Remembering Alan Rickman - one of cinema's great character actors

The actor, who has died aged 69, spoke to Newstalk's Orla Barry in 2009 about playing Severus Snape and Eamon de Valera

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Image: Charles Sykes / AP/Press Association Images

If anybody has ever illustrated the absolute importance of a supporting actor, it’s Alan Rickman.

It goes without saying that the actor - who has died aged 69 - was supremely confident in lead roles, whether on stage or in front of the camera. But looking back at his career, one thing that stands out is how much energy and enthusiasm he brought to roles others may have considered thankless or limited. They were many complex Alan Rickman performances and many that were incredibly playful - they weren't mutually exclusive categories, either. He was a ‘character actor’ in the best sense of the phrase.

Take his role as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films. Making amazing use of reasonably limited screen-time, Rickman was without question one of the best things about the big-screen adaptations of JK Rowling’s books - expertly capturing and amplifying the moral and emotional complexity of Severus Snape.

Speaking to Orla Barry about the role in 2009, Rickman suggested Snape was a great character to play because he had an ‘inner life’ far beyond his deceptively sinister exterior.

On the subject of the Harry Potter series more generally, he observed “it’s so rare these days to see a child sitting in a corner with knees up and nose in a book, lost in a narrative and making pictures in their head. I’m very aware of being part of that, and there’s a very odd expression if they ever meet me. It’s something to protect as long as you can.”

Alan Rickman was one of modern cinema’s great ‘bad guys’, bringing class and intelligence to what could have been one-dimensional or thankless antagonist roles. Perhaps his most iconic ‘baddie’ role is as Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Rickman brings everything to the table - whether it’s his brilliantly playful accent work or the sheer relish with which he delivers unforgettable lines such as “now I have a machine gun - ho, ho, ho.”

Of course, being a supporting player can also bring challenges when trying to communicate everything necessary within a limited amount of screentime. For Irish viewers, he is well-known for playing Eamon de Valera in 1996’s Michael Collins - the controversial historical epic from Neil Jordan.

Rickman observed, “all the homework that I did [on] de Valera, without taking any sides at all, said to be that a man deprived of any real knowledge of his parentage or where he was born, it was as if Ireland became his mother, and that’s a huge emotional pull”.

Commenting on the controversy - including claims that the film shows de Valera being involved in the ambush of Collins - Rickman was honest, explaining that “scenes that we shot did not end up in the movie, so I think ultimately those would have altered the tone of the film. It was quite clear to me that de Valera was not involved… I wouldn’t have been part of a movie that said that.

“The movie you make is not necessarily the movie that goes out,” he added.

While he’ll be primarily remembered for his screen roles, the stage was another keen passion for Rickman. Having made his breakthrough as Vicomte de Valmont in a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1985, he frequently returned to the stage as both an actor and director (he also directed a pair of feature films, including 2015’s A Little Chaos).

Reflecting on theatrical performance, Alan told Orla “it’s a vulnerable place to be - a stage, possibly alone, in front of possibly 1,500 people, and trying to be as truthful as possible.

“Everybody has to figure out what they do best,” he added. “It’s like hitting a bullseye at times when you find the job that you were meant to do on some level. My life is developing into directing as well and I always knew that was going to happen - but it has taken a long time.”

Different viewers will have their favourite Alan Rickman performance - whether that’s his memorable turn in Love Actually, his lovingly droll voice performance in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or perhaps even his unique take on the Sherrif of Nottingham. Across all his performances, however, Alan Rickman could be relied on to bring an immense amount of commitment and artistry - an actor who always tried to be as truthful as possible.

You can listen back to Orla Barry’s full 2009 interview with Alan Rickman below: