Sipping Wine and Learning the True Definition of Acting from Severus Snape

Looking back on a life lesson from one of the acting greats

For a decade, Los Angeles magazine ran a feature in which we had to “do something” with a celebrity. One of the great perks of assigning and editing those stories as I did was getting first dibs on the subjects I personally wanted to interview. Which is how, in 2008, I ended up spending a day wine tasting with Alan Rickman.

It was announced today that the superbly talented British actor died of cancer at 69. As soon as I heard the news, I thought of his many memorable roles—a long and wonderfully curvy line that stretches from Hans Gruber in Die Hard to Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films—and of course of how much I’d miss the gift that was to see him perform. I also immediately thought of a conversation we had in the car that didn’t make it into my wine-tasting story but that turned my whole notion of acting upside down.

Rickman was in L.A. only for the day, staying at a friend’s home on the beach in Malibu and without a car. His rep had suggested a service to pick him up and take him to the photo shoot, and then to the winery on PCH where he and I had planned to sip some whites and reds. (The conceit was tied to his upcoming role as the famed English wine shop owner Steven Spurrier in the film Bottle Shock.) Instead I suggested myself as driver, my excuse being I needed more time for the interview than the wine tasting would allow and we could chat in the car. I pulled up in my husband’s Honda Civic, and Rickman was everything I hoped for and more—warm and wry, delicate yet masculine. He reminded me so much of a soothing glass of red that I described him thusly in the story. On our drive he ended up asking me as many questions as I could ask him. Some writers see this as a diversionary ploy by an actor who doesn’t want to talk about him or herself, but I felt like he was a genuinely interested and curious human being.

Rickman portrayed potions professor Severus Snape in eight Harry Potter films
Rickman portrayed potions professor Severus Snape in eight Harry Potter films

Photograph courtesy facebook/harrypottermovie

When he discovered through his line of inquiry that I had switched career paths and dropped a hoped-for life in theater for one in journalism, he asked if I missed the stage. I told him that I loved my career now—after all, I could profile people like him—but that I was in fact hit with the occasional waves of “what if.” I had thought I’d be a stage director, maybe like my dad, but I was surprised by how much I actually missed acting. I told him I had had many moments in my adult life, mostly around times of deep loss, when I wished I could hide behind the many different masks that acting had afforded me. He disagreed. Acting wasn’t about hiding behind masks or pretending to be someone else, he told me. It was about exposure, about putting yourself out there and using all of that pain—and happiness, too—to inform everything you do. He was passionate without an iota of pretension. I should try acting again, he said (I still haven’t). What I did do is re-watch his films, and I could see in his eyes, his gestures, his every reaction, all that he had told me. His characters were always naked and exposed, from his breakthrough role in Truly, Madly, Deeply to his hilarious yet poignant turn in Galaxy Quest to the cheating and regretful husband he plays in Love, Actually.

I learned more from Alan Rickman about the craft of acting that afternoon (as he sat in the passenger seat of the Honda, no less) than I could in any book. It changed the way I judged an actor’s performance, whether on stage or on-screen. Look closely and you’ll see: There are those who put it all out there, and there are those who hide behind a mask. Severus Snape was never afraid to be fully exposed.