Alan Rickman On 'CBGB' And The Importance Of Listening

Oct 13, 2013
Originally published on October 13, 2013 3:12 pm

After several failed musical ventures and two bankruptcies, New Yorker Hilly Kristal decided to try something new. In 1973, he opened a bar in Lower Manhattan intended to showcase sounds not so indigenous to the urban landscape: country, bluegrass and blues. And so came the name for the dive bar CBGB.

Eventually bands flocked to the venue, but with a sound far from what Kristal had intended. The bar became a hub for the emerging punk rock scene. Bands from the Ramones to Blondie and the Talking Heads performed on its stage. For more than 30 years, Kristal gave unrehearsed, outlandish bands a space to grow and be discovered.

"[Kristal was] rigorous about saying to the groups that he never expected to be supporting, 'OK, you can come and play here, but only original music, no covers,' " actor Alan Rickman tells Arun Rath. Rickman plays Kristal in the new film CBGB. "That's a brave thing to say at that time. And that puts him in the forefront of being a kind of revolutionary.

"Music moved on because of him, because he allowed a marketplace to happen."

CBGB closed in 2006 and Kristal died almost a year later.

The London-born actor, perhaps best known for his role as Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, says he didn't know about CBGB before the film.

"When the club started in the '70s, of course, I was back in England, very much an art student or a drama student," Rickman says. "I didn't really come to New York for any length of time until the mid-80s."

To prepare for the role, Rickman immersed himself in watching Kristal on tapes and DVDs.

"It's an incredible luxury now to be able to, if you're playing somebody that recent in time, to have hours of him walk and talk," he says.

Rickman talks about the challenges of playing historical characters and how directing and acting in different platforms has shaped his career.


Interview Highlights

On playing historical characters

If you're playing somebody who has lived, the difference is that you become ultimately very protective of them ... because the most important thing that you should never do with someone you're playing is to judge them. And, obviously with someone like Reagan or Louis XIV — people have a lot of opinions and lots of books have been written. You have to have both feet firmly in both camps, if you see what I mean so that you don't judge the character.

On acting in film, television and on stage

I think that being lucky enough to have worked in film, with hindsight, actually helps you in the theater because it encourages you to know that to watch somebody thinking is interesting and also to watch somebody listening is interesting. So I think that's been quite a profound influence to me on stage as an actor and as a director.

And, I would say that if I have learned anything that boils down to one phrase it would be that acting is about accurate listening.

On editing films as an actor

It's thrilling and painful. I think it's certainly true that a film tells you what it wants to be at some point. You have a script, and then you shoot it, and some of it's planned and some of it's improvised. You have to kind of work around the weather and the budget and time and how long you're at a location or not. And then, a mysterious force called film tells you what to cut and what to keep.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. After several failed musical ventures and two bankruptcies, New Yorker Hilly Kristal had a vision and decided to try something new. In 1973, he opened a bar in Lower Manhattan intended to showcase sounds not so indigenous to the urban landscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CBGB")

ALAN RICKMAN: (as Hilly Kristal) Country and blues.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) In New York City.

RICKMAN: (as Hilly Kristal) This club's going to be different.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) Country and blues.

RICKMAN: (as Hilly Kristal) Country, bluegrass, blues.

RATH: Alan Rickman plays Hilly Kristal in the new film "CBGB." Eventually, bands flocked to the venue, but the artists the club attracted had a pretty different genre in mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CBGB")

RICKMAN: (as Hilly Kristal) What kind of music do you play?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: New music.

RATH: It became a hub for the emerging punk rock scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CBGB")

RICKMAN: (as Hilly Kristal) Television (unintelligible) orchestra...

RATH: For more than 30 years, Hilly Kristal gave unrehearsed, outlandish bands a space to grow and get discovered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CBGB")

RICKMAN: (as Hilly Kristal) Leather Secrets, Nanster(ph), The Dictators, Blondie...

RATH: CBGB closed in 2006 and Hilly Kristal died less than a year later. I asked London-born actor Alan Rickman, who recently wrapped his role as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, if he'd ever even heard of Hilly Kristal or CBGB before the film.

RICKMAN: Not at all, I'm afraid. You know, when the club started in the '70s, of course, I was back in England very much an art student or a drama student, didn't really come to New York for any length of time until the mid '80s.

RATH: Some of those bands must've got to you, though, in art college.

RICKMAN: Yeah, yeah.

RATH: Yeah?

