Alan Rickman told the audience that he didn’t actually watch Die Hard last night at BAM, where he introduced one screening and sat for a Q&A for an avid audience of BAM boosters after another: though it’s on TV “93 times a night,” and as an inveterate channel-surfer he often comes across it, he doesn’t like to watch himself act, and assumes most other actors don’t, either (“Wrong… wrong… wrong…” is what all actors say to their past selves, he says). His loss—the slightly faded, slightly grainy, super-widescreen print looked textured and structurally resplendent, just like the movie.
Perhaps taking the guest of honor’s cue, then, the crowd’s questions zeroed in on Rickman’s stage work: many of the questions concerned his just-concluded appearance on the BAM stage, where he starred in John Gabriel Borkman, Ibsen’s late drama of capitalist megalomania. (The crowd at Die Hard skewed slightly middle-aged and older, as befitting a crowd of arts patrons, but with a pretty vocal contingent of Youngs—at least that’s who I’m assuming kept cheering for the cop played by the guy from Family Matters.)
Rickman’s low, from-the-back-of-the-throat voice—he sounds like he’s perpetually about to hock up a loogie, except that the loogie is made out of velvet—means that anything he says about the craft of acting is bound to seem like a truth handed down across the generations backstage at the Old Vic. The actor is to be an “obedient servant in the hands of someone called a writer”; the actor’s business, he purred is “ruthless, ruthless truth-telling”. He did, yes, use the word “instrument”; recounting his recent advice to a young aspiring actress: basically, that she forget about acting until she’s had a chance to work on her “imagination”: “read the news and find out what’s going on in Egypt; visit art galleries,” build up life experience, to make herself a wiser and more intuitive interpreter of scripts.
His gossipy fraternity-of-old-Shakespeareans story: on the set of one of the Harry Potter movies, during one of the interminable waits to shoot a scene, he asked Michael Gambon what he had done for lunch; Gambon replied, “I sat in my trailer and stared at the fridge.” “Staring at the Fridge,” Rickman ad-libbed (or seemed to), could be “the title of a book” about actors on movie sets, with the many, many parts moving very slowly around you.
That was in his response to the questioner who said, “We have to have at least one Harry Potter question”; taking note of his rather bubble-puncturing, logistically focused account (and his earlier, self-effacing but not entirely unprickly banter with a questioner about his movie-villain roles), the crowd asked him about Borkman, and a production of Strindberg’s Creditors, which he directed at BAM last year. He gave specific answers to technical questions: the difference between the Strindberg and Ibsen plays was the respective “particular” and “epic” scales of the concerns, which were reflected in the interpersonal and declamatory acting strategies; he understood the ironic emotional and political hindsight which led to the dire Borkman getting laughs (“It becomes a question of steerage,” the line readings following a laugh have to allow for humor while pulling the play back from comedy).
He also geeked out about the BAM stage, and recalled his long affiliation with the theater, first as an audience member at friend Martha Clarke’s human-animal dance events (ruefully recalling this review of the first show he saw at BAM). His admiration for BAM’s theater programming is evidently genuine: when we left the reception-for-ticketholders, he was still there, graciously gladhandling.