Rickman, the epitome of Englishness

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British researchers announced this spring that they had used a mathematical formula to determine the ideal human voice. The well-known actors who came closest to having the perfect male voice, they declared, were Jeremy Irons and Alan Rickman.

Mr. Rickman, speaking by telephone from New York, hadn’t heard of this research. He didn’t sound much impressed by it, either.

“All I can say is you probably know only too well that we hear our own voices completely different to the way other people hear them,” he says. “Watching a film I’ve been in is a painful experience. I think, ‘That isn’t what I was doing.’”

Mr. Rickman has been a fixture on the big screen since he made his feature-film debut in 1988’s “Die Hard” as the deliciously evil mastermind Hans Gruber. Though some seem to think he specializes in villains - he also was memorable as the Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” - he has played just about every type of role. He was a romantic lead in Anthony Minghella’s debut “Truly Madly Deeply” and the Jane Austen adaptation “Sense and Sensibility.” He was the Spock-type character in the parody “Galaxy Quest.” He’s portrayed the ambiguous Professor Severus Snape in all the Harry Potter films.

He even made his first musical last year with “Sweeney Todd.” Given that he’s not too fond of his own voice, one has to wonder if the actor found the experience just a little scary.

“I like scary,” he responds. “It reminds you that you’re still alive.”

Mr. Rickman plays a real-life figure in his latest film, which opened in theaters this week. “Bottle Shock” is about the famous Judgment of Paris wine tasting in 1976 in which California red and white wines beat their French counterparts in a blind taste test by French judges. The film focuses on the white wines, and Bill Pullman and Chris Pine play the father and son whose Napa Valley winery is struggling to survive.

The best part of the film, though, is Mr. Rickman’s Steven Spurrier. The English wine expert has a wine store in Paris and organizes the tasting at the urging of an American friend who thinks California wines are ready for the world stage. The snobbish Mr. Spurrier doesn’t expect them to beat the tradition-soaked French grapes. Old World meets New World in an age-old story of culture clash.

“You’ve got an immediately visual parallel,” Mr. Rickman notes. “There they are in jeans, straw hanging out of their mouths almost, and me, an alien, arriving in suit and tie with a briefcase and not changing, even though it’s 100 degrees out. That kind of English stupidity is fun to play.”

Mr. Rickman is one of those English actors who seems to ooze Englishness. The snobby type he plays in “Bottle Shock” is a long way from his own humble, working-class background, however. “The English class system has rich pickings in terms of characters to play,” Mr. Rickman says. That class system flourishes even today, he says, though a lot has changed since he was born in London in 1946.

“If you think back to what happened in the ‘60s, when suddenly it became fashionable to speak with a Liverpool or cockney accent, young English people formed a kind of new aristocracy, I suppose. And certainly politically, it’s no good anymore just having the gentry running the country,” he says. “But one’s still aware of it in economic terms.”

The snobbish Mr. Spurrier turns out to be one of the heroes of this story, helping open up an entire industry to Americans.

“It has an amazing response from audiences,” Mr. Rickman says of the film. “It doesn’t have to be an audience that gives two hoots about wine, because the story’s about more than that. It’s very timely, I think. It’s good for America to celebrate.”

Mr. Rickman is considering buying a place in the United States because he spends so much time in Manhattan and says, “I love New York, and I’m immensely grateful to America.” He’s heading back to London at the end of the week, though, to direct August Strindberg’s “Creditors” at the Donmar Warehouse. After that, he’ll begin work on his second film as director, an adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s 1935 novel “The House in Paris.”

His directorial debut was 1997’s “The Winter Guest,” which won a number of awards at international film festivals. He got some very special insight into the craft from Mr. Minghella, who died earlier this year. Has he sometimes thought of the great director in the months since his death?

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