Alan Rickman isn’t a bad guy. He just often plays one.
Bad guys like Gruber in “Die Hard,” Marston in “Quigly Down Under” and the Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, Jamie Campbell Bowen, Jayne Wisener
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 21 Dec 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 25 Jan 2008 (General release); 2007)
And now the suave Brit with the silky voice is playing the evil Judge Turpin in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” In Tim Burton’s new musical, he unjustly sends a poor barber to an Australian penal colony so that he can rape the man’s wife.
“If you look through my credits, you’ll find more good guys than bad guys,” Rickman, 60, protested during a phone conversation from London. “I was good - saintly, even - in `Truly Madly Deeply.’ And I couldn’t possibly have been gooder than I was in `Snow Cake.’
“But in the end it’s all about interesting characters. You go after those roles whether the character is good, bad or indifferent. Any actor who judges his character is a fool - for every role you play you’ve got to absorb that character’s motives and justifications.”
Fair enough. But what about having to sing?
“Well, there’s always my brilliant vocals in the bathroom. And I was once in a play where I had to sing one verse of a song. But nothing like `Sweeney Todd,’ which is almost nonstop singing.
“I was sensible and got help. It was scary but in a good way.”
Rickman described himself as ecstatic about the finished film, a bloody tale of revenge, serial murder and cannibalism. He believes it not only honors Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical but also in some ways improves upon it.
“Somebody who saw it who is very into the music told me that it was the first time they’d ever really heard the score. In the theater the balance between the instruments and the vocalists is weighted toward the vocalists. Here you can really appreciate the brilliance of Sondheim’s melodies and instrumentation.
“Here’s how I know it’s brilliant: I had to sit and listen to myself singing for two days as part of the lip-syncing process, and the amazing thing was that I never tired of the music and the lyrics. I just kept thinking, ` ... that’s brilliant ... do you hear how that note has been put against this note? And the lyrics, the way the words play off each other ...
“I think I can be objective about it, and I’ll tell you right now that this is a great, great piece of work.”
If Stephen Sondheim asked him to appear in another screen version of one of his musicals, would Rickman take the chance again?
“Depends. I’d ask him to play the highest notes I’d have to sing. As long as I don’t need a stick up my rear end to hit them, fine.”
Another thing Rickman appreciated about making “Sweeney Todd” was the massive set built on a soundstage in England’s Pinewood Studios.
“The Fleet Street set was a monument to the craft and art of scene-painting on a level I haven’t seen before,” he said. “Tim Burton asked the designers to build the set so that you could have the camera turn 360 degrees inside Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop. So often they’ll just build the corner of the set in which you’re going to film, but this was a full environment.”
Some actors say that being surrounded by sets, costumes and props is essential to getting into their roles. Rickman agrees - sort of.
“All that is useful, certainly. But I’m not sure it matters what sort of backdrop is behind you when you’re directing your performance at a camera surrounded by 150 people in jeans and T-shirts. The hard part of movie acting is staying in character under those circumstances.”
Rickman got his start as a stage actor and said he’d like to return to the boards. The problem is that his movie career is so demanding he hasn’t had time for a play in nearly five years.
“Originally theater was my life. It was what I assumed I’d spend my working life doing - if I was lucky. Then along came movies.
“The playwright Peter Barnes said that theater is like working in oils, film is like water colors. One is slow and methodical, the other very quick.
“Making a film usually entails several weeks of pretty concentrated work. But it’s nothing like the theater, where if you’ve signed on for a six-month run you’d best be looking after your health. I love them both, but it’s hard to manage the two - film wants you tomorrow, the theater wants you to commit six months in advance.”
Rickman may work frequently but said he never takes it for granted.
“Mellow doesn’t describe me. I’m hungry every day.”