Of all the curious pieces of casting in Randall Miller’s new punk-era biopic CBGB, this might be the strangest: distinguished British stage actor and Harry Potter star Alan Rickman playing the club’s crabby proprietor Hilly Kristal. Severus Snape hanging out with the Ramones and the Dead Boys? But while there’s plenty to question about the film — its historical accuracy and its largely one-dimensional portrayal of many of its key characters have already been the subject of some criticism — Rickman at least lends a measure of depth and interest to his portrayal of Kristal. He spoke to Flavorwire about the film, the era, and how to approach the depiction of living history.
Flavorwire: I guess you’re old enough to remember punk when it actually happened. Did you have any sort of personal connection to it?
Alan Rickman: I had no personal connections to it and wasn’t really aware. Apart from everything else, I was a student in London in the ‘70s, so “CBGB” would’ve been just letters in the alphabet to me.
What about the UK punk scene?
Oh, well it wouldn’t have been my thing particularly. I was certainly aware of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, but the nearest I would’ve been to it at that time, I would think, would be Talking Heads or Blondie. I wouldn’t have been on that side of the punk scene.
With that in mind, what was it that attracted you to playing Hilly Kristal?
I like the fact that he seems like the wrong man at the right time, in some weird way, but then, of course, he turns out to be the right man at the right time, because he didn’t judge, because he was very rigorous about the music that was played because he respected the lyrics — they had something to say — and the irony of the fact that he made this club to play country music and it never did.
How did you go about researching the role?
Well, fortunately, there’s a lot of material. I could actually watch him on film. I could listen to him, I could watch him walk, I could listen to him talking to his mother and his daughter and journalists, and there’s a lot of material available.
One thing I found interesting about the idea of a CBGB film is that you’re very much dealing with living history. Hilly’s dead, but most of the people involved in the scene are still alive. How did you go about trying to recreate a time that really wasn’t so long ago?
Well, I suppose you need to be sure that the designers are doing their job well so that the environment’s believable — you know, the phone books in the film are the real phone books from CBGB, and I think the cash register was the real one, and Lisa Kristal herself came to visit. We met her and I was able to talk to her. And I suppose there is a lot of reference. Certainly, one of the things I was concerned about was that you’ve got to make sure that nobody goes without a wig on anybody’s head. It’s going to have to look like the real thing.
So you obviously went for historical accuracy as much as possible.
Yeah, it’s important. It’s a recognizable time in terms of clothes and hair and everything.
I ask because I was thinking of the film in comparison to, say, Velvet Goldmine, which is not historically accurate at all, but tried to kind of recreate the feel of the time as much as anything.
Well, it’s always a problem in film: you’ve got an hour and a half to tell an exact story, and then a film has to create its own rules, so films like this are always going to be a happy experience for some and not for others. Some people will say, “Yeah, it was like that,” and others will say, “No, it was nothing like that.” I think you can’t win.
Have you heard much of the reaction to the film?
I’ve been so busy in England, and I haven’t even seen the film.
You haven’t seen it?
I know a few people who were connected to the scene here in New York and are still around, and I think if they’ve said one thing, it’s that your Hilly was a lot nicer than the real man.
A lot nicer?
I’m sure. That may well be true, but you don’t want the main character to just be shouting from the beginning of the film to the end. And they didn’t write that scene, that wasn’t there, that’s what I mean. It’s an error. If it had been a series, maybe you could have one episode where you see that side of him, and it’s not really a character study in that way.
You were obviously in Harry Potter and you could’ve done pretty much anything afterwards. How did you decide to become involved with this project?
Because I’ve done two films with Randy and Jody, and I really like working with them. They have a very free spirit as filmmakers, and it’s good to be reminded of the adventurous filmmaking. You really don’t know what’s gonna come out the other end, and they’re very collaborative. Every day is like making one of Hilly’s chilis: throw this in and see if it works.