If you’ve only seen Harry Melling on-screen, you probably think he’s a very serious man. He usually plays disturbed or intense characters – an armless, legless performer in Coen Brothers’ gem The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs; crazed preacher Roy from The Devil All The Time, who pours spiders down his face; and latest role Edgar Allan Poe, the tortured American poet from whose grim imagination sprung terrifying tales of death and darkness.
Meet Harry Melling though, as we do at a posh London hotel in rainy late November, and you’ll find him much more relaxed, silly even. Dressed down in a stripy, knitted jumper and comfy trousers, the 33-year-old actor is friendly, quick to laugh and, for several bizarre minutes, determined to convince NME that we should eat more bananas. “I honestly don’t think I could live without them!” he says, funnelling one into his mouth at lightning speed.
“I’ve played conflicted, troubled characters”
As well as the merits of mushy fruit, Melling is excited to tell us about playing Poe in The Pale Blue Eye. Netflix’s moody mystery came out last week, and stars Christian Bale as Augustus Landor – a downtrodden detective who is hired to investigate gruesome murders at West Point military academy in the 19th century. Bale is the main draw here, but it’s Melling that has the internet in a tizz.
Hailed as a scene-stealer on social media, his fictionalised Poe is a young cadet who becomes Landor’s sidekick. He flits from nervous assistant to pretentious showoff to frustrated prodigy in seconds, displaying the kind of range most actors take decades to develop. It’s not a happy role – Poe died an alcoholic and in mysterious circumstances at the age of 40 – so Melling had to delve deep into the dimmest corners of the human psyche.
“I’ve played a few conflicted, troubled characters… and I’d like to think it’s not true that everybody is capable of great evil,” he says. “I think some people are pushed to real extremities and… they can conquer that. They come out the other side and have a different outlook on life. I think that’s a remarkable thing.”
Later, when we broach the same subject with Bale, he’ll give us the opposite answer. “It’s absolutely true that under great pressure, anyone can commit a terrible deed,” he says, tucked away in a room up the hall from Harry’s. “This film is a fictionalised origin story about how my character, Landor, influenced Poe into becoming the hard-drinking man that he came to be – why he ended up dead in a gutter in Baltimore in somebody else’s clothes.”
Unlike his co-star, it is in Melling’s nature to focus on the positive. Everything is “remarkable” or “fascinating”. He is captivated by innocuous, everyday things (bananas, the discovery that we share a hairdresser). He even manages to find levity in Poe – widely considered to be the most morbid author ever.
“Poe was a very dark, macabre writer with a dark life, but even in his stories there’s an element of fun,” he says. “You can see him sort of enjoying it… there’s [lightness] in those very long sentences. I like to think that he revelled in the darker side as opposed to committing to it.”
“Dudley Dursley will always be there – I accept that”
Revelling in the darker side is what Melling now specialises in, but he’s had to work hard for that image. For many years, he was best-known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films.
First cast as the boy wizard’s spoiled cousin in 1999 aged 10, Melling appeared in five of the seven box office-busting movies. He lost weight over that period and had to wear a fat suit for Deathly Hallows – Part 1. This means he is seldom recognised by Potterheads, but has still gone out of his way to further erase that link. Melling didn’t attend the 20th anniversary event in 2021 – and there is no trace of Hogwarts’ wholesome family vibe in his subsequent filmography.
He isn’t ashamed of the brattish bully. He’s actually quick to stress how special the experience was. It’s just that it happened more than a decade ago – and he’d like to move on now please.
“It’s always going to be there and I accept that,” he says with the well-rehearsed air of someone who’s answered this question many times before. “I would just like the conversation to be about what I’m doing now as opposed to something I did when I was 10. I guess it’s like if you,” he points a finger semi-accusingly, “were asked about an article you wrote when you were 10. How would you feel about that?” He has a point. In January 2013, NME had just put Palma Violets on the cover – now consigned to the towering rubbish heap that is indie landfill.
“I’m always amazed at the generational power of Harry Potter”
After Potter, Melling immersed himself in his craft. He wrote plays, studied theatre and went to acting school at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. That allowed him to “be really bad at acting”, he says, “and work out a process”. Small parts on British telly (BBC period drama Garrow’s Law, Sunday night adventure The Musketeers) showed casting directors what he could do, before he started a run of arthouse titles including Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle The Current War and exploration epic The Lost City Of Z. Then there’s his work for Netflix: Buster Scruggs and The Devil All The Time, as well as action blockbuster The Old Guard and hit chess thriller The Queen’s Gambit. With a growing portfolio behind him, does he feel like he’s finally escaped the looming presence of Dudley?
“I think so,” says Melling tentatively, “but I’m always amazed at the generational power of Harry Potter. My friends have kids now who are [into the books] and they’re like: ‘Uncle Harry’s Dudley!’ If someone mentions Harry Potter to me then of course it’s something that I’ll engage with. It does feel like that narrative’s changing though, which is great.”
Despite his growing reputation in Hollywood – directors like the Coens and The Pale Blue Eye’s Scott Cooper now seek him out – Melling remains unassuming. He is ultra polite and still lives in his hometown of London. He admits to looking himself up on Wikipedia, but only to ask for corrections: “I always get birthday cards on March 13, which isn’t my birthday.” Ask him about his bright future, and he deflects the question.
“I try as much as possible not to step out and see the bigger picture,” he says. “I’ve always said to myself that if I focus on the work then hopefully everything else will fall into place.” It’s a nice theory, but that’s not really how it goes in practice. Sign up to a success and you’ll receive a tidal wave of offers, but book a flop and that will soon dry up. You can’t just rely on your own talent.
“Being an actor is like snakes and ladders”
“That’s the game,” says Melling. “It’s like snakes and ladders. If I’m always consciously aware of the doors that might open (or close), I worry it’ll get in the way of the choices I make – and I don’t want that.”
He’s happier to discuss what will probably never happen. On Reddit, there is a thread fan-casting Melling as the psychotic DC villain Joker; and during our research we come across a post suggesting he’d make a good Morrissey in a Smiths biopic (bad news, 2017’s England Is Mine already had Essex heartthrob Jack Lowden play the part).
“I always find these fan things fascinating,” says Melling. “My granddad [actor Patrick Troughton] was the second Doctor Who, and people always say things like, ‘Oh you should do that.’ But I never met him! It’s funny what people on the internet think would be a good casting for you. The Joker? Morrissey? I’m flattered.”
Melling’s next IRL job sounds like a banger. It’s Michael Winterbottom’s Promised Land – a Tel Aviv-set crime thriller in which he plays a 1930s cop hunting Zionist freedom fighter Avraham Stern. True to form, he’d rather not discuss the film – but he does tell us that he’s only just got back from shooting it in Italy, where he had tickets to see Kendrick Lamar. His schedule meant he couldn’t go, which was gutting: “I’m such a fan of Kendrick. I love his music.” What else is he listening to at the moment? “I’m really enjoying the new Arctic Monkeys album,” he says. “I have an eclectic taste.”
Given his pedigree for portraying unsettled personalities, we ask if there’s a musician he’d like to play. “The thing with passion projects,” he begins, “is you can put a lot of pressure on them. Suddenly this thing becomes an obsession and it ends up not being about you wanting to do it. It can turn into a very big cloud of anxiety hovering over you.” Melling doesn’t need that, he’s still on the rise. Whatever he does do next though, we’re sure it won’t involve any magic wands.
‘The Pale Blue Eye’ is streaming now on Netflix