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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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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