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Shock Valuer

Alan Rickman discusses playing a wine expert in the film Bottle Shock, auditioning for Stephen Sondheim, and his many upcoming plans for stage and screen.

By New York City
Alan Rickman in Bottle Shock
Alan Rickman in Bottle Shock
No matter which Alan Rickman you prefer -- whether it's the seemingly evil Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard, the conflicted Judge Turpin in the film version of Sweeney Todd, the insidious Valmont of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (his New York Stage debut), or the posh sophisticate of Noel Coward's Private Lives -- the velvet-voiced actor has managed a long career of creating interesting roles. He does so again in the just-released film Bottle Shock, in which he plays real-life British wine expert Steven Spurrier, who helped California wines triumph over French wines in a world-famous blind tasting held in Paris in 1976.

While his character is portrayed as a real wine snob, Rickman says he's nothing of the sort. "I'm slightly wary of knowing too much about wine, you know? I mean, I'm very grateful to the people who make it, so my friends and I can sit round a table and go, 'oh this is delicious!' And that's the point of the film really, that you don't have to know anything about wine to enjoy it."

Trained first as a graphic artist, Rickman recalls how he became an actor. "When I was 18, it was would I go to art school or would I go to University? It was never would I go to drama school," he says. "Art school won out, but language and literature have always been important to me." He subsequently won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and began working extensively in contemporary plays at such theater companies as the Royal Court while also pursuing the classics at The Royal Shakespeare Company.

But for all his success both here and in London, gaining the role of Sweeney Todd's Judge Turpin was far from a foregone conclusion. "It was a kind of 'hiding to nothing' [a Britishism for 'nothing to lose, everything to gain'] situation," he says. "It's certainly a challenging moment when you're in a rehearsal room and the door opens and in walks Stephen Sondheim, who says, 'O.K., let's hear it.' I figured this could be the one and only time I get to sing this, but he was great. He just listened and said he liked it. But he also said, 'Just be more conversational with the opening,' and I thought, that's good, that means he doesn't mind it being kind of thrown away. That's an artist! Of course, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton were terrific to work with and I just knew I was in something really special."

For the moment, Rickman is happy to split his time between stage and screen, In September, he's directing the Donmar Warehouse's production of August Strindberg's The Creditors, which he describes as "a very very good new version by David Grieg." In the upcoming film thriller The Nobel Son -- which reunites him with Bottle Shock's husband and wife directing and writing team of Randall Miller and Jody Savin and co-stars Bill Pullman and Eliza Duskhu -- he stars as a Nobel Prize winner whose son is kidnapped.

And he's hoping for another foray behind the camera, as well. "It's called The House in Paris, adapted from a beautiful book by Elizabeth Bowen set in England in the 1930's," he says. "It will star Emily Mortimer; she's a lovely actress and it's a great part for her. We're just waiting to sort out my availability next year." And yes, he'd be happy to return to the New York stage once he's done with making the last Potter film next year. "I have to wait until my life is different," he says.

Looking back on his illustrious career, are there any roles that got away? "What's the point in living life in regret for what might have been," he remarks smiling broadly. "I'm sure there are things, but if I spend time thinking about them my glass would be half empty. I'm a very big fan of new writing, so I can only hope there are new writers out there with stuff just pouring out of them that I'm going to do in years to come."


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