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."
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."