Leonard, the literary lion conducting private writing classes in Theresa Rebeck's new Seminar, is a man without a country — primarily because she never ascribed him one — but the role is played with a lofty imperialism only an English actor could muster by Alan Rickman, replete with a full arsenal of Rebeck zingers.
The actor whose Broadway appearances are rare and the character who has no specific nationality should not have connected, but — ah! — there's a backstory. Under the radar is a longstanding friendship going on between actor and author. "I've known him a while," says Rebeck. "He's a deeply generous human being. I could go on and on about what a great person he is. He has been very kind to me over the years. He reads my plays and talks to me about them or writes me really very cryptic and beautiful emails that are provoking your thoughts about things. We had been in discussion about this play in a very mysterious way. And I did ask him, at one point when he was here, 'Would you just read it to me?' I thought it would truly be a wonderful thing to hear him do it. And I was right."
A second reading, for backers, put the play on the fast track to Broadway, with Rickman leading the charge. Director Sam Gold hired a first-class class of wannabe novelists (Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Hettienne Park and Jerry O'Connell) to hear his words of wisdom and derision. It's now playing the Golden Theatre.
Welcome back to Broadway. It has been almost a decade.
Alan Rickman: I guess it has. But I was in New York last winter at BAM, performing there with Lindsay Duncan in John Gabriel Borkman, and I was directing at BAM the spring before that. That was Strindberg's Creditors. Did you enjoy doing that?
AR: I loved doing that. It was very special, to watch it move from the Donmar to, really, one of the most thrilling theatre spaces in the world — at BAM [at the Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn]. It was a joy for the actors [Owen Teale, Tom Burke and Anna Chancellor]. And it was a pleasure to say to Lindsay Duncan [for Borkman], "Yeah, but wait until we get to BAM." She'd never walked out on a stage like that before.
New Yorkers could get the impression that you and Lindsay are the English Tracy and Hepburn. She co-starred with you both times you were on Broadway — in 1987's Les Liaisons Dangereuses and 2002's Tony Award-winning Private Lives — and the two of you got Tony-nominated both times so you obviously play beautifully together. Do you work with her a lot?
AR: Well, no. With her, it was a ten-year gap before we did Borkman, so I wouldn't call it a lot, but it was great to kinda close that gap. She's busily working away back in England, and I'm over here.
|photo by Ros Kavanagh|
You don't seem to do a lot of contemporary roles.
AR: Well, I've played quite a lot of them on film, but, in terms of being on a big Broadway stage, it has only been twice: One was 18th century, and the other was the 1930s. But it's relaxing to just put on ordinary clothes.
One of those was a drama, the other a comedy. How would you characterize this play?
AR: Seminar is similar in a way. Give me any straight play — it should have a lot of laughs in it. I remember the laughs in Hamlet when I did that. There were plenty in that, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is, of course, incredibly funny. That house was rocking with laughter, even though, as you say, it was ultimately a drama. We, of course, walk out into this play, not knowing it's funny. It's dead serious to us, but Theresa's writing is terribly witty. Fingers crossed. All I know is the play makes me laugh, but it's tough, too — tough and funny and sexy. Those are three great words.
Have there been people in your life who mentored you that you consider teachers? I'm thinking about Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Ralph Richardson. You were their dressers, weren't you?
AR: I was, yeah, when I was in drama school. Well, I think anyone who's honest — and why wouldn't you be? — would say there are marker posts in your life which are absolutely to do with great teachers. I don't know how great a teacher Leonard is, but he's definitely passionate. I've had some absolutely crucial teachers at several points in my life.
This play is so word-led. Does that make you appreciate your character more, get you deeper into his psyche, because he is a man who loves words?
AR: I love words. I love language. I think one of the great things that theatre can do is celebrate language, and Theresa doesn't write a lazy line. You have to play right the way through a thought all the time, and some of them are very long — so it's not that kind of snap-happy [dialogue]. Although it's very crisp and very funny, you still gotta get hold of the whole thought all the time, and that means being really aware of the power of language.
|photo by Jeremy Daniel|
The last time I saw you was at a Roundabout opening. I'd just come from a screening of "Sweeney Todd," where I'd left you gushing a torrent of blood as Judge Turpin. I told you I didn't know you had that much blood in you, and you said, "It's called acting."
