Matthew Lewis Can’t Believe He’s a Romantic Lead, Either

By Sarah Bahr

The actor, best known as the clumsy Neville Longbottom of “Harry Potter” fame, is a dashing suitor in the PBS reboot of “All Creatures Great and Small.”

Matthew Lewis and Rachel Shenton in “All Creatures Great and Small.”
Matthew Lewis and Rachel Shenton in “All Creatures Great and Small.”Credit...Ed Miller/Playground Television (UK) Ltd
Sarah Bahr

Matthew Lewis’s face is everywhere.

On the wall to his right, grinning on a poster for the 2012 West End revival of “Our Boys,” a play by Jonathan Lewis. In the alcove behind him, arms crossed and stony-faced in a group shot for “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” And in front of his laptop camera, eyes widening beneath his gray flat cap and dark brown hair as he explains the seemingly self-promoting background.

“It’s not my house!” the 31-year-old actor said. He and his wife were paying a Christmas Eve visit to his parents in Leeds, the Yorkshire city 200 miles north of London where he was born, he explained (after quarantining for five days and testing negative for the coronavirus). But he’d overlooked the fact that their home’s study is, well, a shrine to him.

“They’re very proud,” he said, as though wishing for nothing more than an Invisibility Cloak.

But bashfulness is no longer necessary for the man who for a decade played the fumbling, stammering Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter films. Last year, he’d spent time in the nearby Yorkshire Dales, not far from Leeds, filming his role as Hugh Hulton, a wealthy landowner and rival suitor to the veterinarian James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) for the affections of a farmer’s daughter, Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) in the reboot of “All Creatures Great and Small,” the “Masterpiece” series that began airing Sunday nights on PBS this month.

The seven-episode series, which is based on James Alfred Wight’s beloved books inspired by his adventures as a young veterinarian in 1930s Yorkshire, was a surprise hit when it premiered in Britain this fall. Celebrated as an emotional balm for pandemic-weary viewers, it became Channel 5’s highest-rated show since 2016, and has been renewed for a second season.

For fans who were used to Lewis as the clumsy Longbottom, his entrance at the end of the second episode comes as a shock.

A decade removed from the last Potter film — he no longer looks like Draco Malfoy’s awkward, chubby-cheeked punching bag — his career has been moving away from that type of character for a while.

“It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky that those are the roles I was offered.”

His first post-Potter role was as Jamie Bradley, a 22-year-old retail worker who dabbled in drugs and crime but tried to turn his life around, in the BBC drama “The Syndicate” in 2012, followed by a self-centered fitness fanatic in “Me Before You” in 2016 and a single dad under house arrest in “Girlfriends” in 2018.

Offscreen, he shot a shirtless cover for Attitude magazine’s swimwear issue in 2015 that left J.K. Rowling scolding him on Twitter: “warn me next time, for God’s sake” (in fairness, he didn’t give his mother a heads-up either, he said.)

ImageFrom left, Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Lewis in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.”
From left, Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Lewis in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.”Credit...Warner Bros.

“There was very intense pressure coming off of ‘Harry Potter,’” he said. “I didn’t want to be known as a one-trick pony.”

Lewis is the latest Potter actor to find success on television recently. Harry Melling, who played Harry’s tormentor Dudley Dursley, shocked fans when he cropped up as a slim, dapper chess champ in “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix. Rupert Grint plays one of the four leads on the Apple TV+ series “Servant,” an M. Night Shyamalan psychological thriller. Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter himself, is an executive producer and star of the TBS comedy “Miracle Workers.”

(Other Potter alumni, like Emma Watson, best known as Hermione Granger, and Robert Pattinson, who played the golden boy Cedric Diggory, have gone on to become bona fide movie stars.)

But Lewis is still coming to terms with being a leading man — God forbid, a sexy one. Which is why, when the opportunity came to audition for “All Creatures Great and Small,” Lewis hesitated.

“The original series is a bit of an institution in Yorkshire, and my dad really wanted me to do it,” he said. “But this guy is supposed to be very dark and handsome, and it has to be believable that Helen’s in love with him. I was like, ‘I don’t know about this. When I shave, everyone will see I look like I’m about 12.’”

Even after he got the part, he still didn’t think he was in the clear. “I was dreading turning up the first day on set,” he said. “I was sure they’d be like, ‘This is what he actually looks like? Jesus, we need to recast this guy.’”

Lewis, with Nigel Havers in “All Creatures,” hesitated in taking the role. “This guy is supposed to be very dark and handsome,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know about this.’”Credit...Ed Miller/Playground Television (UK) Ltd

But the series director, Brian Percival, who directed several episodes of the Emmy-winning drama “Downton Abbey,” was well aware of Lewis’s previous work on Potter films — and felt sure he had the experience and confidence — no to mention the Yorkshire accent — needed to pull off the part of Hugh.

“I like to cast actors who can relate in some real and tangible way to the characters they are playing,” he said. “Hugh needs to have an air of natural confidence that is born of privilege, and Matthew achieved that incredibly well.”

Lewis said he struggles with roles that are too similar to his own life. “I find it quite difficult when too much of me starts to come through in a character,” he said. “It’s easier when I can play someone completely different, like a police officer in London or someone who’s wealthy.”

Which is why he finds it difficult to rewatch the Harry Potter films.

“At times it’s painful how much of me there is in Neville,” he said. “When I’m watching, I’m like, ‘That’s not Neville; that’s you.’”

David Yates, who directed the final four Potter films, said Lewis took on a greater role in shaping his character in the later films. “Matthew was very much a supporting player when I arrived to direct ‘Order of the Phoenix,’” he said. “But he became more confident, more curious, more present as the films progressed. And more ambitious.”

Yates kept thinking of ways to expand Lewis’s role in scenes, ultimately building a sequence around him in “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” in which Neville blows up a bridge to Hogwarts to thwart the dark wizard Voldemort’s army — a scene that didn’t exist in either the book or in early drafts of Steve Kloves’s screenplay. “But it captured the charms of Neville and Matthew’s everyman quality,” Yates said. “He had a modesty and an honesty that was hard to ignore.”

Lewis recently scored a lead role in Curtis Vowell’s upcoming New Zealand comedy “Baby Done,” as a soon-to-be father who will try anything, from drugs to a threesome, to assuage his adventurous girlfriend’s despair at the prospect of motherhood.

But despite Lewis’s surging heartthrob status, his older brother Anthony said he was still a big nerd. He plans pub quizzes for family on all the holidays, including one for that evening. “He’s fiercely competitive,” Anthony Lewis said, “to the point of being obsessive. It can be quite intense and is incredibly annoying.”

But if ‘former Harry Potter actor’ is the label that follows him for the rest of his career, well, Lewis said, that would be OK with him.

“If there’s something people remember you by, there are worse things than the Harry Potter franchise,” he said. “It opened so many doors for me when I otherwise wouldn’t even have gotten in the room.”