The problem with writing a tribute to an an actor who has passed is that it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the performer from his performances. That’s the double-edged sword of being an actor, though. You’re famous not just for being who you are, but for all the other people you have been. I can only imagine what it’s like to suffer dissociative personality disorder by proxy as you walk down the street and are recognized as someone different every time you turn a corner.
It’s because of this inevitable flux that I’ve had to start this article over and over again all morning. How do you talk about how much you’ll miss a performer without letting the characters dwarf the man who brought them to life? My only answer is that you’ve got to treat a character like a work of art, conceived by a writer but breathed into existence by the one who portrays him.
Alan Rickman, aged 69, died in London on January 14, 2016, on my birthday.
That last part is just so you’ll understand why I might be a little overly sentimental right now. It was hard, sad news to wake up to. Since the story broke my entire facebook feed has been one long continuous stream of tributes, pictures, quotes, and gifs of wands being cast into the air in tribute. There’s something miserable and yet comforting in that.
David Bowie, who also passed away this week at 69, once said, “We’d rather be scared / together than alone,” (Fun fact, that was one of my three senior yearbook quotes). So when something sad happens we often find solace in solidarity. While it pained me to see so many fans sad, it was nice to know I wasn’t going to spend the day having to pretend I wasn’t in mourning because those around me wouldn’t understand why.
So I’m going to tell you something very shocking: Severus Snape in Harry Potter wasn’t the most important role that Alan Rickman ever played.
It wasn’t Hans Gruber in Die Hard, and it wasn’t even Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest.
I know. Blasphemy. But let me try to meet my burden.
I contend that Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility was more important than Alen in Snow Cake, Metatron in Dogma, or Sheriff Nottingham in Robin Hood. Colonel Brandon was an anomaly. He was a good guy. He was the noble, unsullied hero. While his love interest, Marianne, was not immediately taken with him, he was never under suspicion of anything more terrible than being lovelorn and, at the worst, boring. No shady past dogged him, no cynicism plagued him, no snarkiness, no bitterness, no maliciousness, no murderous tendencies. He was a white hat, a phrase used to describe “the good guy,” above reproach. And while troubled and burdened with unrequited love, he was not to be pitied but rooted for.
His portrayal of Colonel Brandon was delicate, sophisticated, and all too utterly romantic with introspection. Other roles are more famous, but this role is most important because it showcases not just Rickman’s “range”, but his depth and commitment to tenderness as well. Most people can play closed off and crass, malicious or malcontent. But to be able to touch the core of a character and remain open and vulnerable enough to bring an audience to tears simultaneously with sorrow and joy is unique.
Ok… Severus Snape. I know.
I’m supposed to talk about Severus Snape – that’s what everyone’s waiting for. If I’m not going to talk about Hans Gruber, I need to talk about Severus Snape. Anton Mesmer or Rasputin simply won’t do today. A large chunk of my generation and those that followed first got to know Rickman as Snape because of the Harry Potter movies. And let me tell you, that’s not a bad place to see the man ply his craft.
Rickman’s portrayal of Snape wasn’t just great because “Snape’s the best character ever, omg.” It was because Rickman, twenty-some years older than his character, brought his history of fictional villainy into play.
Spoiler alert: Snape was technically a good guy.
While not a white hat by any means, his hat was definitely some shade of grey. But to play a white hat who is playing a black hat who is actually a grey hat who everyone thinks is actually a black hat pretending to be a white hat is…. well, it’s nuanced. Let’s put it this way, if you haven’t read or watched Harry Potter, you probably won’t have any idea what I just said. But know that it’s accurate and it’s definitely a compliment.
Rickman’s portrayal of Snape was so damned good because the character was already interesting, and Rickman was talented enough not to lose any of the original, singular complexity that J. K. Rowling created. In that way Rickman honored the character of Snape and became beloved by fans.
For eight movies he embodied the mystery of Snape and, in my opinion, never lost Snape’s thread. Perhaps it was because he was one of the few with whom Rowling shared his character’s end fate, but Rickman remained painfully true to his counterpart for a decade. Snape is iconic and Alan Rickman made him so. I’m convinced that any other actor, no matter how ingeniously talented he was, could not have done so.
On the British panel show QI, series 6, episode 11, ‘Films and Fames,’ John Sessions does his excellent impression of Alan Rickman and tells a story about how a child with no filter asked Rickman why “he always played villains.” Rickman replied in his indomitable way, “I don’t play villains. I play very interesting people.”
What made this funny when it first aired but bittersweet now that Rickman has passed is that he was typecast so often as the shadowy villain, or at least “not the hero.” But Rickman’s roles were always intense, and so often our first memories of him was as an antagonist who was more interesting than the hero. In this way Rickman helped to teach us that the “villain” wasn’t always intended to be booed.
Good actors are all around. We all have a favorite performer who strikes us in some way that cannot be rivaled. But Alan Rickman was damned great in my opinion because he never shortchanged a character by going with the flow of being typecast. He never phoned it in, and because of this we don’t just lose “an actor.”
With Rickman gone we suffer the death of untold stories, of unmet interesting people. His former roles live on to pay tribute to the man who created them, but there is also sadness in knowing we won’t be meeting any more.