ALAN RICKMAN has a favourite ritual. “When I’m making a movie and I come out of the make-up trailer, I always mess up my hair,” he says. “If someone has made my hair perfect… well, life isn’t perfect, is it?”
He brings this gritty sensibility to bear on A Little Chaos, his second feature as director. It is a funny, profound period piece, the fictional story of a female landscaper, Sabine De Barra, charged with designing a garden for Louis XIV’s playground at Versaille.
De Barra is played by Kate Winslet. She is a troubled woman on the cusp of middle age, grieving for the daughter she lost in an accident. Rickman’s father died when Rickman was eight and he was raised by his mother. So he understood De Barra’s struggle, though the fact was not on his mind when he agreed to direct A Little Chaos.
“I didn’t think about it consciously,” he says. “However, we are all the sum of our experiences. Why do you say ‘yes’ to certain things? You recognize an emotion. I’m sure it all gets filed away, so you can get on with your life. I guess that’s what dealing with those things is.
“At the same time, that [the death of his father] was my reality from the time I was eight. You don’t have the power of analysis. You just think: ‘This is shit’. I also had two brothers and a sister… you have to get on with it, in a Chekhovian way: ‘We must work and just deal with it’.”
A Little Chaos review
SIDELINED BY HARRY POTTER
Rickman had intended directing A Little Chaos a decade ago. Then Harry Potter happened. As the villainous Professor Severus Snape, Rickman was one of the best things in the Potter franchise — it was never a ‘paycheque’ project for him.
“You’ve an enormous responsibility to believe in what you are doing,” he says.
“That’s one of the things we are proud of — we took it dead seriously. There might have been some laughter: if you’re on a set with Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon, humour isn’t going to be far away.
“But everyone was committed. If you weren’t, it would show. The children would reject it completely. They believe in those books. You can’t betray that.”
Rickman was born in Hammersmith, London, in 1946. He trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
His break-out part was in the RSC’s production of Dangerous Liaisons. He came to the attention of Hollywood and, in 1987, was cast as the bad guy in a quirky action movie.
“Die Hard was huge event in my life,” he says. “I walked anonymous into a screening in New York and walked out not anonymous. You are aware that something has happened. It was the first film I ever made — I was very ignorant”.
When he became famous as Die Hard’s Hans Gruber he acquired with it a reputation for prickliness. More than once, he cancelled interviews, insisting he had “nothing to say”. The transition from respected London stage actor to movie star was, it is tempting to conclude, not easy.
“Nowadays, everyone wants to be in an action or superhero movie, I notice. Then, it was very weird for me to do it,” he says.
“What seems to have been forgotten, along the way, is that they had a script — Die Hard has wit and style and that’s why it lasted. It’s not just about explosions and it certainly isn’t about CGI, because there wasn’t any back then. It’s about a few old-fashioned things, such as storytelling and characters you enjoy.
DOING DE VALERA
In Ireland, one of Rickman’s best known roles was Éamon de Valera, whom he brought memorably to the screen in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins.
The movie implicates de Valera in the assassination of Collins. However, Rickman tried not to judge the character — the moment you do, it shows on screen, he says.
“I’ve played a few people that have actually lived,” Rickman says. “I learned a lot playing Rasputin. There is the Rasputin of popular imagination. And then there is the reality. And the reality is that, were he alive, he would probably have a practice on Harley Street and be very successful.
“But because he was a peasant, he was terrifying. Really, he was just a hypnotist. They made him into a magician. So there is the received notion and then the reality.
“With De Valera, I knew what Neil’s opinion was. And I knew it was a country divided. I couldn’t play either of those.
“I had to do the homework and play the person and hope that Neil would cut it so that it would remain there for people to make up their minds. I’m not sure that is what happened — but that is what I was playing.”
In addition to directing, Rickman has a starring role in A Little Chaos, as Louis XIV. His motives for taking the part were mostly practical, as it meant one less role to fill. The behind-the-scenes scrambling to get the project off the ground was, he says, far more challenging than the shoot.
“Making the movie is a breeze,” he says. “You need the stamina of a horse to get through the financing. As I’m sure you hear all the time, it is more and more difficult to make a strange, ‘unnameable’ independent movie that is hard to sum up on a phrase. ‘It is about then? Is it about now?’ ‘Mostly, about now — with a lot of ‘then’ draped over it’. Finding the money, assembling the crew, walking through the production office knowing that if we don’t get a particular phone call that day we have to send everyone home tomorrow... compared to all that, making the movie is easy.”