NPR Story
10:00 am
Tue November 29, 2011

Alan Rickman: From Severus Snape To 'Seminar'

Originally published on Wed November 30, 2011 9:16 am

Actor Alan Rickman has played a loving husband, a terrorist leader, a stern professor of the dark arts and even a caterpillar; from Sense and Sensibility to Die Hard to Harry Potter, his talents have made him recognizable to several generations of moviegoers.

Now, Rickman — a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company — is bringing that legacy back to the stage with Seminar, a new Broadway play about a literary celebrity who gives writing lessons to four aspiring young novelists.

Rickman tells NPR's Neal Conan about returning to the stage and playing the villain.


Interview Highlights

On the camaraderie of stage actors

"I'm very aware that when one is acting in the theater, you do become kind of animal about it. And you're reliant on instincts rather than tact a lot of the time. So the rehearsal room does become a bit of a marketplace, and new plays risk everybody's sensibilities. That's the whole point about them. But, you know, hopefully, ultimately, [Seminar playwright Theresa Rebeck is] happy because she knows we're all there because we respect her writing so much. ...

"Actors are actually very supportive of each other. ... In my experience, [writers are] quite nervous of each other, and probably quite rightly when it's such a solitary occupation. And, you know, months and years of work can be dashed by one bad review or a book that doesn't sell or something. Actors usually have each other."

On what makes New York special for stage actors

"I love working in New York theater. ... It is very demanding, but it's good to be in a city where you feel that theater is actually part of the life of the city. You know, London is so sprawling, and you can sometimes forget that anybody else is on a stage anywhere else. But here, it's, you know, your friends and neighbors."

On playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and other bad guys

"You can't ... say to yourself, 'I am playing a villain.' [The characters] don't think they are anymore than heroes think that they're heroes. They're just who they are and this is what they want. It's other people that put that label. So you can't judge the character you're playing ever.

"And I suppose all I can say is as time has gone on, I've been fortunate to do things like Sense and Sensibility and Truly Madly Deeply. [In] Love Actually, [Rickman's character, Harry] might have been naughty, but not exactly a villain. ...

"[Playing a villain is] a very small part of whatever I've done. It's like two or three parts, and they just happened to have big publicity budgets. But ... it's not the major area of my work."

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Some will forever associate Alan Rickman as a romantic lead in "Truly, Madly, Deeply."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY")

ALAN RICKMAN: (as Jamie) And when we kissed, which was about 11 o'clock the following morning, we were trembling so much we couldn't take off our clothes.

CONAN: Others will remember his diabolical villain in "Die Hard."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DIE HARD")

RICKMAN: (as Hans Gruber) I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative, not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way, so he won't be joining us for the rest of his life.

CONAN: But most will probably summon the image of the imperious Severus Snape, professor to Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN")

RICKMAN: (as Professor Severus Snape) That is the second time you have spoken out of turn, Miss Granger. Are you incapable of restraining yourself, or do you take pride in being an insufferable know-it-all?

CONAN: Now, Alan Rickman stars on Broadway as a burnout novelist who skewers the work of four younger writers in the new Broadway play "Seminar." More on that in a moment. But we'd like to hear from the actors in our audience who've also played bad guys from time to time. How much fun is it? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Alan Rickman joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us.

RICKMAN: Very nice to be here.

CONAN: And the first thing I should point out is that "Seminar" is a comedy where the only casualties are a few bruised egos.

RICKMAN: Yeah. Well, I guess, I'm just telling the story. It's either funny, bruised or other adjectives to...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICKMAN: ...the members of the audience.

CONAN: Is it nice to get laughs after starring as Severus Snape?

RICKMAN: Oh, he got laughs.

CONAN: He did get laughs...

RICKMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: ...but not as many you do in this play.

RICKMAN: Well, I suppose it depends which audience you're watching it with. But, no, Snape had his moments with comedy.

CONAN: He is going to be, I suppose, immortal. That's an odd word to use.

RICKMAN: Well, I think, probably thanks to Jo Rowling, they all are, all of those teachers. You know, there are kids now who weren't even born when we started the whole thing, and there they are, you know, age eight or something on book four. And so a whole, you know, the merry-go-round keeps going on.

CONAN: Why did you decide to do Broadway?

RICKMAN: Well, I love the play, and it was nine years ago that I was last on Broadway in "Private Lives." And I love working in New York theater.

CONAN: What is it, special, about New York theater? The demands are many.

RICKMAN: Yeah. It is very demanding, but it's good to be in a city where you feel that theater is actually part of the life of the city. You know, London is so sprawling, and you can sometimes forget that anybody else is on a stage anywhere else. But here, it's, you know, your friends and neighbors.

CONAN: Hmm. Do you have much time to see those friends and neighbors perform, though?

RICKMAN: Well, circumstance means I've got actually a night off tonight because Lily Rabe, who's brilliant and somehow is off filming in Los Angeles, so we have a night off tonight. We get punished by doing an extra show on Sunday. But it means I can go and see my friend Martha Clarke's opening tonight at the Joyce Theater, of "Angel Reapers," which is her - I saw a workshop of it early this year - remarkable piece of dance theater about the Shakers.

CONAN: The playwright of "Seminar," Theresa Rebeck, and you are - I gather - longtime friends. Does working together risk that relationship?

RICKMAN: I suppose it does, because when you're - I mean, fortunately, she's very strong and rigorous and patient...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICKMAN: ...which might be the most important word. But, you know, I'm very aware that when one is acting in the theater, you do become kind of animal about it. And you're reliant on instincts rather than tact a lot of the time. So the rehearsal room does become a bit of a marketplace, and new plays risk everybody's sensibilities. That's the whole point about them. But, you know, hopefully, ultimately, she's happy because she knows we're all there because we respect her writing so much.

CONAN: There's a line in the play that writers in their natural environment are much like feral cats. It sounds like you're saying much the same about actors.

RICKMAN: Actors are actually very supportive of each other. I think it might be more true of writers. You know, them - in my experience, they're quite nervous of each other, and probably quite rightly when it's such a solitary occupation. And, you know, months and years of work can be dashed by one bad review or a book that doesn't sell or something. Actors usually have each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Usually. There are always exceptions. What has been the most fun, so far, in this run?

RICKMAN: We're working, you know, it's a completely new experience for me doing a new play on Broadway. I'm working with a wonderful, wonderful young director called Sam Gold, and I'm on stage with four fantastic young actors. So, you know, I'm very much hanging on to their coattails and their images, if I'm truthful about it. And it's rewarding to think the theater is - the future of theater is in such good hands when there's such young people on stage with such talent.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Pat. Many years ago, I used Alan Rickman, as Hans Gruber from "Die Hard," as inspiration for my valedictory address during my high school graduation. I based it on his line, when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer. While I know that's a quote, I will always associate it with him. Combining that with his portrayal of Severus Snape, he is among my favorite actors. Hans Gruber, do you get many recollections of him as well?

RICKMAN: Well, it's a film that's lasted, that's for sure. I think maybe they've, you know, broke the mold when they made that film a bit because it was certainly before computer graphics, which certainly the "Harry Potter" series came to use widely. So, you know, those were days when at the end of the film, when I fell from the building, that was a real fall. It wasn't computer-generated.

CONAN: And in "Harry Potter" I assume much of the time you're in front of a blue screen.

RICKMAN: Not so much with Snape, actually, because he doesn't go anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: He just complained about the parts.

RICKMAN: He's just in those corridors and in those rooms, and the - that's Stuart Craig, the production designer's brilliance to make it completely real.

CONAN: Let's see if we got some actors on the line, people who've also played some bad guys from time to time. Well, we'll begin with you, Alan Rickman. Are bad guys more fun?

RICKMAN: No, not necessarily. And, in fact, you know, it's a - as I've said before, you know, I look down a different telescope because - well, at the other end of a telescope because it's a very small part of whatever I've done. It's like two or three parts, and they just happened to have big publicity budgets. But, you know, there are - it's not the major area of my work.

CONAN: Let's go to Marv(ph) and Marv is on the line with us from Portland. Marv, are you there?

MARY: Hello. It's Mary Mack(ph) here.

CONAN: Mary, I'm sorry. The computer cut off the bottom line of your Mary and I got a Marv. So I apologize.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: But you're on the air anyway. Go ahead.

MARY: Thank you so much. I'm a long-time voice actor. I've been on the business for about 30 years, and I've done a lot of animation. And in the context of working as an animated voice, I played a lot of villains.

CONAN: And are they more fun?

MARY: You know, they're really chewy, really dark and delicious. And because it's all vocal, you know, you really are playing with your instrument in a significantly different way than when you're playing heroes. I'm sort of known for both heroes and villains in terms of my work for Hanna-Barbera and Marvel and the like.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Can you - do we know your voice in character?

MARY: Well, you know, there's a whole generation of 30-year-old men now who know me as the voice of Lady Jaye on "G.I. Joe," and I was Lois Lane on "Super Friends." And millions of drivers knew me for about 15 years as the voice of OnStar, as the voice of the car itself.

CONAN: Wow.

MARY: But I wasn't very villainous as the voice.

CONAN: No, you're not supposed to be villainous on...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Alan Rickman, I - you've done voiceover work too.

RICKMAN: Yeah, not very much. But it's difficult, incredibly difficult.

CONAN: And I wonder, have you ever been asked to do one of those GPS voices?

RICKMAN: What's that?

CONAN: Where there GPS says, next turn - in 250 yards, turn right.

RICKMAN: No, and I'll be saying no to that request when it arrives.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Mary, what about you?

MARY: Well, you know, I - that's exactly the kind of thing that I did for OnStar and still do. It's the voice of speech recognition. That's the kind of work that is. I would certainly take direction from Mr. Rickman anytime though.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: OK. Mary, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

MARY: Thank you.

RICKMAN: Thanks.

CONAN: Email from Christine(ph) in Akron, Ohio. How did you film "Galaxy Quest" without busting up laughing? You've embodied Snape, but you were absolutely hysterical as Sir Alexander Dane.

