A look back at the life and work of Alan Rickman, one of Britain's best-loved actors, who died in January 2016. Narrated by Sylvia Syms.
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Once described as cinema's greatest silver tongued devil,
Alan Rickman was one of Britain's finest,
best loved and most versatile acting talents.
For theatre lovers, he was an actor whose commitment to the stage was
constant, even when Hollywood tried its hardest to tempt him away.
For film fans, he made ordinary roles extraordinary.
No more merciful beheadings...
And call off Christmas!
And he brought both quality and class to some of our most popular
and enduring movies.
And for fellow actors, well,
Alan may have been one of the great scene stealers,
but he was both mentor and friend to many.
And who could resist that voice!
I can tell you how to bottle fame,
brew glory and even put a stopper in death.
People are intimidated by Al because he is so extraordinary as an actor
and as a director as well, I can say that, and you do have that voice,
and people go, "Oh, that voice!"
I mean, everyone I know, certainly the women, go...
"Oh, that voice!"
But he isn't hard to read.
He's actually a bit of a big old softie, to be honest.
That interview took place when Alan was promoting A Little Chaos,
the period drama he directed and co-wrote.
It would be one of the last films Alan appeared in,
before his unexpected death at the age of 69 in January, 2016,
shocked the acting world and left fans bereft.
For an actor who grabbed your attention in every scene,
Alan Rickman certainly took his time getting onto the big screen.
For a decade he was a leading light at the Royal Shakespeare Company,
and a regular in television and radio dramas.
Film stardom only came when he was in his 40s.
After he played the villainous Valmont in a stage production of
Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
It was a hit in London, a sensation on Broadway, and in 1988, suddenly,
Hollywood was paying attention.
A big budget adventure starring opposite Bruce Willis
wasn't an obvious first film for a serious thespian.
But Die Hard would come to be considered one of cinema's greatest
action movies thanks, in no small part,
to Alan's extraordinary performance
as the terrorist leader, Hans Gruber.
I was bowled over by just watching
his... just the theatricality of how he played this role.
And I went back to LA, and I explained to
John McTiernan, who was working with me, and planning to do Die Hard,
how effective I thought Alan was.
Ladies and gentlemen...
Ladies and gentlemen...
..due to the Nakatomi Corporation's legacy of greed around the globe,
they are about to be taught a lesson in the real use of power.
You will be witnesses.
We were very, very lucky when we got Alan,
because it kind of set the stage for that kind of evolution of bad guy.
I read it, and I said, "What the hell is this?
"I'm not doing an action movie!"
Agents and people said, "Alan, you don't understand,
"this doesn't happen.
"You've only been in LA two days and you've been asked to do this film."
OK. I suppose ignorance was bliss in a way,
it reminds me of the discussions that went on,
which must have been out of me being stupid,
because I was being fitted for all this terrorist gear,
in the early days of the putting of the film together.
And I said,
"why would I be wearing this when I've got all these huge hulks
"who are going to do all the dirty work?"
I was just thinking, you know, if I was wearing a suit,
and not all of this terrorist gear, then maybe there could be a scene
where I put on an American accent,
and he thinks I'm one of the hostages.
How you doing?
Oh, please God,
no, you're one of them, aren't you? You're one of them!
No, no, don't kill me, please, no, don't kill me,
don't kill me, please, please, please!
Whoa, whoa, relax, relax, I'm not gonna hurt you,
I'm not gonna hurt you.
And I left this note on Joel Silver's table, saying,
"Please think about this, I think it might be interesting."
And then I went back to England. I kind of got the Joel Silver,
"Get the hell out of here, you'll wear what you're told."
OK, fine. Then I came back.
And they handed me the new script.
So, you know, it just pays to occasionally use
a little bit of theatre training when you're doing a movie,
what did he have for breakfast, where did he come from?
And, you know, I'm going to look ridiculous in those costumes.
I remember, towards the end of the shooting, they said, we do have,
we have this shot, they came to me sort of not looking me quite in the eyes,
we've got the shot at the end, you know, you've got to fall from
the top of the building.
And, um, you know, we could use a stand in but, of course, if we use the stand in,
we'd have to put it on the back of his head, going down that way.
I thought about it, I said, "I'll do it."
This is before the days of CGI.
Now, anybody'd do it, because you would be falling nowhere,
and they would blow your clothes in a computer.
That had to be done for real.
So, I said, "How do we do this?"
