Actor/Director Alan Rickman

The Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning actor discusses his new film, A Little Chaos, which he also directed.

Born in West London, England, Alan Rickman showed his interest in the arts from an early age. He cut his teeth as an actor in 1978, when he joined the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. He earned a Tony Award nomination as the star of the 1988 stage production, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but gained international recognition later that year for his role as terrorist Hans Gruber in the blockbuster action film Die Hard. Since then, he has established himself as one of the most respected actors in the industry, and has starred in such films as Love Actually, Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter franchise. Rickman plays King Louis XIV in his latest project, A Little Chaos, which he also directed.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Up next, actor and director, Alan Rickman. Stay with us.

Alan Rickman is an Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor best known for his roles in hit films like “Sense and Sensibility”, the Harry Potter series, and, of course, his star-making performance that I see practically every night on some cable channel as Hans Gruber in “Die Hard”.

His new project is a romantic drama called “A Little Chaos” about two landscape artists who become romantically entangled while building a garden at the palace for King Louie XIV. Rickman not only plays the king, but he also co-wrote and directed the film which also stars some actress named Kate Winslet. Before we start our conversation, first a look at a clip from “A Little Chaos”.

[Clip]

Tavis: Kate Winslet is so gorgeous. I didn’t know she could be so plain.

Alan Rickman: Well, you know what? It’s a brave actress that says I’ll do a part where there’s no makeup, although no makeup means a lot of makeup [laugh].

Tavis: But she plays a landscaper, so she is for the most part in the film in the dirt and pretty gritty and grimy.

Rickman: She gets filthy and, somewhere down in the end of the movie, she has to be thrown into about eight feet of freezing cold water at 1:00 in the morning, so she’s a trooper.

Tavis: Yeah. When I saw this, the first thing that occurred to me–I am no student of history at least not that far back–but correct if I’m wrong then, as a woman landscape artist who’s being hired by the king to build a garden? Were women allowed to do those jobs back in the 1600s?

Rickman: Well, there wouldn’t have been any, it’s true. You know, this script, it’s a bit of a lie to say it was written by three of us. It was really written by Allison Deegan, so it’s written very much from a woman’s standpoint of inventing Kate’s character completely. There would never have been a woman in a profession. There would have been lots of women cooking, cleaning, sewing.

And one of the points of the film is that the only other women around are the ones who have to look great and stand around at the court of Louis XIV. And the moment they start to not look so great is the moment they get dumped. So, hopefully, people see the modern parallels even with the business I work in.

Tavis: We’ll come to that in a second, I promise. So I’m told, at least from what I’ve read, that you originally didn’t want to play the king or were not going to play the king.

Rickman: No, I wasn’t on the radar at all. But, you know, as time goes on and you realize how hard it is to make an independent movie, every single cent and the small figures that make up the big figures count. So at a certain point, the producer said, “Alan, you will play this part because we don’t have to pay you immediately.” [laugh], or ever probably.

Tavis: So I jumped so fast in talking about Kate Winslet and you playing the king, the story line for this film is?

Rickman: A woman landscape gardener gets hired by André Le Nôtre who did exist, although we’ve whipped 35 years off his age. He would have been 70 at this time. She gets hired by him who’s in charge of the building of the whole of the Gardens of Versailles to build or to work on one of the fountains at Versailles, which is an outdoor ballroom and it does exist.

We have a shot at the end of the film where you come up in a seeming helicopter shot over the whole of the Gardens of Versailles. And that little outdoor ballroom is still there. You know, they’ll get keys, unlock the gates, you can go in and look. And actually the fountains still work. She’s hired to make the fountain half of it.

So in a sense, that’s a little chaos and his is the kind of perfect oval that set him, i.e., a lot of order. And I suppose that’s what the film is about, is that you can’t have one without the other. Chaos and order always have to go together. They make sense of each other and it becomes a love story, which is the main point.

Tavis: A love story between her and another landscaper?

Rickman: They guy who gives her the job, yes.

Tavis: Yeah, exactly, yeah. This is not the first time that you and Kate have worked together, by my count…

Rickman: Second.

Tavis: 20 years ago, though. “Sense and Sensibility”.

Rickman: She was 19.

Tavis: She was 19 then. That’s a long time between working together. What happens between actors when they come back together 20 years apart?

Rickman: Well, I guess if you–I don’t want to get too down with this, but if you imagine two dogs greeting each other [laugh].

Tavis: That was not exactly the imagery that I was looking for, Alan.

Rickman: No, but pedigrees.

Tavis: Yeah, okay, pedigrees, okay. That changed everything being pedigrees [laugh].

