Alan Rickman: Villain -- The show-stopping scoundrel of ''Robin Hood'' and ''Die Hard'' is the bad guy audiences love

”Los Angeles is not a town full of airheads,” insists Alan Rickman, his tone implying that this might be a contentious opinion. ”There’s a great deal of wonderful energy there. They say ‘yes’ to things; not like the endless ‘nos’ and ‘hrrumphs‘ you get in England!” His face contorts into a cartoonish scowl, to illustrate a hrrumph. ”When I get off the plane in England I always feel about two inches shorter.”

Stretched out in a chair in a London rehearsal studio, the leonine actor certainly doesn’t look shorter. And, his unprompted defense of L.A. notwithstanding, he doesn’t seem displeased to be stuck in his native city for a while. Nor should he. This is the day of the British premiere of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in Nottingham, with fireworks at Nottingham Castle afterward. The morning newspapers abound with stories gleefully recounting the offscreen fireworks set off by Rickman’s scene-stealing performance as the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. While Kevin Costner’s rather wooden turn as the righteous Robin left critics and many moviegoers a bit underwhelmed, Rickman’s gleefully wicked villain became the summer’s most talked-about performance — and that was after the film’s producers trimmed some of Rickman’s best scenes.

But Rickman, who is in his early 40s, has not returned home to wallow in his hour as conquering movie star: He is here to rehearse a play, his first since his portrayal of the arch-seducer Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses propelled him to fame and film offers four years ago. Rickman will play the leading role in Kunio Shimizu’s Tango at the End of Winter, directed by Japan’s top theater director, Yukio Ninagawa. The production will debut at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival this month and later transfer to London’s West End.

Rickman’s decision to abandon Hollywood for the stage just as his film career is soaring has left his American friends baffled. ”Coming back to do a play at a Scottish festival must seem very perverse,” he admits in his rich baritone. ”Even I thought I was mad. A lot of the time I hate the theater,” he goes on. ”You think, I have to climb Mount Everest, again, tonight. Oh, the theater is a scary place to be.” But Rickman never really doubted his decision: ”There was just this inner voice in me saying, ‘It’s time to go onstage.’ There are particular muscles which go flabby if you don’t use them.”

Rickman’s new workout place is a huge film studio bearing the play’s elaborate set, a skeletal re-creation of a movie house. Tango takes place in an old cinema, where an actor — Rickman — returns to explore his past and his psyche, having lost the nerve to go onstage. ”That’s the thudding irony,” says Rickman, with masochistic delight.

In rehearsal, the actors appear to have taken their sartorial cue from the Japanese director, who is dressed totally in black. Ninagawa speaks no English, so an interpreter shadows him. Wearing black jeans and T-shirt under a loose gray jacket, Rickman sits at the back of the stage, his head in his hands, as the scene begins. Then, to a seductive tango, he takes the hand of costar Beatie Edney, and the man who was so comically unappealing in Robin Hood exudes a feline sexiness. The couple dances, their legs, arms, and bodies moving in balletic unison. As Rickman pulls Edney toward him, she entwines her body around his. It is a moment of palpable eroticism.

The rehearsal continues with stops and starts until, in the final scene, young actors appear from every corner, waving and cheering — a commotion the director means to symbolize the spirit of youth. Though Rickman reveres the director — ”to work with Ninagawa is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he gushes — he is concerned. He raises his hand. ”Just one question,” he says. ”Are we supposed to like those young people?”

Through the interpreter, the director replies affirmatively. ”It’s just that in England, we have these things called football hooligans…,” Rickman says, and the cast and crew collapse with laughter. ”And I think that’s slightly what I’m seeing.”

The phenomenon of drunken soccer fans is translated into Japanese — with difficulty, since such behavior is almost unimaginable in that country — and Ninagawa ponders it. ”No, they’re not hooligans,” he replies. Rickman smiles his quizzical half-smile — one senses he still has his doubts — and work resumes.

Rickman isn’t always so reserved; he has a reputation for fiercely held opinions about his roles. Director Howard Davies recalls ”moments when Alan and I both wanted to strangle each other during rehearsals for Les Liaisons. He’s such a perfectionist, it can be painful. There were times I didn’t think Alan’s character would survive his surgical dissection.” ”It’s like directing a director,” says Anthony Minghella, writer-director of the current film Truly, Madly, Deeply, starring Rickman as a dead cellist who returns Ghost-style to haunt his love. ”He keeps you on your toes, and you have to learn not to be threatened by that. He’s very concerned with appearance — what he wears.”

