Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.
– Alan Rickman
On every level, it is wrong to equate a character with the actor portraying it. I agree with that very firmly. Having established that, I wish to make an exception. On January 14, 2016, Alan Rickman breathed his last. And for a generation raised on the eternal stories of Harry Potter, this is déjà vu.
For some actors, a particular portrayal becomes the cross they carry for the rest of their lives, some happily, others grudgingly: Al Pacino would forever be Michael Corleone, Harrison Ford would continue lashing his whip as Indiana Jones and Julia Roberts will charm us as Erin Brockovich, despite the fact that, along their careers, they would have played blind ex-servicemen, fugitives on the run or middle-aged daughters to self-centred mothers with equal, if not better finesse. For Rickman, nothing tops playing the devastating character of Severus Snape over a decade across eight movies.
Branding Alan Rickman’s career as illustrious would be a bit of an understatement, given that like a true veteran British actor, he has his name plastered all over the stage and screen, in spite of his younger self deciding against a career in acting as “Drama school wasn’t the sensible thing to do at 18”. He dabbled in all kinds of roles – from soft-spoken, polite gentleman to callous husband to crazed villains. Unfortunately for him (fortunately for us), his portrayals of villainy were genuinely blood-curdling – Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), Hans Gruber (Die Hard) – which easily count as some of his more popular characters.
This typification was something that understandably did not go down well with an actor as versatile as Rickman. My second recollection of Alan Rickman (the first was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) was as Marvin’s voiceover in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Reviews are unequivocally bad for the movie, though one has to admit that the depressed robot was probably the one thing that was spot-on with the book’s rendition. Which leads to the conclusion that comedy – like villainy – was quite the forte of Rickman too. His deep, drawling, aristocratic voice did to the auditory senses what in the visual terms would be termed as a poker face. From playing an utter callous fool (Love Actually) to a depressed, lovelorn figure (Truly Madly Deeply), the range of emotions and ability to dispense them in the appropriate measures was mastered to the hilt by Rickman. And that voice came into play once again when the hookah-smoking Caterpillar sought to give advice to Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, only to leave us in a trance from which we could never leave as long as Rickman was speaking.
Nevertheless, his screen presence does not really do justice to his talents. Admittedly, he was at his best, but the limitation of the character or the plot must have restricted him from big outright delightful (with the exception of the Harry Potter series, wherein, both aspects had very solid foundations). Alan Rickman was a star on the stage, rendering award-worthy performances in Les Liaisons dangereuses, Private Lives, Antony and Cleopatra and many others, along with some of the biggest names in the British theatre circle. To him, there were no limitations in terms of portrayals; he slid into their skin effortlessly, and delivered as if at one with his character which, coupled with that velvety voice, always left a mark.
And of course, how can we ever forget the eternal gift of Severus Snape. The complexity of the character – at first impossible to imagine – could only have been displayed best by Alan Rickman. It was easy – like his earlier negative roles – to hate his sneer, his oily hair and his blatant dislike of Harry; so much so, that as we read the books (and the movies were getting made simultaneously), the image of Alan Rickman in black robes would invariably replace all our imaginations of Severus Snape. And only Rickman, at the very end, could make death look so tragic, yet so dignified. While J.K. Rowling created an exemplary character, Alan Rickman gave it something more, a soul, that we live by and remember.
Goodbye Mr. Rickman. And thank you for pretty much raising up the Potter generation!
My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you? If you insist…
– Dumbledore to Snape, The Deathly Hallows