Alan Rickman and Defense Against the Dark Arts

I’ve posted already on one recent death, and though I felt like I probably wouldn’t have anything to say about David Bowie–though, seriously, he was great in Labyrinth–but I can’t help writing just a short note about the wonderful, amazing, brilliantly skilled Alan Rickman.

Having had no idea he was ill, the news catches me by surprise, and of course brings to Hans-Gruber-hans-gruber-24823003-200-200mind all the same things it did to yours: Severus Snape; Die Hard; Love, Actually; Colonel Brandon; Grabthar’s Hammer. But knowing that he was capable of that sort of range made me very curious about him as a man and an actor, what he thought about his craft and how to practice it.

Accordingly, I’ve watched a good number of interviews–there are some excellent ones on YouTube–and thought a lot about what he had to say, answering the same questions over and over. He clearly benefited a great deal from his acting training, and says so with vigor. He had tremendous respect for his colleagues in the industry, and was generous with his time and his considerable influence. The man was clearly beloved by hundreds of millions, but the adulation passed over him, leaving him essentially unchanged, by all accounts. He played himself, often, unsure, willing to press forward and try, never quite believing his good fortune when he succeeded.

His answers were usually fairly vague (What is your favorite role? Oh, how can one possibly choose?), which is what you would expect (Do you know how much you’ve meant to people? The public has been extraordinarily kind to me). For a man who didn’t have an email address until five years ago, and who valued his privacy–no selfies, ever–that fits expectations. But he wasn’t always vague. Once in a while, you could see the real man under the very smooth (and authentic) exterior persona.

For instance this, talking about his acting training, from his NY Times interview (9:41 mark):

Q: What were some of the complaints, what did people feel like needed to be fixed about your voice, training-wise?

A: (without the slightest hesitation) That I had very lazy diction, that I had a spastic soft palate, and that, as I was saying to you, my voice teacher said that ‘you sound as if your voice was coming out of the back end of a drain pipe.’

He then says “I suppose it means…basically…that I had to, um…”

See the contrast? He’s 66 in this interview. He hasn’t been in acting school for FORTY YEARS, and he remembers, with crystal clarity, three critical things that had been said to him four decades ago. Then he struggles to articulate what that meant he had to do to overcome it.

I’ve been replaying that scene for the last couple of hours. I know this mentality. All artists do. Alan Rickman has been told sixteen million times that his voice is amazing and it makes him one of the sexiest men alive. Ask him for a common compliment about that, and he won’t be able to think of one. Ask him what criticism he heard when he was starting out, and he has a ready, laser-specific list. He never forgets those things, not for a second.

It made him better, clearly, and he used the criticism in the best way, to become more polished, resonant, kind (although his play on Broadway in 2012 had him as an acerbic, even brutal critic of some young writers) (and of course, he was brilliant). That’s a good defense against the dark arts of criticism. It’s the best one can manage, often.

How I wish that we would be able to toss aside the criticism once it’s served its purpose. How I wish we could simply forget that anyone ever said whatever it was (lazy, doesn’t concentrate, has gifts but doesn’t apply himself) once we’ve made a beautiful pearl out of the irritating grain of sand. But then, maybe that destroys the pearl.

I learn so much from listening to the truly great describe their craft. That’s my best defense, to realize that if Alan Rickman can be criticized for having poor diction, perhaps I shouldn’t be too upset when someone calls my writing tedious. If I react the way he did, who knows what the future could hold?

Clearly, fame isn’t everything, as Snape would say. And did say. With perfect, unmatchable diction.


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