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Alan Rickman at BAM. Credit: Elena Olivo

Alan Rickman bristles a bit whenever anyone says he specializes in playing villains.

The British actor made an appearance one night last week after a packed screening of Die Hard at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he’d just completed a sold-out run as star of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman.

After watching Rickman’s performance as Die Hard‘s evil Hans Gruber, one young woman in the audience suggested that Rickman had played a “plethora” of movie villains.

“Plethora?” he repeated back to her, in his famous purring lilt. “Plethora? All two of them?” he asked, plaintively, of his villain roles, referring also to his portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Rickman didn’t invent the suave villain, but there’s no question that, with his performance in Die Hard, he perfected the role for the modern action movie. In many ways, Rickman’s villain is as iconic as Bruce Willis‘s hero. His Hans Gruber character even made the American Film Institute’s list of 50 greatest movie villains.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that “the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture,” and, if Rickman is wrongly saddled with the villain label, it was perhaps cemented with the runaway success of Die Hard, his first movie.

Tuesday night, Rickman explained how he crafted Hans Gruber precisely by not thinking of labels. “I don’t see any of them as one word,” he said of his roles. “It doesn’t matter what I’m playing: it’s not one word, and I think any actor would say the same.”

When he read the Die Hard script, he said, it became quite clear to him that Gruber, the leader of a terrorist group, didn’t actually do “any of the hard work.” When Rickman went for his initial costume fittings, he said that he was confronted by an array of “terrorist gear, padded jackets and all that stuff.”

Rickman wondered why Gruber would be wearing any terrorist gear at all.

“I’ve got this bunch of hulks who are going to do all the dirty work, and I never seem to get my hands dirty,” he said. “If I’m the one who doesn’t get his hands dirty, then maybe I could wear a suit.”

“And if I was wearing a suit,” he continued, “then maybe I could meet Bruce Willis, and then if I met Bruce Willis, I could then pretend to be an American hostage.” Rickman’s approach helped the screenwriters to overcome a major dramatic problem in earlier versions of the script: the two protagonists originally didn’t meet until the end of the movie.

And as an urbane, gentlemanly master criminal the audience loves to watch, he’s an even more formidable foe to Willis’s hero. He was, Rickman said, “interesting to play because his deadliness is completely tied up with his politeness.”

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By Paul Hechinger