The countdown continues to the July 15 premiere of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Today, our Jevon Phillips talks to Matthew Lewis, who plays one of the more endearing characters in the magical franchise…
If there was one member of Dumbledore’s Army that you rooted for from the beginning, it was “Harry Potter’s” Neville Longbottom. A big heart, he’s always trying to do the right thing while dealing with the terrible circumstances of his parents’ brush with Lord Voldemort; Neville is a sympathetic wizard whom we can cheer for. And that was just the reaction that Matthew Lewis (and, obviously, J.K. Rowling) wanted. In the role now for about nine years, Lewis has grown up with the other Hogwarts denizens while portraying an important character that he always seems to underplay just right.
JP: Most of the people involved in the movie — actors, producers, crew, etc. — were fans of the book before coming aboard. Same with you?
ML: Yeah, absolutely! I think I’d read the first four and gotten to “Goblet of Fire” before I had my first audition. I went ahead and asked my mom if I could be a part of the film in any way, so I asked if I could go for an audition. When I heard that I was going to be Neville it was just fantastic.
JP: Were you going out specifically for the role of Neville?
ML: No, not at all. I literally said ‘I just want to be a part of this in any way.’ So I just went to the audition without any character in mind … I just wanted to do anything.
JP: There’s a story floating around about you putting on a cape and running around the room, etc. … is this true?
ML: [Laughs] I only did this once! When I was about 9, 10, I guess … I had my dressing gown on and, uh, I was just running around the house pretending to be Harry Potter for a bit.
JP: Well, I think Neville is a really cool character too. How did you approach him when you found out that’s who you’d be? I know you were pretty young.
ML: Well, yeah. I would have these chats with Christopher Columbus and we sort of talked about what really we thought Neville was all about and where he was coming from in terms of his family and his relationship with his grandmother and all that kind of thing. I went back and read the previous books, but there wasn’t really a whole lot known about Neville back then in terms of his background or his parents, and really even his character. And so when “Order of the Phoenix” came out and we found out about his background, it added a Machiavellian quality to Neville that needed to be brought in, so that was something that I really focused on.
JP: As an actor, how happy did it make you to read that?
ML: It was incredible! Neville was never really explored … but then from “Order of the Phoenix” onward, this whole new side of Neville came through and you realize why he was like he was and find out where he got his heart from and his courage. For me, it was just so wonderful because I was such a fan of the character. Then, as an actor, it became a great challenge to bring all of those emotions to the role.
JP: How’s the relationship between all of you actors who have grown up together on the set?
ML: Well, people ask me that question all the time. And you’d expect me to say ‘Oh yeah, everyone gets on great’ — but no one really believes me. You know, if you stick a lot of people together at such a young age and for such a long time, you automatically expect there to be arguments — you expect there to be fallouts and for people to not get on. But somehow, remarkably, we all just get on so well. It’s been a fantastic nine years really, and I’m looking forward to the next couple.
We spend time with each other off the set. We like the same sorts of music, we all have the same sort of sense of humor and comedy likes … we just get on so great. I think it really shows on camera. You know when James and Oliver Phelps, who play the Weasley twins, and Rupert, who plays Ron, when they’re in scenes, a lot of the banter that they have as brothers is ad-libbed, and they can do that kind of stuff because they just get along so well.
JP: I’m sure everyone by now really feels they know their characters, so how much freedom do you guys really get to ad-lib?
ML: We do get a lot … we really do … and David Yates is fantastic and the perfect type of director for that sort of thing. He’ll sort of chat with us and say ‘Well, here’s my idea for this character in this particular scene, but you’ve been playing this guy for nine years, so what do you think?’ Then he’ll let me say my bit and we’ll talk it out and make an agreement on something and usually it turns out to be perfect. Honestly, we can spin our ideas forward and David’ll always listen, even if he thinks something else. Yeah, he’s a great director for that.
JP: Was there anything where you thought ‘Hey, Neville would do this,’ but it was an action that may NOT have been written in the books?
ML: Umm, well, I try to not stray too much from the character in the book. Neville’s walk, really, is something I spent a lot of time trying to perfect. She never really mentioned it in the book. It’s interesting though, because he is a shy, vulnerable person that becomes quite courageous and rebellious. In the previous films, he was always the sort of person I imagined with his shoulders low and sort of shuffling his feet along trying to keep out of people’s way. It was never really mentioned in the book, but was something I felt was quite important for Neville. I felt like for someone so physical as Neville, it was an important element that needed to be brought in — even if Neville was sort of walking in the background, you could identify and people could sort of feel sorry for him.
JP: So you’re walking around your hometown and you’ve been in your role for a while now, have you adjusted to it? And how did you adjust?
