Alan Rickman died this week at age 69, and while his role in “Harry Potter” sprang to mind for many, I remembered a different movie.
It was 2008’s “Bottle Shock,” an offbeat little film about the early days of the California wine business.
Rickman played Steven Spurrier, an English wine merchant who staged a now-legendary taste-off between French and California wines — that the Californians won!
I recalled “Bottle Shock” because I interviewed Rickman about it, when I was living in Los Angeles and doing celebrity journalism, writing profiles for the LA Times. I had been a longtime admirer of Rickman thanks to a great movie called “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” directed by the late Anthony Minghella before he achieved much larger fame with “The English Patient.”
Rickman was remarkable. You generally interview movie actors under two scenarios: at breakfast or lunch, usually at a restaurant of the actor’s choosing, sometimes at his or her home; or at media cattle calls in fancy hotels. The “Bottle Shock” interview took place at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, in a suite of rooms.
You could tell Rickman was holding his nose about the whole thing, remaining almost completely still, but he was gracious and he brightened up a bit when I told him that although I had been forbidden to ask any “Harry Potter” questions, his interview completed a hat trick of conversations with English “Harry Potter” actors in which questions about the series were off-limits.
The other two were Jim Broadbent (for “When Did You Last See Your Father?” also released in 2008) and David Thewlis, who in 2007 had published a novel, “The Late Hector Kipling.”
I can’t remember if Rickman really embraced the irony, but it at least elicited a wry chuckle.
There was a lot of class in Rickman’s disgust with the media junket, which unfortunately is by far the worst way to create a good profile of a thespian. Actors don’t like it because they feel like they’re answering the same questions over and over again, and journalists don’t like it because, well, they know they’re asking the same questions that have already been asked. But the process is grimly efficient. It gets everybody’s job done.
Rickman was one of those actors who brought something special to every film he did — you never got the sense that he was trying to merely get the job done. My usual trick when interviewing actors was to go out of my way to take them seriously — even if the movie or show wasn’t all that great, you had to respect their professionalism.
Rickman was the only case in which this didn’t work for me. Not to take anything away from the other actors, but it was clear with Rickman that he expected quite a bit more. And of course I walked out of the hotel with miles and miles of respect for the man, whose reputation, at that point already massive, only grew.
Though he was calmly though throughout the interview, when it came time to discuss his craft in detail, he was winning. In “Bottle Shock,” Spurrier is portrayed as being almost comically driven — a man with a ferocious plan. That presented a challenge for Rickman.
“Given that his objectives are so clear, I had to locate the moments when he discovers things,” Rickman told me. “I had to find out where his innocence is.”
It was a simple observation, but it said everything about how intensely important Rickman thought acting was, and how carefully he considered his own work.
As with many people I’ve interviewed over the years, I thought I might get a chance to talk to Rickman again some day. But that possibility is now gone for good, leaving me with the lasting and chastening lesson that when you get your time to talk to someone who is really, really good at what they do, the first thing you need to do is raise your game as far as possible.
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