By Aaron Hillis
Why hasn’t an esteemed actor like Alan Rickman ever been nominated for an Academy Award? (He’s got an indirect theory on that — more on that later.) Whether your earliest memory of his screen work was his yippie-ki-yay mother of falls from a skyscraper in 1988’s “Die Hard,” as the Sheriff of Nottingham in 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” or even as Professor Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” adaptations, Rickman always brings the same British grace, charm and theatrically trained precision as if he were still in “Sense and Sensibility.”
His latest is “Nobel Son,” the second film this year he’s co-starred in with Bill Pullman and Eliza Dushku for director Randall Miller and co-writer/co-producer Jody Savin; the first being “Bottle Shock.” Rickman plays Eli Michaelson, a womanizing professor whose egomania reaches planetary proportions after he scores the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which sets off a kaleidoscopic thriller of hyperkinetic plot twists involving his dysfunctional family, a kidnapping and a life-long revenge scheme. Think early Danny Boyle or Guy Ritchie, and you’ll be prepared for the breakneck speed and droll, nasty fun of “Nobel Son.” Following the Gen Art Cinema Circle’s New York premiere of “Nobel Son,” just as the after-party was filling up, I sat with Rickman over tequila drinks to shoot the breeze about smart people and accolades that really mean something.
Not that you’re anything like Eli Michaelson, whose Nobel Prize means more to him than his own family, but what’s the most meaningful award you’ve ever received for your work?
Parts win prizes, not actors. You always know a part that’s got “prize winner” written all over it, and it’s almost like anybody could say those lines and somebody will hand them a piece of metal. If you get the part, you may be halfway to the prize, because that’s just the way the thing works.
What about words of praise?
The most affecting thing anybody ever said was when I was coming out of a theater stage door, and there was a young girl standing by the garbage bins, probably about 17 years old, and shivering from head to foot. I had just been on stage, involved in this very strange Japanese play that had been translated into English, which involved me dancing a tango down a flight of steps while peacock feathers were projected onto the back wall of the theater — a very beautiful thing. So I came out, and there’s this girl, shaking from head to foot. I went over and said, “Are you okay?” I thought she was ill or about to have an attack or something. She said, “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just that I’ve never been to the theater before and I didn’t know it was like that.” I’ll never forget that. Any night that you’re involved in a piece of theater and think, “Eh, it’s not so good tonight,” you know there’s going to be one person out there who has never been before.
Beyond the live audience, what do you enjoy about the theater experience compared to film?
It’s just a different use of whatever is the animal inside an actor. In theater, you’ve got to be aware of your whole body because it involves stamina. It involves two-and-a-half hours and a sustained release of energy, maybe for six months. It’s repetition that should sound every night like the first time you’ve said it. Also, you’re more in control. [With] film, you’re surrounded by noise, and experts all around you. You see some close-up that seems unbelievably intimate, but there are people with clipboards, holding microphones and cameras, A.D.s and the whole crew. There’s maybe a hundred people standing there, staring at this seemingly intimate thing, so you have to create a kind of bubble of concentration — and a real daring to be truthful, knowing that that’s going to be there forever. On stage, you can be shit in scene one, and you go: “Oh well, the next scene’s coming up. We’ll just pick that one up and carry on.”
You always bring such sophistication to your roles, even in an over-the-top entertainment like “Nobel Son.” I’m not an actor, so perhaps this is obvious, but how much fun do you actually get to have in the moment while the camera is rolling?
Well, it’s still work and you’re still very focused. It’s a playground that Jody and Randy set up, but a very disciplined one. It’s got to be specific — fortunately, their writing allows you to be. So I’m having fun because it’s broader. As I said down there [at the Gen Art post-screening Q&A], I’m basically playing an adult, but he’s a seven-year-old, if that. Any time you get to be reminded of that, the actor must hang on to the child inside them, that opportunity is kind of heaven-sent.
[Eli] is blissfully unaware of anybody else’s judgment of him. It’s like he’s grabbing all the sweets in the shop and ramming them in his face. But you’ve still got to be selective about it. You’ve got to think about what kind of lack of self-knowledge leads him there. [laughs]
“Bottle Shock” may have been released first, but “Nobel Son” was shot first. What led you to work on back-to-back films with Miller and Savin?
I had such a good time with them, and I feel free inside their circus. The things that they write about require you to be a bit of a unicyclist. Sometimes that’s enjoyable. Other times, I’d rather be on a cycle with two wheels, handlebars and a speed gauge, but this one, you’re freewheeling.
You’ve been making movies for 20 years, and performed on TV and stage for even longer. What keeps the fire in your belly?
It’s what I’m built to do. [laughs] Until one finds something else, that’s what I do. The other thing I do is direct, which is a whole different use of myself. It’s not just work, it’s your life. And it’s a human need to be told stories. The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible. Or, what’s impossible? What’s a fantasy? That still excites me, and I’m very much of the opinion that actors can’t oversell it because we’re subject to the writing. Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.
When you talk about directing, I presume you mean theater. But do you have a desire to direct a second film besides 1997’s “The Winter Guest”?
Yeah, and it’s in the cards. I’m attached — the technical term — to direct two movies. One of them is called “The House in Paris,” from a beautiful book by Elizabeth Bowen, [set in] 1930s England and France. The other one is “A Little Chaos,” a totally original script by Allison Deegan about the building of one of the fountains at Versailles by a woman landscape gardener. They both have producers, they have both have interest from… what are they even called? You know, production [and] distribution offices in London. The scripts are at the early stages of being shown to actors. [H]opefully people like the scripts and start throwing money at it. We can do it for not too much. Even Versailles.
Is it strange that to a younger generation, you may always be known first and foremost as Severus Snape from the “Harry Potter” movies?
That’s okay, they’re very young. The point about that is, you watch the expression on a child’s face who is locked into one of those books and you know the power of the imagination. Jo Rowling’s got an absolute direct route to that. That’s a force that you can’t ignore, you know? That’s changed a lot of kids’ lives.
Are there other creative mediums you’d like to delve into?
I edit, but I don’t write. And I have no ability to write music, but I enjoyed singing in “Sweeney Todd.” So, come on, Stephen Sondheim, write another one. [laughs]
And in honor of Nobel Prize recipients, such as the one who attended Gen Art’s premiere of “Nobel Son,” who is the smartest person you’ve ever met?
Probably the woman I live with. [laughs] The fact that she’s still living with me may just prove that.
[Photos: “Nobel Son,” Freestyle Releasing, 2008]
“Nobel Son” opens in limited release on December 5th.