Alan Rickman was in his 30s — and in England — when the punk and New Wave scene broke at the legendary downtown New York City club CBGB.
“I was very unaware of it, I’m afraid,” he says, with his patented dry drawl, where every word sounds like it’s working its way slowly through his mouth. “I was aware of the Sex Pistols. I wasn’t listening to it particularly. But you couldn’t actually avoid it. It was insisting on being heard.”
Regardless, he’s the star of “CBGB,” a biopic about the venue, in which the “Die Hard” and “Harry Potter” film stealer plays its owner, the also legendary Hilly Kristal.
“It’s all been an education to me,” he admits. Even before he shot the film, he wasn’t all that aware of the major acts — Television, the Ramones, Patti Smith — that first caught their break there. Even now he’s no major convert. “I’d be more on the Talking Heads side than the Dead Boys side,” he says, referring to the punk band that comes to dominate the film’s second half. “While we were shooting it, though, I could see the appeal.”
His ignorance, however, put him in an ideal position to play Kristal, who opened CBGB intending to book country, bluegrass and blues (those genres' initials form the venue's name). He slowly came around to other bands, soon becoming the first major benefactor to many of them.
He said he used the many books and documentaries on CBGB to prepare for Kristal, who died in 2007. “I observed somebody who seemed to have a very calm and strong inner life,” Rickman reveals. “He read a lot. There was a stillness about him, which to me was interesting given the amount of noise that was going on in the club.”
In the film, as in life, Kristal is the still, sometimes pissy center of a very loud storm. “The thing about him is he receives a lot of influences. He’s not pushing his energy out — he’s accepting energy from other people,” he says. “He was kind of a homing device to some fairly anguished experimental souls at the time. In footage you see him walking calmly through the club. It’s a strong still energy. It must have been reassuring, I’d think.
“There was a clarity to his thinking and a courage involved in encouraging all these young bands.”
He says it was odd shooting “CBGB” because at the time he was prepping for “The Butler,” in which he plays Ronald Reagan. “My head was a bit inhabited by Ronald Reagan. Bit strange,” he says, chuckling. He was also prepping his own directorial work, which also featured him playing Louis XIV. “I have no idea where those three people came from in the plan of things.”
He’s not crazy about directing himself. “You answer to nobody. You just basically hope for the best. You’re hoping there are enough cameras pointing in enough directions that you get away with something. And Louis XIV by definition doesn’t have to move very much. He stands there being Louis XIV.”
But he didn’t fire himself. “Some say the good thing about film is if you screw it up they’ll probably fire you after the first take anyway. You must be doing something right if you’ve still got the job on scene two.”