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Rickman widens his comfort zone

December 25, 2007|Ron Dicker | Special to the Hartford Courant

LONDON -- Claridge's is a hotel for tourist swells, the famous, the importantly busy. The surrounding neighborhood near Grosvenor Square teems with embassies and old money.

Alan Rickman sits in a suite like he belongs. He reigns as one of England's most celebrated actors -- now appearing as Judge Turpin in the "Sweeney Todd" film musical, which opened Friday -- and he has grown into a children's icon for playing professor Severus Snape in the "Harry Potter" series.

No one will ask Rickman for his room key. Once upon a time, though, Claridge's -- in the parlance of Harry Potter -- was a hotel that shall not be named.

"I was a poor boy and the word Claridge's would be off-limits," says Rickman, a native of west London.

Not even a family visit for afternoon tea? "You stay in your patch pretty much," he says. "We'd have no reason to be here. You went where your friends were. You went where you can kick a tin round the streets. This is landed-gentry area."

Rickman, 61, concedes his horizons have expanded considerably. After forging a career notable for a small but zesty gang of baddies -- Hans Gruber in "Die Hard," the Sheriff of Nottingham in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and Valmont in the "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" play -- he got to sing and be sinister in "Sweeney Todd."

The issue, he insists, wasn't whether he could do it. "I think it was them having the confidence in me," he says of "Sweeney Todd" director Tim Burton and the producers. While Rickman performed in "Private Lives" onstage in New York, he was summoned uptown to sing a few notes in a tryout. He passed.

It would be easy to dismiss Judge Turpin as all bad. He banishes Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) to an Australian prison on a trumped-up charge and steals Todd's wife and daughter. That sets the stage for Todd's revenge-fueled return to 18th century London as a barber who slits the throats of customers and donates their flesh to the meat-pie maker downstairs, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter).

Rickman says Turpin feels pain for being romantically spurned by Sweeney's daughter, who has become the judge's ward. Whether Turpin deserves to feel pain is up to the audience.

"What's interesting about this film is, who's worst in it?" Rickman says. "It's not a beauty pageant of nice people."

Jayne Wisener, the young actress who portrays the object of Turpin's icky affection, says, "He's quite an intimidating person. I don't know whether he was staying in character or not." Said producer Richard D. Zanuck: "He brings with him devious mystery and naughtiness to the extreme. There's danger wherever he is."

In this recent interview, Rickman is friendly, dry as a Beefeater martini without vermouth. He has mussed gray hair and hazel eyes that blend nicely with his charcoal sports coat. He muses on his love of roller coasters -- "you lose all thought" -- and the fear of empty spots between acting jobs. "That's part of the thrill."

Class distinction played a part early on. He grew up in what is politely called a council estate in Acton. His father died when he was 8. He climbed a step above his family's station when he was admitted for free to a private arts school. He met his life partner, professor and politician Rima Horton, there 40 years ago and at the time thought graphic arts would be equally enduring. But poverty in his mid-20s convinced him that acting might serve him better. He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Posh surroundings like Claridge's became more inviting too. "As you get older your territory widens," he says. "And then probably contracts again as you go, 'OK, been there, done it; now I can get back to the places I'm really happy.' "

Many press encounters provide familiar territory as well. He could probably act them out in the shaving mirror. So you play villains? Check. And what about those villains? Double check.

Rickman said he counts maybe three or four of his characters who reside in the morally bankrupt darkness. His next movie, "Bottle Shock," about the birth of the Napa wine industry, is a departure. It will have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, featuring Rickman as an Englishman who hosts a wine-tasting in which the Californians defeat the French.

The actor relishes the recent dichotomy of his work: the evil of his on-screen reputation, the magic of Harry Potter, Cabernet.

"People have preconceptions about you now that they didn't back then," he says. "Now you have to try to play with people's preconceptions." Then there's the flip side of giving people -- especially young ones -- what they want.

"It's fun," he says of the Potter series, "although your eye line keeps shifting. Some years ago I was looking down at [Daniel] Radcliffe. . . . We're kind of looking each other in the eye now."

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