The late Alan Rickman was already a BAFTA-winning actor by the time he starred in Love Actually — but apparently, one scene in the film did not require much acting at all. In a new Diane Sawyer Love Actually special (which premiered on ABC Nov. 29), Sawyer told the story of the moment that drove Rickman “insane” on set, and how his temporary vexation was caught on camera.
At one crucial point in the film, Rickman’s character, Harry, is at a department store with his wife, Karen (Emma Thompson), shopping for Christmas gifts. They split up and Harry heads for the jewelry counter. He’s not looking for a gift for his wife, but for another woman at work.
Rowan Atkinson, a longtime Richard Curtis collaborator, plays the clerk who prepares Harry’s sneaky gift. Though he promises to have it done in the “flashiest of flashes,” the actual process is anything but — complete with a gold ribbon, flower buds, lavender, cinnamon stick, and a sprig of holly, which ultimately proves to be too much for Harry. “No, no bloody holly,” he says, before turning away from the counter and running into his wife.
According to Curtis, the ridiculously prolonged wrapping process was a bit of improvisation from Atkinson. “Rowan was just taking his time,” he explained. “So, he would do 11-minute takes.” The Love Actually writer-director added that Atkinson would ask about different flourishes and ways to draw out the scene, much like his character. “[He’d say], ‘Let’s go back and do that. Let’s start again.’ And poor Alan was there all the time, going, ‘Grr, ugh.’” Sawyer also revealed that filming for the scene went past 3 a.m., so, a little angst is understandable.
Fortunately, Rickman’s frustration worked for the scene. Harry was a man in the midst of an affair desperately trying not to get caught, after all! And actually, Atkinson wasn’t just improvising to have fun at Rickman’s expense — he was acting based on an earlier version of the script, in which his character was an angel trying to stop Harry’s affair, according to script editor Emma Freud.
“Originally Rowan’s character over-wrapped the gift on purpose to stop Alan rickman being able to buy the necklace,” she wrote in a 2015 tweet. “Because he was an angel.”
Traces of that original premise can be seen later in the film, too, when Atkinson disrupts airport security so young Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) can make it to his crush before she boards her plane to America.