Alan Rickman talks to us, briefly and mellifluously

Before A Little Chaos, Alan Rickman hadn’t directed a film since 1997’s The Winter Guest. That’s fine. He’s been busy, mostly acting in other directors’ films. You may remember him from the entirety of the Harry Potter franchise, and also from several other actors’ impressions of him.

Directing again has allowed Rickman to cast himself as Louis XIV in a movie that hinges upon gently pressing dramatic questions, such as whether the Sun King will have a nice enough outdoor space on his grounds at Versailles, or whether its requisite classical order will tolerate “a little chaos,” in the form of Kate Winslet. Plus it has allowed him to field some quick phone calls, like ours this week.

With Die Hard and the Harry Potter films in particular, you’ve been involved in some era-defining movies. What have you observed during your career about how the practice and the business of movies has changed?

Just that it has changed, enormously. CGI became more sophisticated even while the Harry Potter series was going forward. The job for an actor is still the same: You’re always focusing on what are you saying and who are you talking to. You just don’t know what it’s going to look like. There’s all sorts of plusses with that, clearly. But it’s a new territory. Also, more and more people have a great big TV screen at home, and more and more studios think that you might not get a huge movie out unless it’s an action movie or a cartoon. The change is unstoppable, but it is much different when you can press the pause button or shout, “Get me a beer.” You worry that there won’t be enough times where 300 people sit down together in the dark. As a child I found that very important. I become a child at the cinema. Unless it stays possible to do ‘Once upon a time’ en masse, we’re lost.

It’s been a while since you directed a film.

I couldn’t get a clear year!

So, for your sophomore effort, was a romantic story about 17th-century landscape architecture a tough sell?

It’s certainly not easy. But I have been determined. There were 2,000 people watching it at the Toronto Film Festival, and you could hear a pin drop. I’m not taking credit for that. It’s a good script and a good cast. It’s a very slow-burn love story, with a man and a woman who have to find themselves, and hopefully people recognize themselves in it. If people go with an open heart and mind, it will come back to them.

A Little Chaos does critique the patriarchal society of its time. How far have we really come since then?

Well, look at my own business, the way that actresses are dumped fairly unceremoniously at a certain age, or need to fulfill various requirements to be allowed to lead a certain film…

Is there hope for improvement on that front?

Wow. I don’t know. I’m only an actor. I’m not running countries. But some pretty stupid people are. I think we can either choose to make art available for all, or not. And I know it’s always a balancing act between putting food on the table and being a poet. I think it’s good if people’s imaginative lives are cared for as their physical lives are. Good for all of us.

How do you approach the possibly daunting task of directing yourself?

You’ve got Orson Welles as a gold standard. So you know it can be done. But then, he was him. You don’t get many of those coming along. I’ve been directing a lot in the theater, and it’s the same activity — still telling a story and still encouraging actors. It’s a developing thing. I have been fortunate to work with some great directors, and they really are all different. And that’s encouraging, because it shows you that you can throw out the rulebook.

I will say that Ralph Fiennes said one thing to me. He said, “The only thing I’ll warn you about is the tendency not to give yourself enough takes because you’re embarrassed.” You lose vanity very quickly. You say, “You know what? The sunlight sucks, but that’s the only take we can use.” But to begin with, I have to have a relationship to a piece of writing. This was very well written, so it’s like there’s a cushion: The writing tells you what to do. And we had a lot of trust. You just say the lines and listen. This is true in acting and in many things: Who gives a shit what you’re saying? Just listen to the person you’re with.