MATTHEW LEWIS IN LONDON, JUNE 2016. PHOTOS: MARK RABADAN. STYLING: FANNIE AKERBLOM. HAIR: STELIOS CHONDOROS. MAKEUP: ADAM DE CRUZ.
Matthew Lewis shed his wand, robe, and broomstick five years ago. In his more recent roles, the 26-year-old Leeds-born, London-based actor is almost unrecognizable. If, in the minds of certain Millennials, Lewis will always be Neville Longbottom, the Gryffindor do-gooder he played in the Harry Potter films, it is more a sign of affection—a character held near and dear—than a reflection of his breadth as an actor.
In Season Two of the BBC's sinister drama Happy Valley (which is now on Netflix), Lewis is Sean Balmforth, a young man with a penchant for drinking and picking up prostitutes. When a series of murders occurs in his town, Balmforth is brought in on suspicion, and Lewis compellingly captures a man struggling between honesty, self-interest, and his aggravation toward his own addiction. Now, Lewis is fitness fanatic Patrick in Thea Sharrock's adaptation of Jojo Moyes' novel Me Before You. As Patrick's girlfriend Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke) becomes closer to her new employer, a paraplegic man named Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), Patrick serves as Will's counterpoint, tying Louisa to her roots and suggesting what her future will look like if she remains at home.
These two roles hold little in common, but it's that very range that's of interest to Lewis in his post-Potter years.
"Some of the more interesting characters are the ones that aren't heroic, that aren't James Bond-esque," Lewis explains over the phone. "I quite like the interesting ones, so I never really say, 'I won't do that, I won't do this' or 'I want to do this or that.' I like to keep an open mind... [I'm interested in] the idea of people wanting to discuss something that's happened in their life or that's impacted or changed them," he continues. "On the flip side of that, sometimes it's nice to do something that's fun, a movie where people are going to come in, and switch off for an hour and a half. I feel like if you can do one of those two things, if you can tell a great story that affects people or you can make them have fun, then you're doing all right."
HALEY WEISS: What was your reaction to your character, Patrick, when you read Me Before You? I know Jojo Moyes also wrote the screenplay, but was there more in the book than in the script?
MATTHEW LEWIS: It was quite different. In the book, Patrick is a bit of a dick. He is obviously very focused on himself; he's self-centered and won't give a whole lot of time to Louisa's needs, wants, and potential in life. We wanted to keep the inherent features of Patrick in the movie but we wanted to make it a little bit less black-and-white, a bit more ambiguous as to her ultimate decision. We wanted to see more of a reason why Louisa was with Patrick for the seven years. In the book, it's so heavily focused Lou and Will's story, which is brilliant, but it was nice in the film to round off Patrick a little more. They weren't right for each other—he was not right for her and he was holding her back—but we wanted to show that there was a reason why they were together in the first place and that her decision to ultimately make that leap was a lot tougher than you think it is. It can be a scary thing to suddenly leave your life behind and say, "I'm going to go and realize my full potential." It can be quite daunting and we wanted to convey that.
WEISS: I read that at some point during filming you, Emilia, and Sam were all chased by a herd of cows. Is that true?
LEWIS: [laughs] Yeah, that's true. It's kind of an odd story. We went out in the Welsh countryside while we were on location. We'd been working there and had not got out very much so we finished early one evening, it was a lovely summer evening, and we said, "Should we go out and explore?" So we did, the three of us, we explored and ventured a bit further than we should have. We stumbled upon a field full of cows that were very unhappy about our trespassing. Basically, slowly at first, they edged towards us. It was quite early on when we realized, "Okay, these guys are still coming," and they got faster and faster and then they started to charge for us. We tried to run; Emilia didn't have the greatest of shoes on so Sam had this idea for a piggyback, meanwhile we're trying to run through all of these brambles thinking, "Oh, they won't follow us in here." Next thing you know, "Moo!," these cows are following us right through into the brambles as well. They really wanted to get to us. Eventually we got away and it was all fine but there was a brief point there where it was a bit touch and go. I remember what Sam said, because nobody knew that we were out—we sort of snuck out from the hotel—and he said, "Imagine the headline tomorrow when they find our bodies. ‘The Mother of Dragons, Finnick, and Neville: Crushed to Death by Cows in Wales.'" [both laugh] That would've been an interesting one.
WEISS: I'd like to talk a bit about Happy Valley because Sean is such a dark character. What was the most challenging part of taking on that role?
LEWIS: There were a few. It was very unlike anything I'd done before. One of the early things that I had to get over was that I was such a huge fan of the first series and a huge fan of Sally Wainwright and Sarah Lancashire, and everyone involved in the production, really. I had to shake that fear and that pressure of coming into the second series of a show that's so spectacular and BAFTA Award-winning; you've got a responsibility to uphold that quality. There were quite a few nerves involved with that for the few months of preparation for it. I just wanted to make sure that I did it justice.
