Remembering Alan Rickman, the voice of villainy

The Die Hard and Harry Potter star was an actor’s character actor

There’s a marvelous bit of Alan Rickman business in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are ignoring their classwork and whispering intensely about the upcoming Yule Ball. Alan Rickman, playing formidable professor Severus Snape, repeatedly smacks Ron on the back of the head, reminding him to get back to work. The conversation continues anyway. Mike Newell’s camera finds Rickman, who barely changes expression. Then he raises his chin slightly, and with two precise gestures, he pops back his cuffs to free his hands for another go at the heads of his disobedient young charges. The camera is only on him for a few seconds, but in that brief time, he neatly conveys incredulous disdain, exasperation, and the tiniest hint of smug relish. He’s pleased with himself even as he’s mildly revolted by the frustrating world around him. Rickman makes it hilarious, even though he doesn’t say a word.

"Am I interested, and is it truthful?"

Rickman, whose death from cancer at age 69 was confirmed by his family on Thursday, spent the most visible part of his career on roles that were essentially character-sized embodiments of this gesture. But as useful as his crisp, expressive body language and economy of expression were, his voice was his greatest weapon as a theater and film actor. It was a distinctive sardonic drawl, made for expressing disappointment, judgment, and a feline mixture of malice and pleasure. He was often cast as the big bad — "another in his long line of memorable creeps," a 2011 New York Times piece said of his latest Broadway role — and those roles often lingered longest and most gleefully in his fans’ memories. But he usually expressed a patient weariness when people pigeonholed his characters. "I don’t judge them," he told one fan in 2009, when asked whether he preferred good or evil roles. "I’m not looking for ‘Is it this or is it that?’ Just, ‘Am I interested, and is it truthful?’"

Harry Potter Image: Warner Bros

Warner Bros. Entertainment

That intellectual principle likely came from Rickman’s long history in the theater, as a director and actor who learned to analyze as much as perform. Rickman was a London native who grew up in a British council flat, with three siblings and, after age eight, when his father died, a single mother. Rickman first became interested in acting during his adolescent years, but — possibly motivated by early poverty — he began his working life as a graphic designer (and writer, and copy editor). At age 26, though, with the design collective he worked with floundering, he gave in to his "impractical" urges and entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, launching the stage career that remained his passion throughout his life.

Rickman was intensely private about his family life — he rarely spoke publicly about his longtime partner and eventual wife Rima Horton until 2015. He didn’t seem to enjoy publicity on many topics, really. A 1992 GQ profile listed his "agenda of no-go topics ranging from his family, his girlfriend, his talent for playing villains, any aspect of acting at all ("too, too hard to articulate") right down to the nether reaches of trivia ("my clothes — not an interesting subject of conversation"). The profile turned out well — but it noticeably went to sources outside Rickman for most of its information.

The one subject Rickman was most often willing to talk about was his passion for live theater, and he tolerated the same questions over and over if they gave him a chance to promote his latest passion project on the stage. He worked primarily as a stage actor for the first part of his career, performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and breaking into television in 1978 as Tybalt in a BBC production of Romeo & Juliet. Other BBC productions followed, intermittently: in 1982, he drew attention as Obadiah Slope, the slimy curate of the Anthony Trollope TV adaptation of The Barchester Chronicles. And his major breakthrough in theater came in 1987 when the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses he was starring in moved to Broadway. He earned a Tony nomination for his role as the Vicomte de Valmont. He also earned the notice of Die Hard producer Joel Silver and director John McTiernan.

He was 41, and had never acted in cinema, but he was offered the role of terrorist mastermind Hans Gruber in Die Hard within two days of arriving in Los Angeles to meet casting directors and producers. "I didn’t know anything about LA," he says. "I didn’t know anything about the film business." And so he nearly turned down the role on principle: "I read it and I said, ‘What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie…’" Agents convinced him otherwise, and Die Hard became his film debut and a memorable launch for a different type of career.

The remarkable thing about Rickman’s work on Die Hard isn’t that his film debut came so late in life, or that it so instantly launched him to stardom. It’s the way he walked in and made the role his own by treating the production like a stage role, where he expected input into his character’s costume, motivations, and behavior. He clashed with Silver and McTiernan, but repeatedly got what he asked for, and the film is better for it. Hans Gruber’s urbane detachment is largely Rickman’s invention. He wanted to wear a suit rather than the "terrorist gear" he was initially given because he felt the character didn’t need a costume when he had flunkies to do the dirty work. Gruber’s unforgettable first meeting with protagonist John McClane was rewritten when Rickman showed off his convincing American accent. According to that 1992 GQ interview, he temporarily shut down production by refusing to knock co-star Bonnie Bedelia to the ground as the script demanded. "My character was very civilized in a strange sort of way and just wouldn’t have behaved like that," he told the interviewer. "Nor would Bonnie’s character, a self-possessed career woman, have allowed him to. It was a stereotype — the woman as eternal victim — that they hadn’t even thought about. Basically, they wanted a reason for her shirt to burst open. We talked our way around it — her shirt still burst open, but at least she stayed upright."

After Die Hard’s success, Rickman worked steadily in Hollywood, racking up more of those roles he didn’t want to call "villains," but which looked an awful lot like villains to an outside eye. As the jaded, aggressive Sheriff Of Nottingham, he stole the screen from the more staid Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. In 2001, he first hit the screen as J.K. Rowling’s Severus Snape, the perpetually misjudged, yet deeply hateful potions professor who watches Harry Potter grow up over seven movies. In Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, he plays the vile Judge Turpin, who condemns an innocent man in order to isolate and rape his wife, then develops designs on the couple’s teenage daughter.

Looking over his film career, Rickman played more romantic heroes, or at least compromised protagonists, than outright monsters. But the monsters stand out, because of his indelible delivery: his cold, patrician face, ice-chip eyes, and that purring voice, reportedly affected by Rickman’s lack of full facial flexibility. (According to Maureen Paton’s Alan Rickman: The Unauthorised Biography, he was born with a "tight jaw, hence the slightly muffled drawl.") His signature sound could have been interpreted as a speech impediment: it gave him a delivery that often sounded like he was forcing his words out between his teeth.

But he put it to good use. Even his humorous roles — like Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the frustrated voice of God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, or the seething Shakespearean actor stuck in a silly alien role in Galaxy Quest — relied heavily on world-weariness and passive-aggression. Rickman rarely got to play roles without a hint of menace, or a sense of plaintive exhaustion toeing the line toward possible incandescent rage.

Occasionally, though, with films like Truly, Madly, Deeply or Ang Lee’s 1995 Jane Austen adaptation Sense And Sensibility, he was able to express his full versatility, and turn that broody menace into a warmer kind of passion. That unique charisma, that cool, haughty, languid role he played so well, adapted equally to roles meant to seduce the audience as it did to roles meant to repel them. The ambiguity he evoked in people — the appeal of a man who feels dangerous, and the distrust of even the kindest man who seems arrogant — had a great deal to do with his success. He projected complexity, even when he was playing characters without any on the page.

Part of the dignity he brought to his work came from his reserve offstage and offscreen, from the slight air of mystery that made him stand out in a TMI culture. But he was never dubious or mysterious about the stage. When asked what role he felt closest to in an interview with Empire last year, he said, "All of them. It’s me doing them. So what have I got to draw on, really?" To Rickman, acting and actors would always be conduits for the truth. "This is what I have to use," he continued, indicating his body. "Other people can pick up the violin or something. I’ve got this and it’s fallible."