June 7, 2002
[Introductory comments deleted]
Actor Alan Rickman on Noel Coward, `Private Lives'
ROSE: Alan Rickman is here. He began career on stage in London.
He came to Hollywood to star opposite Bruce Willis in Die Hard. With
that film and most recently Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, he has
redefined the bad guy, the villain. The New Republic once said, ``His
villains have exposed a comic side on the edge of menace.'' He is
currently playing Elyot Chase in Private Lives on Broadway. The production
just won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. It is Rickman's
first leading role in a comedy. Here is a look at that performance.
[excerpt from ``Private Lives'']
I am pleased to have him at this table for the first time.
ALAN RICKMAN, Actor: Nice to be here. Thank you.
CHARLIE ROSE: Tell me where you think Private Lives is in the great spectrum of romantic comedies. I mean, is it near the top?
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, there was a point in rehearsals when we were trying to, you know, build some sort of shape or some structure that would help us to get through the evening because it is an incredibly demanding piece to do. And I said, ``Well, the-- It's like three plays in one. The first act is like playing a restoration comedy. The second act is like moving swiftly to Chekhov. And then the third act is Phaedo.''
And the fact that Noel Coward pulls all three of those rhythms and identities all-- puts it pretty high-- [crosstalk]
CHARLIE ROSE: Pretty high. Yeah. And he wrote it, like, in three or four days.
ALAN RICKMAN: I think it was fast, yeah, which is staggering.
CHARLIE ROSE: That's pretty fast, wouldn't you say? And it's staggering if it has all the elements you say, you know, from there to Chekhov to--
ALAN RICKMAN: It's a masterpiece, really. I mean, I wasn't sure-- we all came to it very innocently. I'd only ever seen it once before. Lindsay-- I don't know had ever seen it. And Howard Davies actually, when he was asked to direct it, turned it down and just said, ``Oh, I don't want to direct Noel Coward.''
And I wasn't sure that I'd ever wanted to be in a Noel Coward. And the smart producers actually said to him, ``Have you-- have you ever read it?''
And he said, ``Well, no, I haven't read it.'' "We suggest you read it.''
CHARLIE ROSE: Yes. [crosstalk]
ALAN RICKMAN: He read it. And he then he basically discovered a new play that he fell in love with. And, in a way, that's where we've all--You know, that's the point at which we came to it.
CHARLIE ROSE: When you he "discovered a new play''--
ALAN RICKMAN: To himself.
CHARLIE ROSE: To himself. Yeah. A new-- in other words, was, in fact, a new play because he had never read it before? Or a new play in context of everything else that had ever been done with Private Lives?
ALAN RICKMAN: That, too. Because I think inasmuch as I know what people have written about this production they've called it ``revelatory'' because we take the play very much at face value. There is no kind-of holding up of too many cocktail glasses and brittle speech-rhythms.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah, yeah.
ALAN RICKMAN: It's taken at its face value. And then you discover that this is a writer of great wisdom and compassion and melancholy.
CHARLIE ROSE: And wit.
ALAN RICKMAN: Unbelievable wit, but interestingly enough -- and this is why Howard's such a good director -- the more that-- the more serious Lindsay and I were in rehearsals, the more he laughed. And so that became the identity of the production.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah. Help me understand why it's so different from other productions-- or what's-- you know, what is revealing about this interpretation.
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, I hope that in this production you care about Amanda, really.
One of the problems you have with a play is that these people do absolutely nothing for a living, so it's hard to sympathize with their dilemmas.
CHARLIE ROSE: Exactly. They are--
ALAN RICKMAN: I hope that what we found are their vulnerable spots. And so you actually care about them a bit more this time.
ROSE: And what's his vulnerable spot?
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, as she says, that she always knows what he's thinking. And so she's always three steps ahead of him. And that's incredibly frustrating.
And it's a joy as a grown man to play another grown man who's actually about 11 years old.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah?
ALAN RICKMAN: So, you're playing a little boy.
CHARLIE ROSE: Why is that a joy?
ALAN RICKMAN: It's fairly releasing.
