Theatre critics be warned, Harry Melling is coming to get you. Following his hugely successful one-man debut play, Peddling, he’s working on his second piece and this time not only will it be about the aforementioned breed, usually hidden safely behind their notepads, but it’s also going to be long. Really long, if Melling has his way.
The idea of two-interval plays is just one of many subjects Melling is passionate about. While he might be initially resistant to committing himself to a life of writing – at least three minutes of our interview is taken up with mutual musings about how much better writing is in all its romantic laptop-in-an-east-London-café fantasy than the often bang-your-head-against-a-wall reality – I fear it’s not something he’ll be able to shy away from, possessing, as he does, all the key makings of an excellent writer; frequent self-doubt, a fierce admiration for those in society who seek out change and revolution, and a brain that sparks inquisitively. Nothing is taken at face value with Melling.
Maybe that’s what also makes him such a fascinating actor to watch, for it’s acting and his role in the equally sparky political drama about the 70s anarchist group The Angry Brigade that brings us to this interview. In James Grieve’s unpredictable, punk spirited production currently shaking the walls at the Bush Theatre he plays a whirlwind of characters, bringing to each a distinctive energy.
Taking time out of rehearsals earlier this month to chat over the phone, Melling talked to me about the political impact and importance of The Angry Brigade, why he believes James Graham more than justifies his title as ‘playwright of the moment’ and how a certain fantasy franchise will always follow him around, and not just because his first name is Harry.
CV in brief:
2000-2009: Immortalised as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films
2009: Graduates from LAMDA
2009: Makes National Theatre debut in Mother Courage And Her Children
2011: Appears in School For Scandal at the Barbican
2013: Stars in The Hothouse as part of the Jamie Lloyd Trafalgar Transformed season
2014: Stars in his one-man show Peddling in the UK and New York
2015: Revives Peddling at the Arcola Theatre
Current: Leads The Angry Brigade’s London transfer at the Bush Theatre following its 2014 UK tour
Did you know anything about The Angry Brigade before you did this play?
No, I don’t think anyone knew about it! Certainly my mum, who was very much alive in the 70s, was like ‘Never heard of them’. I think that’s what’s fascinating about this subject matter; that it all went under the radar. If an Angry Brigade existed now, they just wouldn’t be able to not be known with Twitter and the media. It’s very British really! Denying something that happened…
I got to meet some of the family members of these people and it’s amazing that these people decided they wanted to do something about the world, because it was important enough to them. I was really looking forward to the post-show discussions with this play because there’s such a good response, not only politically, but because what they did was outrageous! They set bombs outside Cabinet Ministers’ houses and the play tries to justify it.
Was the fact this play was written by James Graham a big reason for doing the project?
Absolutely. I met James a few times before rehearsing the play and I always knew how brilliant he was. He’s interesting because he’s so obviously political, but you can access it, you’re not pushed away. It’s ‘commercial politics’; is how I’d put it. In James’ voice, politics comes from a very human place and I think that’s why he’s so brilliant. Amongst other things of course.
You play numerous roles in The Angry Brigade, from a 60-year-old Police Commander to Jim, a member of the political group. How do you find playing so many characters?
Doing it the first time [the production was created by touring theatre company Paines Plough], I found it quite hard and quite frustrating, because a lot of the time I don’t really like [plays with] multi-roles! I don’t always enjoy watching it because you can see the tricks of the actor and your suspension of belief isn’t held. By the time we got to the end of that run, I understood it. It came quite late, but I was like ‘Why are we changing characters? How does that help the story? How do I make the audience believe every single character?’ I’m not saying I achieved it, but I understood why I was spinning into these different people.
Have your views towards the characters changed during your time performing the play?
I think what’s amazing is because the first and the second act are so different – you’re with the police in the first act, the Angry Brigade with the second – you have to take the sides of the people you play. They both have valid points, but what has struck me more than anything is how remarkable the Angry Brigade are at wanting to change the world. Certainly in my generation of people I can’t think of anyone who would have gone to the lengths to try and change the world to do something like that. It’s sort of extraordinary. Bombs aside – the bombs are sort of meaningless – all of the marches they went on…I think after Iraq we lost that power as a nation to protest because it wasn’t heard, so I think it’s very interesting to go back to a time when marches did mean something and they could politically alter what was going on.
