”Los Angeles is not a town full of airheads,” insists Alan Rickman, his tone implying that this might be a contentious opinion. ”There’s a great deal of wonderful energy there. They say ‘yes’ to things; not like the endless ‘nos’ and ‘hrrumphs’ you get in England!” His face contorts into a cartoonish scowl, to illustrate a hrrumph. ”When I get off the plane in England I always feel about two inches shorter.”
Stretched out in a chair in a London rehearsal studio, the leonine actor certainly doesn’t look shorter. And, his unprompted defense of L.A. notwithstanding, he doesn’t seem displeased to be stuck in his native city for a while. Nor should he. This is the day of the British premiere of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in Nottingham, with fireworks at Nottingham Castle afterward. The morning newspapers abound with stories gleefully recounting the offscreen fireworks set off by Rickman’s scene-stealing performance as the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. While Kevin Costner’s rather wooden turn as the righteous Robin left critics and many moviegoers a bit underwhelmed, Rickman’s gleefully wicked villain became the summer’s most talked-about performance — and that was after the film’s producers trimmed some of Rickman’s best scenes.
But Rickman, who is in his early 40s, has not returned home to wallow in his hour as conquering movie star: He is here to rehearse a play, his first since his portrayal of the arch-seducer Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses propelled him to fame and film offers four years ago. Rickman will play the leading role in Kunio Shimizu’s Tango at the End of Winter, directed by Japan’s top theater director, Yukio Ninagawa. The production will debut at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival this month and later transfer to London’s West End.
Rickman’s decision to abandon Hollywood for the stage just as his film career is soaring has left his American friends baffled. ”Coming back to do a play at a Scottish festival must seem very perverse,” he admits in his rich baritone. ”Even I thought I was mad. A lot of the time I hate the theater,” he goes on. ”You think, I have to climb Mount Everest, again, tonight. Oh, the theater is a scary place to be.” But Rickman never really doubted his decision: ”There was just this inner voice in me saying, ‘It’s time to go onstage.’ There are particular muscles which go flabby if you don’t use them.”
Rickman’s new workout place is a huge film studio bearing the play’s elaborate set, a skeletal re-creation of a movie house. Tango takes place in an old cinema, where an actor — Rickman — returns to explore his past and his psyche, having lost the nerve to go onstage. ”That’s the thudding irony,” says Rickman, with masochistic delight.