British actors often say that the easiest way to become a Hollywood movie star, is to be great at playing ‘the bad guy’. Its films and TV shows are full of characters threatening the American hero in a menacing English accent – and it’s been this way for over half a century. And if the anti-hero isn’t English, then they’ll still likely hire an English actor to play the foreign criminal mastermind who frightens the audience so.
This was precisely how Alan Rickman got his big Hollywood break. He brilliantly played the chilling German-born international terrorist Hans Gruber, in the first, best and most successful Die Hard movie. His career went from strength to strength – playing the arch villain, the dysfunctional Sheriff George of Nottingham in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and of course the chillingly brilliant, slithery Professor Severus Snape in all eight of the Harry Potter movies – a role that author J.K. Rowling claimed was created with him in mind.
His genius was that he could do ‘bad guys’ with such subtlety and humour – his characters were never two-dimensional or predictable. This great acting ability led him into all manner of other roles too over the course of his sixty-nine year long life. As with many of his British contemporaries, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) – one of the English speaking world’s finest acting schools – but unusually he was forty years old at the time. Prior to this, he had been a graphic designer.
Again, like most British actors, Rickman then went into theatre. He won awards in both London and New York, and found himself turning down offers of film work. His portrayal of the Vicomte de Valmont in the 1987 Broadway production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses won him a Tony Award nomination (the theatre equivalent of an ‘Oscar’) and much praise from New York critics. When he was overlooked for the same part in the film version, he accepted the role as the likeable but ruthless villain in Die Hard (1988).
He then won accolades galore for his role as cello-playing ghost in Anthony Minghella’s highly emotional television play Truly Madly Deeply (1990), and did Robin Hood. Many critics think he rescued an otherwise poor film; he certainly provided a lively and funny foil to the very deadpan Kevin Costner. Indeed he was great with comedy, possessing a real gift for delivery and timing. This we saw in the Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest (1999), and in the bitter-sweet Love Actually, opposite Emma Thompson (2003). Even during this period he was getting award nominations for his London theatre work, in Noël Coward’s Private Lives.
Warner Brothers wanted Tim Roth to play the role of Severus Snape in the first Harry Potter movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), but Rickman eventually got the part and made it his own through a further seven sequels. As it was never always clear whose side Snape was on, Rickman played the role as both villain and hero with his usual relish. He was actor with a multi-talent but with this character – thanks to a deeper understanding of what was expected by Rowling herself – he was able to explore it to its full potential.
In 1995, Alan Rickman was chosen by Empire Magazine as number 34 in a list of the ‘100 Sexiest Stars’. He also featured twice in Times Online’s ’50 Best Movie Villains’. He probably found the whole prospect highly amusing and somewhat surprising, as his range of acting ability far exceeded anything so trivial. Born in Acton, West London on the 21st February 1946 to working class parents, he had worked his way right up to Hollywood stardom, and built up a huge fan base on the way thanks to his intriguing character and obvious talent. Only the very finest actors have the ability to rescue middling movies from failure, or make good ones great – and Rickman was just this.
Before he tragically died on January 14th, 2016, he took part in a new film version of Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), playing the character of the Blue Caterpillar. Those familiar with Alan Rickman’s unique performance style, wonderfully weary expression and distinctive voice will recognise just how well suited he is to this – and it’s a fitting epitaph to a highly distinguished forty year acting career.