When Matthew Lewis auditioned for a role in the first film adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, he already had half a dozen film and TV credits to his name. But since 2001, he’s mostly been visible as Neville Longbottom, the Potter series’ chubby, hapless kid turned sword-wielding hero. Cast at the same time as child actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Tom Felton, among others, he grew up onscreen alongside them, appearing in all eight Potter movies. Early on, his character was a comic-relief bumbler who nonetheless earned respect by standing up to his friends; in later movies, he proved unskilled at magic, but determined to stand up for himself. In the final movie, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, he finally comes into his own as a hero, shedding the fake teeth and prosthetic ear-extenders he’s been stuck in since the beginning, and the fat suit he’s had to wear since movie No. 2. Lewis recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the fat suit, making a decision at age 11 that determined the next decade of his career, and why no one in his hometown cares about his celebrity.
The A.V. Club: What was your original audition process like?
Matthew Lewis: Well, I was 11 years old, and I’d just read the first four books. Absolutely in love with the story. They announced a film, and I was with a kids’ performing actors’ agency, and I’d done various television stuff in the UK from age 5. And they put up a big sign in the main reception of this performing-arts place that said “Open auditions in Leeds for Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone.” That’s where I lived. And I just couldn’t believe it. I was so excited. I wanted to go down there, and my mum took me. A lot of people from the performing-arts group went. And there were a lot of people around us with books, dressed up. There were people doing vocal exercises. At 11, I didn’t know what any of that was. And I just sort of sat there being very confused. And we queued for four or five hours! We were given a raffle ticket that said “463” on it. That was my place in the queue. And then we were given a paragraph in the book to read. It was the paragraph about Norbert the dragon, when Harry finally clicks what it was all about. And then we went into the room and we’re sitting in front of the camera, read the paragraph, and get, “Thanks very much! See ya later!” Probably less than 30 seconds. I read on the news later that night that 40,000 people had applied across the nation.
And then within a few weeks, they announced Dan, Rupert, Emma, the main three, at a big press conference. And two months passed before I heard anything else. Having done television, I was used to either being aware whether I got the part within the same day, or within two, three days max. But two months passed, nothing. I thought, “Maybe for Chamber Of Secrets. Maybe try again for the next film.” So out of the blue, we got a phone call saying, “Would you like to come down and meet Christopher Columbus? He’ll be directing the film.” And I had a screen test and an audition for the role of Neville Longbottom. I knew the character was brilliant. Little did I know what he was going to go on to do later, but I knew it was pretty fantastic. And I wonder now, when I think back, if Chris Columbus knew. ’Cause J.K. Rowling had it all in her head, what was gonna happen, but I wonder if Christopher Columbus knew back then what Neville was gonna go on to do. I’ll have to ask him.
AVC: With only four of the books out, you knew Neville as a bumbling outsider character—the first several films marginalize him or make him a joke. As a child, did you have any problems being cast that way? Did you ever have a moment of “I don’t see myself that way”?
ML: No. It wasn’t a job at that point. It was just something I enjoyed doing. And it’s hard to remember back then, really, that much. But I just remember loving it. And I love making people laugh, and to be able to be that humorous character was great. And I actually was very similar to Neville. I was very shy and chubby-cheeked. I wasn’t bullied at school, but I wasn’t particularly outgoing. We were similar. And so I loved playing him. It was great. And then as he evolved, it became different. So those early days were fun. And the comic-relief side of it—I thought that’s all he was! And I embraced that. I didn’t expect him to go on and become a hero.
AVC: As you mentioned, you had half a dozen film and TV credits before you started the Harry Potter series, but you haven’t done much in either medium since. You’ve been involved in theater instead. Do you prefer theater?
