Rickman Has Devilish Time in Musical ‘Sweeney’
by Paul Fischer
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Alan Rickman has played his share of baddies over the years, but none can quite compare to his sycophantic and obsessive judge in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. Comfortable in low-budget indies as well as the Harry Potter franchise, the always fascinating and urbane Mr. Rickman talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview, in London.
Paul Fischer: How nervous were you about taking this on, as both an actor, and somebody who was going to be singing on—on screen for the first time, I presume?
Alan Rickman: Well, yes. It was. I suppose at this point in one’s life, you actually welcome the risk and the challenge as much as anything else. I’m not looking for safe harbors anywhere. I wasn’t really nervous, because I thought, “Well, if I’m terrible, they’ll just fire me.” [laughter] They’re not gonna waste time and money on that. I don’t even know how to explain some of the sensations. I mean I know it’s a great piece of work, wherever you see it, on film or in the theatre. This is like, everybody holds it as their own if they’ve seen Sweeney Todd in the theatre. And even if you just read the lyrics, it’s great work. So, you knew you’re gonna do something that’s gonna sustain you all the time, because the music’s so complex and the lyrics are so complex, and the world is so dark. So add that to the fact that it’s a great part for Johnny Depp and I to be working very much with him on one of the great songs of musical theatre and Tim Burton, I just thought, well, this—it’s a no-brainer, really. You just go do it and see what happens.
PF: Where do you find a character like this? I don’t know if you’re an actor that needs to find empathy in a character, or if you just ignore that aspect.
AR: You just don’t judge the character. So you just say, “Well, what’s up with him?” And he’s I mean, from the outside, clearly delusionary thinking. “Well, why doesn’t she love me?” So you just have to live that. You know? He absolutely cares about this girl. Now, I can’t look at it from the outside and say, “Yeah, but that’s—that’s kind of perverted and wrong.”
PF: What about finding the musical voice? How challenging was it for you to find the right musical tone?
AR: Well, I think one of the miracles of the film is you kind of forget that it’s a musical, because the speaking and the singing melt into each other. It’s not like, “And here’s a big number.” And also, when I had my one fairly nerve-wracking moment with Sondheim when—you know, I mean, that is challenging, when you’re alone in a room with a piano, a pianist, and then Stephen Sondheim walks across the room and says, “Okay, let’s hear it.”
PF: God. How did he react?
AR: He’s such a kind of knot of concentration, that this guy wrote the words and the music. He was fine. And he just said, “Yeah, that first bit, ‘You see here is a man infatuated with love’—just more conversational.” So that was the greatest note you could be given. And—and it helped. Because it meant—you know, you don’t have to—there’s not such a pressure to sing, and—and that it’s all got to be like somebody thinking and speaking.
PF: What surprised you about working with Tim?
AR: He’s quite vulnerable.
AR: To the whole situation, if you watch him. But he knows what he wants. But it’s an alive situation. You know, it’s not like a solid rock of certainty. I mean, he knows what he wants, but it’s alive. It’s like, an electric sort of—that’s what I mean by vulnerable. He’s human inside it all and nervous.
PF: Do you find yourself being as selective as you need to be at this point in the types of stuff that you want to do. Harry Potter notwithstanding, I guess.
AR: It’s a kind of collage. You know, because—here we are talking about Sweeney Todd, but in my head, I also know that I’m off to Sundance in January.
PF: What do you have at Sundance?
AR: A film called Bottle Shock, which I made in the summer which couldn’t be more different. And then there’s another movie coming out in March called Nobel Son, which couldn’t be more different. You know, they’re very funny and also not. So, you know, they don’t really have easy labels, these two movies. So it’s all part of a great big pudding that you throw different ingredients in. And it depends what you just threw in, as to what you think you’ll have next. Or what you’re offered, you know.
PF: When you started out did you expect to be where you are today when you first began as an actor? And are you surprised that you’ve sustained this profession for as long as you have, successfully?
