Actor Alan Rickman at the Golden Theater in Manhattan, New York. (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)
Reporting from New York — — Alan Rickman is aroused from a heavy-lidded languor recognizable from so many of his performances when the talk turns to a longtime crush. No, it's not Rima Horton, the economist he's lived with in London for 34 years. Nor is it the stage, which he still finds terrifying. What really excites him — truly, madly, deeply — is the English language.
"It's so rich and cruel and beautiful, like a fireworks display, and yet it can be so subtle and so crude," says the 65-year-old classical actor and director. "Marry that to the stage and something mysterious happens. Don't ask me what. It's magical."
The actor, once a critical darling who punctuated extensive stage work and art-house movies with scene-stealing supporting roles in commercial films, became an international mainstream figure playing Severus Snape, the tragic antagonist of Harry Potter in the eight-film franchise that concluded this past summer with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2."
Now, he is applying a different brand of dark arts as Leonard, the caustic and embittered novelist at the center of Theresa Rebeck's new play, "Seminar," which opens Sunday on Broadway. With barbed tongue, he terrorizes a group of aspiring writers who've paid a princely sum for him to evaluate their work. . That is, when he's not trying to bed the women in the group despite the yawning age gap.
"I knew the actor playing Leonard had to be irresistible, and Alan is," says Rebeck. "Like Leonard, Alan is a life force, a fighter, someone who is still swinging for the fences with a vitality that is very appealing."
Rickman says the story of an iconoclast bullying his charges into meaningful change attracted him to the play — as well as, of course, the language. "Theresa's writing is incredibly demanding," he says in silky tones that belie his British working-class roots. "She's like a Restoration comedy writer. It's high style. The words are extremely well chosen, and sometimes you wish that word had not been chosen right next to that word because the equipment's a bit rusty."
He conveys a modest vulnerability sitting in his dressing room during previews of a play that will make its world premiere without workshops or an out-of-town tryout. His nervousness is striking from someone who has racked up an impressive gallery of rogues and romantics in action films ("Die Hard," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), sci-fi satire ("Galaxy Quest"), musicals ("Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"), romantic comedies ("Love Actually," "Truly Madly Deeply") and period drama ("Sense and Sensibility").
Looming large on his theater resume are his stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company plus two Tony-nominated performances on Broadway: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," his 1987 debut, and "Private Lives" in 2002. More recently, he starred in Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January.
"I can only see my limitations," he says with a resigned laugh. "That's just who I am. I was working with [director] Peter Brook once on Shakespeare's 'Antony and Cleopatra' with Glenda Jackson, and he said, 'The thing is, you'll never be as good as the text.' And that came as a kind of relief, really. I'm fascinated by my friends in the acting profession who can't wait to get out there. I'm not on that list."
Rickman's wry insecurity is all the more surprising given his professional image as an assured, sexy and often enigmatic figure with a penetrating gaze and the ability to deliver the most innocuous phrase with sneering contempt. "I don't see it at all like that. They [his characters] are just people to me," Rickman says. "I'm a lot less serious than people think."
Sam Gold, the director of "Seminar," says: "Alan obviously has the ability to play imposing and intimidating characters, but what makes him special is his deep, deep well of empathy. You see the humanity."
Emma Thompson wrote in an email that during her frequent collaborations with Rickman, "It's very difficult not to giggle, we laugh a lot, often in the wrong places." Their most recent one is the BBC teleplay "The Song of Lunch," which aired recently on PBS, in which Rickman plays an alcoholic poet trying to rekindle a love affair. The actress, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for "Sense and Sensibility" and starred with Rickman in that movie, noted that his performance in that film as Col. Brandon "… was everything I wanted for the role — virile yet sensitive, powerful yet quietly, slightly dangerous and miles more interesting than he is in the book…. There's no one like Alan for a rich, mysterious inner life."