Alan Rickman’s filmography puts him among the contemporary greats.
Big-budget action films, fantasy films, even cartoons – he’s done it all.
You might have seen him as Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility or as criminal mastermind Hans Gruber in Die Hard. He was the straying husband Harry in Love Actually, the genocidal Australian station owner Elliott Marston in Quigley Down Under, and for variety there was Marvin the robot, Ronald Reagan and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series.
But if there is one talent apparent in all his work, it is his capacity to deliver the character-defining one-liners. He even has a dry quip when congratulated on his mastery of the short, sharp put down.
“Thank you, I’ll put that in Spotlight,” he says, referring to the UK casting website.
Yet he is careful to give the credit to others.
“If it’s a one-line zinger, somebody wrote it and that means you’re very grateful always for good writers. Nobody can make terrible writing work. It’s not a conscious thing. You see a great line and some instinct tells you how to say it. I think it’s true for all actors.”
That may be so, but it is more true for some than others. Even when we compliment him on his new film, he answers as only he could.
“I’ll know if you’re lying.”
Dunking a pregnant Kate
Rickman is promoting A Little Chaos, the period tale of a French landscape gardener working for King Louis XIV on the construction of the palace at Versailles, which he co-wrote, directed and stars in.
Kate Winslet plays Sabine the landscaper. Rickman always knew he wanted her for the role.
“I knew she would be interested in playing a survivor and an independent spirit … and she also quite likes getting wet and dirty.”
That said, she had a surprise for Rickman soon after they began.
“She took me aside – I think we were two weeks into shooting – she said: ‘Alan, sit down for a minute. I’m nine weeks pregnant’. She did not know that at the beginning of filming. But she said: ‘Don’t worry, I have easy pregnancies’. Then we forgot about it.
“Except I didn’t forget about it when we had to throw her into cold water at one o’clock in the morning. I was very nervous about it. But she said don’t worry. And I have a picture of her at one o’clock in the morning up to her neck in the water with a towel around her head holding a hot water bottle and laughing. So I guess she meant it when she said she enjoyed it.”
He also found a way to enjoy directing and playing one of the leads by using one role to inform the other.
“In a way if you’re playing Louis XIV, you’re playing one of the great movie directors of all time. Maybe he was just making a big movie in his head and no one had invented the movies yet, so he built Versailles instead.”
‘Don’t call me a villain’
Many think of Alan Rickman as the ultimate arch-villain, yet he resists the tag, noting that “there’s only characters in me, there’s not any of those labels”.
He is equally forthright in dismissing the suggestion that there is, or ever have been, stereotypical roles for English actors, such as in the 1980s when the conventional wisdom was that they could only play villains in Hollywood.
“The trouble with stereotypes,” he explains, “is they kind of get scraped up off the floor of somewhere or other. That’s why they’re there to be destroyed.
“Whenever someone talks about British stereotypes you think, let’s just count up the roles that Robert De Niro has played and see how many of those are sweethearts? Or Edward G Robinson?”
Rickman recognises only two of his roles as villains: Hans Gruber and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
“I’d say two because Snape is not. He’s a good guy,” he insists.
While Sir Alec Guinness famously protested that he was more than Obi Wan Kenobi, Rickman is more than happy for people to just know him as Snape.
“It’s ok,” he says. “If you talk about that series of films, he’s quite a complicated person.”
The spoilers come thick and fast once we ponder if he would ever return to the Potterverse.
“I’m very dead.”
In a world of magic, death doesn’t seem to be all that final, we protest.
“It’s hard to come back from.”
A Little Chaos is in cinemas now