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Harry Melling could have been trapped being Dudley Dursley all his life.
The British actor was 10 when he was cast to play Harry Potter’s portly, bullying muggle cousin in the fantasy film franchise. Short cameos in five Potter films could have condemned Melling to a lifetime of C-list celebrity “Where Are They Now?” features.
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Instead, Melling, quietly and without much fuss — he is English after all — has become a bit of a thing. He’s followed up scene-stealing performances in a string of Netflix hits —The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Old Guard, The Queen’s Gambit — with a supporting turn as Malcolm alongside Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in Joel Coen’s awards-season favorite The Tragedy of Macbeth. These days, Shakespeare nerds are as likely to recognize Melling as are Potterheads.
“I’ve avoided the stigma of the child actor; I don’t know how I managed it,” Melling told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of his first major leading role, opposite Andrea Riseborough and Demi Moore in Please Baby Please. The experimental drama from director Amanda Kramer, which sees Melling play Arthur, a ’50s-era married man questioning his gender identity, kicked off the 2022 International Film Festival Rotterdam on Wednesday night.
I just finished a Harry Melling double bill. I watched Please Baby Please and caught Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Oh, I’m sorry, that’s too much Melling for one day.
Both are very theatrical, very deliberately staged. What’s the appeal for you? You have a background in theater.
To be honest, it’s a coincidence, not a calculated thing. But I love theater. I went to drama school when I was 18 and spent the five years prior to that just doing theater. Hopefully, theater will be always something I will come back to and will remain a huge part of my artistic life because I love it so much. Obviously, I’m a huge Shakespeare nerd. So that’s why Macbeth was such an appealing project, alongside the cast and of course, Joel [Coen]. I was very lucky to be a part of that.
With [Please Baby Please], director Amanda [Kramer]’s project, I loved the theatricality of it. I think both films straddle a very cinematic world, but also very theatrical worlds. I don’t think cinema does very often, actually. It’s quite unusual that I’ve managed to do two projects back to back that have both straddled both of those worlds.
What does that “straddling” allow you to do as an actor that you couldn’t do in, say, a film more grounded in realism?
I think it invites you to take risks. As a performer, I like to lean toward performances that are risky, that are bold. I’ve always found that to be the most exciting way of engaging. What Coen is doing stylistically [with Macbeth] is different, as is Please Baby Please. It allows you to sort of reinvent how you’re going to engage with their worlds and with the audience. Potentially, you’re in new territory, which is always the most exciting place to be. I think both of those directors have unique visions that allow you as a performer to really take risks and jump.
What was the riskiest thing about your performance as Arthur in Please Baby Please?
What I find fascinating about Arthur is, very early on in the film, there’s something that shakes him up completely. And he’s very withdrawn, just receiving the world, through [Andrea Riseborough’s character] Sue and the other characters. And yet the dialogue, what he says, it’s like this very witty, strange poetry. When I first read the script, I thought: how can I marry these two elements? Because Arthur has a lot of very quiet moments. He’s often in the background, taking in the craziness around him, all the wild antics that Amanda is putting on in the film. And then he performs this very full, very poetic language. It’s a balance between both being receptive and this frustration he feels, with expectations, the frustration he feels with gender roles, which is addressed in a very direct way.
The issues addressed in the film, about gender roles, about gender-switching, seem quite radical for cinema, but they’re actually quite common on stage, at least in Europe. You were in the Old Vic Theatre’s production of King Lear, which had Glenda Jackson as a female Lear.
I completely agree. I think there’s something about Amanda’s writing, which does read like theater. In theater, you can be way more direct than film usually is. Film usually lives in the subtext. Here, Amanda is saying it how it is. These characters say what they are feeling. There’s a level in this world that is operating in a very direct way. When I first read the script, it felt like a longform poem. These characters are spilling out their insights as opposed to trying to cover them up. It has a very European flavor to it. I love going to Germany and watching theater there because it’s in the same kind of key, where you have characters that just go for it. They’re not being weighed down by the subtext, they are just fully alive, vivid, and colorful.
Several of the scenes, and your last scene, could have been taken directly from a 1950s musical.
Please Baby Please is probably the closest thing that I’ve ever come to doing a musical professionally. That dance at the end was a lot of fun to do. I know this expression gets bandied about a lot, but when I read Amanda’s script, I just thought: I’ve never read anything like this. It’s like West Side Story-meets-David Lynch.
How do you feel about where you are now in your career? You’re one of the few actors who made the shift from child performer to adult actors smoothly without being typecast.
I can’t really tell you how that happened. I don’t really know. One thing, maybe, was [after the Harry Potter films] going to drama school at age 18, because I knew I wanted to do theater. And I just felt I needed it. Maybe that helped. I’ve always been very forward-thinking, I haven’t really sort of dwelled in, in the past too much.
For me, it’s always been about the work, about trying to find good and interesting and unique work. And I’ve always loved the magic that happens when you see actors transform into the different people who you don’t recognize. It’s like a magic trick. I’ve always wanted to be that kind of actor, one that can shift between genres, between theater and film, and maybe even musicals, who knows?
Maybe that goes a way to explaining why I haven’t gotten so stuck with the stigma of being a child actor, which really can happen.
Please Baby Please is a lead role, and you’re in Pittsburgh now shooting The Pale Blue Eye, where you’re also the lead, playing a young Edgar Allen Poe. Are you ready to be a leading man?
You know, I was saying to a friend the other day: I’m quite glad that this transition into having more responsibility on my films has happened now. I’ve been in this environment, this film environment, since I was 10. I know the stamina it requires when you are the lead. So I’m glad it’s happening now because I feel I’m ready for it, you know? I don’t feel overwhelmed by these amazing opportunities that are coming my way, which might have happened if they came straight off the back of Harry Potter. So I’m enjoying it. I’m having a great time.
Interview edited for space and clarity.