From the age of seven it was clear that he would one day become an actor, Alan Rickman once said. But before Rickman became an actor, he pursued his passion for art: He studied graphic design and founded his own design agency, Graphiti, after graduation.
Alan Rickman came from a working-class background: His father was a factory worker and died when Rickman was very young. At the time, it was not very common for a young person from a humble background to go to college. It was even less common to one day become a world-famous actor. Rickman made his graphic design studies possible through various scholarships and part-time jobs.
Training as an actor
After his own design agency turned out to be successful, Rickman made the decision to become a professional actor: In the past, he had already played roles in various college productions. Even then, his voice was singled out as the main feature of his acting talent: His deep voice advanced to become one of his distinctive features and made him famous.
When he was 26 years old, he applied for a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), one of the most prestigious acting schools in Britain. Numerous world stars trained as actors there. Rickman attended RADA for two years and got his first taste of professional acting.
Alan Rickman gained his first acting experience in the genre of Repertory Theater, performing in Sheffield, Birmingham, Nottingham and Glasgow, among other cities. There Rickman gained acting experience and refined his craft.
Initially, Alan Rickman built up a large British repertoire of roles: In the early eighties he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company – there he built up a large Shakespearean repertoire and earned critical praise as a classical actor.
At the end of the eighties, Alan Rickman received a special offer: he was to play the role of the villain Hans Gruber in the action flick Die Hard (1988).
Initially, Rickman wanted to turn down the role: He thought that it wasn’t the kind of role he would like to play. Eventually, Rickman made up his mind and accepted the role: He certainly shouldn’t regret it. Rickman’s portrayal of terrorist Hans Gruber was instrumental in the success of Die Hard. Originally, expectations for Die Hard were low, but it was not least Alan Rickman’s acting performance that set Die Hard apart from other action films. Die Hard became one of the most successful action films of the eighties and marked the beginning of a long series of Die Hard action films.
With the success of Die Hard, Alan Rickman became a sought-after actor in Hollywood: his name was traded primarily for the roles of villains. Throughout his career, Rickman repeatedly expressed his fear of being pinned down to the role of the antagonist: In fact, Rickman was cast particularly often in the role of villains.
In 1991, he was cast in the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves alongside Kevin Costner: For the second time he played the antagonist in a Hollywood flick.
After his role in Robin Hood he realized that he didn’t just want to play villains: In the English tragicomedy Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), Alan Rickman played one of the main roles and showed that he could also shine in comedies. Rickman was able to slip into comedic roles without the audience feeling reminded of his roles as villains. The screen character of Hans Gruber or the Sheriff of Nottingham was faded out when Rickman slipped into other roles: Alan Rickman escaped the great danger of being pinned down to the role of the villain throughout his career.
Rickman as a director
In the mid-nineties Alan Rickman discovered another passion: he directed a production of the play The Winter Guest (1995). For the film version of the play, which was released two years later, Rickman also took a seat in the director’s chair.
Even after he achieved the status of a movie star, he remained connected to the theater stage: For him, the theater stage formed the basis for everything audiences saw on the big screen, and always drew on the experience he had gained at the theater in his younger years.
At the beginning of the 21st century, he slipped into the role of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film series: to this day, many followers of the Harry Potter series are familiar with Alan Rickman because of his role as Severus Snape. When it comes to the role of Severus Snape, it is not entirely clear whether it is a “good” or an “evil” character: The character develops over the course of the film series and only slowly drops his mask and reveals his true intentions. Alan Rickman understood how to portray the development of a character over several films like hardly any other actor. Between 2001 and 2011, Alan Rickman slipped into the role of Severus Snape in a total of eight Harry Potter films.
In 2008, Alan Rickman played the role of British wine critic Steven Spurrier in Bottle Shock. The film is about a winery in California’s Napa Valley whose owner is eager to create the perfect wine. Rickman’s character Steven Spurrier encourages the owners of the Napa Valley winery to participate in a blind wine tasting in Paris with his white wine. In this film, Alan Rickman played a role that was very different from his regular repertoire – in Bottle Shock, Rickman embodied a wine connoisseur who is convinced of the superiority of European viticulture and is proven wrong during his trip to California.
The art of acting is paramount
One cannot reduce Alan Rickman to his roles as villains: While his career would hardly have taken such a successful course without the role of Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Rickman’s acting skills went far beyond portraying antagonists. The theater remained the starting point of all his acting activities until the end of his career – without his training at British theaters, it would hardly have been possible for Rickman to embody his roles with the dramaturgy and profundity he was known for. If one follows his diaries, Alan Rickman refused elevation to the personal British peerage in 2008: for him, throughout his career, the art of acting was paramount.
Main source: Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries, 2022 Canongate Books
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig