After graduating from RADA, Rickman worked extensively with British repertory and experimental theatre groups in productions including Chekhov’s The Seagull and Snoo Wilson’s The Grass Widow at the Royal Court Theatre, and appeared three times at the Edinburgh International Festival. In 1978, he performed with the Court Drama Group, gaining roles in Romeo and Juliet and A View from the Bridge, among other plays. While working with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), he was cast as Jacques in As You Like It, contributing an essay about his process to the RSC’s book Players of Shakespeare 2. His breakthrough role was in The Barchester Chronicles (1982), the BBC’s adaptation of Trollope’s first two Barchester novels, as the Reverend Obadiah Slope.
Rickman was given the male lead, the Vicomte de Valmont, in the 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, directed by Howard Davies. After the RSC production transferred to the West End in 1986 and Broadway in 1987, Rickman received both a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk Award nomination for his performance.
In 1988, Rickman played the antagonist Hans Gruber in the action thriller Die Hard in what was his first feature film. Starring opposite Bruce Willis, Rickman’s portrayal earned him critical acclaim and a spot on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list as the 46th best villain in film history. Rickman later revealed he almost did not take the role as he did not think Die Hard was the kind of film he wanted to make.
In 1990, he played the Australian Elliot Marston opposite Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under (1990). The following year, Rickman was cast as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Reynolds’s film adaptation of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). In the film, Rickman acted opposite Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. Entertainment Weekly proclaimed that while Robin Hood « left critics and movie goers underwhelmed, Rickman’s gleefully wicked villain became the summer’s most talked-about performance ». For his performance he received the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Upon winning the award Rickman stated, « This will be a healthy reminder to me that subtlety isn’t everything ». Despite gaining acclaim within the media for his ability to portray villainous roles in films, Rickman took issue with being typecast as a villain. During this decade he would portray a range of characters that would defy media perceptions.
Rickman soon started to play leading roles such as Man, in the enigmatic film Closet Land (1991) alongside Madeleine Stowe; and he also was the romantic role of Jamie in the independent romance film Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991) which earned him another BAFTA Award nomination. The film directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Rickman and Juliet Stevenson proved to be a critical success. Rickman was able to break out of the mold of the movie villain with critic Roger Ebert noting, « The man is Rickman, who you will look at on the screen, and know you have seen somewhere, and rattle your memory all during the movie without making the connection that he was the villain in Die Hard. »
Rickman also starred in Stephen Poliakoff’s Close My Eyes (1991) with Clive Owen and Saskia Reeves. Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader praised the film and all three lead performances, calling them « edgy, powerful, and wholly convincing, with Rickman a particular standout. » All three of Rickman’s performances in Close My Eyes, Truly Madly Deeply and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves would win him the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Actor, and the same performances along with his work in Quigley Down Under would also win him the London Film Critics’ Circle Award for Actor of the Year.
A few years later he was cast as Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility (1995). The film also starred Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet. Thompson noted that Rickman could express the « extraordinary sweetness [of] his nature, » as he had played « Machiavellian types so effectively » in other films. For his performance, Rickman earned his third BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination, and his first Screen Actors Guild Award nomination. The following year he portrayed Éamon de Valera in the Neil Jordan period drama, Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts, and Stephen Rea. Rickman earned his fourth BAFTA Award nomination. In 1996, Rickman starred as the « mad monk » Rasputin in the HBO television biopic Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny. A role for which he won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie, a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie, and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Miniseries or Television Film.
Rickman directed The Winter Guest at London’s Almeida Theatre in 1995 and the film version of the same play, released in 1997, starring Emma Thompson and her real-life mother Phyllida Law.
Rickman’s stage performances in the 1990s include Antony and Cleopatra in 1998 as Mark Antony, with Helen Mirren as Cleopatra, in the Royal National Theatre’s production at the Olivier Theatre in London, which ran from October to December 1998. Rickman appeared in Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings (2000), a BBC One Christmas special with Victoria Wood, playing an aged colonel in the battle of Waterloo who is forced to break off his engagement to Honeysuckle Weeks’ character.
During his career, Rickman played comedic roles, including as Sir Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus in the cult classic sci-fi parody Galaxy Quest (1999) with Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, and Tony Shalhoub. Rockwell said that Rickman « was very instrumental in making sure the script hit the dramatic notes, and everything had a strong logic and reason behind it ». He also played the angel Metatron, the voice of God, in Kevin Smith’s Dogma (also 1999).
In 2001, he first appeared as Severus Snape, the potions master, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. His portrayal of the role throughout the Harry Potter series (2001–2011) was dark, but the character’s motivations were not clear early on.
