One of the great pleasures of the Harry Potter movies has been watching the extraordinarily deep bench of British acting talent fill literally mesmerizing roles. At this point, so many of the country’s best-known actors and actresses have appeared in both recurring and one-off parts that it might be easier to name those who haven’t (Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons spring to mind as regrettable absences). With the first half of the final chapter of the series, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, opening this week (and the second half already filmed although not to be released until next summer) and all major characters revealed, it seems that we’ll narrowly miss a clean sweep by British acting royalty. But whingeing about the omissions would be crying into our butterbeer, when we should be cheering at the Gringotts of performances we’ve feasted on in a decade of Potter films.
Beyond their considerable individual talent, the mix of seriousness and lightness that British actors bring to their work has raised the quality of the movie series beyond any other in the fantasy genre (yes, including that series about hobbits). Generalizations abound about the differences between English and American acting styles (usually summed up as classical technique vs. “the Method”) but even if most theories are too simplistic, there seems to me a distinct, observable difference in how British actors approach their craft: They appear to take a workman-like approach to their profession in which all parts are treated equally – a job is a job, and to be done as best as one can. Taking the part seriously rather than themselves, they don't seem self-conscious (in either sense of the word) while acting.
If cast in a children’s fantasy series, most American actors would feel the need to somehow signal that they were above the job – winking subtly at the audience (or not so subtly, if you’re the likes of Robin Williams), failing to fully play out the more serious emotions, and generally holding back out of a fear of making themselves look ridiculous by taking it seriously. American actors want you to know when they feel a bit silly playing a part, and so will refuse to fully immerse either themselves or their audiences in the role.
By contrast, British actors fully commit themselves to their roles, whether playing Hamlet or Voldemort. As luck would have it, Ralph Fiennes has played both, and I have no doubt that his experience in the former helps him with the latter. Despite his impressive list of acting credits, he doesn’t condescend to playing Voldemort but instead embraces it, playing not an idea of a villain, but a thought-out character.
I once read an interview with the American actor, Brent Spiner, who played Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he explained that acting in that fantasy universe wasn’t as easy as it looked, being a combination of performing Shakespeare and running around your living room with a towel tied around your neck pretending to be Superman. So perhaps that classical theatrical training comes in handy even in the most Diagon of Alleys.
The greatest argument for this theory might be the Harry Potter films themselves, in which the three young leads (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson), all cast when they were young children without any theatrical training, are regularly acted into the ground by the dazzling adults who surround them. Given such a stellar group, it's tough to make choices, but here are my ten favorite actors/performances in the Harry Potter series:
#10 Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart
I’ve never been a big Branagh fan (his lack of lips has always distressed me) but he absolutely nailed the comedy gold of a wizard whose ego is in inverse ratio to his talents. Branagh is so hilariously smug and inept as a trickster unable to teach what he also can’t do that many viewers may have missed the slyest joke of his performance: He plays Lockhart with an American accent.
#9 Timothy Spall as Wormtail
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be a character actor like Spall, whose odd and homely looks and distinctively annoying voice limit his options, but he’s had a wonderful career of supporting parts. As the fanatically loyal Wormtail, he manages to make obsequiousness touching, his hero worship of the glamorous Voldemort utterly believable as a motive for the heinous acts he regretfully but dutifully performs.
#8 Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy
Cast as one of the key villains of the series, Isaacs plays evil to silken perfection. He’s said in interviews that the part is all about the hair – once he gets that blond wig on, he’s Lucius. But let’s not underestimate the power of that seductively menacing voice softly unfurling insults towards mudbloods and, well, everyone who crosses his path. The man also wears a cape and cane in a more sinister fashion than anyone since Jekyll and Hyde.
#7 Gary Oldman as Sirius Black
Before the HP movies, Oldman was one of those actors I’d admired but felt repelled by. Having made a big splash as Sid Vicious, he later seemed stuck in clichéd villain roles that were based on his physiognomy rather than his talent. The role of Sirius (who is mistakenly thought to be a different kind of Vicious) allowed Oldman to play on his blunt-faced menace while also revealing his sensitive side. Daniel Radcliffe has said Oldman became both a friend and acting mentor, which may explain why their scenes have more texture and emotional resonance than almost any others in the series. When Sirius is killed, I was surprised by the sadness I felt – a tribute to the warmth that Oldman brought to the character.