ML: I don’t, actually. I love it. I did enjoy theater. I actually do prefer making films and television, but it was a learning experience for me, because I got into television at 5 and film at 11, and theater was something I completely bypassed. And you hear about all the great British thespians doing stuff on the West End and that kind of thing, and I missed out on that. Alan Rickman actually suggested to me that I should try it. And I thought, “Geez, I really don’t want to do that.” But he must have recommended it for a reason, so when an opportunity came up, I took it. And it was tough. It was hard! But by the end of it, I absolutely loved it. It was such a different school of acting. But it really is a foundation of everything. It’s where it all started! And I feel like I learned so much. It gave me the confidence to believe I could play something else, ’cause it was so difficult. It was me out of my comfort zone. It gave me the confidence to believe that I could push myself and challenge myself and still succeed. Yeah. I’m very, very glad I did it. And I’m very keen, now, to take what I learned there into more television and film.
AVC: Did there tend to be that kind of mentoring relationship between the adult actors and the kids on the set?
ML: Yeah, there was. Particularly with Dan, who was there all the time. The other actors really saw in him somebody who had all this fame thrust upon him, and I think they were very keen to look after him and make sure he coped with it. But with all of us, I think they inspired us a lot more than they realized just by being around, being on set, being who they were. Their professionalism, the way they got into character, the way they just held themselves. They were all just… Michael Gambon telling filthy jokes and Alan Rickman talking about scrambled eggs, just really normal things, and yet they’re these amazingly, superb, famous actors. Yeah, it was great. I feel so privileged to have been around them. Jason Isaacs really… As well as Alan Rickman, who mentored a lot. He was very keen to offer his opinions on stuff. Not in a pretentious way. Not in a patronizing way.
And these were things that, at that age, I never contemplated. I just went in there and did my acting. I never thought, “What’s the character actually feeling here? What’s he trying to get across?” And never looked at it from that classically trained actor’s point of view. And so when Jason Isaacs started throwing up these ideas, I thought, “Whoa. What an interesting way to look at acting.” Which is why, again, I would do theater. To see this way of getting into a character. ’Cause obviously, when you’re in theater, you have to be in character. You have to prepare for the unexpected. You have to be able to react to things that don’t necessarily happen every night, or aren’t supposed to happen every night. And you have to react to it in character. In six months, 192 shows, those things did happen. And the experience of that, the ability to stay in character, I feel like I’ve learned a great deal.
AVC: With the first Harry Potter film, you were contracted just for that film, with the option for one sequel. At what point do you think it was assumed that the cast that had been hired as 10- and 11-year-olds were going to be with the films for the entire series?
ML: I didn’t really feel that way until No. 5, I think. We signed onto No. 1 with an option on No. 2, No. 3 with an option on No. 4. And then signed up for No. 5, and then No. 6 separately, and then No. 7 and 8 together. I thought they might recast me after No. 2, after I grew up, lost weight, got taller, which was by mistake. By accident. I didn’t plan that. I thought they might recast me. They didn’t. Then they had to stick the fat suit on, the false teeth, and the ears, and it was a chore. I thought after No. 4, they’d probably get sick of all this stuff they had to do, they might recast me. They didn’t. Came in to No. 5, and at that point, I think we got to the age where we were actual actors. We had to become the characters. I guess they really could have recast me, but after No. 5, that’s when I felt comfortable that, if they were going to do all the films, I was going to see it out.
AVC: You basically made a decision at 11 that controlled the next decade of your life. Did that ever strike you as odd?
ML: Yeah. It is strange, really. I never really looked at it like that, but it’s true. It’s weird that it’s been half my life. Because I lead these two separate lives. I’ve got my life and Harry Potter, where I travel the world, I make films, I meet amazing people, I do press junkets and stuff. And then I go back home to Leeds, where I live, and I’ve got the same friends from before. I still go to the pub. I still go to watch the football, soccer. And I go shopping at my local shop. Don’t get paparazzi following me everywhere. My life there is exactly the same as it would have been if I had not been in Harry Potter. So for me, Harry Potter isn’t something that changed my life. It’s just something I did that was a lot of fun, and I got to experience amazing things from. But my actual, personal life is the same. Or at least I like to keep it the same. That’s why I’ve got all the same friends. That’s why I go back to Leeds as much as possible. I don’t know if you know much about England, but Yorkshire is a very sobering place. In the North. It’s very gritty. Old mining villages. And people don’t really care about celebrities up there. And it’s great. And that’s why I get back there whenever I can. ’Cause it keeps me very grounded, and it keeps my life very normal, whatever that is.
AVC: Given your central, significant part in this film, are you dealing with media and public attention now on a different scale than you ever have before?
ML: Yeah. Yeah, it’s all a bit overwhelming, to be honest with you. I’ve got a publicist now, which is weird. Just to take care of all that kind of stuff. And you know, he’s calling me saying, “Have you seen this? Have you seen that?” I’m like, “Yeah. It’s crazy.” It’s overwhelming. I don’t really know what to make of it. I don’t know how Dan does it. I mean, his must be a bazillion times more than I’ve received in the last week or so. But he takes it all in a stride. But it’s all, for me… I can’t wait to go back home and disappear into relative obscurity for a bit. I just want to go back to my house and just get away from it all for a bit. [Pause.] It’s lovely! It’s so flattering to hear people say nice things about the performance, about the film. It’s great. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not shunning it. It’s just been such a bubble I’ve been in, with these promotions from the last 10, 12 days. I’m trying to process it all and I can’t really, until I get out of it. So I need to go home and just sit and think for a bit. It’s weird.
AVC: Speaking of processing, Rolling Stone recently asked you what you thought Neville’s favorite Beatles song would be.
ML: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: Do you get a lot of questions like that, where you’re asked to extrapolate the character for people and make judgments about his life off the page?
ML: Hmm, sometimes. Sometimes. Again, it’s an interesting thing. These are the kind of things that, years ago, I would’ve gone, “I don’t know. I have no idea.” But it really is very much an actor’s responsibility to know these things. Emma Watson was saying the other day that when Helena [Bonham Carter] was becoming [Hermione], or trying to become her for the polyjuice-potion sequence in this film, she was trying to take on Emma’s mannerisms, and she was asking Emma questions like, “What’s Hermione’s favorite color?” You know, because she wanted to absorb all this information and to know, in here [touches temple] what she was like. And as I’ve tried to develop as an actor, I see that these things, however much they seem insignificant… By knowing what’s Neville’s favorite Beatles song, you can know so much! In fact, my favorite Beatles song is “In My Life.” And from that, you can gauge that my friends mean so much to me. I love John Lennon, so it’s kind of like moody… There’s a lot you can gauge from that. As insignificant as it seems, as an actor, it’s an interesting way to approach a character.
AVC: There’s a lot more of Neville in the books than in the films. As the books continued to come out, and you got to read them years before the scripts came out, did you build up any anticipation for scenes that wound up being cut? Was there anything you were particularly disappointed about not getting to play out?
ML: One thing. And I hate bringing it up, because I think [screenwriter] Steve Kloves does such a difficult job. And he does a bloody brilliant job, too. Transferring these books into films and making them coherent is one thing. But making them entertaining, as well, is quite another… He does a tremendous job, and he gets a lot of stick. And it’s really unfair sometimes, and I challenge anyone else to do the job he does. And so I do feel bad bringing it up, but there was one scene in No. 5, when Neville is visiting his parents in the hospital. And [director] David Yates loved it, and I know Steve loved it, ’cause J.K. loved it. Again, the reason I feel bad for Steve is because he doesn’t enjoy cutting these things out. He’s not sitting there with scissors, just laughing maniacally, going, “Ahahaha.” He doesn’t like doing it. The stories mean so much to him. But it had to go. And David kept saying, “We’re gonna try, we’re gonna try, we’re gonna try” all the way into the shoot until the very last days, when he said, “Sorry, it’s just not gonna work.”