CHARLIE ROSE: Oh, yeah. So, you can find the child in yourself in order to play the child in him.
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah. And to discover that the child in yourself has never really gone away and is only sitting there waiting to be relocated.
CHARLIE ROSE: Maybe one of the worst things about maturation is that will kill the child within us so much. Do you? I mean, in terms of hope. In terms of-- in terms of everything. In terms of optimism. In terms of-- I mean, life wears too many people down.
ALAN RICKMAN: I think that's true. And people-- You know, there's a lot of pressure to have some kind of public image--
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah.
ALAN RICKMAN: --in whatever your job is. And I think that is one of the great things about being an actor is that it's at your peril do you lose touch with the child in you.
CHARLIE ROSE: You almost have to almost have to be in touch with everything that's part of you to be a great actor, don't you? I mean, that's part of the genius of the best is that they are in touch with all of their feelings, emotions, experiences--
ALAN RICKMAN: [crosstalk] available to you, yeah. Hopefully, physically [unintelligible] every emotion and things that you don't even know about.
And very much your innocence.
CHARLIE ROSE: Now, is that a learned thing? Or is that somehow intuitive and there?
ALAN RICKMAN: I think it's both. It's like-- It's learned in the sense that I'm a great believer in training for actors. And so, when you go to drama school -- if you're fortunate enough to have great teachers, and I was -- there's a painful process where they take you apart before putting you back together. And I was very nervous about training 'cause I thought, "Oh, it's just a sausage factory.''
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah.
ALAN RICKMAN: "And they'll turn me out like everybody else. But that's not it. They actually-- the acquisition of something called "technique'' is really something that there to serve your imagination and to get rid of your bad habits which get in the way of making your own, unique, imaginative response to a text and connect to an audience.
CHARLIE ROSE: I find this fascinating. And I know that some will to say that to talk about process is boring and understanding is boring, too. Not for me.
Two things about it. Number one, is that I always thought it'd be great for most of us who love theater, film, performance to have some understanding, more understanding than we do, of the actors' craft, you know, in terms of what it means and how difficult-- Then you can appreciate it more. Like most things, the more you appreciate them, the more you enjoy them, I think. On the other hand, I don't know whether you want to place yourself there. Do you have any thoughts on that? Whether you want to place yourself, you know, within the actor's skin, in terms of technique and you're just simply better off letting it wash over you?
ALAN RICKMAN: It's very difficult for me as an actor go to the theater and let go--
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah.
ALAN RICKMAN: --as a member of an audience because I know what's happening -- or often, not, actually.
CHARLIE ROSE: For the lesser of them.
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah. So, in many ways, what I'm interested in is the innocence of the response and the handing-over. You know, I think actors are -- and should be -- the servants of the writer. Do you know? We're a channel, and our job is to be the most efficient channel between a piece of writing and an audience so that there is this thing called a "shared experience.'' And there's the actors. There's the audience and the players in the middle and all of the story. And it's about telling a story. And what's the joy of this production of Private Lives is feeling the audience starting out at the beginning of the evening as "yeah, here we are on Broadway'' and the laughter is sort of sophisticated in its tone and appreciative of Noel Coward.
As the evening goes on becomes more animal. You can feel the laughter coming from--
CHARLIE ROSE: More about instinct.
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah, and about men and women. And you can feel the laughter being connected to elbows being dug into the ribs of the person next to them.
CHARLIE ROSE: As a reflection of whatever their experience is--
ALAN RICKMAN: Exactly.
ROSE: Personal experience. Yeah. Take a look at this.
This is-- am I saying that right? Elyot?
ALAN RICKMAN: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
CHARLIE ROSE: And Amanda, played by Lindsay Duncan. It's where they reunite.
Here it is.
[excerpt from "Private Lives'']
Lindsay makes a difference, you just said that she's good. You said, ``She's wonderful.''
I said, "Does she make a difference for you?'' I mean, if you're there and there's someone who's--
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, this play is about two duets.
CHARLIE ROSE: Right.