AR: Well, it took me so long to decide to do it. You know, I didn’t start ‘til I was 25, and I had a whole other career. I figure that by the time I committed, then I was committing from my head to my feet and I’ve always championed the notion that you are an actor from your head to your foot. And so it means I hope I’m not just offering a personality. It’s also something that I, along with other people, work hard at. And so it’s a career.
PF: What was the turning point that made you commit?
AR: I think it was just a kind of, “Well, it’s now or never” moment in your life. You know. I think one hits these roadblocks or gates that you have to climb over or something. And you just think, “If I don’t do it now, I’m never gonna do it. How will I feel about that?”
PF: Why did you want to do it? Do you remember?
AR: Oh, you just answer a need. I think we all live in our head too much. And there’s the poor old neck-down bit that’s screaming for attention a lot of the time and you have to go, “What? Oh, you want to do that? Okay.” Then you—you put the two together. And when your head and your body are working together, then whether you’re a chef or a actor or a cabdriver, you’re doing the job you should do.
PF: If you’d acted earlier, before you were 25, do you think things would have been very different for you?
AR: Well, yeah, I’m sure, because I wouldn’t have made my mind up about a few things, and my looks would have been so unfashionable at the time that people would have been a bit confused as to what they were gonna do with me. You know, if I could move myself aged 20 to now, I’d probably be very successful as a 20-year-old. because it’s a different look. So, different personas work at different times.
PF: When you first signed on to do Harry Potter, did you decide that this was a means to an end, in some way? This is a way of cementing a reputation, so you could pick and choose? Or did you think, this would just be a lot of fun, and to hell with it?
AR: Well, no, you just throw your hat into the ring with something like that. I think—you know, it’s important that there are things for kids out there, that have some ambiguity and narrative. Telling stories. What a treat. And if we don’t offer children that as well. So, if you get offered it, it’s very hard to say no.
PF: Has Snape developed over the series of movies, do you think?
AR: Well, of course, Sweeney Todd people will kill me if I sit here talking about that because they have quite enough publicity. But I don’t know whether you’ve read the last book, so…
PF: Not yet.
AR: All right, okay.
PF: Do you read it as it came out?
AR: I have to. Because I need to know what the hell I’m doing.
PF: Without giving anything away, were you surprised by the book? By the last book?
PF: Relieved. Have you started filming this? You’re on the sixth one now, right?
AR: They are, I do that in—February.
PF: And it’s only a few weeks of your life, really, isn’t it? So does the fandom of that thing kind of overwhelm you at times?
AR: No. Because I think—you know, if you have, in a way, a—a very clear outline in those things, it’s like, you just move into it and out of it. And it is what it is, you know? It’s good to have a black wig.
PF: Are you surprised at the way these Potter kids have grown up in more ways than one?
AR: I just think they’ve been very lucky. What else can you say, you know? They’ve been very lucky. Not the kids, the people.
PF: What is the part you play in Bottle Shock?
AR: Well, it’s a true story about a 1976 blind wine tasting in Paris, organized by me, Steven Spurrier, I play, who’s still alive. At which an all-French jury judged the California wines better than the French wines.
PF: And did you meet with him?
AR: I didn’t. I spoke to him on the phone. It’s a weird situation, because there’s another movie being made about the same story, and we filmed first. And—all it meant, really, was that he’s tied to that movie. Fortunately for the two movies, America won both red and white wines. That movie will be about the red wine. We tell the story from the white wine. [laughter]
PF: And what’s the film you did after that?
AR: Before it, actually, but it’s coming out after it. It’s called Nobel Son, in which I play the winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Except my son, who loathes my guts, kidnaps me in order to ask for the two million pounds, or dollars or whatever it is, prize money as ransom. It’s a great movie.
PF: Do you know what you’re doing next, apart from Potter?
AR: Potter. And then I think I’m gonna be working with Lasse Hallström in the summer.
PF: That’s good, Burton and Hallström. You can’t really do better than that.
AR: Yeah. Tick. Tick.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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