Harry Melling: “It looks like the Dudley Dursley narrative is changing”


If you’ve only seen Harry Melling on screen, you probably think he’s a very serious person. He plays only agitated or tense characters — the armless, legless performer in the Cohen Brothers’ pearl “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”; the crazy preacher Roy from “The Devil for All Time”, who pours spiders in his face; and the last role of Edgar Allen Poe, an exhausted American poet whose gloomy imagination gave rise to terrifying stories about death and the darkness.

However, get to know Harry Melling, as we do in a posh London hotel at the end of a rainy November, and you’ll find him much more relaxed, even silly. Dressed in a striped knitted jumper and comfortable trousers, the 33-year-old actor is friendly, laughs quickly and for a few strange minutes is determined to convince NME that we should eat more bananas. “To be honest, I don’t think I can live without them!” he says, popping one into his mouth with lightning speed.

“I played controversial, problematic characters”

In addition to the advantages of soft fruits, Melling is happy to tell us about the game of “Pale Blue Eye”. Netflix’s dark detective came out last week, and Christian Bale starred as August Landor, a downtrodden detective who was hired to investigate the gruesome murders at West Point Military Academy in the 19th century. Bale is the main character here, but Melling is excited about the internet.

Hailed on social media as a scene stealer, his fictional Po is a young cadet who becomes Landor’s partner. He goes from nervous assistant to pretentious braggart and frustrated prodigy in a matter of seconds, demonstrating the range that most actors take decades to develop. The role is not pleasant — Poe died an alcoholic and under mysterious circumstances at the age of 40 — so Melling had to dig into the darkest corners of the human psyche.

“I’ve played some controversial, troubled characters… and I’d like to think it’s not true that everyone is capable of great evil,” he says. “I think some people are driven to extremes and… they can beat it. They come out the other side and have a different outlook on life. I think it’s a wonderful thing.”

Later, when we touch on the same topic with Bale, he will give us the opposite answer. “It’s absolutely true that under intense pressure, anyone can do a terrible thing,” he says, hiding in a room down the hall from Harry’s room. “This film is a fictionalized story about how my character, Landor, influenced Poe to become the drunk he became, and why he ended up dead in a gutter in Baltimore in someone else’s clothes.”

Unlike his colleague in the film, Melling tends to focus on the positive. Everything is “wonderful” or “charming”. He is fascinated by harmless, everyday things (bananas, the discovery that we have a common barber shop). He even manages to find levity in Poe, whom many consider the most painful writer of all time.

“Poe was a very dark, dark writer with a dark life, but even in his stories there is an element of fun,” he says. “You can see how much he likes it… there is [lightness] in these very long sentences. I like to think that he reveled in the dark side, and not a follower of it.”

“Dudley Dursley will always be around — I accept it”

Enjoying the dark side is what Melling specializes in now, but he had to work hard for this image. For many years he was best known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films.

Having first played the role of the spoiled cousin of the boy wizard in 1999 at the age of 10, Melling appeared in five of the seven box office films. During this time, he lost weight, and in the first part of the Deathly Hallows, he had to wear a thick suit. This means that the Potterheads rarely recognize him, but he still tries his best to erase this connection even more. Melling did not attend the 20th anniversary event in 2021, and there is no trace of a healthy Hogwarts family atmosphere in his subsequent filmography.

He is not ashamed of the impudent bully. He’s actually quick to emphasize how special the experience was. It just happened more than ten years ago and he would like to move on, please.

“It will always be, and I accept it,” he says with the well—rehearsed air of a man who has answered this question many times before. “I just wish the conversation was about what I’m doing now, and not about what I was doing when I was 10 years old. I think it’s as if you”—he points his finger half—accusingly-“were asked about an article you wrote when you were 10. How would you feel about that?” He’s right. In January 2013, NME just put Palma Violets on the cover — now they are going to a huge garbage dump, which is an independent landfill.

“I’m always amazed at the power of Harry Potter generations”

After Potter, Melling immersed himself in his craft. He wrote plays, studied theater and attended acting school at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He didn’t stay there for long, but it allowed him to “play very badly,” he says, “and work out the process.” Small roles on British television (the BBC period drama “Garrow’s Law”, the Sunday night adventure “The Musketeers”) showed casting directors what he was capable of before he began a series of arthouse films, including Benedict Cumberbatch’s car “The Current War” and the research epic “The Lost City of Z”. Then his works on Netflix: “Buster Scruggs” and “The Devil for All Time”, as well as the blockbuster “The Old Guard” and the popular chess thriller “The Queen’s Gambit”. With the increasing amount of work behind him, does he feel like he’s finally escaped Dudley’s looming presence?

“I think so,” Melling says uncertainly, “but I’ve always been struck by Harry Potter’s generational power. My friends have kids who are into [books], and they’re like: “Uncle Harry is Dudley!” Although it seems that this narrative is changing, and that’s great.”

Despite his growing reputation in Hollywood—directors like the Cohen brothers and Scott Cooper from Pale Blue Eyes are now looking for him-Melling remains humble. He is very polite and still lives in his hometown of London. He admits that he searched for himself on Wikipedia, but only to ask for a correction: “I always get greeting cards on March 13, and this is not my birthday.” Ask him about his bright future and he will reject the question.

“I try, as much as possible, not to go beyond and see the bigger picture,” he says. “I’ve always told myself that if I focus on work, then hopefully everything else will fall into place.” The theory is beautiful, but in practice this does not happen. Subscribe to success and you will get a tidal wave of offers, but order a failure and it will soon run out. You can’t rely on your own talent alone.

“Being an actor is like snakes and ladders”

“It’s a game,” says Melling. “It’s like snakes and ladders. If I am always aware of doors that may open (or close), I am afraid that this will prevent me from making a choice, and I don’t want that.”

He is happy to discuss something that probably will never happen. There is a fan casting of Melling on Reddit as the psychopathic DC villain Joker; and during our research, we came across a post saying that he could play a good Morrissey in a biopic about Smith (bad news: Essex heartthrob Jack Louden already played in the 2017 film “My England”).

“I always find these fan things fascinating,” says Melling. “My grandfather [actor Patrick Troughton] was the second Doctor Who, and people always say things like, ‘Oh, you have to do this.’ But I’ve never met him! It’s funny that people on the internet think it would be a good casting for you. The Joker? Morrissey? I’m flattered.”

Melling’s next work in real life sounds like fireworks. This is Nigel Winterbottom’s Promised Land, a crime thriller set in Tel Aviv, in which he plays a 1930s policeman hunting down Zionist freedom fighter Abraham Stern. True, he would prefer not to discuss the film, but he told us that he had just returned from filming in Italy, where he had tickets for Kendrick Lamar. His schedule meant he couldn’t go, which was exhausting: “I’m such a Kendrick fan. I love his music.” What else is he listening to at the moment? “I really like the new Arctic Monkeys album,” he says. “I have an eclectic taste.”

Given his pedigree in portraying unsettled personalities, we ask if there is a musician he would like to play. “With passion projects,” he begins, “the point is that you can put a lot of pressure on them. Suddenly it becomes an obsession and it ends up being something you don’t want to do. It can turn into a very big cloud of anxiety hanging over you.” Melling doesn’t need it, he’s still on the rise. Whatever he does next, we’re sure it won’t be related to magic wands.

“Pale Blue Eye” is now streaming on Netflix


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