The acting great talks about his role as Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 and the other Potter movies.
When you were first approached about the role, it's been said you were reluctant to take it on until you had a conversation with JK Rowling, and she said something to you that turned it for you? Can you tell us what that was?
Alan Rickman: I don't know that I'd ever been reluctant. It's just that you have to take small steps towards what this thing was that you were going to be part of. Certainly, I did say I needed to talk to her before I could get a handle on how to play it, and we did have a phone conversation. She certainly didn't tell me what the end of the story was going to be in any way at all, so I was having to buy the books along with everybody else to find out, 'And now what?' No, she gave me one little piece of information, which I always said I would never share with anybody and never have, and never will. It wasn't a plot point, or crucial in any tangible way, but it was crucial to me as a piece of information that made me travel down that road rather than that one or that one or that one.
Did you speak with her over the years and over the course of making the films about Snape's journey?
AR: No, not at all. I mean, I've seen her over the years on odd occasions, odd events, and she just has the most marvelous —certainly, from our point of view as actors— hands-off approach to it. She may have visited the set, but I've never seen her there. And I think that's very smart of her. She's obviously had some control over the scripts or she's been sent final drafts and made her comments, but I've never been aware of any kind of controlling presence. She's let it go.
Because the books were still being published as you were making the films and you were getting new information as each new book came out about where Snape would go, was there anything that deepened your understanding of the character or surprised you as you went along?
AR: I guess it doesn't really work like that because you just keep thinking, 'And now what?' And 'Okay, now he's doing this.' He receives such a solitary path from the beginning to the end and you're aware that until it all works its way through to a conclusion, you're never quite sure what the agendas are, so there's as big a question mark over my head as I'm reading it and playing it as there is over everybody else's, until it's resolved. You know that the stakes are always very high for him, whatever the outcome proves to be.
What has it been like playing an emotionally complex, ambiguous character over these years? Has it been satisfying? Daunting? Both?
AR: Well, it's always rewarding to play people who are complicated because that tests your acting machinery and places you right inside a great piece of storytelling because great storytelling needs ambiguous characters. It needs people where the audience and the readers don't quite know what they're about. So, there's a certain 'who-done-it' quality or 'who-thunk-it' or 'who-done-what-to-him.' And it helps you to be very concentrated. I respond to what there is on the page and what there was on the page was news to me every time we got to a new script.
How's it been to work with a young cast led by Dan, Rupert, Emma, who have been growing up as their characters have? Do you think that you've influenced their growth as actors and have they ever influenced you?
AR: You can't help but be influenced by such kind of, well, youth and vulnerability and guts and hard work — all of which all three of them have had in spades, I think, all the way from the beginning. It's all very well for me to talk about my seven weeks a year on each film. They're working pretty much every day. So, when you say a 10-year commitment for them, it really has been 10 years. The number of days they've had off would be far less than the number of days they've been on. And learning on the job about what does film acting mean, and what does it mean to talk to somebody else and sound like you mean it, and listen, and know that listening is as important as talking on film. I think the whole enterprise has been phenomenally lucky to have had those three. And to watch them grow, whether one could notice it or not, it's really with a sort of shock horror that you look now at the first film and you realize how tiny they were.
And just their curiosity about this brand new world that was opened up to them? And kind of the sponges that they became to learn it all?
AR: Yeah, but if we're just talking about Dan, Rupert, and Emma, they never lost who they were as individuals. They're very different from each other. That was always evident and has remained so. And as I'm sure that they would say, they lead pretty separate lives, but they have such a strong understanding of where they've been together that, in a way, it's a secret that they'll hold to themselves forever. It's not something that I would comment on. I think it's something very private.
And it's something that only the three of them can understand?
AR: Yeah, because they've had to, you know, on the one hand, commit to that level of hard work and then, as soon as a movie is released and — what has it been, eight times?— the sudden onslaught of publicity and flashbulbs that they also have to deal with and figure out how the one is in any way connected to the other, and somehow grow up at the same time into great, young human beings. That's miraculous.
You have some terrific scenes with Ralph Fiennes in this last film. Can you talk about working with Ralph?
AR: Ralph is a very good friend of mine, and, of course, somebody I respect hugely as an actor, not just on film but the way he also keeps going back to the stage and testing himself in huge and difficult roles. He never takes the easy path. It's just great to play a scene with somebody who has that much courage in his work, and rigor, and although I know him as a good friend, you are also just working with a fellow actor, so there is no quarter given. It's absolutely coming out of the red corner and the blue corner ready to spar, but in the best way.
And it was a good match?
AR: We enjoyed it, yeah.
Can you talk about the themes of the film, and how they resonate in the last film?
AR: The last film is about resolution and new beginnings. It's a springboard to the real future of these three young people and the lives they're going to lead. So, yeah, words like redemption and loyalty and what do you believe in and what are your values, they're all like great neon signs over their heads as they send their kids off to Hogwarts.
Can you talk about shooting in Leavesden Studios? You think of the amazing things that we see in these films, and Leavesden Studios itself was one of the most unglamorous places but did have this magic and this family inside of it that made amazing things happen. What was it like working there?
AR: It depended what the weather was like. It didn't have the best heating system in the world, but I was more fortunate than others with my costume, which was always pretty warm. So, on a practical level, as you say, it had its failings. But it certainly was home to us. I think what happened, really, was that over 10 years, we watched technology take up and run away with it so that at the beginning we were sometimes at Leavesden or sometimes on incredibly detailed sets on the back lot, or we were off on location somewhere. And, as time went on and CGI got better and better, we went on location less and less until the end almost not at all, because it could all be done by magic, appropriately enough. Someone waved a computerized wand, and Hogwarts and its world was just created around us.
What do you think of the legacy of these eight films, or the film series' place in the history of cinema? It has had a huge impact on British cinema, British filmmaking, but in general, what do you think the legacy will be?
AR: Well, I hope ultimately its legacy is to make people cherish the notion of telling a story and not trying to do it by committee; that it is possible to trust a true storyteller's imagination and then serve it as honorably as possible, and that you might just wind up with something that's entertaining on the one hand, makes a load of money on the other, and gives enormous silent and not so silent pleasure to children and grownups. It's just a validation of something that we need. It's a human need to be told stories, and I don't think it can be done by committee. I think it has to be one person's imagination. So, here's to Jo Rowling and all who may sail in her.