Then it was just the idea of trying to get into Sean's mind. Luckily, for me, Sally understands her characters very well; she has vivid images of where they've come from, where they're going, why they do what they do, etcetera. I had to pick at her brain and find Sean's motivation, which was daunting for sure, but it all helped in trying to create this character—this young man who is very, very lost. You don't play him as the bad guy; you just play what's on the page and you play his life, and his life was that he moved from town to town, no one had really ever given a shit about him, he's got a very bad temper and often he regrets that. He drinks a lot and he can't remember and it's that frustration more than anything. The anger is a result of the frustration and once you realize that, the rest of it starts to fall into place.
WEISS: What was it like to grow up in Leeds? Were you involved in acting and performing pretty early on?
LEWIS: I started when I was five. It was basically the vast majority of my childhood. I went to a drama group, which was also an agency in Leeds, and I did a lot of Northern television. The North is a pretty decent place for television in the U.K.; they make a lot of things up there. Happy Valley was shot around the area where I grew up. I was really fortunate from a young age to be able to work quite consistently on things up in the North. Harry Potter came around at [age] 11 and I spent a lot of time down south filming it in Watford, near London, but I always went home on weekends back to Leeds. That place is very close to my heart and I have a lot of friends there. I'm [also] big fan of the sports team, the Leeds Rhinos. I see it less often than I'd like but I do try and get back whenever I can.
WEISS: Is anyone in your family in the film or television industry?
LEWIS: My older brother, Anthony Lewis, is an actor and he started first when he was about eight years old and I was about two. My mother had to chaperone him on jobs and then, my being two-years-old, I got taken along as well. So I sort of grew up being around it and I just wanted to copy my brother and carry on. Now, 22 years later, both Anthony and I are actors and our oldest brother Christopher has since gone into the industry behind the camera as an editor.
WEISS: Have you all worked together?
LEWIS: I've never worked with Chris. Anthony and I were in a BBC series together called The Syndicate, in 2012. Bizarrely, we played brothers but not of each other. We both had different actors playing our brothers and I think we had one scene where we were both in it together but we never spoke to each other—we were like ships in the night. Although we were in the same production I'm not sure quite sure it counts as working together.
WEISS: Do you recall how you felt the first day on the set of Harry Potter?
LEWIS: Yeah—it's weird, towards the end of the shoot is very vivid and the very start is as well, it's all the middle bits that blur into one. I can remember quite clearly being 11 years old on the first one. We were at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland and it was the scene with Madam Hooch, where we have the broomstick lesson and Neville flies off and crashes into the wall. I was used to television sets but this film set was a scale of which I was very unprepared for. It was enormous. Also, just to step into that world that I had read about for years and was such a huge fan of, to suddenly put the robes on, was spectacular. Chris Columbus, [the director,] came over and explained what was happening and about how this particular scene and this whole set piece was basically about Neville and about me—no pressure, you know? They looked after me very much and I had a week of my life just flying on this broomstick around this beautiful castle in the North of England. I thought, "If this is what my career is, if this is what I'm going to get paid to do for a living, then this is the dream."
WEISS: At a young age going onto that set, with actors such as Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman, were you aware of their stature as these respected Shakespearean actors?
LEWIS: Yes and no—maybe not so much on the level of Shakespeare at that age, I was sort of unaware of the caliber of who I was working with, but definitely their fame and their ability to a certain degree. There were a lot of things that those guys had been in and done that I was a huge fan of. At the time, I was a ridiculously big fan of Rik Mayall, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. Rik was cast to play Peeves the Poltergeist in the first film, and unfortunately he was cut out in the end because of time issues, but he was superb in it. I was a big fan of all of his comedy like Drop Dead Fred, Blackadder, and Bottom—all of these classic British sitcoms. I sat next to him at the read-through and I was completely lost for words. He really took me under his wing and started chatting me through the different characters behind the camera, who everybody was and what their job was, and he signed my script. It was a huge moment to be in that read-through surrounded by all of these amazing people who I'd seen on TV and then they were friendly and so unassuming. I still had a lot of fear, a lot of trepidation that lasted many, many years until I was older before I really spoke to them on a similar level. Rik definitely set the ball rolling there in terms of my comfort around those guys; they were just human beings.
Then the worst thing happens, you get to 15, 16 and start to realize, as you've already said, the sheer caliber of what they've done. You become much more aware of the craft and the medium. All of that camaraderie you've built up over the years suddenly takes a big hit because you go, "Oh god, I've been so blasé with these people. They're actually all incredible and I'm just here chilling out with them." So then you get a whole new fear that comes along. I was 18 when I finally got over that.
WEISS: Coming out of those films, was there something in particular you found yourself looking for in roles? Were you reading a lot of scripts?
LEWIS: It was an exciting time and quite strange [having done] them for 10 years but I was very ready to finish when we came to the last one. After playing the character for that amount of time, I wanted to do different things, I wanted to find new characters, and explore new avenues. I literally had no idea what I was going on to... I wasn't keen to jump back into a robe and be a wizard in something anytime soon but [I was interested in] anything that came up, really. I felt very much that I was starting at the bottom rung again and that being in Harry Potter was no gimmick; I was going to have to leave that behind to lose the Neville Longbottom tag and prove that I could do other things, learn, and understand.
ME BEFORE YOU IS OUT NOW IN THEATERS. SEASON TWO OF HAPPY VALLEY IS AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX.