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Interview: Alan Rickman on “Nobel Son”

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12042008_nobelson1.jpgBy 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?

12042008_nobelson2.jpgThe 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?

12042008_nobelson3.jpgWell, 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.

12042008_nobelson4.jpgWhen 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.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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