NEW YORK (AP) — The budding friendship between actor Alan Rickman and playwright Theresa Rebeck came to a screeching halt as soon as they started working together.
All pleasantries and tenderness were put aside when he was hired to star in her new play "Seminar," which makes its world premiere on Broadway this month. Both strong-willed, neither Rickman nor Rebeck wanted to have to tiptoe around hurt feelings.
"You hope the friendship survives the process but, unfortunately, once you're into the process of putting a play on — and a new play at that — I have to be as uncompromising as she is," says Rickman. "The animal in me takes over. You're as polite as possible, but it's not always possible."
The friendship, happily, did survive. Both sides say so. "It's an extraordinary privilege to work with him. I have never for one second lost my awareness of that," says Rebeck. "He's just a superb artist and I feel like I'm in a tennis game with somebody who is just raising my game."
The dark comedy, in which Rickman plays a berating novelist-turned-teacher, also stars Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O'Connell and Hettienne Park as his intimidated four writing students. During the course of the play, the instructor reveals he's just as insecure as his young students.
Rickman, 65, may admit to being uncompromising as an actor, but during an interview at the Golden Theatre he says he has nothing but respect for playwrights such as Rebeck, who create new dramas for him to "get my hands dirty."
"I have every sympathy for writers. It's a mystery to me what they do. I can edit. I can cross out and say, 'I'm not saying that' or, 'How about we move this to here? Wouldn't that make that bit of the story better?'" he says. "But where any of it comes from is beyond me. I will never write a play or a novel."
Best known as the potions professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film series, Rickman returns to Broadway for the first time since he appeared in Noel Coward's "Private Lives" in 2002, which he's happy to see being revived. He says he likes what he sees this time in a production that stars Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross. "It's a great play and other people should be doing it," Rickman says.
"I'm glad to see this time round what seems like a reasonable number of actual plays — fresh writing — and that people are actually going. I hope that's a sign of the times — that people actually want some fresh meat rather than just fodder."
Rickman was last in town in January playing the title role in Henrik Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and met Rebeck, who he has admired from plays such as "The Understudy" and "Mauritius." She saw his Borkman, and asked him to perform in a reading of her "Seminar."
"It became something else when spoken than it was on the page. Not better or worse. Just different. And certainly alive," he says. He was smitten and agreed to return to it after filming "Gambit" with Cameron Diaz and Colin Firth. "It's important to me for a theater-trained actor to go back. It's like your religion."
Rebeck acknowledges that working with Rickman isn't always the easiest thing, but says it has been rewarding. Asked to describe him, she has a hard time: "He can be prickly. And testy. But he's a really kind person. He's a prince, really. I mean, he's complicated. Look, he's got a lot of colors," she says, laughing. "There have been times when I've thought, 'I'd better stay away from rehearsal for a couple of days.'"
Rickman says he had no role in hiring the four young actors who appear with him and has never worked with them before, although he has a tie to Linklater, having worked with his mother on some voice work. He resists the notion that he's the leader.
"I'm on stage with four very powerful forces, which is great," he says.
This time around, the British actor has found an old friend in town — actually in the theater across the street: Daniel Radcliffe, who is making his musical theater debut in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Rickman says he was in the audience for the first preview. "I thought he was phenomenal then and then I went to see him again just before we opened," says the older man. "He's amazing. It looks like he's been doing it all his life. Generous. Honest. Watch out, because it's been his 'drama school' doing that musical in many ways."
Rickman himself is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Even after a memorable turn as Bruce Willis' nemesis — the psychopath Hans — in 1988's "Die Hard," Rickman returned to the stage, especially at productions at the Royal Court Theatre. His other film credits include "Love, Actually," ''Galaxy Quest" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves."
He's been on Broadway twice before and each time earned a Tony Award nomination — for "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" in 1987 and "Private Lives" almost a decade ago.
A Shakespearean actor who performed in "The Tempest," ''Love's Labour's Lost" and "Antony and Cleopatra," Rickman hasn't had time to see the new film "Anonymous" by Roland Emmerich that contends Shakespeare was a simpleton, a fraud and perhaps a murderer. Rickman is well aware of the debate the swirls over the Bard.
"The only thing I want whenever I hear this thing being argued is, 'Please, somebody invent a time machine.' I mean, I'd really like to go back and be in the audience of the Globe as they're all screaming and shouting, booing and hissing," he says. "But then also one would find out. I don't know. I'm just glad somebody wrote them."
Rickman is a big champion of writers and so looks unhappily on the reality TV trend. Telling stories, he argues, is a human need, not just pointing a camera at people and having them babble.
"We're dead as a species if we don't tell stories because then we don't know who we are," he says. "It was always thrilling to me to see a kid lost in the new Harry Potter book."