They said, "Well, OK, well, we'll train you..."
Which meant one afternoon, I think, of dropping from ten feet,
15 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet.
And so on.
I remember the guy who was doing it saying, "OK,
"what you've got to remember is..."
I had to pull my own cord to release me,
I had to remember to bring the gun up and get it in the frame,
and then he said, "As you're going down,
"make sure you spread your arms into a kind of star shape,
"because if you don't, you'll start turning,
"and you'll land on your head and kill yourself."
So it was sort of challenging...
We did it three times, at three o'clock in the morning,
it was the very last shot of mine in the film.
Just in case...
Oh, I hope that's not a hostage...
Bruce Willis later said that
Alan's character should never have been killed off,
and called him the best bad guy
he'd ever seen in his life.
The rest of Hollywood was smitten, too, and to his surprise,
Alan would find himself more enamoured with Los Angeles
than he ever expected to be.
You used to rail against having to go to Hollywood,
to make big movies.
Do you still do that?
Do you say, "It's awful that we all have to
"toddle off to Hollywood?"
Do you still wish these kinds of movies could be made by British...
We all say lots of stupid things that you wish you could...
Which we religiously dig into and bring up again years later.
I'd like to rub them out. But there they are,
you're hoist by your own petard all the time.
Well, I now have some experience of a town that I'm actually very fond of.
And it's filled with very close friends.
I mean, I don't... if I go there,
I have a kind of rule, which is, don't read the trades,
the trade magazines, and don't go to any many premieres and parties, and all of that,
so I work there and I live there and I see my friends and I travel.
There is an LA without premieres and parties?
Well, you've got to get on your bike a bit!
If you can find a bike, or in a car, or walk, yes, absolutely.
Fantastic countryside. And great people.
You said it was awful and is disgusting at the same time.
That's true, too.
Well, wonderful and disgusting, probably, at the same time.
Wonderful and disgusting could be used to describe two of Alan's roles
in two very different films,
that both came out in 1991
and highlighted his range and versatility.
was his portrayal of the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham,
in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
And wonderful came in Truly Madly Deeply, in which Alan was Jamie,
a ghost, and the recently deceased lover of Nina,
who was played by Juliet Stevenson.
The director was Anthony Minghella, who shared Alan's theatre background,
and whose style would later influence Alan's own directing work.
# Sun ain't gonna shine any more
# Moon ain't gonna rise in the skies
# The tears are always clouding your eyes
BOTH: # When you're without love
# Baby. #
Looking at it, I'm thinking,
"Well, you know, it's a good representation of what he could do,
"which was basically everything.
Make people cry, make people laugh, make people fall in love with him,
very sexy, delicious, surprising, challenging.
I mean, you kind of see.
He could do anything, and you kind of get some sense of his range, I think, in that film.
The great gift of making that film with him was a very clever bit of
casting by Anthony Minghella because we'd known each other a long time,
and I always thought of him, like many people,
as a sort of family member more than a friend, even.
So we had a lot of history and I think that played in quite well to the story of the film.
But he was an incredibly inventive person to work with.
I mean, very, very creative, thinking all the time
about the bigger picture.
He had his eye on everything, you know, what the camera was doing,
what the design was.
He thought, he thought very big and he had many,
many kinds of talent that could address themselves to all sorts of
different parts of the job.
So he had a lot to offer in every department, really.
He was more than an actor, he was an inspiration to pretty much everyone
on that crew, as I'm sure he was on every crew, really.
And that wasn't the only occasion when Anthony Minghella allowed the
skills of his two lead actors to determine the flow of a key scene.
There was a very difficult moment in that film
where she first sees Jamie, and...
..I remember him saying, there's no way we can rehearse this.
And so he just put enough cameras around the room,
and we didn't know what we were going to do, it was never rehearsed.
It was never blocked.
It was just down to...
..I'm there, I'm standing there, Juliet turns round,
then what happens happens.
SHE CRIES Jamie!
His role in Truly Madly Deeply earned Alan
a BAFTA nomination for that year's Best Lead Actor.
In the end he went home that night with a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor,
for his scene-stealing Sheriff of Nottingham.
A role he only took after being promised an unusual amount
of artistic freedom.
Here's a true story:
I had a habit of going and having lunch with a very great writer,
playwright, now dead, sadly, called Peter Barnes,
and I knew I was going to do Robin Hood and I said,
"Will you have a look at this script, because it's terrible."
And I need some good lines.