But yeah, I would have liked to see it simply because it explains so much about Neville. About who he is. That tender moment when his mother gives him that sweet-wrapper, and it’s so insignificant, and his Gran dismisses it and says, “She doesn’t know what she’s doing.” But to Neville, it’s the most beautiful moment. In his mind, that’s his mother recognizing him. And it’s tear-jerking when you read the book. It’s amazing. And it’s his love for his parents and his friends that is really spurring him on. You would have really seen why Neville was trying so hard to overcome this fear and become a wizard so he can fight the Death Eaters, and why he stands up to them, and why he has that rousing speech at the end of this. It’s because of his parents. And I would have liked to have seen that. And also, it would have been great to see the wonderful Kenneth Branagh back as Gilderoy Lockhart, too! So that would have been cool.
AVC: There was a big kerfuffle in the middle of this series where Emma Watson seriously talked about walking away from the franchise before it ended. Did you ever consider that yourself?
ML: I don’t think leave the franchise. Not wanting to act, yes. I think it was that stage of rebellion, really. Everyone goes through it. I thought, “I’ve been an actor. My parents are proud of me being an actor. I want to do something else.” I wanted to join the Army, actually, or be in the Air Force, or something like that. I still wouldn’t mind doing that. Obviously, it’s a bit late for me now. But it’s something I was really considering, just because I was being a sort of rebellious teenager, really. But there was never any point at which I was considering leaving Harry Potter. If I were to stop acting, it would have been after. As long as they kept asking me to come back, I was gonna keep doing it. ’Cause I loved the story! There’s no way I would have left.
AVC: Most people don’t have their teen years preserved in worldwide, international blockbuster movies. Is that ever awkward?
ML: Schhhhyeah! Yeah, it is. I mean, I must confess I don’t own Harry Potter DVDs. My parents do. They have them all. And they like watching them. They’ve got all their home videos done in HD quality! They love it. But I struggle very much. I’m very self-conscious as an actor, anyway. I don’t like watching my own performances, even in this recent one. It was shot a year ago. I don’t like it. And you couple that with how I looked when I was younger, and growing up… The voice is not quite breaking. It’s awful. No, I don’t enjoy that at all. But you know, that’s one of the things people love and find so endearing about the series, and why they’ve lasted so long. Because people have grown up with us, and they care about the characters. They’re not just some characters in the film, they’re people you can relate to, and you care about, and you grew up with, and when they die in this film, people feel it!
AVC: After six films with you in a fat suit and fake teeth and ear extenders, you got to go into this film looking like yourself. Did anyone ever specifically express to you why they were doing that? Was there a “He’s grown up now, he’s a movie hero, we gotta sexy him up” conversation?
ML: No, I think David Yates just felt sorry for me, to be honest. You know, I had the fat suit on and the teeth, and I think David was just like, “You’ve got on with it for a few years, I’m gonna let you off the hook.” And also, I think it’s because the action side of stuff that we were doing, it was going to be very difficult to do all that with all the prosthetics on. It was gonna be hard work, and I think they just said, “You know what?” I think they put a level of trust in me, as well. They said, “You know, we’re gonna let Neville lose the fat suit, lose the teeth, lose the Adolf Hitler hair.” I think they were hoping I could still keep him as Neville. ’Cause we couldn’t have him go on and become this Rambo hero. He has to be still, essentially, Neville Longbottom. And I think they put a bit of trust in me there, which I’ve greatly thanked them for. And I love those moments on the bridge, where he’s still making a mess of stuff. He’s still being Neville. That was important that we got that balance right. He’s a hero, but he’s a very unlikely hero. He’s still an underdog all the way through the movie.
AVC: What’s next for you?
ML: I’ve got a few meetings and stuff in London with my agent and directors. And I have a couple of scripts that I’ve been sent that I have to read. Yeah, it’s an exciting time, but I don’t really know what’s next. [Faux-pretentious.] I need to have discussions with my people. [Laughs.] And see what’s next. But I just wanna be an actor. The fame stuff, the kind words from websites and things, are very flattering and lovely, but I just wanna act. That’s what I’ve done for a long time. That’s what I enjoy.