In 2002, Rickman performed onstage in Noël Coward’s romantic comedy Private Lives. After its successful run at the Albery Theatre in the West End it transferred to Broadway and ended in September 2002; he reunited with his Les Liaisons Dangereuses co-star Lindsay Duncan and director Howard Davies in the Olivier and Tony Award-winning production.
With Katharine Viner, Rickman compiled the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie and directed the premiere production at the Royal Court Theatre in London, which opened in April 2005. He won the Theatre Goers’ Choice Awards for Best Director. Rickman befriended the Corrie family and earned their trust, and the show was warmly received. But the next year, its original New York production was « postponed » over the possibility of boycotts and protests from those who saw it as « anti-Israeli agit-prop ». Rickman denounced « censorship born out of fear ». Tony Kushner, Harold Pinter and Vanessa Redgrave, among others, criticised the decision to indefinitely delay the show. The one-woman play was put on later that year at another theatre to mixed reviews, and has since been staged at venues around the world. Despite the adverse reaction from pro-Israel groups, overall, the play was very popular, especially in London. « I never imagined that the play would create such acute controversy, » Rickman said. He added, « Many Jews supported it. The New York producer was Jewish and we held a discussion after every performance. Both Israelis and Palestinians participated in the discussions and there was no shouting in the theater. People simply listened to each other. »
In 2003, Rickman starred in the ensemble Christmas-themed romantic comedy Love Actually (2003) as Harry, the foolish husband of Emma Thompson’s character. The film, written and directed by Richard Curtis, has been called « a modern classic » by The Independent. In 2005, he lent his voice to Marvin the Paranoid Android in science fiction comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) starring Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, and Zooey Deschanel. In 2007 he played the egotistical, Nobel Prize-winning father in the black comedy Nobel Son (2007).
In early 2005, My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play composed from Corrie’s journals and emails from Gaza and compiled by Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner, in a production directed by Rickman, was presented in London and later revived in October 2005. The play was to be transferred to the New York Theatre Workshop, but when it was postponed indefinitely, the British producers denounced the decision as censorship and withdrew the show. It finally opened Off-Broadway on 15 October 2006 for an initial run of 48 performances.
Rickman was nominated for an Primetime Emmy Award for his work as Dr. Alfred Blalock in HBO’s Something the Lord Made (2004). He also starred in the independent film Snow Cake (2006) with Sigourney Weaver and Carrie-Anne Moss, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (also 2006), directed by Tom Tykwer. He appeared as Judge Turpin in the critically acclaimed Tim Burton film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) alongside Johnny Depp, and his Harry Potter co-stars Helena Bonham Carter and Timothy Spall.
In 2009, Rickman was awarded the James Joyce Award by University College Dublin’s Literary and Historical Society. In October and November 2010, Rickman starred in the eponymous role in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin alongside Lindsay Duncan and Fiona Shaw. The Irish Independent called Rickman’s performance breathtaking.
In 2010, he starred in the BBC television production The Song of Lunch alongside Emma Thompson. That same year he provided the voice of Absolem the Caterpillar in Tim Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland (2010).
Rickman again appeared as Severus Snape in the final instalment in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011). Throughout the series, his portrayal of Snape garnered widespread critical acclaim. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said Rickman « as always, makes the most lasting impression », while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine called Rickman « sublime at giving us a glimpse at last into the secret nurturing heart that … Snape masks with a sneer. » Media coverage characterised Rickman’s performance as worthy of nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His last appearance as Snape saw him receive award nominations in 2011, including at the Saturn Awards and the Scream Awards.
In November 2011, Rickman opened in Seminar, a new play by Theresa Rebeck, at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway. Rickman, who left the production in April, won the Broadway.com Audience Choice Award for Favorite Actor in a Play and was nominated for a Drama League Award. Rickman starred with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz in Gambit (2012) by Michael Hoffman, a remake of the 1966 film. In 2013, he played Hilly Kristal, the founder of the East Village punk-rock club CBGB, in the CBGB film with Rupert Grint.
In 2014, he directed and starred in the costume drama film, A Little Chaos starring Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, and Stanley Tucci. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film received mixed reviews with its critics consensus reading, « Stylish and well-acted without ever living up to its dramatic potential, A Little Chaos is shouldered by the impressive efforts of a talented cast. » The following year he starred in Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (2015) starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Barkhad Abdi. This would be Rickman’s final onscreen performance. The film debuted at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim, receiving a Rotten Tomatoes score of 95%, based on 175 critics, with the consensus being, « As taut as it is timely, Eye in the Sky offers a powerfully acted – and unusually cerebral – spin on the modern wartime political thriller. »