clock menu more-arrow no yes

Alan Rickman’s glorious voice transformed every line he spoke into something more

"I'm going to count to three..."

Alan Rickman as Die Hard's silvery smooth Hans Gruber.
Alan Rickman as Die Hard's silvery smooth Hans Gruber.
Twentieth Century Fox

Alan Rickman, who died of cancer on Thursday at age 69, was one of our most versatile and reliable actors.

He also had one of the best voices ever to appear on film.

When Rickman spoke, he seemed to suck the air out of his surroundings, absorbing it with his silken purr. Fitting for an accomplished stage actor who knew the value of filling a room, Rickman's voice was deep and resonant, with the kind of intrinsic gravitas most actors need years to even approach. It didn't matter whether he was delivering a snarling monologue or tossing off a sound bite at a press junket; when Rickman spoke, you listened.

But his voice wouldn't be remembered as so iconic if he didn't know how to use it — a skill he proved again and again throughout his nearly 40-year career.

Many remember Rickman for his performance as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise, a role that spanned eight movies and a full decade. As Snape, Rickman didn't just lean into his character's amorphous morality; he relished it. In an otherwise frantic story, Rickman was never in a rush. He anchored every scene he appeared in with a languid smirk. He let his voice ooze with Snape's contempt, the resentment palpable in every dripping syllable.

But Rickman's career was, of course, so much more than just a prelude to Snape. He played villains and heroes, robots and sexual deviants, fantasy creatures and self-aware actors.

As terrorist Hans Gruber in the first Die Hard movie, Rickman cooled his voice to a disaffected deadpan, the better to sell Gruber's merciless outlook and counter Bruce Willis's hothead cop.

As the Blue Caterpillar in Tim Burton's Alice and Wonderland, Rickman imbued his voice with the dusky smoke the character exhaled, unencumbered and unconcerned. (His voice can be heard one last time in Alice's sequel, Through the Looking Glass, later this year.)

In Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility, Rickman's Colonel Brandon was the one constant amongst the Dashwoods' tumultuous drama. Brandon is a classic Austen hero; he isn't anything special until, very suddenly, he is. In this role, Rickman let his naturally mellifluous voice falter, a bit hesitant at the edges, unsure of where to settle.

When Brandon finally steps into the spotlight, it surprises Marianne, the object of his affections (Kate Winslet), but it hardly surprises the viewer. Even as he stood on the periphery, Rickman ensured that every chance Brandon had to assert himself made an impact. He might not have been as overtly dashing as some of Marianne's other suitors, but he always maintained a steadfast gaze or offered the assurance of a comforting speech.

And of course, in Dogma, Rickman played Metatron, also known as the literal voice of God — albeit a cruder, surlier one than you might expect if you're familiar with Rickman's posh natural accent.

Writing about the loss of Rickman to Newsweek, Thompson reaffirmed the power of Rickman's finely tuned performances:

What I remember most in this moment of painful leave-taking is his humor, intelligence, wisdom and kindness. His capacity to fell you with a look or lift you with a word.

The ability to hook a viewer within a few syllables is a rare quality in an actor, one that can yield performances that live long past the end credits. Rickman proved that more than just about anyone, with every meticulous twist of his velveteen voice.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.