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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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Tony Montana is all about money, power and respect. And while we can’t promise you’ll get money or power by taking our Scarface quiz below, you will get respect if you get a perfect score. One out of three ain’t bad. Click below to take the quiz, and catch Scarface this month on IFC.

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We’ve made it! Memorial Day weekend! But before we can complain that it’s over too quickly, take a moment to bask in the pre-break lack of productivity and enjoy some lighthearted videos.

From Hank Azaria channeling Chief Wiggum and other Simpsons characters while talking to college grads to “Shark-spert” Jason Alexander sharing questionable shark facts, here are five funny things from this week you need to watch.

1. Kermit Informs Fozzie Bear That They’ve Been Canceled

It’s never easy to see someone receive bad news, much less a Muppet. But if anything, Kermit’s poise and acceptance during a time of crisis is impressive, admirable even. Fozzie Bear, on the other hand, reacts with greater similarity to how we would: with baseless anger and utter despair.


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With a career spanning five decades, “Weird Al” Yankovic has defined the song parody genre and become a beloved pop culture icon. Starting June 3rd, you’ll be able to catch him as the brand new Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader Fridays at 11P on IFC.

We recently chatted with Al about joining Scott Aukerman on the new season, his upcoming tour, favorite CB!B! characters and his future dream projects. (Hint: it might involve actors spontaneously breaking into song.)

The Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader gig seems like a natural fit for you. Did it take any time to get acclimated?

Weird Al: Yeah. It’s a slightly different skill set. The accordion is my main act, but I don’t use it on the show at all. It’s a keyboard setup. The actual setup is a little bit of a combination of what Reggie [Watts] had and [Kid] Cudi had. And a few extra things thrown in. So I’m trying to do my own version of what they brought to the show.

You’ve been on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and the show many times. Do you have a favorite CB!B! character?

Weird Al: I’d probably have to say Doctor Time. Every time Scott wants me to do an evil character, he’s always got a bad English accent. [Laughs] Any time my character goes evil, he becomes sort of British.

Any favorite guests you’ve worked with?

Weird Al: Gosh, I love them all. Paul F. Tompkins is always fun. His Andrew Lloyd Webber character, Cake Boss, everything he does. And Andy Daly as well. They’re so versatile and so amazing at improv. That’s the one thing I was a little nervous about because I’ve never been super confident with my improv skills. But Comedy Bang! Bang!, particularly the TV version, is good for that because it’s all heavily edited. So it kind of gives me permission to try out whatever comes to my mind, so if it really sucks, they’re not gonna use it. [Laughs]

Scott Aukerman Weird Al

Your upcoming tour is a continuation of your Mandatory Fun tour from last year. Any new elements to the show?

Weird Al: Well, it is the same tour, so it’s not that much different. I might freshen some video a little bit. I’m hoping to use a bit or two from the current season of Comedy Bang! Bang! and slip that into the show somewhere.

The tour starts June 3rd in St. Petersburg, Florida and ends September 24th at Radio City Music Hall. How do you keep up the pace? 

Weird Al: It’s just a mindset. I’m really only working for two hours a day, so I basically just save up my energy for the show. I relax, surf online, watch satellite TV, read a book, rest my voice, and then give it all I got when I’m onstage.

Looking back at your vast song catalog, was there ever a parody that came to you immediately upon hearing the song?

Weird Al: Yeah, that’s happened a few times. More often than not, I have to think about it and analytically work out all the variations on a theme that I can and pick out the one with the most potential. But there’s been a few times where the idea came to me spontaneously. I think the first time I saw Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video, before it was even over, I thought, “Oh! I gotta do ‘Fat’! Super-plus-sized actors trying to get through a turnstile on a subway! I gotta do that!”

Do you have a favorite of your many hilarious videos?

Weird Al: Oh boy, it’s hard to say. “White and Nerdy” has been my biggest hit and that was a really fun video to do. But in terms of making a video, “Tacky” was really fun to do because it was so easy and I got to work with amazing people like Jack Black, Margaret Cho, Kristen Schaal, Eric Stonestreet, and Aisha Tyler. And we knocked it out in a couple of hours. We were having so much fun while making it, I kinda wish we weren’t so efficient and professional. [Laughs] I could’ve done that all night.

Was it filmed all in one take or was it stitched together?

Weird Al: That was all one take. Some people say, “Oh, I see where the edit is,” but it was all one shot. We did a total of six takes, and I think four of those takes were usable, but the last one was the best.

And you were directing while performing?

Weird Al: I directed that one, yeah. We location scouted and found a building in downtown LA that I thought was good for the shoot. I’ve since seen that building in a lot of other movies and TV shows — I think it was used in The Big Lebowski and a few others. It was difficult because I start the video in one set of clothes and I also end the video in a completely different set of clothes. So while the cameras were off me, because there’s only one elevator in the building, I had to run down five flights of stairs, quickly change my clothes, and hit my mark for the end. And after the take, we’d all just watch what we did, and say, “OK, let’s do it again.”

Is there a director you’d love to work with in the future?

Weird Al: Oh gosh, yeah, but I mean, music videos are notoriously low-budget so that’s why I end up directing them myself. [Laughs] But I’d love to be in a movie codirected by Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino.

Do you have a particular genre of music that you love parodying the most? Or is it more of the moment and different for each song?

Weird Al: It doesn’t necessarily revolve around personal taste so much. It really depends more on the song than the genre. But I found rap songs tend to lend themselves to parody, mostly because there’s a lot of words to play with. A lot of pop songs are repetitive, and that’s sometimes been an issue. With rap, there’s no shortage of syllables to mess around with.

Given that you’ve been so prolific and done so much, is there any type of art left that you’d like to dip your toe in? Dramatic acting, perhaps?

Weird Al: Well, if Spielberg and Tarantino want me for their film, I wouldn’t want to turn them down. But there’s no burning desire to do drama. I love doing comedy and feel comfortable doing that. Writing a musical might be something I do down the line. I don’t know when but I might take a shot at something in that area. Other than that, I’ve done pretty much all I wanted to do in my life so far. A lot of it not successfully. [Laughs] But I took a stab at it and feel gratified by that.

You’ve had such a eclectic career in music and comedy. What do you attribute your longevity to?

Weird Al: [Laughs] I don’t know what I’d attribute the longevity to. There’s a modicum of talent, but it’s mostly because I surround myself with very talented people. I’ve got a great support group, I’ve got the same band since the early ’80s, and I’ve worked with the same people for decades. And I got a very loyal fan base and I love what I do. And somehow I’ve been very lucky and it’s worked out so far.

Watch “Weird Al” in an episode from the new season of Comedy Bang! Bang! right now, before the season premiere on Friday June 3rd at 11P.

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