For his part as the smooth-talking terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988), Rickman’s notions about how the character should look wound up shaping the direction of the smash movie. ”When I first met Bruce Willis, I thought it would be interesting if these characters could have a mutual respect for each other, even making each other laugh at times. Instead of looking like a terrorist wearing a T-shirt and a windbreaker, why not put on a suit? That made us opposites. As an idea it had repercussions: It made it possible for (Willis’ character and mine) to meet, and I could pretend to be one of my own hostages.” As Sheriff of Nottingham, Rickman wore black, again his own idea. ”It was a cartoon in primary colors,” he says. ”I didn’t want the film to disappear into all that historical business. I thought about Richard III and a rock guitarist and I said, ‘Let’s make it raven, so you know who’s coming.”’

Rickman’s sense of style may come from his years in art school. As the second-eldest child of a large West London family, he trained to be a graphic designer but at 26 abruptly changed course to go to the prestigious Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts. He spent years working through the ranks of local repertory companies and the London theater scene until 1985, when he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. That year he played leading roles in several Shakespeare plays and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The play started life in Stratford’s tiny Other Place theater and ended up on Broadway, winning several awards. Rickman played the role for over 500 performances, but when director Stephen Frears cast his film version, he chose John Malkovich instead. Rickman was disappointed to lose the part he felt he had helped invent. Even today, when asked to discuss it, he cuts off that line of questioning with a shake of the head.

Rickman’s old friend Juliet Stevenson, who appears opposite him in Truly, Madly, Deeply, describes the actor as a cross between a panther and a camel: ”Alan has this wonderful, silky physicality; he plays cunningly with words and moments. And he has this extraordinary stamina — like a camel.”

Stamina is the quality Rickman values most in himself as an actor. ”I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t eat the right food, I’m not a monk, and I’m very gregarious. But I’m not stupid.” During the filming of Robin Hood, director Kevin Reynolds learned to appreciate that endurance. ”It was a very tough shoot and Alan was always endlessly, wonderfully inventive and helpful,” Reynolds says. ”The flamboyance of the sheriff — that’s Alan; he made up several of his lines, and it was Alan’s idea to push Marian’s legs apart in the rape scene, which made it comical rather than hideous. He’s my favorite part of the film; what else can I say?”

”Kevin Reynolds did let me off the leash,” Rickman says. But the very vividness of his portrayal, next to Costner’s Robin, created a problem. After preview audiences said that they preferred Rickman’s character over Costner’s, the producers ordered Reynolds to make changes. In the end, Reynolds quit the project. Rickman is politic about the whole affair, but he does express a few regrets. He particularly misses a subplot involving his relationship with the old hag Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan). ”Unhappily, the scene in which Geraldine tells me she’s my mother, with the two of us sailing way over the top into another stratosphere and the crew howling with laughter, ended up on the cutting-room floor,” he says. ”That was a shame.”

And what about the rumors of tension between Rickman and the movie’s beleaguered star? Rickman flashes his long-suffering look. ”I’m in a no-win situation,” he says. ”All this stuff about antagonism on the set is absolute nonsense. Costner worked bloody hard, and he was incredibly generous to the other actors. But he’s been placed on a mountaintop with a slippery slope, and there are some malicious people in this business.”

If Rickman needs a break from the pressures and politics of acting, he finds it at home in West London with his long-standing partner, Rima Horton, a Labour district councilwoman whom he met when they were both in their early 20s and members of an amateur dramatic society. ”She is the ultimate leveler,” he says. ”When I whine about my work, she’ll fire back at me some well-aimed sentence about the homeless.”

Onstage, Rickman is known for his serious dramatic work, but movie audiences now know him best for pop entertainments like Die Hard and Robin Hood. He refuses to indulge in condescending comparisons between the two worlds: ”I love the act of filming,” he says. ”I’m like a child with a new toy. I’d like to take what I can from Hollywood, and whatever it is one wants to do in England, and put them together.”

Then he adds, somewhat surprisingly, ”I do feel more myself in America. I can regress there, and they have roller-coaster parks. My idea of a real treat is Magic Mountain without standing in line.”

Die Hard
  • Movie
  • 131 minutes