Authors: Maureen Paton
Alan Rickman is an enigma. Widely known for his portrayal of Professor Severus Snape in the hit Harry Potter films. Rickman is also one of Britain's greatest stage actors, embracing everything from Shakespeare, Chekhov and Noel Coward, to directing Ruby Wax on stage. He has also appeared on television in shows as varied as Rasputin, The Barchester Chronicles and Victoria Wood with all the Trimmings, though global fame came with his move on to the big screen. His first part as terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard and he has gone on to star in such diverse movies as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sense and Sensibilty, Dogma and Galaxy Quest. He has shown his versatility as the villain, the comic actor and the romantic lead and, while his award-winning performances have made him a leading man directors call, his air of mystery, his smouldering good looks and his unique voice have made him an international sex symbol.
Yet behind all this glamour lies the west London working-class socialist with strong political principles. Hollywood is the dream factory, yet Rickman's heart is often within the theatre. His reputation suggests a man difficult to work with, so is he similar to the characters he plays? Or is that the mark of this great actor â that he is nothing like them?
In this revised and updated biography, Maureen Paton encompasses the private, professional and political life of this most enigmatic, charismatic and intensely private of actors.
CALL HIM A
luvvie at your peril. According to one of his oldest female friends, he's the epitome of passive aggression. The passive-aggressive syndrome in psychology sounds impressive, but needs to be demystified. It used to be known as âsilent insubordination' in the Army: in other words, good old-fashioned bloody-mindedness. This syndrome says everything about the stubborn temperament of the internationally renowned British actor Alan Rickman. You can see just how this tall and scornful perfectionist, the nonpareil of nit-pickers, came to embody a formidable intelligence and reined-in power. He could never play a weakling.
At just over 6ft 1in and big-boned with it, he has the haughty bearing of a natural aristocrat. All his showiest roles point to a sense of innate superiority, from the terrorist Hans Gruber in
and the Sheriff of Nottingham in
Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves
to the megalomaniacal Rasputin in the film of the same name and the disdainful Professor Severus Snape, scourge of the schoolboy wizard, in the
films. It's a look that says he's a member of the theatrical master-race.
Which is a problem, since he's also a member of the Labour Party. Paradoxically, this enigmatic actor is a painter and decorator's son from working-class Irish and Welsh stock who was raised on a west London council estate. Given his high-profile support of socialism, he's oddly private about his humble background and doesn't do the cloth-cap-and-clogs routine. He has a rarity value, since he gives little away about himself. Alan Rickman, as all his many friends in the business testify, has a horror of anything that smacks of self-promotion. He backs shyly into the limelight. At the same time that he simultaneously opened in
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
and in the West End with an acclaimed revival of NoÃ«l Coward's
, Alan Rickman's sepulchral rasp could also be heard as the Genie of the Lamp for the Christmas pantomime
in one of the poorest boroughs in London. He recorded the performance for free on the condition that there was a publicity black-out.
Rickman has a strange aura around him that is extremely successful. However, he's also known to be socialistic and has
avoided the honours trap. So he trails this remarkable integrity by being very Jesuitical about publicity; yet on the other hand he's a famous actor.
Indeed, on screen and stage, he can project everyone's idea of seigneurial decadence; an impression that gained hold when he played the first and best incarnation of the vicious Vicomte de Valmont in the acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company production of
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
. Yet Alan Rickman longs to be thought of as a true man of the people. Inevitably, there is a conflict between his past and his present that he has never quite resolved.
Those narrow Grand Vizier eyes, the colour of pale amber, seem to look down his long nose. There is something of the Marquis de Sade in his anachronistic appeal to women as an arrogant, feline fop. His sudden gestures can be transfixing: Rickman has the most extraordinary way of laughing quietly with a sort of silent snicker, a grimace that contorts his face.
His personality is piquantly flavoured sweet-and-sour, Chinese style. The two phrases that crop up most about him are: âHe doesn't suffer fools gladly' and âHe's a guru.' They are by no means mutually exclusive; one has the feeling that, for many admiring acolytes, the rigorously principled Rickman has the elevated status of a jealous god who is just as likely to smite the sinful with a plague of boils as to reward the godly with his gracious approbation. They look up to him even though Rickman himself has admitted that his main vice is âa wounding tongue. I'm working on it; perhaps it's the Celt in me.'