ALAN RICKMAN: And there are four major characters. There's no Elyot without an Amanda. There's no Amanda without an Elyot. It's like two halves of one coin.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah, but I would assume that-- back to what you said about technique, that timing is everything.
ALAN RICKMAN: Everything. But also living inside. You know, it's-- these are very, very complicated sentences. You have breathe them properly, but you've also gotta believe what you're saying. And you have to pick up on the rhythms of your fellow actor. And these are two people who can't live together, but they can't live without each other. So, you've got to feel this umbilical cord all the time.
CHARLIE ROSE: You said something about the notion of the first responsibility of the actor is to give-- you know, is to take the actor's-- the writer's words and do something with them -- ennoble them, make them--
ALAN RICKMAN: Trust them.
CHARLIE ROSE: Trust them. See writers--
ALAN RICKMAN: If it's played right--
CHARLIE ROSE: Writers must love you, when you say that--
ALAN RICKMAN: --it takes trust.
CHARLIE ROSE: -- "Trust them.''
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah, but the great writing tells you what to do. And also great writing frequently doesn't know what it's possibilities are. When I-- Lindsay and I did one play together before -- 12 years ago -- which was Les Liaisons Dangereuses. We did here in New York as well. And one of the run-throughs -- obviously in London, after we'd been playing it in Stratford we had-- It was a break, and then we put it on again. And so we had a run-through. And Christopher Hampton, the author, was there. And at the end of it Howard Davies, who also directed that gave some notes. And then he said to Christopher, "Would you like to say anything, Christopher?'' And Christopher said, "Well, I'd just like to say how moved I am because I have no idea I'd written half of that.''
CHARLIE ROSE: Wow.
ALAN RICKMAN: ``No,'' we said, "well, we're only saying what we see on the page.''
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah.
ALAN RICKMAN: And the same is true with this. You know, people are saying, "Well, we didn't know that there was this depth in the play." We're not making it up. It's there if you look for it.
ROSE: Yeah. The movies and all that business of Die Hard and
all that. My guess -- it's made your life richer in more ways than
ALAN RICKMAN: Financially, you mean?
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah, of course, financially. Yeah. Yeah, but it also gave a certain interesting dimension to you. I mean, you were already recognized as a very good actor. You know? And here they come to you for that reason and others -- whatever the moviemakers and directors mandate was or imperative was.
But it's probably added dimension and has people see you in a sort-of different and more--
ALAN RICKMAN: I think-- well, yes. I mean, obviously, because there's a worldwide audience.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah.
ALAN RICKMAN: But it also makes a difference in terms of your work on stage. It's taught me-- I think-- I think I'm better at the stage work because of film work.
CHARLIE ROSE: Ah. How do you think that is? How do you--
ALAN RICKMAN: Because you learn to trust your listening faculties. You know, when a camera is put onto the face of somebody who's truly listening, I think it's very interesting.
CHARLIE ROSE: The face is?
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah.
ALAN RICKMAN: And, you know--
CHARLIE ROSE: And that happens in film because of the fact that that's the nature of the medium.
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, your cut to somebody 'cause you need a reaction. But you need to see them receiving some information. And so I learned that and about stillness and truthfulness.
CHARLIE ROSE: Truthfulness? Meaning that the face can't lie. Or something more?
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah, and--Well, it's in close-up. That's the other thing. You know, on stage it's like you're always in a wide shot.
CHARLIE ROSE: Exactly. That's-- [crosstalk]
ALAN RICKMAN: Right, you're always seen--
CHARLIE ROSE: And so you don't have to worry about a response shot, you know, 'cause people look at the whole thing.
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, and so-- And anyway what I've discovered, having done a few years of film, and there are a few sequences in this play that I'm doing now where almost nothing seems to be happening. And there is one sequence in the play where there is actually two minutes of complete silence because they have this game where if they're rowing, which they do rather a lot, one of them calls out this word "sollocks'' and it means that they now have to have two minutes of silence.
