"I'm a lot less serious than people think," says British screen favourite Alan Rickman. "It's probably because the way my face is put together." It would be safe to say the actor's solemn reputation isn't just down to his angular features, however, as the sinister roles he's best known for must also have played a role.
As for so many of the English performers who have made their mark in Hollywood, Alan's first stop on the road to fame was London's West End. After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he quickly earned a reputation as one of the theatre's hottest young talents. It was also here that he first started winning notoriety as a villain par excellence.
His devilish portrayal of Valmont in the sexually-charged drama Les Liaisons Dangereuses was roundly applauded by critics, and the actor was later asked to reprise the role on Broadway. And it wasn't just theatre buffs who were impressed by his talent. When heavyweight producer Joel Silver saw the show it was enough to convince him Alan would be perfect for the role of Hans Gruber, the leader of a gang of ruthless mercenaries, in the Bruce Willis shoot-em-up Die Hard.
And although his decision to trade the boards for a big budget action flick raised a few eyebrows among London's thespian elite, the then 41-year-old soon proved he could be just as menacing on the big screen as he was on the stage. "All sorts of people asked me why I wanted to be in a movie like Die Hard," recalls the actor. "It was a big holiday for me because I didn't have to go on stage every night. It was also something I'd never done before, and I like all that in life."
But despite his immediate popularity with the movie-going public, Alan wasn't about to limit himself to playing bad guys. The unconventional drama Close My Eyes, in which he starred opposite a youthful Clive Owen, showed a softer side to his persona, while his portrayal of a lovelorn ghost in Truly Madly Deeply won him legion new fans among the world's hopeless romantics.
It wasn't too long before the media were dubbing him "the thinking woman's crumpet", an accolade which he was quick to reject. Regardless of how cinema's female fans may have felt about him, his only real romantic interest was Labour politician Rima Horton, with whom he has been happily involved since his early 20s. "I think every relationship should be allowed to have its own rules," says Alan. "She's tolerant. She's incredibly tolerant. Unbelievably tolerant. Possibly a candidate for sainthood."
The performer's other high-profile movie appearances include costume drama Sense And Sensibility and comedy Love Actually, but his unique talent for the fiendish has never dimmed. Indeed his comical turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves led the American actor to ask that his role be fleshed out so as not to be overshadowed.
Alan was again called upon to show just how much fun being bad can be when fellow Brit Tim Roth pulled out of the first Harry Potter movie. The actor had no trouble in making the role of Hogwarts' sinister Professor Severus Snape his own, and he has since brought a touch of light-hearted austerity to four highly successful sequels.
Now firmly established as one of Britain's most important and best-loved acting talents, the gentle Englishman has clocked up well over 30 big screen credits. It's a remarkable CV for a man who originally planned to become a graphic designer, only turning to acting when, after founding his own company in Soho, he realised that drama was his true love.
And his achievements are made all the more impressive by the personal challenges he has had to overcome along the way. Born into a working class family in London's Hammersmith area in 1946, he and his three siblings were still young children when they lost their father, a painter and decorator, to cancer. And despite the silky baritone voice that has become Alan's trademark, he also required treatment for a speech disability that made his words muffled and unclear.
Such a troubled childhood might not be what one would expect of someone with such a calm demeanour, but Alan Rickman is a man of many contradictions. Indeed it was quite an irony that his breakthrough role saw him playing a cold-blooded gangster, as the renowned actor can't stand the sight of guns.
Anyone wondering why his character in Die Hard was only seen firing his pistol once might be amused to learn director John McTiernan had to rethink some scenes because Alan flinched every time he pulled the trigger. But then another facet of the performer's personality that contrasts sharply with the men he plays is his willingness to laugh at himself. "I take my work seriously," he says. "And the best way to do that is not to take yourself too seriously."