Even as one of the most hated Muggles in the wizarding world, Harry Melling never actually felt famous. He still doesn’t. Like Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, and Matthew Lewis, Melling was thrust into the international spotlight at a young age with Harry Potter. He first appeared at 10 years old in Sorcerer’s Stone as the hero’s tortuous, spoiled cousin, Dudley Dursley, and would maintain the part into his 20s. Unlike his contemporaries, he found life on set to be quite isolating at times. “My experience was unique in terms of I wasn’t in it throughout the entire shoot,” the actor, 33, tells EW over Zoom from Los Angeles — now much taller and leaner compared to the plump, rosy-cheeked child with a haughty smirk movie-goers have been used to. “The earthly sequences would very much be an isolated filming block. So, I dipped in, and then I went back to school and normal life.” Melling never felt as if people would recognize him on the streets of London. “Which I kind of loved,” he quickly adds. To him, fame feels like noise. He counts himself lucky that he hasn’t become traditionally “famous.” “Sometimes it’s nice to just concentrate on the work and what excites you,” he says. Melling has been able to do just that with his life post-Potter, from his early run in theater to playing chess champ Harry Beltik in the Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit. However, one role would create a different kind of noise, the kind that would get his industry peers to notice him, if not the public. Seeing Melling as the limbless artist in 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would inspire director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Antlers) to cast the Englishman as a young Edgar Allan Poe in The Pale Blue Eye, Melling’s most impressive on-screen role to date. “I was struck by that performance,” Cooper tells EW of Melling’s work in Buster Scruggs. “I felt, ‘My God! He would be a really terrific Edgar Allan Poe.’ And as we say in Virginia, he kind of favors Poe. He looks like him.” In hindsight, Buster Scruggs was a formative moment for Melling, but he didn’t understand that at the time. He was just eager to work with the Coen brothers. However small a role he was going to get was fine by him. “Certainly now talking to some directors that I’ve worked with since doing The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it’s a big reference for them in terms of how I came to be on their radar,” the actor can now confidently say. There’ve been other moments like that in his career that led to something else. Harry Potter was surely one of them. Most of Melling’s feelings towards those movies have arisen in hindsight.
To this day, having just got back from Italy, where he shot his next movie, he’s surprised by the reach they had. But at the time, he just remembers falling in love with storytelling. “I always loved theater. I always have,” he mentions. “And I knew I wanted to get better at acting.” Melling studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts starting at 18, but he left after two years to perform in a stage production of Mother Courage and Her Children, which, funnily enough, reunited him with his Harry Potter mom Fiona Shaw. From there, Melling enjoyed a healthy stint in theater. He notes that playing the titular King John in the Shakespeare play “unlocked something” skill-wise — another stepping stone. He felt the same about Buster Scruggs, as well as the 2020 thriller, in which he slid into a Southern drawl as an evangelical preacher. The Pale Blue Eye is the film Melling now calls his “eureka moment.” “Every single role you do, you learn something more. You learn a different way of operating,” he says. Playing the man who would become the poet behind The Raven in an unforgiving gothic winter setting became his lesson in stamina. “For anyone who knows Poe well, which are not many,” Cooper remarks, “I think they’ll be struck by [Melling’s] ability to be witty and humorous and warm, but also quite cunning and even explosive at times.” Christian Bale, a friend and frequent collaborator of Cooper’s, leads the film as Detective Augustus Landor, a grizzled worn-down investigator in 1830s New York who’s hired by head honchos at the West Point military academy to investigate a gruesome murder. One misty morning by the lake, a cadet seemingly hung himself from a tree, but upon further inspection, it is revealed that someone surgically removed the young man’s heart. The students of this prestigious boy’s club close ranks, prompting Landor to enlist the aid of someone on the inside to dig up the goods: Melling’s Poe, a lad who may have the verbal acrobatics of a burgeoning poet but is far from penning the kind of macabre works that would change the literary landscape.
“What a discovery for me,” Bale remarks of Melling. “Obviously, other people knew him before. I don’t actually watch too many films, so he just was Poe as far as I was concerned. I think he is someone who is in a very enviable position where he’s ridiculously experienced and incredibly good at what he does, but for most people watching this, they may not have seen much of his work, and therefore they just entirely see the character.” Melling’s first scene on set — which he confirms was as cold as it looks on screen — was “a sink or swim moment,” he recalls. It was a sequence, like so many others in the film, with dense dialogue. Melling found himself thinking back to a lesson he had learned in drama school. “I think everyone does naturally want to get it right, and actually, that’s probably the worst thing you can do as an actor,” he explains. “I think the best thing you can do is jump and see what happens and to risk.” On The Pale Blue Eye, he decided to throw himself into the scene. “I couldn’t think of nothing worse than discussing too much because it pins you into a corner and suddenly you have to do the thing that you said you’re gonna do,” he adds. “I’ll try and show you, and if it’s wrong, then you can tell me that it’s wrong.”
Some discussion was had, of course. Cooper would plot every moment with Melling as a point on a roadmap. “We were aware that most people who come to this movie know Poe as the master of the macabre, and you would expect Poe to be someone who’s quite dark and who lived in the shadows,” the filmmaker says. “But also, we wanted him not only to be the mad genius or the tormented artist, but we wanted to exploit his personal struggles, the fact that he was an orphan, the fact that he does feel somewhat ostracized from the other cadets at West Point and certainly those in charge. So it was really about, how do we make him warm and humorous, someone who is prone to falling in love, someone who is quite vulnerable and heartbreaking, and who looks to Landor as a father figure, something that he never had?” Melling knew of Bale as a genius of his craft, perhaps through all that “noise” the star of The Dark Knight and American Psycho has had to deal with in his own career. But the younger talent was floored by the veteran’s generosity. “We’d turn up and just see what would happen on its feet and what revealed itself to us,” Melling notes. He points specifically to a scene in the finale, which is a massive spoiler — the moment when all is revealed. “It’s a big scene, and the focus needs to be there in the room,” Melling continues. “It can be a very complicated scene, and there’s lots going on, but it was very focused, and we were allowed to play the scene in the way that we wanted.” Perhaps there will be more of this noise around Melling with The Pale Blue Eye, which arrives on Netflix today after a brief stint in theaters. His goal remains the same: ignore it. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it since I was very young,” he says. “I try not to think of it in the moment.”