Many will remember actor Harry Melling as Harry Potter’s obnoxious spoiled cousin, Dudley, but 16 years on and with a raft of West End plays under his belt (including one he wrote himself), the 26-year-old has moved on and is embracing new challenges, including that of actor-puppeteer inMoritz von Stuelpnagel’srisqué comedy, Hand to God. Melling took time out of rehearsals to talk to Paul Couch.
So Hand to God opens next Friday at the Vaudeville – how are rehearsals going? Any qualms?
We’re in week four of rehearsals and, so far, everyone is delightful, which is a great thing, plus the director’s amazing – really, really clever – and with this one, I’ve needed to have my hand a bit held in terms of playing two people at the same time and making sure that both of those characters are alive at every second throughout the play. That’s really been my challenge; it’s not something that I’ve ever faced before. It really is a different way of acting.
It’s a bit of a departure for you from your own piece, Peddling. And you’ll be displaying your puppetry skills. Are they new-found or is it something you’ve done before?
They are most certainly new-found! I had no puppetry experience whatsoever – the fact that I was offered this job just totally amazed me. But I’m loving it! I’ve spent a month with him [Harry’s co-star, the puppet Tyrone] and every second I’m not in the room rehearsing, he’s on my hand. I’m in front of a mirror working out how his arms move and how he talks!
It’s quite a specific skill and what’s different about this one is that you’re puppeteering but you’re not just isolating that – the rest of your body is someone else. At this point, that’s the thing I’m obsessing about getting right and making sure that both “beings” are living at the same time. But it’s a joy to try and work that out, to work out the negotiation of those two things.
It’s quite a cheeky script, isn’t it? I think The New Yorker described it as Sesame Street meets The Exorcist.[Laughs] When I read it I found it very funny. I just hope that it’ll be just as funny in the doing of it. But also, what I’ve been surprised about when rehearsing it is that actually, underneath all of that, it is a play about grief really! It’s about this mum and her son, Jason, who’ve lost their husband and father. It’s about what happens when you don’t say the things… when you don’t let out the stuff you should do. Very often these things come out in the most extraordinary and hilarious ways. I think hopefully it will be enjoyed as that cheeky, wild, bold play but something that shakes up the audience as much as it makes them laugh.
I was chatting to your Uncle David [the actor, David Troughton] recently and asked him this same question: you come from quite an acting dynasty – grandad, uncles, cousins – do you think that’s a case of nature or nurture?
That’s a really good question! I have no idea! My hunch would be it’s more the environment in which one was brought up, more than the genetics of it… perhaps. My immediate family aren’t in the industry but seeing David going into the RSC made me fall in love with the idea of telling those stories, suspending people’s disbelief.
My mum’s a writer and illustrator, she does children’s books, and my dad’s an artist as well – I think there’s a need to create stuff. My brother’s going against it. He’s going into PR! But it is a very creative family! That’s certainly passed through my blood.
Of course, you found prominence at an early age in the Harry Potter films. Does it seem like it all happened to someone else a very long time ago?
It does! And sometimes talking about “him” [Dudley Dursley] is a bit of a bizarre thing really because I was 10 – that was 16 years ago! My memories of what it was are hazy and I feel like a very different person now. I’m grateful for it happening and it probably will always be with me. And that’s something that I celebrate.
You’ve changed quite a bit physically since those days. Was that gym, hard work or puberty?
Drama school actually! I was always a very active kid, I probably just ate too much! But I went to drama school and obviously you’re introduced to a new routine and the weight just started falling off. It wasn’t a conscious decision necessarily. Then I found the power of changing your body in order to find different people, which is something we’re seeing in Hollywood everywhere. And that was it really. It opened up new roles for me and I wasn’t playing the “fat, funny person” anymore, which was an exciting thing to happen.
You took Peddling to the US after you performed it at High Tide in 2014. It’s quite a quintessentially British piece. How did the Americans react to it?
It was great being there but I must admit, it’s not only a very British piece but also a very London-centric piece. And for people who knew the streets I talked about, it was enjoyed. But, because it was quite a tricky play in terms of the way in which it was written, the verse, not being linear, with having London culture was thrust upon that, I think it was tricky for a New York audience, especially when dealing with class, which the play does. In New York, they don’t have that class system – they’re either really rich or quite poor. There’s nothing like the class system we have here. It was really interesting because not everything “landed” – I think – but what was interesting was watching New Yorkers embrace the play in the way they could, which was probably from an emotional standpoint rather than a political one.
When I saw Peddling originally I thought it was more akin to performance poetry than traditional theatre. If you hadn’t been an actor, might that have been an alternative career path?
I don’t know to be honest. I love poetry, I love spoken word. I’ve never done it. I don’t think I would do it. I think every play perhaps needs to be written in a certain way and, for some reason, I fell into this idea that the boy was going round and round and tripping himself finding things. That’s where the idea of rhyme came from. So maybe I might write a play about something else that needs to be written a different way. I just really enjoy spoken word.
So do you prefer acting or writing?
They’re so different, they really are. One of the most different things about Peddling was dislocating the two. Knowing when you’re going in to rehearse as an actor, and when you’re going away to write as a writer, because the second you do both at the same time, you just get nowhere because your “writer head” would get in the way of your “acting head” – you’d be doing a scene and thinking “no that line’s not quite right” – then you’re “no, just do the line – worry about whether it’s right later!” That was quite tricky but, in terms of which I prefer more, they’re very different skills. The power of the writer is that I can do anything I want. I can say what I want, I can conjure who I want, I can tell the story that I want. Acting’s a bit more prescriptive but it’s how you get to where the writer is.
Hand to God runs at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, from 5 February 2016