RICKMAN: Well, the good thing about filming is that, you know, when you bust up laughing, they don't use that take.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICKMAN: So somewhere in the vaults of time are a lot of takes where all of us were having trouble.

CONAN: That is one of my favorite films.

RICKMAN: That's a great movie, a really terrific film.

CONAN: Here's another email. This one from Maureen(ph) in South Bend. Where did you learn to speak so the audience hangs on your every word? And also, tell us about working with Emma Thompson. Seeing both of you acting together on PBS last week was a real treat. Was that "The Song of Lunch"?

RICKMAN: "Song of Lunch" by Christopher Reid, yeah. It was done for - I think it was called National Poetry Year in England. And it is an existing poem, which Greg Wise had the bright idea of filming pretty much untouched. And, of course, I've worked with Emma, I think, five times now and I directed her once. And to do a piece like that and to - it was a high degree of concentration because we only, I think, 10 days to do it, not to mention the continuity on the wine and the food that was exciting everybody else's brain power. Well, it's a luxury because you're working with somebody with a - certainly, from my point of view anyway, there's complete trust and utter respect.

CONAN: When you say continuity, making sure the glasses and the food is all and exactly the same place.

RICKMAN: Yeah, because you know that 300 people will be immediately emailing or going online or whatever, complaining literally.

CONAN: Yeah, that's like making a grammatical error on the radio.

RICKMAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It happens to us too. We're talking with Alan Rickman, the actor. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we get another phone call. Let's go next to Louis(ph). Louis with us Ithaca in New York.

LOUIS: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Louis. You're on the air.

LOUIS: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Yeah. I just wanted to say that I'm an amateur actor, but my favorite character is from a modern film from the past, you know, 10 years or so are generally the villains. There's been a lot of great work done. People like Alan Rickman, you know, Daniel Day-Lewis. And, yeah, my introduction to acting was actually as a minor villain, as Jafar in "Aladdin" in eighth grade. So it's always been a lot of fun for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Did you play in school plays, Alan Rickman?

RICKMAN: Yeah. I went to school where drama was incredibly important part of our education. And somebody in my year actually did physics, maths and art when they were 18. We call it A levels, such as before you go to university. So there were no dividing lines about what we should do, and we had a terrific English department waking us up to all of that. So that's where any seeds certainly were sown.

CONAN: Louis, thanks very much for the call.

LOUIS: Thank you.

RICKMAN: Thanks.

CONAN: Email from Phaedra(ph) in San Antonio. I won't be able to listen to the show. I've got one of those pesky job things and they like me to work apparently. But I was excited to hear Mr. Rickman would be on the program. I've been a fan for decades. My parents and I watched "The Barchester Chronicles" on PBS when I was very young, and I loved it even though I didn't necessarily get all of it all the time. Mr. Rickman is, to my mind, the master of facial expression. He can communicate so much with a twist of the mouth or the flick of an eyebrow, loved him as Snape, loved him most as the Metatron in Kevin Smith's "Dogma." Please pass on my thanks for so many hours well-spent watching him be extraordinary.

RICKMAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Patty(ph). Patty with us from Elkhart, Indiana.

PATTY: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PATTY: Mr. Rickman, you're one of my favorite actors.

RICKMAN: Thank you.

PATTY: And I know my youngest daughter, Abigail(ph) loves you in "Harry Potter." She wants the 6-foot cut out of you for her room.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PATTY: However, my story is about my other daughter who was in a junior high play. She's a very tiny, petite, little girl, about 5'1" who played a over-the-top drill sergeant stomping and screaming across the stage. And as a parent, it was just so fun to watch her do something that was so out of character for what we saw in her everyday life.

RICKMAN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: A rare opportunity to use the word maggot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PATTY: Yeah. I don't think they actually had that word in there, but she was just over the top, and it was so much fun to watch her and see something so totally different than what we saw in her everyday life.

RICKMAN: Good for her.

CONAN: Patty, thanks very much.

PATTY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Among all of Alan Rickman's performances, writes Bob in Minneapolis, I will always love his Sheriff of Nottingham in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." Did he ever fear being typecast as a villain? And if so, what did he do to get passed that?

RICKMAN: Well, first thing one would say is if you're - you can't have a - say to yourself, I am playing a villain. They don't think they are anymore than heroes think that they're heroes. They're just who they are and this is what they want. It's other people that put that label. So you can't judge the character you're playing ever. And I suppose all I can say is as time has gone on, I've been fortunate to do things like "Sense and Sensibility," and "Truly, Madly, Deeply." "Love Actually," he might have been naughty, but not exactly a villain. "Snow Cake" is a very important film to me and Sigourney Weaver about adult autism, and I suppose - not I suppose - definitely, the work that I've done in the theater both as an actor and a director.

CONAN: And most recently, of course, "Seminar"...

RICKMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: ...which is currently running on Broadway. And we thank you for taking time on your day off to come in and speak with us. Good luck with those - good luck with the show.

RICKMAN: It was a great pleasure, and thank you very much.

CONAN: Alan Rickman, stars in "Seminar," which is currently running on Broadway. His new play opened last week.

Tomorrow, Ken Rudin is away, but guest Political Junkie Mara Liasson will join us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.