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Still Under The Spell

Written by James Mottram

54dllfHERE’S magic in the air the day I arrive at Leavesden Studios, the home of the Harry Potter films. In the canteen, a cordoned off section is filled with balloons, a table of presents and a banner that reads “Happy Birthday, Rupert”.

Of course, it’s for the red-haired Rupert Grint, who plays Potter’s best friend Ron Weasley. He has just turned 18, a rite of passage for any teenager but particularly if you’ve spent all those years in a former Rolls-Royce factory north of Watford working on a film franchise as big as this one. “There’s definitely a family atmosphere here,” says Grint, a big grin on his face as he unwraps his gifts.

Emma Watson, who plays Ron and Harry’s chum Hermione Granger, looks close to tears. “I’m a bit emotional today,” she says. “Rupert’s 18! I can’t believe it.” She tells me she bought him two Mambo T-shirts, which she forced the shop assistant to try on to check the size. Yet she also has cause to celebrate. The week we meet – during the filming of the forthcoming fifth instalment, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix – she has just received her GCSE results, which she passed with a flurry of Grade As. “I’m so chuffed,” she giggles. “I’m over the moon.”

It’s no surprise that working on the Potter films is like belonging to a second family. While directors have changed, the cast and the key crew members have stayed the same since the first film, Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, was shot back in 2000. Watson, Grint and, of course, Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry, have grown up together on these films. “Sometimes, I’ll go to a friend’s house and their little brothers and sisters will be playing the first film on DVD and it’s very strange,” admits Watson. “It’s like your baby pictures but a whole film of it. I look so different.”

Earlier in the year, reports had it that Watson was set to quit after the fifth film, a rumour that has since been strongly denied by backers Warner Brothers. After the first four films collectively grossed a staggering $1.1bn at the US box office, the studio is understandably keen to keep their popular cast intact. Indeed, while everyone here does their best to suggest working on Potter is a blast – a notice on the wall even advertises the annual Harry Potter golf tournament – as Hollywood executives buzz about in motorised carts around this vast warehouse-like complex, there is something rather military about the whole operation.

Marshalled by British producer David Heyman ever since he wisely snapped up the rights to JK Rowling’s books, you half expect to see his army of crew members practising square-bashing in their spare time. As any campaign dictates, supplies need to be nearby: hence wardrobe, with its rows of polythene-protected costumes on hangers, has a rather makeshift feel to it, not too far from the main sets. Meanwhile, the bunker holding various creature models, including the creepy giant spider from Harry Potter And The Chamber of Secrets guarding the doorway, is nestled much further out of the main building.

As we go on set, in a scene that sees Harry arrive at Grimmauld Place to receive vital information from the so-called Order of the Phoenix, it’s the perfect example of why the Potter films have endured.

“What’s beautiful about today is that you have a room full of, in my opinion, some of the finest actors in the world, in one scene,” explains director David Yates, who is on his first Potter tour of duty. And as David Thewlis and Gary Oldman pass me by, deep in conversation, while Brendan Gleeson, in full costume as the visually challenged ‘Mad Eye’ Moody, and Julie Walters loiter in the background, it’s hard to disagree.

Yet while it’s easy enough to swoop up the “crème de la crème of British acting talent” as Watson calls them – including new additions Helena Bonham Carter and Imelda Staunton – where the Potter films have played it smart is in regularly drafting in new directors. Certainly, bringing in the Mexican Alfonso Cuarón for Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, by far the darkest of the series to date, was a stroke of genius.

Likewise Yates, who has since signed on for the next episode, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, comes from a background in hard-hitting television dramas such as Sex Traffic.

“This film, I think, will be a little darker than the last one,” he promises.

With Harry’s nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort (frighteningly played by Ralph Fiennes) growing in power, this fifth film promises to be the most adult yet. As Radcliffe reports, he and Yates went to see a bereavement counsellor to ask some questions about how people deal with the death of loved ones.

“Thankfully, I’ve never been bereaved, so it was very useful for me, rather than dragging those emotions out of nowhere. There’s a wonderful line in one of the books that says: ‘What cannot be avoided must be accepted.’ And it’s quite true. In a way, death is the hardest of things to face up to, even for Harry, who has experienced a lot of it in his life.”

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom, as Harry finally plucks up the courage to kiss his beloved girl Cho (played by the Motherwell-born Katie Leung, see page 6), though when we meet, Radcliffe has yet to film the scene. “I don’t think it should look like either of them are good kissers or either of them are natural,” he muses. “It should look tender and innocent and quite endearing, and hopefully it will.”

It’s little wonder then that Yates believes that the Potter franchise hones in on “probably the most dramatic time of your life”, a time when “you’re discovering the opposite sex, and how complicated you are and how complicated the world can be”.

Already Radcliffe, who turns 18 this month, has been discovering this, notably with his recent celebrated performance as the disturbed Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, which has taken London’s West End by storm. “The earlier you start, the more likely you are to be able to get people to see you as something else, rather than just as one character,” he says. With only two Potter films left to make, he knows his time as the boy wizard is coming to an end. “It will be very strange, but it will be quite liberating in a way,” he admits. “If there were going to be an infinite number of Harry Potters, I don’t think I could do it. It’s nice, knowing that there’s seven. I’ve always thought that’s a definite goal to try and hit.”

With Watson, Grint and Radcliffe on the verge of adulthood, it seems rather apt that their characters are maturing in the same way. “They’re all growing up now,” reflects Grint, who also branched out in his first adult role in last year’s Driving Lessons.

Still, the child in them all has yet to be extinguished by the demands of the Hollywood dream factory. “I know it’s not cool to be enthusiastic about things, but I can’t help it,” gushes Radcliffe. “I was never particularly good at anything at school. I got by. So when I came here, I found something I’m good at.”


Original article found at The Scotsman I July 1, 2007

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