From arch villain Hans Gruber to sneery Snape: The endless allure of Alan Rickman’s disdain

Seven years after his death, Alan Rickman’s diaries are being published. Jessie Thompson discovers they reveal the Harry Potter and ‘Die Hard’ star as cutting, uncompromising and gravely serious about his work – but what if he’d have had a bit more fun?

alan rickman, hans gruber, severus snape, die hard, harry potter, from arch villain hans gruber to sneery snape: the endless allure of alan rickman’s disdain

Rickman in 2015 (Getty Images)

There’s an interview with Alan Rickman from 1991; you can find it on YouTube. At the time, he was best known for his roles as criminal mastermind Hans Gruber in Die Hard and the tyrannous Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The journalist – American – asks him, “Do you like playing villains?” The actor’s lip begins to curl. “Sure… it was fun.” He explains, patiently, that he’s done other things. The journalist ploughs on: “You don’t intend to keep playing these hyperbolic Hollywood villains?” Rickman, presumably now saying swear words in his head, replies, “Prrrrobably not”; he doesn’t think, as an actor, there’s anywhere else to go. The exchange only becomes more enjoyable once you’ve read his diaries, published today and covering his life and career from 1993 up to his death in 2016. Few things irritated Rickman quite so much as a journalist’s inane questions. Perhaps it was only Gruber that was a fan of Time magazine.

But that villain label did stick. Which Rickman baddie hurt you the most? (For me, the disloyal, Joni Mitchell CD-buying husband in Love Actually, of course.) Perhaps it’s ironic, given he seemed so keen to escape it, that Rickman ended up being best remembered for playing the sneering Professor Severus Snape in Harry Potter. Or perhaps it’s fitting. Snape, who languidly uttered words about how to “bewitch the miiind and ensnaaare the senses”, was cold, disapproving, enigmatic and – as it turned out – not whom he appeared. He was a villain masquerading as a hero. Rickman, with his distinctive lugubrious voice and penetrating stare, seemed hard of exterior – but after his death, stories emerged of his generosity. He gave money to acting students; his visibly emotional Truly, Madly, Deeply co-star Juliet Stevenson said on Newsnight that the acting community felt it had “lost the steering wheel in our car”. Emma Thompson, whom he appeared alongside in Sense & Sensibility and Love Actually, and directed in The Winter Guest, writes in the foreword, “There was something of the sage about him – and had he more confidence and been at all corruptible, he could probably have started his own religion.”

Rickman’s air of disdain was infamous; he was cherished for it. It was a quality that managed not to put people off, but, in fact, to draw us further in, seeming to indicate a sense of discernment; the occasional, hard-won smile hinted at a private, carefully governed sense of mischief. His death from pancreatic cancer was unexpected and shocking; it felt like a pillar had fallen. He was 69 but it seemed untimely, as if there should be much more. There was plenty that we still wanted to know. His diaries, then, offer an irresistible glimpse into the mind of an actor who excelled at playing buttoned-up men.

alan rickman, hans gruber, severus snape, die hard, harry potter, from arch villain hans gruber to sneery snape: the endless allure of alan rickman’s disdain

In ‘Love Actually’

(Universal Pictures)

We have his crankiness, of course – but these journals also uncover someone who was, surprisingly, a social butterfly. His circle of friends was wide and eclectic, featuring Ruby Wax, Neil Kinnock, Edna O’Brien and, of course, Thompson. He and his wife Rima Horton, who writes the afterword, were always having people for dinners that seemed to go on until about 4am. He often recounts going to fancy department stores to buy people gifts. He sounds like he was a very good friend. (I wish he’d been mine, but he would have hated me, because I’m a journalist.) Many of his verdicts are unexpectedly cutting – but some are just joyfully unexpected. Mamma Mia was “good fun, but could easily be sensational. Some real choreography… would help”. He apparently spent his last months on the sofa watching Don’t Tell the Bride and Say Yes to the Dress.

His diaries burst with life – but they also made me quite sad. Rickman seemed to possess a feeling of being perpetually misunderstood. He took his work incredibly seriously and was impatient when others didn’t. “I don’t know who is right or wrong. I am difficult, temperamental, uncommunicative; others are sentimental, effect-driven, undisciplined,” he writes about the 1993 shoot of Mesmer. He reached so much for greatness that he sometimes seemed to overthink it, writing often of turning down projects. “When I think of the yeses and nos and maybes of this last year, the mind boggles. All I have are my instincts but they are appallingly diluted and redirected by second-guessing other people’s opinions,” he says in one entry. “Write to Brian Friel – say no to his play,” in 1994. And a few days later, in a sentence that made my blood run cold, “Eventually reading scripts of Persuasion and Madness of George. Both no.” Imagine if Alan Rickman had been in Persuasion!

alan rickman, hans gruber, severus snape, die hard, harry potter, from arch villain hans gruber to sneery snape: the endless allure of alan rickman’s disdain

Rickman in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1’

(Warner Bros)

The projects he did choose often failed to meet expectations. He won an Emmy for the lead role in Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny, a film in which he was often at loggerheads with director Uli Edel. He seemed faintly embarrassed in his Bafta speech for Robin Hood, declaring the win “a reminder that subtlety isn’t everything”. He was uncompromising – and maybe he should have compromised more. The Harry Potter films, Love Actually, Sweeney Todd and Sense & Sensibility were mainstream hits, but Rickman was never the star. For such an esteemed performer, he was in a surprising amount of flops (the critically mauled National Theatre production of Antony & Cleopatra, Gambit, The Butler, and A Little Chaos, which he directed himself) and never won an Oscar. But he never did seem to find the right project – he never got his King’s Speech or Darkest Hour, or even Paddington 2. Imagine if Alan Rickman had been in Paddington 2!

Nothing seems to have mattered more to Rickman than the endeavour to make great work. He took acting gravely seriously. Are actors “always to be so patronised”, he laments at one point. And although he might have made different choices and been in better films, it was that seriousness that, in the end, stands as his legacy. That and Hans Gruber, of course.

‘Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries’ is out now

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