In a notoriously insecure industry, he is regularly paged for advice as if he were a Delphic oracle. âHe likes to be everyone's guru,' says the playwright Stephen Poliakoff. Rickman keenly feels the powerlessness of the actor's passive role, which is why he's a great organiser of support networks for fellow thespians. He espouses causes. In his heart, he's Don Quixote; in his head, he's Sancho Panza.
Yet he has his own raging insecurities, which may account for the public sulks when he can seem a spectacular misery-guts. There is the recurring stage fright that affects this most theatrical of animals: âI get gremlins in my head, saying, “You're going to forget your lines”,' he told
magazine in 1994. Film was a liberation in more ways than one. In June 2002, after a triumphant Broadway opening with an acclaimed, award-winning
London revival of NoÃ«l Coward's
that reunited the
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
team of Rickman, Lindsay Duncan and director Howard Davies, Rickman told the US TV interviewer Charlie Rose: âI think I'm better at the stage work because of film work. The trouble in the theatre is that there's this huge fear. It's something that I guess is connected to adrenaline and focus and energy, but it's a useless thing â like some gremlin that sits on your shoulder and tries to make you fail. And often succeeds. At least on film if you screw up, you know there's another take. And it [the fear] doesn't get any better. I'm seriously thinking of trying to find some kind of hypnosis that will get rid of it.'
Sometimes there's a sense of simmering resentment underneath his surface calm; if he's the proverbial cold fish (given that there's no such thing as a warm fish), he is one that swims in hidden depths.
Occasionally, a bitterness breaks surface: âSome actors have opportunities and shapes given to them,' he once said to John Lahr in
, January 1993. âNot me. I've had to guide my career and seize any opportunity that came my way.' He made his first film,
, at the late age of 42 because he came cheap.
One publicist remembers with a shudder how rude Rickman was to her when he was still unknown. Perhaps it was simply her proximity to the Press, because he detests the snap judgements and pigeon-holing tendencies of the Fourth Estate. Yet scores of actors and writers testify to his warmth and kindness, even if he's not nearly so supportive of directors as a breed. âAll his roles have attitude,' as one former associate, the theatre director Jules Wright, puts it. âDirectors fear to take him on.'
âAlan has a lot of attitudeÂ .Â .Â .Â which is another aspect of control,' says his playwright friend Stephen Davis. âI get the impression it's a bit arbitrary. He does have this awesome side to his character. Alan Rickman is the only person I know who will make me nervous about what I'll say next. He won't let you be self-pitying or gratuitous.'
In Hollywood, he has achieved the status of a brand-name: they now routinely refer to âan Alan Rickman role' whenever they want someone with the gift of playful evil.
This multi-faceted man, who also created the comedienne Ruby Wax and discovered the award-winning playwright Sharman Macdonald, has walked away with film after film by turning his
villains into warped tragic heroes with an anarchic sense of humour. Indeed, he's had such a spectacular career in grand larceny on screen that no one would guess he was born with a speech defect. It has made him so self-conscious about his voice that he still fears death by review as his frustration and despair at the critical mauling for his National Theatre debut in
Antony and Cleopatra
in 1998 showed only too clearly. After that disaster at the age of 52, he told one friend that he felt like never going back to the theatre again â even though he will say to people that he never reads reviews. Yet Rickman's bravura assurance and style has given him a greater following than Hugh Grant, fifteen years his junior.
âAlan has a quality which is attractive to both men and women. It's what makes star quality: it means that
is looking at you,' points out Jules Wright. âIan McKellen and Mick Jagger have it too; so do Alan Howard and Alec Guinness. There's an ambivalence: they're not macho, but they're not particularly feminine, either. There's an ambiguity there.'
The bizarre downside to the public fascination with this intriguing maverick comes in the form of sackloads of intrusive and obscene mail from otherwise respectable women, for whom he represents some kind of sexual release from repression. A typical letter to Alan Rickman goes: âDear Mr Rickman, I have always considered myself a staunch feminist, but you have a very disturbing effect on meÂ .Â .Â .'