AR: Well, it wasn't called acting — it was called fake blood, being pumped by three guys off screen. It was in tubes. That movie was a privilege to make, but I associate it with the scariest sentence I've ever heard in my life. We were in a room. There was a piano, a pianist, me — and the door opened, and Stephen Sondheim walked in and said, "O.K., let's hear it." Your first musical?
AR: No, but the first one with such a kind of spotlight put on it, I suppose. I had to get some training. I had to work with a voice teacher. There were some notes in there that were not in my range so, thank God, a voice teacher was there to get me up there.
Did they have someone dub your voice sometimes, for certain notes? In the movie of Gypsy, Rosalind Russell got a lot of help from Lisa Kirk.
AR: No, no, I'm afraid that was all me in "Sweeney Todd."
It must be wonderful to go into a musical role like that and know "I can do that."
AR: Well, I didn't know. This career is an adventure as much as anything else. There's not anything planned about it — or it seems that way to me — so I had no expectation of suddenly being asked by Tim Burton. Whoever knew that Tim Burton was going to direct a film of Sweeney Todd?
You were in all eight of the "Harry Potter" films, and that's an epic arc you have to play as Prof. Severus Snape — from sinister to sensitive. Who'd have thunk it?
AR: Well, it's a great story, and I have a really complicated and interesting character. Of course, by the time I got to play the last scenes, I had spent ten years watching Daniel Radcliffe grow from 12 to 22. I only shot seven weeks a year, so every year I'd come back, and he had grown a bit, his voice had changed, and he was becoming more and more the young man and not a little boy. In many ways, No Acting Required. At the end, when I'm looking him in the eyes, I have that relationship to play out — in fiction and in reality.
Snape's a great double agent, although you don't get to see that side of him until late. That's as much as I can say, without spoiling anything for some little kid who reads this article and he's on Book Three. You don't want to spoil anything for anyone when they haven't got to the end yet. I trust it's not giving anything away if I congratulate you on Snape winning the MTV News' "Harry Potter" World Cup as the greatest character in J.K. Rowling's series.
AR: It was a big cup — it was too big to be able to take home — but it was incredibly gratifying to have the young people's approval like that.
|2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. - Harry Potter Publishing Rights|
Daniel is also your Oscar campaign manager. Did you know he's talking you up for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for your work in the final installment?
AR: Oh, is he? That's very nice. I gotta pay him.
Have you seen him in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying?
AR: I saw him in the first preview. Yeah, I was there cheering him on. He was brilliant.
I didn't know he could do all that musical comedy stuff.
AR: I think he can do almost anything. He's literally one of those people who, if he puts his mind to it, he'll do it. He put his mind to 'O.K., I have to dance' and became as good a dancer as anybody in the chorus. He was with them, completely. Fantastic!
I'm sure you've had more than three Broadway offers in your career.
AR: Yeah, but often you're not free. Having a commitment — even though it was seven weeks a year to "Harry Potter" — is a difficult thing to slide around, especially if you're doing other projects. I was doing Borkman in Dublin before it came to New York and directing the Creditors in England before it came here, so to commit to a potential six-month run in New York is quite hard. We were able to do it with Private Lives because I had just finished 'Harry Potter.' In fact, I was shooting a 'Harry Potter' while I was on stage in the West End with Private Lives. And then, when that finished, I knew I had six months off to come to New York to do it, but it's not easy to organize, that. Now I have finished with the 'Harry Potter' series, and here I am.
Are you doing mostly movies now or stage work in London these days?
AR: I have something to direct next year, I hope, which is a new film. I directed one before — "The Winter Guest" with Emma Thompson and her mother, Phyllida Law. And I just finished acting in a film called "Gambit," in London, with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz. That, I think, comes out next summer. It's a remake [of a Shirley MacLaine-Michael Caine-Herbert Lom thriller of 1966], but the script is by the Coen Brothers so, as you can imagine, "remake" doesn't really describe it. They weren't directing it, so I never saw them on the set. Michael Hoffman directed it. He did the movie that was out recently with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, "The Last Station." That was his. He did the movie of Midsummer Night's Dream with Kevin Kline. We had a really good time on it.
Do you like going from one medium to another?
AR: Yeah, it makes me feel really lucky. Again, it's an adventure…
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