He said, "Well, you know,
"here, where it says,
"you're coming down the corridor and you're wiping
"the scar off of the statue.
"You should have a wench in a doorway and then you should say, 'You, my room, ten thirty',
"and then turn to the other wench, 'and you, ten forty five.'
So I'm going, "You, my room...
I'd also given the script to Ruby Wax, who's a great friend of mine.
And I'd said to her, "Will you read this script and come up with some lines?"
She came round to my house. I said, "Have you read the script?" "No, I didn't have time.
"Just say the lines to me."
So I said, "Well, today, Peter Barnes said,
"have a wench there, 'you, my room, ten thirty, you, ten forty-five.'
Immediately she said, 'and bring a friend.'
And bring a friend.
And when I presented this to Kevin Reynolds, he'd learned, by then,
not to tell the producers.
For whatever reason.
And not to tell the crew or anything.
And so he set this up for me to do it and I said, "Look,
"I'll say these lines, you put the women in there,
"I'll say the lines and then I'll just clear the frame at the end of the line."
Nobody knew this was happening except him.
And I knew it had worked because as I cleared the camera,
I saw about 80 members of the crew just go...
This hooded viper simply slithers into the forest.
You, my room, ten thirty, tonight.
You, ten forty-five.
And bring a friend.
And then occasionally Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio,
who was being sort of seriously Maid Marian,
she'd come over to do one of the scenes with us, and she'd say,
"I want to be in his film!"
Clearly Alan was an actor whose opinion and input were highly
valued by directors.
And further evidence of that could be found in this excerpt from a BBC
documentary, filmed on the set of the 1994 film Mesmer,
directed by Roger Spottiswoode.
It starred Alan as a charismatic Austrian hypnotist and this
behind-the-scenes study gives an insight into how he worked
and involved himself with the production.
The more films that one does,
the more you get a sense of how the camera can
reflect or contradict the story that you have going on in your head.
But then you've also got to set that against the way that a director's
vision is not necessarily yours,
and can take yours and reshape it and make it into something more interesting.
So that is why I don't go to rushes.
But that is also why
you know, like yesterday, I was saying,
"please don't put camera so low, because it means it's already got an attitude."
The feeling is wonderful.
And in this one it's nice, the hand, how it's coming out, and going...
What I enjoy is getting onto the set and seeing what happens on the day,
with the other actors and the director,
and myself, and not having predicted it too much.
Usually there isn't a rehearsal.
You have to use that as a plus and not a minus.
It is actually a minus, of course, because, truth be told,
people who say we can't afford to rehearse,
are actually wasting money because we'd all get there much quicker if
everybody had a sense of where they were going.
But having said that, there is...
you know, it's a bit like watercolours, or something,
you have to work fast, and it's a unique way of working.
I'm just trying to work out the various options that I have.
Amanda and I are kind of
the book ends of the scene, but what she has to do is entirely emotional.
And what I have to do is almost entirely technical.
Just seems like she could
keep talking, and I have to stop...
-You had to....?
And I'm saying now it's flowing straight and clear into...
And I shouldn't really be moving,
I should have just picked her up and got her there.
-And then you...
-And sat down.
I can't explain, I mean it's just the timing of lines.
Just the timing of the lines...
Makes that quality Alan's fans so adored, and it sounds so simple.
He was a master of nuance and when he spoke, you had to listen.
But what about when he sang?
Well, here he is, discussing that particular challenge,
which he encountered when cast with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter
in Tim Burton's 2007 version of
Stephen Sondheim's musical, Sweeney Todd.
Get on phone, ring up singing teacher, get on bus,
go see him and basically be abused...
..on a long-term basis, by the singing teacher, Mark Meylan who,
basically he works in large doses of deep sarcasm
to get you anywhere near something vaguely acceptable.
# You see, sir,
# A man infatuate with love Her ardent and eager slave
# So fetch the pomade and pumice stone
# And lend me a more seductive tone
# A sprinkling perhaps of French cologne
# But first, sir, I think
A shave. #
'It requires a bit of planning,
'which is like making sure that Johnny Depp records his first,
'because he's singing the tune and you're going to be singing sort of
'underneath it. So don't make the mistake of doing yours before you've
'heard what he's doing.'
# Revenge can't be taken in haste
# Make haste, and if we wed, you'll be commended, sir
# My lord. #
'Make sure that your singing teacher is there with you.
