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Alan Rickman: Truly, deeply appealing

Over the years, the British actor has built an impressive gallery of rogues and romantics. To him, it's just storytelling — and a love of language.

November 20, 2011|By Patrick Pacheco, Special to the Los Angeles Times

That life was first engendered in London public housing, where Rickman grew up as one of four children born to a housewife and a factory worker. Though Rickman was always drawn to acting, he instead pursued a career in graphic art, eventually opening a design studio. Despite its success, he decided at age 26 to take the plunge and was awarded a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, among whose alumni are Ralph Fiennes, Timothy Spall and Imelda Staunton, who've all portrayed memorable characters in the "Potter" movies.

He supported himself with odd jobs, including as a dresser for Nigel Hawthorne. A collateral benefit came when the veteran actor was cast in a play opposite the great Ralph Richardson.

"I would watch [Richardson] from the wings every night," Rickman recalls. "He was a magical force onstage. You didn't know where the lines were coming from. Once, a friend visited him at his house. Sir Ralph was doing Pinter's 'No Man's Land' and he had written out the play — just one word on each piece of paper — and they were pasted all around on the walls. And the friend asked, 'What's that for?' and Sir Ralph said, "I just sit and look at them.'"

Rickman worked extensively in regional rep companies, which eventually led to his breakthrough role as the manipulative and cruel Le Vicomte de Valmont in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." When the production transferred to Broadway, his performance drew the attention of Hollywood director John McTiernan, who cast him as the villain opposite Bruce Willis in "Die Hard."

But whether he is playing Hans Gruber, Le Vicomte de Valmont, Severus Snape or John Gabriel Borkman, Rickman sees his primary duty as that of "storyteller." "I suppose with any good writing and interesting characters, you can have that awfully overused word" — here he pauses before adding with a roll of the eyes — "a jouuuuuurney. It might not be great, it might not be perfect, but it does answer the human need to sit there together and to be told a story."

Rickman discovered just how powerful a story can be with the Harry Potter films. He's especially grateful for their youthful following. "I suppose if I plan to work well into my 80s, I'll need them," he quips.

Daniel Radcliffe, the movies' Harry Potter, is now appearing on Broadway in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." He calls Rickman "an invaluable and incredibly generous" mentor.

"When I first met Alan, I was completely intimidated by him," he says. "We had some very intense scenes together. At times, he'd actually scare me. But while he was always so strong and powerful, I also came to know him as self-deprecating, vulnerable and silly."

Watching him onstage, says Radcliffe, is to see a "virtuoso" in action. "He's taught me that acting onstage demands a ruthless honesty, listening very carefully in a way that you lose your self-consciousness. When I was in 'Equus,' Alan actually cut short a vacation in Canada to return to see me for a second time and then took me out and gave me some simple, practical and yet profound advice. I've a very self-effacing attitude toward what I do, probably from a place of guilt for having so much success so young, but Alan has a deeply felt respect for the importance of acting."

Rickman says the Potter epic provided a novel acting challenge. "It was tricky, because only three of the books had been written when we started. Though I had a clue about what his final story might be, it was only the smallest clue, and therefore there was a sense of playing two things at once, just in case you have to shift. " Asked whether he was happy with the evolution of his character, Rickman said he thought that "Potter" author J.K. Rowling got it "dead right."

Now, he is looking forward to the release of the comic film caper "Gambit," in which he costars with Cameron Diaz and Colin Firth. "God knows, we put ourselves out on the line with that, comedically," he says a bit nervously. "It'll be interesting to see how that turns out on the screen."

He hopes to do more comedy, seeing the ridiculous as a reflection of the human condition. "I think there should be laughs in everything," he says. "Sometimes, it's a slammed door, a pie in the face or just a recognition of our frailties."

For Rickman, it's all part of the job description. The accompanying fame, money and acclaim all strike him as rather "obscene."

"Our abilities are nothing we can really take credit for," he says. "Yes, there's training. But I've worked with some great actors who didn't train at all. You do your job, push your abilities as far as you can take them and hopefully, you can actually do something with this" — here he again pauses before adding — "this accident."

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