“He got our turtle a role in The Taming of the Shrew”: Emma Thompson, Eddie Izzard and others remembered Alan Rickman

“From the decor to the sausage, his taste was impeccable”
Emma Thompson

What was most remarkable about the first few days after Alan’s death was the number of actors, poets, musicians, playwrights and directors who wanted to say thank you for all the help he had given them. I don’t think I know anyone in this business who has advocated for more emerging artists or spotted so many great artists before they became big. Quite a few said they had been too shy to thank him personally lately. They had found it difficult to approach him. Of all the contradictions in my blissfully contradictory friend, this is perhaps the greatest: this combination of deeply nurturing and unwavering detachment.

He wasn’t aloof, of course. He was frighteningly present at all times. The inscrutability was partly a shield. When anyone approached him with gratitude or even a question, he was greeted with a deep kindness that no one who didn’t know him could even guess. And he wasn’t imperturbable, of course. I could hit him like it was nobody’s business and when I did he was violent to me and it did me immense good.

He was generous and challenging. Dangerous and weird. Sexy and androgynous. Masculine and peculiar. Spirited and lazy. Sophisticated and casual. My list is endless. There was something wise about him – and had he had more self-confidence and had he been even a little corruptible, he probably could have started his own religion. His taste in everything from sausage to decor struck me as impeccable. The problem with death is that there is no next. There is only what was, and for that I am deeply and heartbrokenly grateful.

Commitment... with Emma Thompson in In Love Actually.
Commitment… with Emma Thompson in In Love Actually. Photo: Working Title/Allstar

The last thing we did together was change the plug on a floor lamp in his hospital room. The assignment went just like anything we’ve ever done together. I had a try. He told me to try something else. I tried and it didn’t work so he tried. I got impatient and took it off him and tried again and it still wasn’t right. We both became easily irritable. Then he patiently took everything apart again and put the right line in the right hole. I screwed it in. We complained about how fiddly it was. Then we drank a cup of tea. It took us at least half an hour. He said afterwards, “Well, it’s a good thing I decided not to be an electrician.”

“He suggested me for a play by David Mamet”
Eddie Izzard

I first met Alan after a benefit show at the London Palladium in 1994. It was then that I knew and loved his work in Die Hard: the seriousness but lightness of touch. I remember talking to him afterwards and telling him I really wanted to be a dramatic actress, my first love. He said he didn’t think I was crazy, which was nice of him, but we left it at that. Next I was suddenly told that Alan had suggested my name to act with Lindsay Duncan in a David Mamet play. It was a wonderful thing for him and Lindsay was a fabulous actor to work with.

Later in 2003 I saw him in New York doing a play. After that we all went to a restaurant to eat. Alan had started playing Professor Snape from the Harry Potter films. He portrayed him with an intense and demure spirit. I asked if Snape would continue in future stories. “Well,” he said, “the latest book has just come out, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Then he added quietly, “And I – I’m the Half-Blood Prince!”

He went on to give classic and heartbreaking performances in the Harry Potter films that will stay with us forever.

Our turtle Betty starred in The Taming of the Shrew
ruby wax

My mission in life was to make him laugh, and when I did it was better than winning an Oscar. If I hit a comedic nerve, he’d bend down and gasp with laughter, then make me throw back until we were both on the floor in hysterics.

We had a turtle named Betty who was like our adopted child when we were both performing at Stratford. (Alan played leads, I played Seaweed with Juliet Stevenson.) Alan promised he would help me get Betty on a show. I had tried to get her on Antony and Cleopatra by telling Peter Brook, the director, in front of Alan that I would like to audition Betty for the role of Adder. Alan almost died playing Antony. I know he was upset in part because Betty would have put him to shame.

We ended up getting Betty on stage during The Taming of the Shrew. Every night when I tuned in to Betty during a crowd scene, Alan would watch proudly from the wings and we would both laugh at each other. He broke my heart when he left and there isn’t a day that I don’t remember him.

With us forever... as Snape in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
With us forever… as Snape in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Photo: Warner Bros./Allstar

“Rowan took his time while Alan knocked his socks off”
Richard Curtis

I wanted to cast Alan to star in Four Weddings and a Funeral – before we got stuck on Hugh Grant – because he had been so perfect, both tender and funny, in a movie called Close My Eyes. So when Alan agreed to be on Love Actually, I was delighted. My strongest memory was when we were doing the shopping scene where Rowan Atkinson takes too long to wrap Alan’s illegal gift. Rowan took his time, doing long, improvisational takes and even casually chatting ideas with me – while poor Alan, angry and impatient, let his character knock his socks off for sometimes 10 minutes. It was a great example of real commitment. But I’m also damn sure that Alan was rightfully extremely angry and extremely impatient by the end.

Something else about his performance: The most memorable scene is probably Emma Thompson in her bedroom listening to Joni Mitchell after discovering her husband’s betrayal. I’m convinced that it’s the subtlety and truth of Alan’s performance with her before this moment that makes it doubly powerful. If her scenes hadn’t fully captured a proper, long-term adult marriage – if Alan wasn’t so solid, so cool, so not a person to fall that far – it all wouldn’t have hit so hard. It was an honor to know him and to work with him.

“He turned down perfectly fine jobs because they were only fine”
Harriet Walter

There was one thing Alan couldn’t do: he couldn’t drive. And that was a blessing because it meant I could take him to see The Seagull or The Lucky Chance, which we did at the Royal Court, every night. We talked in the car and then he invited me to his apartment and there I met his wife Rima and we talked politics and gossip over bottles of wine until the small hours.

In this apartment I noticed that every colour, every piece of furniture, every funny object had been deliberately chosen and lovingly displayed and appreciated. Nothing was accidental or superfluous – just as Alan’s jobs and his political causes were very consciously chosen. Long before he became famous, he told me how he turned down this or that seemingly perfectly fine job because it was just fine. It was like knowing that life is short and only needs to be filled with the things that really matter to you.

Awesome… with Lesley Manville in RSC's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Awesome… with Lesley Manville in RSC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Photo: Donald Cooper/Alamy

“Do what I do,” he said at Quidditch – absolutely nothing.
Jason Isaacs

Everything I did as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films was thanks to Alan. When they offered me a role in the second film, I almost turned it down because there seemed no point in being scary in the same film as him. I ended up coming up with a Malfoy designed to avoid fucking comparisons to his effortlessly awesome Snape: Malfoy had long blond hair, a tight, high-pitched voice, and as many props as I could hide.

Personally, though, he put an end to my intimidation on my first day: we shot a sequence watching and reacting to a Quidditch match. “That’s the Quaffle,” said a prop master, waving a tennis ball on a stick. “And now come the thugs. Here they are, but the keeper blocks them, and watch out, this is the Gryffindor Seeker. And…he’s falling…but…HE HAS THE GOLDEN SSNITCH!”

“I’m so sorry, Alan,” I said. “But what’s the matter? What should I do?”

“No idea.” he whispered. “Do what I do. Absolutely nothing.”

Who knew! The man behind the most distinctive and despicable move in theater history was indeed utterly approachable, anarchically funny, absolutely in the moment on and off the screen, and a consumer of music far, far more contemporary than my best ’70s taste – a point that mercilessly in the makeup chair as my cheese festival kicked off.

He was also passionate about making things better, whether through his many steadfast political and charitable commitments or, like me, having busloads of kids visit the set every time he worked. Sharing the screen and the odd horrible gag with him will continue to be one of the highlights of my professional life.

  • Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries will be available from Canongate on October 4 for £25. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.

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