Many actors struggle to make the transition from child to adult actor but, for Matthew Lewis, a wide variety of roles post-Harry Potter have shown his versatility. About to perform in Unfaithful at London’s Found 111 Theatre space, he took time out of rehearsal to talk to Glen Pearce about the play and casting off his film persona.
Like most of his former wand-waving contemporaries, actor Matthew Lewis doesn’t mind talking about his role in the Harry Potter series. Although he’d been active as an actor since he was five years old, it was the put-upon Neville Longbottom that launched him to stardom. But Neville’s been put away, acknowledged as something Lewis is proud of and now it’s time for the 27-year-old to move on. In the past couple of years, Lewis has taken on much grittier roles, including serial killer Sean Balmforth in the second series of BBC’s Happy Valley and Corporal Gordon “Towerblock” House in Army comedy-drama Bluestone 42.
On stage, he was hospitalised soldier Mick in the 2012 revival of Jonathan Lewis’ Our Boys at The Duchess, and the tour of the Agatha Christie melodrama Verdict. But, he says, it was a natural evolution rather than a conscious decision to distance himself from his time at Hogwarts.
“I never sat down with my agent and said: ‘Right, we need to do completely diverse roles that show my diversity’ and this that and the other. I think the only thing we decided is that I wasn’t going to play a wizard again for some time. And, I’ve just been very fortunate that the roles that have come up, that have been offered to me, have been sort of diverse. They’ve been so different from Neville and have been so different from each other.
“I think part and parcel of it may be that I kind of made a pact with myself to not be afraid. And, when I was afraid, that’s when I really need to leap, that’s when I need to jump and really invest and try to fight that. And so I think whenever a role comes up that’s easy, I think maybe I don’t put in as much effort and I think I maybe don’t buy into it as much. But when it’s something that’s challenging and different and new, that’s when I sort of throw myself into it. And that’s when I tend to get the job [laughs].”
But, Lewis says, stretching himself isn’t always the most comfortable of processes. He continues: “I know when we started this play about a week ago I was like ‘Jesus, I don’t know where to begin. I don’t know half the play’ and now I’m a bit more chilled, I kinda got the grip of it. We’ve all got a grip of it. And we’re in the right direction now. It’s stuff that scares me that inspires me, if that makes sense.”
In Owen McCafferty’s uncompromisingUnfaithful, he plays Peter, a male escort in a tale of infidelity and the subsequent revenge-sex.
“I suppose it’s about people, human beings, and relationships and interactions between people and communication within relationships and how that differs between genders,” Lewis explains. “How men and women communicate with each other, generational differences, how younger couples may approach relationships compared to older couples, the effect that time plays on a relationship, so a younger couple who have been together for a few months compared to an older couple who have been together for 30 years.
“And then, I guess it’s about honesty as well. It’s about are we every truly ourselves? Or do we always constantly play characters? And do we always keep some things back to ourselves and never share everything with our partner of 30 years. How truthful are we when we communicate on a daily basis? Is it possible to have completely meaningless sex? Or does it always have to be intimate? Does it always have to be a sharing of something?”
The plot also seems to be something of a reflection on the life of an actor, playing a character and questions whether we’re ever really showing our true selves? Lewis agrees. “It’s a fair point. I’m reminded of an old expression about how in some languages the same word for ‘actor’ is ‘prostitute’. It’s stuff that everyone does. Every time we step out of our front doors we put on these fronts. And sometimes, possibly all the time, we even keep them on when we’re at home.”
I’m reminded of an old expression about how in some languages the same word for ‘actor’ is ‘prostitute’…
The intimate play has an intimate home, being staged at the bijou pop-up Found 111 space. Does Lewis have any qualms about performing with the audience at such close proximity?“Yes and No. Absolutely there’s a degree of trepidation.” He confesses. “When I first saw the theatre, I was a bit like ‘Oh Jesus, that is intense!’. And so there’s a fear that comes with that, but at the same time, it’s very right for this play. This play feels very much like you’re not going to a theatre to sit down with a drink, read the programme and watch the show. This feels like a dirty, grimy, fly on the wall, kind of visceral play where you want to feel as much a part of it as possible.”
Talking about something that was challenging and scary, his now infamous photo shoot in a magazine for gay men that caused a media storm last year.So did he have any fear revealing nearly all? “It was part and parcel of that challenge thing again. It was like ‘Holy shit do I really want to do this?’ And I thought if I say ‘No’ that’s me bottling it. That’s me saying ‘No because I’m scared’. I was like ‘Sod it, let’s do it. What’s the worst that can happen?’ And so I just did it and it ended up ok – people took it well. It was a very humbling response.”
One of the most public responses was from JK Rowling herself, who jokingly told Lewis via twitter to put his clothes back on. But the Grande Dame of Hogwarts now seems to have recovered from the shock “I actually went up to Jo at a party for her birthday last year and she was still talking about it. It was very awkward!” he laughs.
The physique on show in the shoot wouldn’t be out of place on the sports field and Lewis has been an ardent fan of Leeds Rhinos rugby league club for years but has he ever felt the urge to play himself?
“Oh God, I wish!” he laughs. “I think honestly, if I’d done anything else, I’d like to have tried my hand at that. I don’t think I’m good enough, nor tough enough and I’m definitely not big enough. But I love it. I just think that what those guys do is spectacular. The commitment they put in, the professionalism, the attitude. I don’t know what they do, players across the board, what they do everywhere is very special, but particularly the bunch of lads I know at Leeds, they’re incredible people. They’re a constant inspiration for me.
“My manager actually uses sporting analogies quite a lot when it comes to acting and I think there are a lot of similarities between the two industries – a lot of thick skin and refusing to bow down and take no for an answer.”
Acting is something that seems to run in the Lewis’ family blood, with Matthew’s older brother, Anthony, also an established stage actor. However, Lewis says there’s no sense of competition between the pair. “I don’t think that we’ve ever been up for the same role. Strangely, he’s about six years older than me, but people think I’m the older. I don’t know why!” he laughs. “He is the reason I got into this. His first role was Heartbeat with Niamh Cusack and I got taken along while he was being chaperoned by our mum. Now here I am 25 years later working with Niamh Cusack – that’s just the roundabout way the industry works.”
Although he’s left the world of Potter behind him, the fanbase is still very much there. Unfaithful is being staged just around the corner from the Palace Theatre, home of the new Harry Potter play, The Cursed Child. Surely it’s any hardcore fan’s dream come true to bump into one of the original stars while queuing? He laughs. “It’s not too bad in the morning, but in the evening when I’m going back to the tube there’re quite a few people milling around so I’m going to have to keep my head down! Once our show opens and people know I’m around, I’m not so sure. Perhaps we can persuade people to come and see or show as well, although I have to insist it’s not for kids!”
Unfaithful opens at Found111 on 25 August and runs until 8October 2016 | Main image: Contributed
For more information: www.found111.co.uk