…d I for them." They supported him, particularly his mum. "She was incredibly talented herself. She would have had a career as a singer herself - in another world, and given a different mother."

The point he is making is that talent is not enough. What is also needed, apart from dedication, are the conditions in which talent can flourish. His mother gave him something extraordinary from a parent to child - generosity. Talented herself, even if thwarted in her talent, she didn't begrudge him his. As a present for her 80th birthday, he arranged for her to go and see Phantom Of The Opera - it's what she wanted, a musical. Afterwards, there was a huge party that she entered "like the star she was. I've never seen anyone enter a room like that." She died, he tells me, last year. In the middle of the editing of his film The Winter Guest.

His work is his autobiography he says. "If people want to know who I am, it is all in the work." There was a time when he was overtly political, a staunch Labour Party supporter, and prepared to speak out. Less so now. "I find myself becoming less and less enamoured of public statement - I'd rather see it in action."

So if The Winter Guest is autobiographical, in the sense that he means above - not literally - what does it say about Rickman? It is Sharman Macdonald's play adapted for screen, he points out. It is her vision, her words. But clearly, something must have drawn him back to it after directing the play. He is not a man who easily repeats himself. There must have been something new, or something he missed, that he felt he could bring to it the second time around.

The story is a curious, multi-layered, poetic meditation on life and death, a kind of seven ages of man, viewed through the relationships of four couples: mother/daughter; boy/girl; two young schoolboys; two old ladies. There is no father figure - the father has just died - but more interesting than this, there is no mature male character. I ask Rickman what drew him to this material specifically. He is hesitant at first. Being a director, he says, is a job in which you harness other people's talents.

It was a surprising coalition of many different elements in his life, 'a chain'. The idea for the play arose from a story told to him by his friend Lindsay Duncan, whose mother was sick with Alzheimer's disease. "She found her one day in the garden, pruning roses in wellington boots and her wedding hat." Rickman put Duncan in touch with writer Sharman Macdonald. "Years passed, I was filming in America and the Almeida theatre asked if I would like to direct a play. Sharman had completed The Winter Guest and was waiting for an opportunity for me to direct it." In the role of the dying mother, Rickman cast Phyllida Law, Emma Thompson's mother. "What was extraordinary was that it was the first time for five years that Phyllida had been free. She had been nursing her own mother, who was dying." In a way, and if you believe in these things, he says, it was as if the play was waiting for her.

And maybe, he adds, it is to do with becoming successful. "In this world, in which people pass each other without contact, I like the idea of focusing on eight voices, isolated in a small town in a bitter winter. Maybe, as I move increasingly in a world of publicity launches and films and plane travel, I just find it reassuring." There is a point in the film for each couple where one holds out a hand to the other and is rejected. Then comes the moment where the hand is grasped. "And, yes, I like that," he says. "It seems to make some sense of why we are here."

I tell him that I find the end of the film, where the little boys walk out over the ice sheet, terribly depressing. I don't want them to die. "Then they don't die," he says. What is interesting about this is that in the original play it is unequivocal - the two boys walk off into the mist and they die. The film ending is much more ambiguous. It was he, Rickman says, who took that decision. "The play was too explicit, too melodramatic. I wanted the ending of the film to be optimistic. Even joyful."

"Of course," he says, resigned, "I identify with the boy in the film whose father has died." For that boy, what is happening is a sexual awakening - a whole realm of possibility, the rest of his life, is opening up to him. There is a wonderful moment when the young girl comes to his house to make love to him while his mother is out, and she deliberately turns around all the photos, the shrine to his father, as if to absolve the boy from any further guilt or grief. As Rickman says, this is a film about human possibility, one that acknowledges that we can't achieve the impossible - alter the past.

"As we get older," he says, "we are all waiting on the shore. It's the young who walk out into the world we have made for them. That's what I think the film is about. Its last line is 'Wait for me'."

This makes me wonder why he had never had children. It was not a choice, he says. "You should remember I am not the only one involved. There is another person here." He says he would have loved a family. "Sometimes I think that in an ideal world, three children, aged 12, ten and eight, would be dropped on us and we would be great parents for that family." But when I say that he could leave for a 20-year-old starlet, start a family ... "Er, no," he says. Never been tempted? "No."

I am just thinking what an incredibly sensible, level-headed man he is, when he suddenly veers off course. Recently, he tells me, "someone who knows about these things" informed him that all the problems and indecisions in his life stem from the fact that he is a Piscean. "I want to swim in both directions at once. Desire success, court failure." But even worse, he says, is the fact that he has no earth in his sign. "It's all air and water. Nothing to hold me down." I am still trying to work out if he is taking the piss when he says, "Luckily, there is some fire there. That must be from my mum - she was a Sagittarian." So he has a daft side, too.

It seems to him now, he says, that for the first time in his life, all his energies have come together, cohered, "so that whatever this career is that I have, it appears to be acquiring some shape." He is still chaotic, he says. "In the sense that I don't know what I'm going to be doing in the next half hour." But he is enjoying him, the filming, travelling. If success gives you anything, he says, it is the chance to do what you want. What he wants is to live till he is old. "And still be out there as an actor doing something somewhere at 70." But he has no ambitions to move to Hollywood. The things that he likes best are simple things: "Good friends, good food, good wine."

There are those who don't know Rickman and don't like him. And those who know him and adore him. This, a friend of his informs me, is because he is gracious, a real gentleman. "He will hate me for saying this, but he embodies all those old-fashioned Christian virtues." He is also immensely teasable. In the 12 years since Liaisons, he has gained a reputation for playing the sardonic, sexy villain - almost creating his own sub-genre in this role. But mention the word sex to him, and he looks instantly trapped. No, he says, he has never been remotely sexually voracious, whatever that is ... Then, lightening up, "but maybe I'll be sexually voracious next week." His next role, he tells me, is in a movie scripted by Kevin Smith, who wrote and directed Clerks and Chasing Amy. He plays an angel. "Do you know," he says, "angels have no genitals." For some reason, he finds this uproariously funny.

The Winter Guest opens January 9. 

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