Rickman: They still do the same thing. There’s a bit of, you know, sniffing. But I’m glad to say that having done that you discover that Kate has essentially–of course, she’s changed. She’s got three kids now.

Tavis: She’s a star now.

Rickman: That too. That was inevitable then. You could see that would happen because…

Tavis: You saw it then?

Rickman: I was in it.

Tavis: Of course, you were in it.

Rickman: Oh, I saw the start of it. I thought you said…

Tavis: Yeah, the start of it, yeah. I know you were in the film [laugh].

Rickman: Okay, rewind, rewind.

Tavis: Yeah, rewind, yeah.

Rickman: Yeah, because with some people, it’s true to say they do carry a kind of light with them. And there’s something about her that is luminous. It may be her skin, it may be her blonde hair, but there’s something about her spirit that’s luminous.

And she hands herself over completely to whatever part she’s playing and, from an audience point of view, I think what happens is you just believe it. You never think she’s acting. You believe that person she’s playing. That remains.

She’s very democratic on the set. Whatever the word star means, you would never know it. There are no assistants around. She just does the work, shows up, looks at her fellow actors, listens to what they’re saying and answers them.

Tavis: Interesting for me that you guys come back together two decades later for another period piece. Clearly, you’ve done the range of stuff in your career, but what is it particularly or especially about period pieces that you like or, for that matter–well, I won’t say dislike…

Rickman: Don’t like.

Tavis: Dislike, yeah, exactly.

Rickman: They’re a real annoyance [laugh].

Tavis: Costumes are great, though.

Rickman: Great for the film. They’re incredibly expensive to kind of include into the budget. They’re awkward. You know, bathroom breaks take a lot longer [laugh]. Yeah, I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the period side of it isn’t what I was really–I’m interested in the fact that it’s a very modern relationship between her and Matthias Schoenaerts who plays Le Nôtre.

It’s a real negotiation between a man and a woman to a kind of equal place. It, however, needs a context and the context of the totally male-dominated world where there’s an incredibly tough set of rules just to getting up in the morning.

You know, there were hundreds of people hanging around while Louie XIV spent two hours of what was called his levée in the morning. So when every moment of your day is ruled, then it’s interesting to look at a relationship that looks for freedom inside it.

Tavis: You think that moviegoers can tease out that whole notion of classism in a film like this that is entertaining, but doesn’t proselytize in getting that point across? Does that make sense?

Rickman: Well, it’s there. You know, it’s quietly there. We have a shot of–I didn’t want to use a sledgehammer. I mean, I lived with the class system in England enough. You know, Downton Abbey’s back and Cameron and all of the government who went to Eton and all of that stuff, you know.

I lived with it, so I didn’t want to bang it over the head. But it’s there in smaller ways like, you know, there’s a shot of they take out a huge canopy out to the gardens and they have lunch. Somebody’s got to carry the tables and chairs, so there’s a carriage doing that.

When they get there behind a little curtain, there’s a bunch of people washing the plates up in a different world in the same sort of 20 feet. So it’s there for you to notice.

Tavis: And how is that actor, Alan Rickman, how is he to direct?

Rickman: Whoever told him he should be in this business [laugh]? No, you have to rely on–you know, the great thing about making a movie is you’re surrounded by people who know what they’re doing, all of them. Otherwise, they get fired. It’s weird [laugh].

Tavis: After years of doing this, I’m still always stunned at how every–stunned or actually surprised at how differently each director who in fact does direct himself or herself goes about that process. I mean, the process is different for everybody.

Rickman: Well, even if you’re not acting in it as well as directing, the process of directing is different, you know. In a way, that gives you a lot of courage. I’ve worked with some amazing directors and, if you look at Tim Burton or Ang Lee or Anthony Minghella or whoever, the good news is that they’re all very, very individual in who they are as a human being.

That gives you strength to not try to be some kind of generic director. Talk to the actors all the time and involve the DP. You know, that’s the person who’s looking down the lens if you’re in the scene.

And also, fortunately for me, most of what I have to do which is not much in the film is just act with Kate which is, as I say, just like she says something, I answer it. And you hope the DP is pointing the camera at us. Then you go, “Okay, cut”, then into the editing room.

Tavis: And what a tough job hanging out with Kate Winslet. Somebody’s got to do it.

Rickman: Well, fortunately, she’s got a very Jacobean sense of humor [laugh].

Tavis: I am honored to have you on.

Rickman: Great pleasure.

Tavis: It’s a wonderful project.

Rickman: Thank you very much.

Tavis: All the best to you on it.

Rickman: Thanks a lot.

Tavis: Good to see you, Alan.

Rickman: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: June 26, 2015 at 1:32 pm