Having to learn the ropes on stage is part of life for Matthew Lewis in the post Harry Potter world. Sarah Freeman speaks to him about his new career.
Matthew Lewis looks a little different. Partly it’s because for the first time in years he’s shed the crooked false teeth and prosthetic ears of Neville Longbottom, the Harry Potter character he’s played in each of the seven films. Partly it’s because after worrying what would happen after the multi-billion pound franchise came to an end, he’s got a job and has learnt to relax a little.
With Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint having made a fortune from the films, there was a perception that all the cast were made for life. Lewis did well out the films, but not so well he need never work again and when filming finally came to an end last year emerging from the Hogwarts cocoon was a daunting prospect.
“Let’s just say I wasn’t throwing scripts in the bin,” says the 22-year-old, from Leeds, who spent a decade playing the accident-prone Longbottom. “Harry Potter was great for giving us all a profile in the industry, but when you leave there are a lot of people who go, ‘Right, you’re an adult now, go prove yourself’. There are some just waiting for you to fail.”
Lewis first appeared on screens in the TV drama Some Kind of Life when he was five-years-old. Bit parts in Dalziel and Pascoe, Where the Heart Is and Heartbeat followed and after a 10 minute audition at the Queens Hotel in Leeds he found himself being brought into the Potter fold.
As he says himself, he’s spent much of his life with a camera in front of his face, but like Radcliffe who first proved there was life after Harry with a critically acclaimed stage production of Equus, Lewis too yearned to try his hand at theatre.
However, after he was rejected from his first audition for a Bill Kenwright two-hander due to lack of experience, he thought he might have to rethink his plans.
“I suddenly realised that I had missed out on something. Most people go to drama school and when they graduate they start off with small parts on stage and gradually build up their portfolio. I’d bypassed all that, which was great, but it had left a bit of a hole. I was disappointed, but in my heart I knew they were right. Going from nothing to a production where at least half an entire production rested on my shoulders was just too much pressure.”
Fortunately, the company were impressed enough to call Lewis back to try out for a smaller role in a touring production of the Agatha Christie play, Verdict. He was successful and is in the middle of a six-month tour playing the idealistic student Lester Cole in the drama which premiered in 1958.
“It was a really interesting time. Before then people didn’t go to university based on their academic ability, they went on whether they had enough money. However, the class system was beginning to shift and Lester is a working-class lad, whose father probably worked in a Yorkshire mill and he gets to university on his own merit. It’s a play about ethics, moral choices and the fact education shouldn’t be about money, but about people with potential. With what’s going on with tuition fees, it seems not a lot has change over the last 50 years.”
Despite a successful audition when he arrived at the first day of rehearsals, reading through lines with veteran actors Susan Penhaligon and Robert Duncan, Lewis still couldn’t help feeling out of his depth and had to learn a whole new way of acting from scratch. “Theatre requires a much bigger performance than film. When you’re new to it like me, it almost feels like overacting. But that was the reason I was so keen to do it. It was a challenge and I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t just Neville Longbottom.
“A film camera catches every whisper and every tiny glance. I still think it’s important in theatre to internalise, because even if you are up in the Gods the audience can tell if you’re not quite feeling it, but you have to achieve that balance between subtlety and projection.
“It’s been a big learning curve. There have been some nights where I’ve come off stage and thought, ‘That was perfect’, it just felt so good and other nights when I feel like my performance didn’t quite hit the mark. I’m still trying to work out what makes the difference between performances, but people have been very patient with me, particularly Joe Harmston the director. For me it’s going back to basics and I’ve honestly loved every minute.”
If there’s one thing he hasn’t loved it’s being away from home. Lewis moved out of his parents house in Horsforth to his own place in Leeds some years ago and with the play having already taken in 12 theatres since the premiere at the Theatre Royal in Windsor in January, he hasn’t seen much of his own four walls.
“I did my 100th show last night, so just another 92 to go. It has been a bit of the shock to the system. Even when we were at full pelt filming Harry Potter I was always able to get home from London at weekends. With this job it means I’ve seen the inside of a lot of hotel rooms.
“We were in Derby recently and I drove home every night. It was an 80-mile round trip and there were some nights on the M1 when I did wonder what I was doing, but then I’d wake up in my own bed and just be glad to have a few home comforts.”
In the morning after the night before he inevitably analyses each performance, being on stage does mean he never has to watch himself back, a process he has never felt entirely comfortable with.
“I’m not the most confident actor you’ll ever meet and I am very critical. Particularly so with Harry Potter because we all developed so much over the years.
“I’d go to the premieres and that was always a buzz, but I just hate seeing myself on screen. Each time a new film came out we were already filming the next and I never really wanted to look back because I always thought I could have done it so much better.”
Lewis doesn’t come from a starry family – his mother, he says, hates being photographed and it was only when his elder brother Anthony, who recently appeared on stage in Hull opposite Kay Mellor in A Passionate Woman, joined a local drama club and started getting paid professional work, that he caught the bug.
“It did become something of family affair. My older brother Chris got dragged around with me and Anthony . He was never interested in performing, but I think he decided he wanted a piece of it and he’s now working as an editor in Bristol.”
Last year in an interview with the Yorkshire Post, Lewis admitted that with Harry Potter having been such a global success, he was worried that if he continued to act he was setting himself up for constant disappointment. Today, he’s much more philosophical.
“I’ve always worked and suddenly you wake up one day and think, ‘Is that it, will I ever get another job, will I ever get the high I did from Harry Potter?’ I feel more confident now and I guess I have more of a sense of perspective about the whole thing.
“I will get knocked-back from auditions, but I’m learning to have a little bit more faith in myself. Some actors never get to star in something as big as Harry Potter and so if that kind of success never comes again at least I had a taste of it once.
“If I don’t have a big film every year then that’s fine. As long as I’m learning, doing something that feels good and have enough money to pay the mortgage and put petrol in the car, then I’ll be happy.”
Lewis has moved on, successfully sidestepping the pitfalls which have seen so many child stars burn out before their twenties, but this July when the final film – the second instalment of The Deathly Hallows – is released he will have one last taste of Potter-mania. The round of promotional interviews will begin the month before and the cast will be reunited for the last time on the red carpet.
“All of us were in the same boat. We were young kids who didn’t know where it was going to lead. It was always a great atmosphere on set and crucially we all got on. A lot of the Harry Potter lot have been to see me, Tom Felton (who played Draco Malfoy) saw it the other night and we tend to be very supportive of what each other is doing. The fans are also incredibly loyal, one from France turned up at the theatre in Wolverhampton, now that’s what I call commitment.”