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His 'Potential Was In Maturity': Helen Mirren, Chris Columbus On Alan Rickman


Today, we're remembering actor Alan Rickman, who has died of cancer at the age of 69. While he played sinister characters in blockbuster films, friends, like Dame Helen Mirren, remember him as warm and gentle. We'll speak with her in a moment. One of Rickman's most famous roles was Hans Gruber in "Die Hard" from 1988.


ALAN RICKMAN: (As Hans Gruber) I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative, not a lot to ask. But alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way, so he won't be joining us for the rest of his life.

SHAPIRO: More than a decade later, director Chris Columbus was looking for an actor to play the menacing professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films. Rickman's performance in "Die Hard" came to mind.

CHRIS COLUMBUS: There's a complexity to that role and something that's deeply sinister, yet there's a really deep emotional quality to what Alan was doing a "Die Hard." It doesn't make you like him, but it makes you believe he's a real person. Those are the best villains - the villains that actually haunt you because they could be someone that you know.

SHAPIRO: Initially, Columbus says, Rickman resisted the role. Snape seemed to straightforward, too one-dimensional. Then Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling pulled Rickman aside and told him a secret about how the character would evolve in the books that she had not yet written.

COLUMBUS: She had a conversation with Alan, a private conversation, and told him some things that she didn't tell any of us.


COLUMBUS: And we - which we found out later on, revealing that the character was much more complex, revealing to him that the character was actually protecting Harry throughout the books. So Alan knew that before anyone else, and that was the moment that he agreed to take on the role.

SHAPIRO: As Snape, Rickman is chilling from the first moment he interacts with the young Harry Potter played by Daniel Radcliffe.


RICKMAN: (As Severus Snape) And what is the difference between monkshood and wolfbane?

DANIEL RADCLIFFE: (As Harry Potter) I don't know, Sir.

RICKMAN: (As Severus Snape) Pity. Clearly fame isn't everything, is it, Mr. Potter?

COLUMBUS: Alan never broke character during that. He would break character when I would have a private conversation with him, but with Dan, he was focused as professor Snape. And he managed to get a terrific performance out of Dan just by doing his off-camera work.

SHAPIRO: And did you get the impression that the actor, Daniel Radcliffe, playing Harry Potter as a young kid was actually scared of Alan Rickman?

COLUMBUS: I remember, those first few days of shooting, Dan was terrified. I mean, you know, he was a major presence in any room that he walked into.

SHAPIRO: That's Chris Columbus, the director of the first two Harry Potter movies. Given Rickman's reputation onscreen, it's no surprise that Dame Helen Mirren, a formidable actress in her own right, was a bit intimidated when she first met Rickman decades ago.

DAME HELEN MIRREN: You know, he played these very reserved, sometimes-cold, sometimes-threatening characters on the screen, but the reality of the man was incredible warmth and humor and generosity and wicked fun.

SHAPIRO: And do you have a sense of how he changed as an actor over the decades that you worked with him?

MIRREN: I think - I certainly think that he was a kind of actor who needed to grow into his maturity to realize the potential, the huge potential that he had. You know, some actors, all of their potential is in their youth, and when that passes, their qualities of as an actor pass. But he - Alan was the opposite, and their are other actors who are like that, who, really, their potential is in maturity

SHAPIRO: I think if there is one thing that his fans will remember is his voice.

MIRREN: Yes, that incredible voice that he could play like a sort of wonderful instrument, like a cello or something. He played his voice, and he could be the most subtle of actors. And he could also be quite a big actor. He could do the grandiose performances as well.

SHAPIRO: He told us in an interview in 2007 that he wasn't entirely comfortable with his voice. Let's listen to a little bit of what he said.


RICKMAN: What did they say to me? You sound - Alan, you sound as if your voice is coming out of the back end of a drainpipe, was one review from my voice teacher.

MIRREN: (Laughter) I'm sure that was his version of what they probably said to him, which is - which shows his absolute charming wit that he had. Again, I think his voice was probably something, as I said, that he had to mature into. And then there was a moment when the voice and the look and the extraordinary ability just all came together into a sort of perfect - perfectly pitched thing.

SHAPIRO: That's Dame Helen Mirren remembering her friend the late actor Alan Rickman. What a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you very much.

MIRREN: Thank you very much, Ari. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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