And that actually takes place on stage. So, there are two minutes nobody says a thing. And you've got no option but to play it for real. And to hold 1,400 people's attention with silence--
ROSE: Is not easy.
ALAN RICKMAN: It's not easy, but film work gives you a little bit of film courage to do that.
CHARLIE ROSE: Why do you think they wanted you? Other than that-- you know, other than you were good at your craft.
ALAN RICKMAN: On film?
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah. Did you have a certain look?
ALAN RICKMAN: I think I was cheap.
CHARLIE ROSE: If you're good and cheap, that's a great bonanza for them.
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah. And I was English. And I was-- I had been playing in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and I think it had a kind of a quality that they needed for the film.
CHARLIE ROSE: And are you happy with all of those experiences?
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, when I did Die Hard, it was I had never, ever made a film before. So, I was a complete innocent. And so I just took my rag-bag of ideas.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah. And put it on film.
ALAN RICKMAN: Put it on film. And John McTiernan -- God bless him -- tolerated me saying things-- taking my process to a film set. "Yes, but what does this person think?'' And "What kind of-- what did have for breakfast?'' And "What's his background?''
CHARLIE ROSE: No, you were saying all those things?
ALAN RICKMAN: I'm saying all these things.
CHARLIE ROSE: And he said.
ALAN RICKMAN: Like he cared. He's just trying to get this-- But actually--
CHARLIE ROSE: We may care about Bruce, but we don't care about you in this case.
ALAN RICKMAN: But it was a validation--
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah-- ah.
ALAN RICKMAN: --because between us, you know, we made it much more interesting.
CHARLIE ROSE: Between you and Bruce? Or you and the director?
ALAN RICKMAN: Between all of us. [crosstalk] Yeah. Because you have to find, again, the other side of the coin. And I thought it was important that there was a proper relationship between my character and Bruce's. And even though it was only over these walkie-talkies. And that there was some mutual respect so there were things to delve into.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah, that's always necessary. That sorta sense of respect because you want a villain that has credibility.
Roll tape. Here it is, Die Hard.
[excerpt from ``Die Hard'']
ALAN RICKMAN: Subtle stuff.
CHARLIE ROSE: Subtle stuff. But you never watch yourself, you said.
ALAN RICKMAN: No, no. It's torture to me.
CHARLIE ROSE: Why is it torture?
ALAN RICKMAN: Because all you can see is what you got wrong.
CHARLIE ROSE: Exactly.
ALAN RICKMAN: You don't see anything that's any good.
CHARLIE ROSE: Oh, you must have seen something good. You never see anything good?
ALAN RICKMAN: Not really. You just--
CHARLIE ROSE: You see all the things you could improve.
ALAN RICKMAN: I mean, "That wasn't what I was trying to do.''
ROSE: And stage-- Obviously you can't see yourself. But do
you get more satisfaction from it? Or less? Or different?
ALAN RICKMAN: The trouble in the theater is that, you know -- I can only speak for myself -- is that there's this huge fear factor that you have to deal with.
At least on film if you screw up, you know, there's another take. And it doesn't go away -- the fear thing.
CHARLIE ROSE: I read that you said that. That somehow today, with all that you have done, the fear factor is there as you begin. Now, does it go away during the run of piece?
ALAN RICKMAN: On certain nights, if you can-- you know, if you can get it to push down into the right place. I mean, it's something that I guess is connected to adrenaline and focus and energy and all of those things. But it's a useless thing. It's not-- it's not really very positive. And it's just like a little gremlin that sits on your shoulder and tries to make you fail. And often succeeds.
CHARLIE ROSE: Really?
ALAN RICKMAN: It's a negative. It doesn't do any good. Now, I'm seriously thinking of trying to find some kind of hypnosis that will get rid of it because it's useless.
CHARLIE ROSE: Seriously trying to find hypnosis to get over the fear of being on stage.
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah.
CHARLIE ROSE: Coming from one of our better -- best -- actors.
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, I'm not alone. You know, it's a common problem.
CHARLIE ROSE: Does it-- do you think it is a common problem simply because the people who go into acting and feel passionate about it somehow are a breed that is likely to be fearful?
