different energies and you can change the whole drive of a sentence. I don’t need to tell you that, but from an acting point of view.

Are you somebody on the stage who changes the performance every performance that you do? Or are you very locked into your performance? And on a film, every take do you try and do it a little differently for the director or for yourself?

RICKMAN: I think it depends on what the director wants. I mean, with Tim Burton, just thinking off the top of my head, it was very much the case of refining and refining and refining down to an essence that he was looking for. So a kind of wildness on each take wasn’t appropriate; he wanted less less less less less, simpler simpler. With this it was much more playful, so I think the takes were freer in between times because you were playing basically a child in a man’s suit.

And having so much fun doing it.

RICKMAN: I was. Yeah.

Is the film that you’re going to be directing, is that a contemporary drama?

RICKMAN: 1930s.

Is it set in Britain? America?

RICKMAN: Set in England and France.

Do you have a cast in mind yet?

RICKMAN: I do. And I can’t possibly comment. But it’s called The House in Paris. And it’s a beautiful novel by Elizabeth Bowen and Hilary Shor is producing it. And watch that space.

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