Alan Rickman Embodied an Imperfect Character with a “Perfect Voice”


Alan Rickman’s filmography and theatrical endeavors — both as an actor and director — are towering achievements. But it’s inarguable that while everyone might have their separate favorite Alan Rickman moments (whether it’s his dignified kindness in Sense and Sensibility, his ghost boyfriendliness in Truly Madly Deeply, or his willing submission to utter silliness in Galaxy Quest), the character most people think of immediately when they think of Rickman is Sevreus Snape, of the Harry Potter series. (After all, he portrayed him in eight different films, under four different directors.) What Rickman brought to Snape — in collaboration with the writer of that exquisitely twisty character — was no matter of franchise phoning-in. As Rowling once suggested when she called the character “all grey” — noting that you can neither “make him a saint” nor a “devil” — Snape resisted easy description. He was an outlier for the type of the “Gryffindor Good/Slytherin Bad” compartmentalizing that often betrayed the natures of Harry Potter characters. Snape was a rare case of a character that taught kids — and reminded adults — that good and evil often aren’t so easy to delineate, and that, fundamental to this strange, destructive, species that we are, is the notion that cruelty and love aren’t mutually exclusive.

I think I can speak for many people in saying that while not every actor portraying Harry Potter characters infiltrated my (re)readings of the books, Alan Rickman did, regardless of his being two decades older than the character in the books. Looking into the allure of Rickman’s Snape as a character seems perhaps a perfect way to glimpse into the rest of his illustrious career — and then to see how his work across film and theater let him build such a beloved character in an often-uneven film franchise.

His theatrical training — his totalizing physical and vocal control — were what allowed him to assert an always-compelling stoicism, to both live in and provoke the exact “grayness” of our projections onto the character. While film acting doesn’t necessarily hinge so much on a trained and sculpted voice or physicality — drawing rather on the natural, idiosyncratic, and extemporaneous — theater requires it. And beyond his film career, Alan Rickman was an exceedingly influential theater actor — he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, performed across the London stage with the likes of Fiona Shaw and Helen Mirren, and directed a variety of other shows — and through his exhaustive theatre background, it seems, he was able to isolate the qualities that create magnetism and mystery in an actor for Snape. Like Snape himself, Rickman’s voice provoked the listener to do a lot of the work to determine its emotional fluctuations, its motivations. With his at once leonine and serpentine — like Gryffindor and Slytherin combined! (sorry) — timbre and dancelike cadence that slinks and then halts abruptly, his voice managed to invite interest without revealing itself, leaving us tensely hanging.

Incidentally, a study done by linguist Andrew Linn, sound engineer Shannon Harris and, oddly, Lily Allen found that — whatever this might mean and however its objectivity may seem questionable — Rickman has a scientifically “perfect” voice. “As humans we instinctively know which voices send shivers down our spine and which make us shudder with disgust,” said Linn, of course referring to Rickman’s voice as an example of the former. Rickman has spoken of how he used the Alexander Technique — pioneered by Shakespearean orator Frederick Matthias Alexander in the late 1800s — to create a “balanced sense of tension rather than relying on creating tension to do something in order to produce a sound or an act that is preconceived.”

This short film version of Samuel Beckett’s Play — in which Rickman, Kristen Scott Thomas and Juliet Stevenson — as a husband, wife and mistress, sit in urns in a liminal state between death and life, reciting the details of an affair, is one of the best exhibitions of the control Rickman had over his voice. Note the way he’s able to remain facially neutral, despite the bullet-speed recitation of his words. The ability to isolate one’s words from the way they read emotionally is also quintessentially Snape: throughout the whole of the Harry Potter series, Snape bullies and demeans the protagonist, while surreptitiously being his protector.

If you think about it, the constraints he was given as Snape aren’t too dissimilar to what you see above: with his form completely covered by that stiff, button-Intimidating Professor outfit and his dialogue necessarily opaque, he had to, to quote Snape’s own words, “bewitch the mind and ensnare the senses” using the slightest of variations in his inflection, the smallest curls of the lip. There was a studied specificity to his animation of this stiff, curious character — whose whole arc is driven by secret affection and mourning, who presents nothing akin to how he feels.

No one’s going to agree on Alan Rickman’s best performance — and since so much of his work comprised theatrical performances seen only by those in the right place at the right time, few likely have the authority to do so. But unlike your typical mega-franchise role, Snape is a character everyone knows that also reveals the precision of Alan Rickman’s craft — the ability to seem at once effortless but rigid, to lure you with hints of the emotional vastness that the character ensures you’ll never actually see. When I’ve reread the Harry Potter books, the character’s voices morph throughout my experience, based on the voices I’ve heard in my own life, or the voices I want to hear. Alan Rickman’s Snape, however, is a rare example of a performance that so perfectly animates a character that it now courses through the books on which it’s based.