ALAN RICKMAN: I don't know. I think it's an individual thing.
Olivier had years of terrible stage fright.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah. It's-- We talking about something much more than simply forgetting your lines, aren't we?
ALAN RICKMAN: It's a lot about that -- fear of that. You know, of just--
No, I mean, you know, but that's a terrible thing to have happen.
CHARLIE ROSE: Oh, I would think. I would think-- It would scare me to death.
ALAN RICKMAN: But then it becomes a self-generating problem because, unless you can get your concentration into the right place, then this little gremlin goes up into your head and, while you're speaking, it's saying, "You know this line, but there's a line coming up in four lines time that you don't know.''
CHARLIE ROSE: Oh, no.
ALAN RICKMAN: I mean, your brain is going forward and backwards and trying to speak at the same time.
CHARLIE ROSE: And [crosstalk] and be motivated and all that stuff. And thinking about the position of where-am-I-going-to-be and when-do-move and where-do-I-move and what-am-I-supposed-to-get-from-her and more.
ALAN RICKMAN: Exactly. I mean, you must have it because you're-- Yes, we're having a conversation. On some level, I assume you're listening to what I'm saying and responding--
CHARLIE ROSE: Well, isn't that clear to you.
ALAN RICKMAN: You are. Of course you are. But there's also some bit of you that's thinking, "And next'' or "Did I cover this?''
CHARLIE ROSE: Some cases. Not with you. Now, this is a list of questions right here that I-- I haven't asked a single one of them. You know?
ALAN RICKMAN: Good.
CHARLIE ROSE: You know? Not one. Simply because you're searching something more important at this table, which is something like what I think we have here. I mean, you know, I had no idea. I didn't know you, hadn't met you. And the idea-- and haven't even seen the play yet and want to very much 'cause I-- for a lot of-- all the reasons. But wanted to-- But what were you looking for? And think you're looking for this every night, too. You're just looking to make it as authentic as you can.
ALAN RICKMAN: I want to turn a key in the hearts and minds of somebody.
ROSE: Exactly. Me, too. And you know-- I mean, it's easier
for me than it is for you, simply 'cause I got a lot to work with -- your
whole life and your career and all of that other stuff that I can sorta
ALAN RICKMAN: It's not enough to get up there and just show off. You know, that's kind of pointless. You can do that with a child at birthday parties. You know, we have a job to do. And I think the actor still has an important to do and fulfill.
CHARLIE ROSE: I want to talk about Winter Guest, where you directed. But first, Sense and Sensibility. I mean, how-- That's what? What does that say? What about that? What would we say about that? For you, as an experience.
ALAN RICKMAN: It was a very, very happy experience. Emma Thompson had written a really brilliant adaptation. It's so difficult to adapt a book like that -- Jane Austen -- to the screen, which is--
CHARLIE ROSE: Emma Thompson wrote the adaptation?
ALAN RICKMAN: Mm-hmm [affirmative], and one--
CHARLIE ROSE: The Emma Thompson we know as an actress.
ALAN RICKMAN: Absolutely. And she's in Sense and Sensibility.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah, I know.
ALAN RICKMAN: She wrote the script, the screenplay, and she won an Oscar for that.
CHARLIE ROSE: Ah.
ALAN RICKMAN: So--
CHARLIE ROSE: For her screenplay.
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah. And she did a brilliant, brilliant job of it. And then there was an inspired choice of director, which was Ang Lee.
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah.
ALAN RICKMAN: To come and-- you know, this Hong-Kong-born director to come and-- or was he Taiwan? Anyway, to--
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah, Asian.
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, I don't wish to insult him, but anyway he's a brilliant director, but to have him come and direct this kind of quintessentially English comedy of manners. But it was a brilliant choice because, of course, he understands all of that from his own culture. So, on those levels it was an extraordinary experience, and the film was peopled by a lot of actors who knew each other from the theater so there was a sense of process. Ang had lots of rehearsals. We had to write essays about our characters, write letter about our characters, have movement classes, all of that -- all of which helped enormously.
And I was playing somebody who was-- it was an enormous challenge because he was-- he is 110 percent a good person. And to try to make somebody who's so thoroughly good and honorable interesting was a challenge.
CHARLIE ROSE: Roll tape. Here it is.
[excerpt from "Sense and Sensibility'']
CHARLIE ROSE: You first.
ALAN RICKMAN: I don't know. I just watch it and go, ``Wrong, wrong.''
CHARLIE ROSE: Oh, did you really? What was wrong about that?
ALAN RICKMAN: Oh, I don't know. You just wish you could do it again.
CHARLIE ROSE: But nothing was wrong with that, now come on. It might have been different but not wrong.
ALAN RICKMAN: It could have been a little quicker, cleaner.
CHARLIE ROSE: Quicker. Cleaner.
ALAN RICKMAN: Simpler.
CHARLIE ROSE: Simpler. The Winter Guest -- you direct this? It was something you enjoyed?
ALAN RICKMAN: I did, yes. I mean, the prospect was pretty terrifying. But then I suppose experience tells you and it proved to be the case that the wonderful thing about film is that you're surrounded by experts because if they don't do their job well, they'd never make it. So you've got this unbelievable bank of support behind you. And in a way, a lot of the work has been done in pre-production.
CHARLIE ROSE: In terms of cinematographers and everybody.
ALAN RICKMAN: Once you actually hit the first day of shooting, you just watch and everybody else is kind of doing it for you, in a sense.
CHARLIE ROSE: And you say things like, "Louder. Slower. Simpler.''
ALAN RICKMAN: Well, those are good words to say.
CHARLIE ROSE: All the things that you were saying to yourself-- all the things you were saying to yourself about that performance. Just simple words.
ALAN RICKMAN: Henry used to say some extra-- but that was because his English wasn't so good. And he used to say-- he said to me once, he said, "Alan, be more subtle. Do more.'' Which you kind of stare up and--
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah, exactly. It's one or the other. All right. Here's a scene from The Winter Guest. Take a look. Emma Thompson and her real-life mother, Phyllidia Law.
ALAN RICKMAN: Phyllida (correcting his pronunciation)
CHARLIE ROSE: Phyllida.
[excerpt from "The Winter Guest'']
CHARLIE ROSE: Also, Harry Potter, which was a huge success. You played Professor Snape in that. What's next after this? This runs-- Private Lives is playing at the Richard Rodgers Theater through September. Do you know where you're going after-- [crosstalk] Where are you going after September 8th? Where will you be?
ALAN RICKMAN: Possibly in a rest home. But--
CHARLIE ROSE: Where would you like to be?
ALAN RICKMAN: There are various things I have to organize around the fact that I will almost definitely be shooting another Harry Potter sometime between September and the following February.
CHARLIE ROSE: You'll be shooting another Harry Potter for the rest of your life.
ALAN RICKMAN: Fortunately, or unfortunately, no, there will only ever be seven of these books.
CHARLIE ROSE: Oh, is that right?
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah, because it's-- Joanne Rowlings already said that. It's one a year from the time-- from him being 11 to 18. So it's just his school time.
So when Harry gets to be 18 and leaves school, that's it. And she's already written the last paragraph of the last book and it's locked away in a safe somewhere.
CHARLIE ROSE: Do you know her?
ALAN RICKMAN: Yeah.
CHARLIE ROSE: Is she interesting?
ALAN RICKMAN: She's a terrificly interesting woman, yeah. Well, how could you not be when you were a single parent with no money coming in, trying to feed your kids and writing these books in coffee bars in Glasgow and exercise books by hand with the kids in the stroller and not quite knowing how to feed them?
CHARLIE ROSE: Yeah. A great pleasure to have you here.
ALAN RICKMAN: A pleasure to be here.
CHARLIE ROSE: Alan Rickman, Private Lives, through September at the Richard Rodgers Theater. We'll be right back. Stay with us.
(Interview with Stephen Carter, novelist, deleted)
Copyright 2002 CharlieRose.com