'Make sure that you get there 45 minutes before
'you're going to record so that he can
'boot you up to the notes that are otherwise unreachable.'
# Pretty women
# Stay within you
# Stay forever
# Breathing lightly. #
'Then it's recorded and that's that, and now it's lip-syncing.
'Which I suppose because one worked so hard,
'that by the time you're lip-syncing, it's so kind of glued to your brain,
'lip-syncing seems to be the least of your problems,
'because there is no way you're going to stretch a note or...
'It's difficult music.
'It's brilliant, brilliant music.
'But the match of music and lyrics is so complex and so...
# Times is 'ard. #
Stephen Sondheim himself loves it.
So take your purism and do what you want with it, because
there's not much more purist than Stephen Sondheim himself.
Sweeney Todd wasn't the only film experience that Alan had with Helena Bonham Carter.
Both played followers of the evil Lord Voldemort in the
Harry Potter series.
Alan's scheming Professor Severus Snape became one of the most important
in JK Rowling's epic story.
Here he is talking about being part of the Potter phenomena,
just before the opening of the very first film in 2001.
Whenever I was on the set and children were coming in and visiting,
the endless refrain was, "Wow, it's just like the book."
And I think that was certainly Chris Columbus's and the producer's aim,
to be faithful to JK Rowling's imagination.
And I think given the fact that at the end of the screening last night,
the entire cinema stood up and cheered, I guess they've done it.
That's their reaction, but what about yours?
Is it worth the hype, in your view?
Well, it's worth any amount of hype to get children to read again,
and in these kind of numbers.
And to have that kind of passion about sitting down in a corner turning
pages of a book, instead of, you know,
pressing on computer keys all the time and just playing PlayStations.
Did you buy into the fantasy?
Buy into it in what sense? I mean, I found...
I remember you saying once in order to be really good at something, you have to be wholly absorbed by it.
Well, when I read the book, I didn't stop turning the pages.
So yes. In that sense.
It's a great story of...
..in a long line of, a long tradition
of that kind of storytelling.
Are you amazed that it's going to set box office records?
Merchandising as well?
No, I'm not amazed.
It's caught the public imagination,
and, I mean, in a sense the hype is incidental.
The hype is hanging on to the coat-tails of something
sort of elemental.
It was a huge vote of confidence in this film, the Harry Potter film,
that it was an entire British cast, wasn't it?
Well, it was a measure of JK Rowling's power.
Because it wasn't going to be that way.
-She insisted on it.
How hard a fight was that?
I think if it's in her contract, she just...
She just dug her heels in, you know.
She's got a wonderful sense of when to say no.
Our new celebrity.
Tell me, what would I get if I added
powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?
You don't know? Well, let's try again.
Where, Mr Potter, would you look if I asked you to find me a bezoar?
-I don't know, sir.
-And what is the difference between monkswood and wolfbane?
I don't know, sir.
Clearly, fame isn't everything.
Is it, Mr Potter?
What does it say, the part?
What does it say about the point you've reached in your career?
Did it stretch you? Did you get a buzz out of it?
No, not hugely.
It's great fun to be part of something
that's going to be a kind of marker point, I suppose, in cinema history.
Whatever people make of the film
on, you know, on any critical level,
it's an event, like the Beatles.
So will it, as events sometimes do, open more doors, is that the idea?
Is that why you took the part?
No. I mean at this point in time, I kind of do what interests me.
And where I feel that I'm going...
You see, I think that my job is to be a storyteller.
And actors are very much part of a storytelling chain.
There's the piece of work.
And one side of it's the performer, and the other side of it's an audience.
..I should say, there's the piece of work.
The actor's in the middle, between the piece of work and the audience.
And it's my job to be as efficient a storyteller as possible.
It was a job he excelled at.
Telling stories both big and small.
But of course, he is rightly considered one of cinema's ultimate bad guys.
But as we've seen, he was much, much more than that.
Besides, Alan always insisted, "I don't play villains.
"I play very interesting people."
A rare talent. Alan Rickman is much missed.
Truly, madly, deeply.
A look back at the life and work of Alan Rickman, one of Britain's best-loved actors, who died in January 2016. We hear from the man himself, talking at different key stages of his career in several rarely seen interviews. The conversations, filled with insight and anecdotes, reveal how one of the leading lights of British theatre found movie stardom with Die Hard, and take us through all his favourite film roles, including his special part in the phenomenon that is the Harry Potter franchise.
Narrated by Sylvia Syms.