RICKMAN: Talking Heads, definitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PSYCHO KILLER")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Psycho killer Qu'est Que C'est. Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better.

RICKMAN: But not so much the kind of more head-banging stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: So you heard some of the bands that were good musically and not so much maybe the ones that were three chords and not singing so great.

RICKMAN: Well, yeah, except that wasn't entirely, of course, what it was all about. And as Hilly Kristal says in the film and said in life, you know, these people have something to say, and we should listen. So it was also about an attitude and the lyrics and a certain kind of - what's it called - pushing the envelope.

RATH: So did you immerse yourself in the music to get an understanding of this character?

RICKMAN: I immersed myself more in watching him on tapes and DVDs. You know, it's an incredible luxury now to be able to - if you're playing somebody that recent in time - to have hours of watching him walk and talk.

RATH: It's always interesting to see New York City from that period recreated.

RICKMAN: Yeah, especially when it's shot in Savannah.

(LAUGHTER)

RICKMAN: We only actually shot three days on location in New York. So, yeah, we were actually having to look for period accurate bits and pieces.

RATH: Something rather remarkable about your career is that you've acted in pretty much every kind of performing context. I'm wondering, you know, how being able to straddle all of these different styles, how one might inform the other.

RICKMAN: I think that, you know, being lucky enough to have worked in film with hindsight actually helps you in the theater because it encourages you to know that to watch somebody thinking is interesting and also to watch somebody listening is interesting. So I think that's been quite a profound influence to me on stage as an actor and as a director. And I would say that if I have learned anything that boils down to one phrase, it would be that acting is about accurate listening.

RATH: Hum. You've been directing more lately. Can you talk about some of the projects you've been working on?

RICKMAN: Well, I'm in the middle of one at the moment because I've run away from the editing room in London from a film I directed earlier this year, which is called "A Little Chaos." It comes out next year, and it's with Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts and Stanley Tucci. And I'm forced to appear in it as well by the producers. It's an extraordinary original script about a woman landscape gardener at the court of Louis XIV.

RATH: You mentioned being in the edit room. And I've heard that a film is really made in the editing. And I'm wondering what it's like for you as an actor kind of slicing and dicing performances and how the acting informs the directing or maybe vice versa.

RICKMAN: Well, it's thrilling and painful. I think it's certainly true that a film tells you what it wants to be at some point. You have a script, and then you shoot it. And some of it's planned, some of it's improvised. You have to kind of work around the weather and the budget and time and how long you're at a location or not because the location is costing X amount of pounds, and so you have to get out of there in X amount of hours. And then a mysterious force called film starts to tell you what to cut and what to keep.

RATH: If you don't mind, there's kind of a geeky question I'd like to ask you because you performed - and this was a complete voice performance as one of my favorite characters in all of science fiction - Marvin the depressed robot...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Character) Marvin.

RATH: ...in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY")

RATH: And even though he's a robot, he's a deep character.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY")

RATH: I've loved every time that you've done comic roles. But actually, I'd love to see more.

RICKMAN: I love playing comedy. But having said that, I don't think there's any part around that might not get a laugh at some point, you know, even if it's just laughter recognition. I think humans should be part of the paint box at all times.

RATH: You've played some interesting historic characters now. Is there anyone that you would love to play, some role you'd like to inhabit?

RICKMAN: Well, I'm playing Louis XIV in "A Little Chaos," so I'm not sure where you go - there's no up from there, really. I don't really think about characters in history like that. If you're playing somebody who has lived, then the difference is you become ultimately very protective of them.

RATH: Hum. How do you mean?

RICKMAN: Well, because the most important thing you should never do with somebody you're playing is to judge them. And it - obviously, with somebody like Reagan or Louis XIV, people have a lot of opinions. And a lot of books have been written by different people with different opinions. You have to have both feet firmly in both camps, if you see what I mean, so you don't judge the character.

RATH: Hum. And that certainly comes across in Hilly Kristal. He just sort of is who he is.

RICKMAN: Yeah. It's what makes him kind of heroic, I think.

RATH: He's comfortable in his skin.

RICKMAN: Comfortable in his skin and rigorous about saying to the groups that he never expected to be supporting, OK, you can come and play here but only original music, no covers. That's a brave thing to say at that time. And that puts him in the forefront of being a kind of revolutionary.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RICKMAN: Music moved on because of him, because he allowed a marketplace to happen.

RATH: Alan Rickman plays Hilly Kristal in the new film "CBGB." Alan, thank you so much.

RICKMAN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.