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He usually avoids the media, but his new film, Snow Cake, “is worth celebrating” so the versatile and charming Alan Rickman subjects himself (in the end happily) to this interview with Nick Roddick in London.

“I don’t see any discernible theme in my work,” says Alan Rickman, with what might be disdain but probably has more to do with his distinctive drawl - the product, apparently, of a childhood speech impediment. There is also that habit he has, both on screen and in real life, of twisting up the corner of his mouth before speaking, as though expelling a silent laugh.

"A moment of action is worth a ton of theory"

Always polite, often charming, Rickman clearly does not enjoy that Other Side of Acting which involves red carpets, sound bites and press junkets. In fact, I later discover, he’s ‘done’ hardly any press for Snow Cake, which had its world premiere in Berlin in February, was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival last month (June 2007) and opens in cinemas this week (August 2, 2007). But it does, he says, live up to at least one of his beliefs in life: Alex, the character he plays, stops analysing the situation he is in and does something to change it. “A moment of action is worth a ton of theory,” says Rickman, then gives one of those little grimaces before adding. “I think I once read that in a Christmas card somewhere.”

One thing you can certainly say about Rickman’s work is that it is all very good. Not exactly a theme, to be sure; and true, a lot of its has been on the stage, notably in the 2001 revival of Private Lives, which ran for five months and which he wryly describes as “an assault-course on your stamina”.

But there has been a lot of very good work in the movies, too: for those of us who endured an hour and a half of Kevin Costner as Robin Hood (not to mention three endlessly repeated minutes of Bryan Adams’ ‘Everything I Do’ for years afterwards), Rickman’s gleefully evil, gloriously camp Sheriff of Nottingham all but redeemed the experience.

He doesn’t, however, particularly like to be reminded of the role, since it comes under the heading of ‘Hollywood bad guy’. In every interview, they apparently ask him - as I have just done - whether he plays those roles to give him the financial freedom to do the more interesting work like Snow Cake.

“I only played that bad-guy role two times,” insists the actor, who won a BAFTA for Robin Hood, “but they keep coming back at me.” The first time, of course, was when he appeared as Hans Gruber, the leader of the armed terrorist gang who hijack Bruce Willis’s Christmas in the original Die Hard, finally being thrown out of the window but getting his foot firmly in the Hollywood door in the process. Then there was the Sheriff. And Rasputin in the TV miniseries. Come to think of it, he wasn’t exactly Mr Nice Guy in Love Actually, once more spoiling Christmas, this time for lovely Emma Thompson. And what about that Severus Snape..?

"about lonely people in a cold climate"

Snow Cake is a very different film: a UK-Canadian co-production about lonely people in a cold climate - but giving him, says Rickman, “a character I could live inside. It’s very rare for me to be sent a script, read it and say I’ll do it. It’s a film about relationships, so inevitably it’s going to be complex: otherwise, what’s the point of doing it? But it was also very camera-ready - more than any other screenplay I can remember. A big change happens to Alex in the course of the film, and there’s time in here to do it: it’s a very patient script, and it says an awful lot about how we set our moral compasses.”

Having just seen the finished film for the first time, he is pleased with the way director Marc Evans has moulded and trimmed the scripts and performances into something greater than the sum of its parts “There’s a film that you read and a film that you shoot.,” he insists. “Somewhere in between the film becomes itself. It tells you: ‘Cut this scene. Free me from this film’.”

Alex starts outs as a glum, grim-faced loner driving across the frozen wastes of Ontario in midwinter, nursing a secret that will not be revealed until the very end of the film. Fifteen minutes in, he finds himself thrust into a situation from which everyone is telling him to walk away. Perversely, however, he walks right into it.
As in Love Actually (albeit it in a totally different way), he is torn between two women: Sigourney Weaver, giving an (in all senses of the word) bravura performance as the autistic Linda, whose house and habits Alex unwittingly invades; and Maggie, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, who lives in the house behind and with whom he has a half-passionate, half-comic affair.

The screenplay for Snow Cake is by Angela Pell, wife of Steve Coogan’s writing partner, Henry Normal, whose previous writing has been mainly in the field of TV sketch comedy. Here, though, she certainly tackles a lot of serious subjects - loneliness, loss, bereavement and, above all, autism. “Angela and Henry have a nine-year-old autistic son,” says Rickman, when I ask him if he did any research into the condition, “so she certainly knows what she is writing about. But I play someone who knows nothing about it. So, no, I didn’t. I’ve only got my imagination. Sometimes, it’s interesting to give oneself a kind of blank landscape.”

Blank isn’t the word for Wawa, the small Northern Ontario town with a population of just over 4,000 plus a statue of a giant goose, where the film is set and was shot, and where the kids get to stay home from school every time the temperature dips below minus 10.

Rickman previously knew Canada “only in a nipping in and out sort of way”. And he didn’t have to experience the extreme cold. “It took a little while for everything to drop into place, and the start of the shoot was delayed until April, by which time all the snow had more or less disappeared - which was a bit alarming for the director. But the good, brave souls of Wawa got their wheelbarrows out and we managed to get enough to cover a block.”

"The director, Marc Evans, didn’t make two horror movies for nothing"

Exactly how Alex ends up in Wawa, tottering across its snow-covered terrain in decidedly unsuitable shoes, I am reluctant to reveal, since it would spoil one of the most truly shocking moments I can remember in any film. I’d read the synopsis, so I knew it was coming and kept my eyes half-covered in case. Even so, it caught me totally by surprise and jolted me out of my seat. The director, Marc Evans, didn’t make two horror movies for nothing.

Despite the star-power, Snow Cake is a small film - a film that invites you to take it on its own terms. Once you do so, it draws you deeper and deeper in. And Rickman is, for once, ready to lend his presence to its launch. “This is something worth celebrating,” he says of the film, “so bring out the red carpets and the champagne and …” - a mock baleful glare in my direction - “the interviews, if it helps.”
It is the kind of thing he does as little as possible. A 1996 biography by former Daily Express theatre critic Maureen Paton, which is almost hagiographical in tone, was nonetheless written without any access to - or direct quotes from - Rickman himself, relying on clippings and ‘close friends’. And his private life - he met his partner at the college in 1965; they have been together ever since - remains off-limits, even if this has earned him the reputation of being awkward.

But beware drawing any conclusions about Rickman, the private individual, from the roles he plays on screen - like Eamonn de Valera in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, a man whose passion is contained beneath the steely outward appearance of repressed Catholic nationalism.

“You strike me as a rather private person,” I say at one stage. To my surprise Rickman laughs. “I don’t think my friends would say I am a private person,” he says, “but then they’re not sitting there in front of me with a tape recorder, are they?”

Published August 2, 2007

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Alan Rickman

SNOW CAKE, dir. Marc Evans
Australian release: July 18, 2007

Alex (Alan Rickman) is driving to Winnipeg for a special reunion when he begrudgingly accepts feisty young Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), as a hitching passenger on her way to her mum’s house. She tries to pierce his self-protective silence, but just as she is starting to make headway, a truck smashes into their car and Vivienne is killed. Guilt-ridden and wishing to offer his condolences and apologies, Alex seeks out Vivienne’s mother, Linda (Sigourney Weaver), but is taken aback to discover she is autistic. Her calm reaction to her daughter’s death is not what Alex expected; nor does he expect any of what follows. Linda persuades Alex to stay until after the funeral and during the few days he has, he has a liberating affair with Linda’s neighbour, Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a passionate woman who discovers the demons that haunt Alex.

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