ML: You know, it’s strange really. When I’m in my hometown, a lot of people know who I am and the work I do. And because they know me, they really don’t care that much. Not many people will ever walk up to me, though I do get recognized every once in a while … I love it when fans come up and talk to me, though. I love it when they tell me what they think.
A lot of it is probably also because I wear a fat suit in the films, and I look different when I take it off at the end of the day — and I always cut my hair after filming. People may recognize me and say, ‘Well no, it can’t be him.’ That sort of stuff happens more in London instead of where I live in Leeds. They don’t really care. They just let me get on with it at home … The most I ever get recognized is when I’m abroad.
JP: Have there been any hugely strange encounters yet?
ML: Usually fans are OK. On the whole, they’re pretty cool people. There was this lady — and again, she was lovely — instead of coming over to me, she went to my parents. She singled my mom out and she sort of grabbed my mom’s hand and she looked her in the eye and said ‘Thank you for giving birth to him.’ My mom was so confused! She was like ‘What?!’ That was pretty strange.
JP: You’re filming or about to film ‘Deathly Hallows,’ and Stuart Craig said the films have always been dark, but how do you feel about the films’ increasing darkness?
ML: There has been an element of darkness all the way through. You have this evil element in Voldemort, a sort of ultimate evil all the way through. But the previous films have always had a sort of happy ending and they all develop friendship and love, and it started to get — towards 5 and now 6 — where the happy endings were not so easy. And especially here in the “Half-Blood Prince,” it’s not a ‘nice’ story. It’s very dramatic, very dark, and it’s really got this sense of foreboding throughout the film that just keeps getting worse because Voldemort’s getting away with it every year. Harry’s not saving the day anymore. In that respect, it’s definitely getting darker.
I will say one thing about “Half-Blood Prince,” though. Though it is much more sinister, there’s a lovely balance this year with the comedy as well that makes it more relatable.
JP: That’s interesting. There’ve been funny parts, but comedy doesn’t always come to mind when you think of “Harry Potter.”
ML: Absolutely, I totally agree. It’s not the first thing you’d think to associate, but this year, it’s almost a romantic comedy actually. There’s a lot of … well, the hormones are raging this year with all of the 16- and 17-year-olds .. it makes for some very very uncomfortable moments. And Jim Broadbent comes in, and he’s in top form. His comedy timing is superb.
JP: You mentioned hormones and such. Has there been anything hormonal going on on-set between all of you young people?
ML: [Laughs] Well, it’s sort of strange because we all live in different parts, dotted around England. So when we’re at the studio — well excluding Dan, Rupe and Emma who are always there — we’re not there the whole time. We’re sort of there for about six months during the year with six months off. It’s like we all lead these double lives. People tend to have their relationships, boyfriends and girlfriends, back home and nothing really sort of happens at the studio. I can’t speak for the crew! But for the cast, not much goes on. I mean, like Emma Watson is everyone’s little sister.
JP: What kind of things do you want to do/do you see yourself doing when “Deathly Hallows” is done? I know that’s a while away, though.
ML: Yeah, well, I’ve been acting since I was 5. I really don’t know what I would do without it, so I guess that’s what I want to do! Just to continue down this road as long as I can. But I know it’s a business where there’s no guarantees, so I’m prepared for that … I applied for University and I’d like to do film study and philosophy … so I’ll just carry on at this [acting] for five or six years, and if that doesn’t work out, I can always go back to University and get another job. But for now, [acting’s] my 100% focus.
JP: Back to acting then … Was there anything you didn’t get to do as Neville?
ML: There was some stuff that we got to do that was cut out, which is always a shame. Remember in the “Order of the Phoenix,” the big battle at the end in the Ministry of Magic? We shot a lot that wasn’t included in the film. The room with the brains in it I was kind of looking forward to seeing … The one scene in particular that I really wanted to do as an actor was the St. Mungo’s Hospital scene where we see Neville’s parents for the first time. It was just something that I thought was really important to the character cause it showed a really soft side to him. His parents were there and they didn’t recognize him and there was that lovely bit where they give him the sweet … I remember when I was reading it in the book and it was tear-jerking and really, really endearing. I just thought in that one scene it really showed what Neville was all about. How he’s got all this heart, and even though the doctors are saying that they don’t know who you are, he still believes in them. And I thought ‘That’s Neville.’ That heart, that courage, that belief showed what Neville Longbottom was all about. And as an actor, it’s a shame that we didn’t get to do that. I’ve never really had to do anything on that level emotionally, so that would’ve been a great challenge.
— Jevon Phillips
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Photos: Top – Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Middle – Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). Credit: Warner Bros. Bottom – A more recent headshot of Matthew Lewis.