I think, certainly in the lead up to this election, it’s fascinating in terms of people trying to work out who to vote for; ‘But I don’t like him’, ‘He’s not charismatic enough’, all of those long talks you have in the pub. The choice of what world you want to live in. That choice is what the play is about and we’re all going through it now with how we want to live.
Your theatrical credits are a real mix of classical plays and new writing. Are you drawn to anything in particular when choosing projects?
The second I read this script I knew it was phenomenal and the language of it was amazing. I’ve always been a fan of James, so it was a no brainer. But I love everything! I love doing Shakespeare, I love Pinter, I love doing restoration; they’re all completely unique in their form and I think that’s what keeps me going, keeping me shifting between those genres and topics, it’s what excites me.
Why did you want to write your own play, Peddling?
I just knew I had to tell this story of this kid I met when I was young. I didn’t really want to be a writer – I was really bad at English at school, teachers would say I couldn’t write anything – but I just wanted to tell this story and became obsessed with finishing it. And then I became obsessed with making it good. Not good, just not bad! You just keep going until you can make it good!
Did it feel scary putting yourself out there?
Absolutely. You can’t come off stage and go ‘Well, the writing isn’t very good!’ Not only that, it’s a one-man show, it was just me talking about what I spent a couple of years writing. It’s a very exposing thing, but when it hits, there’s nothing like it because you’re showing something that has been conjured in your head, which I think is why theatre is so magical.
Would you like to do more film work?
Yes, I’d love to. It’s not really a conscious choice to go [put on posh accent] ‘Oh, I must tread the boards’, it’s just something I’ve found myself doing more of. But I’d love to do more screen work, I haven’t done any for about a year now and I’m getting a bit itchy to get back to it. The careers I admire are the people that are constantly shifting and reinventing themselves, and I want to try and do as much of that as possible.
Whose career would you like to emulate?
I know the answer, but I know everyone else has this answer and it just frustrates me…
What is the answer?
Well, it’s either Mark Rylance or Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott. People like that, who are just good! People who do everything and the thing they’re led by is always the work, there’s nothing else, no agenda, just ‘Who do I want to play?’, ‘Who can I play?’, ‘What story do I want to tell?’ Those are the careers I really admire.
Your role in Harry Potter inevitably crops up in articles. Is there part of you that would like the reference to that role to die a death?
I’m really appreciative that I was a part of it, I really am, and I don’t wish it would stop but I wish it would sort of not be the main thing. It’s really interesting how I’ve done quite a few shows now over the last couple of years, but when the first reviews – and reviews are different from articles – come out and say ‘Harry Potter escapee’, ‘Harry Potter muggle Harry Melling’…. that’s sort of fine, but years after leaving drama school and doing my own one-man show, it’s like ‘Come on guys, I know you’ve got to sell papers and I know why you’ve done it, and I’m amazed that I’ve managed to get into something as huge as that’… When it overshadows other things or becomes too much of a thing about my life, that’s when it freaks me out a bit.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
I have no idea! It’s really interesting because I wish I did have an answer to this and all my answers are really lame… My parents are both illustrators so I might draw, but a bit of me is like ‘but I’m not as good as them, so there’s no point trying to draw.’ I’d love to write more. The lifestyle of a writer is not the most glamorous; the idea of being a writer is far nicer than the actual reality.
Yes, being a writer is horrible.
It is, isn’t it! It’s like: ‘Buy a laptop and sit in a café with a coffee, writing away with a book’ but actually it’s not like that at all. It’s a very intense thing. I’m trying to write a second place at the moment about a theatre critic, but it’s going to take me a while.
It’s going to be very different to Peddling I think, it’s going to be quite a big thing. And long. I want it to be really long. Really, really long. I just want two intervals, I don’t know why. I just think there’s something good about saying to an audience ‘You’re going to commit! You’re going to be here for a long time and it’s going to be good and we’re going to have fun.’
"In James Graham's voice, politics comes from a very human place and I think that’s why he’s so brilliant. Amongst other things of course."