Alan Rickman is a nice guy. He laughs. He warmly and wittily responds to your questions. He is, in short, not sinister like some of his most famous characters. He will point out that, technically, he’s only played three villains, and one of them isn’t “Harry Potter”‘s Snape. And even those characters aren’t really villains. Rickman has had a diverse career, even playing nice romantic leads in “Truly Madly Deeply” and “Sense and Sensibility.” He also, occasionally, directs. The period drama “A Little Chaos” is the second film he’s helmed, and the first since 1997’s “The Winter Guest.” Kate Winslet plays a woman tasked with designing a garden at Versailles for Louis XIV. Rickman plays “The Sun King,” but it is only a small part. And though he’s friendlier in person than he is sometimes on screen, his signature voice — a mushy baritone, pouring out of his mouth like molasses — is very real.
The film takes a feminist angle on the past, and like many feminist films set in the past it exists as a comment on the present. What do you think it most has to say about our times?
Well, in the court of Louis XIV, women are born into the job of standing around looking pretty. And when they get too old or fat they’re out.
That’s very accurate for Hollywood, though theater is a very different story. A lot the greatest roles for women are in classic plays.
The greatest feminist roles were written by Ibsen. That’s how much things haven’t changed. One hundred years ago he’s writing the most modern female roles, for Hedda and Nora in “A Doll’s House.”
You haven’t directed a film since 1997’s “The Winter Guest,” though you’ve directed your share of theater since. How did you get back to thinking visually?
It never leaves me because it was shoved in there when I was in art school, to the great expense of the British taxpayer. It was five years of art school and three years of running a design group. And then it sat on the shelf for awhile, but it doesn’t leave you. I can look around a room and talk about a color or the relationship of an object to another object, or about how you would use a space. That’s drummed into you. Once I was free to direct this film, that was the part that attracted me. From the word go I could see a green hillside and a horse and a carriage and a tree. Then you develop the picture. It’s an abstract — a Rothko, if you were working in greens and horizontals. Then you lead the eye somewhere else.
Film is a medium so reliant on money. I imagine when you’re doing a period film with relatively little money…
[mimes a small amount of money with his thumb and forefinger]
…you have to learn to be resourceful.
I’ve learned as an actor less is more. I was very influenced by things like “Ridicule,” by Patrice Leconte, where very much less is more to tell a story about a period, that you don’t need to drown it. It seems to me you need to be quite picky about what you use — although this one had some lushness, because it’s Louis XIV and it’s Versailles. But we were shooting in England, so there was that. But there are, however, 17th century French interiors we nicked and put into English buildings. So that’s available to us. And then it’s about being selective and knowing from experience that limitations can be a good thing. People who’ve got everything available to them — that’s a bit like swimming in…s—. [Laughs] We weren’t. [Laughs] For example, Alice wrote a scene that had me as Louis making a speech to a courtroom of courtiers. I said, “We can’t shoot that; it’s too expensive. So how about rewriting the scene so it’s him practicing the same speech in front of his kids?” It’s a lot cheaper and I think a much better way of doing it.
Your acting style sometimes subscribes to the “less is more” approach.
Well, I don’t know. I seem to recall being given a prize for the Sheriff of Nottingham [in 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”], and I remember saying something like, “This will be a reminder that subtlety isn’t everything.” I’ve been pretty far out there on a few things. I think you can be quite bold on film. Similarly I’ve learned that I can be completely still on stage. Though standing still on stage doesn’t mean standing still; you’ve got to vibrate somehow. There’s got to be something happening. I’ve learned on stage you can stand there and as long as you are active with your thinking 800 people will watch.
You’ve worked with your share of great directors. What kinds of things did you borrow from them for how you handled all the jobs of directing a film?
I remember Anthony Minghella, on the first day of a film I did with him [1991’s “Truly Madly Deeply”], he gathered everybody together, it was his first film, and he said, “I have one word: Help.” And he meant it. I learned that the most encouraging thing you can hear from a director, when you’re brave enough to ask a question, is: I don’t know. That feels sort of OK, because now we’re going to find out. People carry maybe a cartoon image of them around, lie Tim Burton. You think he’ll be crazy and of course he’s the most focused and at times quiet person, walking around, playing the film in his head. Ang Lee takes a box and goes and sits in the middle of a field. I know what that feels like. There are moments when you’re staring into some middle distance and there’s a movie in your head.
Like many people, I first become acquainted with your work with one of your screen villains, in my case Hans Gruber in “Die Hard.” It’s kind of amazing that you weren’t pigeonholed in that and have played a diversity of roles.
That was just all the way back then and since then, I suppose, whatever is there on the CV is the rest. [Laughs] Which is not that.
Would you play a villain character again if there was a good script?
I understand the word “character,” and I understand the words “good script.” But I don’t understand that word. Because it doesn’t mean anything to me. Because the last thing you can do is put a label on it. Far as I’m concerned, Hans Gruber is very smart, incredibly polite, wants something, knows how to get it and unfortunately doesn’t succeed. [Laughs]
You know, I took a grad school class recently where we studied “Die Hard.”
It’s got a lot to answer for.