#6 Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall
Smith is literally pitch-perfect casting as the Scottish McGonagall. An inverse of Smith's well-known role as Jean Brodie, the teacher from hell, McGonagall is the no-nonsense backbone of the films, a firmly moral presence that grounds the (often literally) flighty enterprise. Smith rarely gets much of interest to do in the films, yet she’s irreplaceable, both for the kids and for us, the mother figure you never quite appreciate but would be bereft to lose.
#5 Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid
J.K. Rowling wrote the character of Hagrid while picturing Robbie Coltrane, so it’s no wonder we can’t imagine anyone else in the part. Like Smith, he’s a mainstay of the series as a delicious combination of outsized protector and comic relief. Coltrane, an underrated and terrific actor (as his British series Cracker showed) is so grounded and sympathetic as Hagrid that we never fail to believe this gentle giant really exists – and is as good a soul as ever appeared in any size package.
#4 Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort
As the embodiment of evil (at least after he’s reconstituted in Goblet of Fire), Voldemort may have been the toughest role to cast. (Who would you get to play Satan?) The character had to be terrifying, other-worldly and yet recognizably, if not human, at least wizardly in the way we’ve become used to. In choosing the feathery-voiced Fiennes, the filmmakers shrewdly selected a man who could convey the banality of ego-driven evil – but then his stunning work as Nazi officer Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List probably tipped them off. Fiennes’ portrayal of Voldemort is no retread of that role, though, but a fully-conceived creation of a man of parts (conveniently stored in horcruxes until he can get himself together).
#3 Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge
Forget Voldemort. Umbridge is actually the most terrifying character in all of Harry Potter. Voldemort has no illusions about his motives – he knows he seeks power for his own glory and satisfaction – and that transparency of motive is why most people won’t follow the Voldemorts of the world, thus thwarting their villainy. But Umbridge is a type we see every time we turn on the TV – the person in authority who sincerely believes she is helping others while committing utterly horrific acts of control against them. And people keep voting for those types. With her tinkling laugh, frozen smile and “I thought so” tones, Staunton makes Umbridge utterly real and far scarier than she ever was in the book. She’s a nightmare in a pink wool suit, and long-time unsung character actress Staunton seems to savor playing every moment of both her ascension and her fall.
#2 Richard Harris and Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore
The ethereal and wispy-voiced Harris seemed perfect casting for Dumbledore, capturing the kindly father figure vibe that both the main characters and readers of the first HP books loved. When Harris died and the far more robust Gambon stepped into the role, my initial reaction was that a fine actor had either been miscast or poorly directed. I’ve loved Gambon ever since seeing The Singing Detective 20 years ago, but he seemed to be getting Dumbledore all wrong, butching him up by yelling and posturing. But the change from Harris to Gambon has turned out to perfectly parallel the revelation that Dumbledore isn’t a doddering and sweet old man as both the Hogwarts kids and we readers first think, but actually an immensely powerful wizard. Gambon has pulled off that crucial pivot in a way that Harris might not have been up to, given his health. Gambon’s final scenes as Dumbledore were heartbreaking in their portrayal of what it is like to face death, which we suddenly realize to our shock even the strongest and most well-loved wizard must do.
#1 Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
After every Potter movie, I say the same thing: “Not enough Snape.” Every second that Rickman is on-screen as Snape is to be relished, just as he relishes not just every word but every syllable of dialogue he gets to utter. Was there ever an actor who could get more out of a single consonant or vowel? In the books, Snape is terrifying and mysterious, but Rickman has added a deep overlay of comedy to the character without sacrificing his darkness. He’s also an ideal actor to carry the essential secret of the series: That there is much much more to Snape than we or the characters know. Rickman conveys entire novels of sublimated information with the haunted look in his eyes, which are a match for his unmistakable and, yes, magical voice. I’ll have to wait until next summer to see him play the final scene revealing Snapes’ true feelings -- but I already know that he will make me weep.