Netflix’s The Pale Blue Eye—director Scott Cooper’s frostbitten 1830 mystery about a detective investigating a grisly murder at West Point—has Chistian Bale supplying his usual gruff gravitas as the hired gumshoe Augustus Landor. But it’s Harry Melling, playing his accomplished sidekick as a young, fictionalized Edgar Allan Poe, who provides the movie’s chilly thunder. Throughout this gothic imagining, Melling hints at Poe’s intellectual pretension and macabre obsessions with the skills of a great orator and a soft-spoken romantic. It’s a high-wire balancing act that he turns into a cakewalk.
Melling’s been on the silver screen since childhood as the remorseless bully Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter franchise, an archetype he’s worked hard to pivot away from, even studying at LAMDA to facilitate his rebrand. Over the last several years, his efforts have paid off: his body of work, consisting of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Queen’s Gambit, The Devil All the Time,) has been strewn across the Netflix algorithm, where he’s shed his 4 Privet Drive youth for eccentric and deeply-considered characters. “I’ve always considered good acting to be about detail and specificity,” he says. “Those are the things I’m drawn to as an actor.”
Melling speaks to me over Zoom, coincidentally on Poe’s birthday, inside his London apartment. He wrapped production on a new Michael Winterbottom movie in November, so he’s now spending mornings reading scripts and afternoons piecing together a new wooden towel rack. “I’ve never done any carpentry in my life,” he insists, “but for some reason I’m adamant that I’m going to attempt this.” Considering his thorough process for burrowing into characters, it’s hard to doubt his dedication in other trades won’t spell more success.
GQ**: You filmed this movie in Pittsburgh’s freezing temperatures last winter. The movie just feels cold. How do you focus on acting when it’s that brittle? How do you stay in the moment?**
Harry Melling: It’s very weird when someone shouts, “Action!” You lock into some kind of hyper-focus. Looking back, it really helped us with the sense of what these characters would have been going through in the 1830s. My biggest fear was: “How am I going to get all the words out?” Because your jaw kind of locks in the cold. Certainly with Poe, he’s got some real flourishes. That was the main concern, but everything else lent itself to the harshness that Scott was going for.
There are a lot of entry points for Poe, especially when playing a fictionalized version of him. Do you take notes as you sift through poetry and short stories? How do you create something out of reading his prose?
I like to think that every single bit of research you do—even if you don’t think it’s very useful in the moment—informs you. There were certain passages at the end of Poe’s life that I started to think, “This is pointless, because I’m playing his early stage in life.” But then you find that some of those nuggets of information come up in your head on the day of filming. I write everything down that I think will be of interest. The things that are important will be there, like his relationship to death and the female figures in his life leaving him—those were things I held with me throughout the entirety of the shoot. That was where his loss and grief stemmed from. It’s a very mysterious process. It’s not logical or strategic.
Were there phrases or specific words that informed you?
What I found so interesting about his writing was the combination of being very specific but taking the most bizarre tangents. You don’t feel like he’s necessarily straining or going off point. He just can’t help himself. That was interesting in terms of how to play him—someone who is very smart, very on point, but sometimes he’ll go around the houses a bit, not out of naivete or stupidity, but he just can’t help himself. In the early scene when we meet Poe, Landor comments about him going off on a spiel, and I kept thinking back to his writing.
I read you also went to cemeteries as a way to prepare. What did you find in those experiences?
It started off as a strange whim. Part of the effort in researching early on is establishing enough of a routine to allow stuff to happen. So going to the cemetery became part of my routine. I would get up, walk to the cemetery and respectfully sit down and start reading the script or start reading some poems. His early poems were very hard-going but were insightful about his intellectual ambition as a young artist. It’s just allowing yourself to be in that world. He was so obsessed about the idea of death and what happens after. I thought it would be interesting to put myself in that environment to see what things conjured in my head.
You’ve mentioned that changing your teeth for The Queen’s Gambit helped you get into a better place with your character. Was there any small costuming or aesthetic choice you made here that helped you inherit Poe?
The hair, for sure. I don’t know if you could actually tell in the film, but my front hairline was taken back [a couple inches]. So they’d shave it off twice a day because it would come through. [Poe] had a massive forehead. I thought mine was massive enough. And then we had this little tuft of hair come over, but it kind of just changed the whole framing of my face. You’re so used to seeing your face in the mirror, but when you change something suddenly and you have to look at your face again, it just morphed. It just makes you rethink the little intricacies of how you operate.
So I’d imagine you had an awkward period after production wrapped.
Oh, it was awful! A month after, back in London, wearing a cap every day. Friends are going, “Let’s see your hair.” And it was just like a tuft of hair trying to poke through. I had my haircut the other day and I said to my hairdresser, I think I’ve just about got the strength back in my hair. It was worth it.
In the movie, Poe plays coy about his nationality. I noticed a southern lilt in your accent, and was wondering how you arrived there? Did you base that on Poe’s upbringing in Virginia?
He was very nomadic. He was born in Baltimore, then his parents died, he went to London with John Allan, spent about seven years there, then came back to Virginia. And so we were trying to work out, “What was the accent he would hear the most?” And we thought it would be the Virginia one, because he spent the most of his formative years there. Then we got very specific to have some class with the way he spoke, which we thought was useful for someone who was in performance mode early on. It allowed me to get the lyricism of what Poe was playing with, but also allowed a sense of earthiness and roots.
Is it ever hard to stay focused working opposite a prestigious actor? Do you catch yourself saying, “I’m having a dialogue scene with Christian Bale”?
Oh, yeah. It was the last day before Christmas hiatus and I was on set with Christian Bale and Robert Duvall, and I had to walk off and go, “How did this happen? How did I end up here? This is crazy.” Those moments are fleeting. I’m quite good—after having that “Ahh” moment—at getting back to the job. You do have those moments.
Scott Cooper and Queen’s Gambit showrunner Scott Frank both were inspired by your performance in Buster Scruggs**. Why do you think your character The Artist resonated with so many directors? What was special about shooting that?**
I have no idea! It is this thing that opened me up to a certain caliber of director, which I’m so thankful for. When you’re allowed to work with Joel and Ethan Coen, it does open you up to certain people being aware of your work. The Artist in Buster Scruggs is such a unique character, such a soulful character. He’s performing these big speeches and then, on the other hand, is very somber, quiet. I don’t know if that presents a certain range, but I try not to think about my appeal to certain directors because it might become a conscious thing.
Hopefully it doesn’t mean they prefer you limbless.
I know, right? “We like you, but maybe lose [your arms and legs].”
It’s funny that the majority of your recent work can all be found on Netflix, where you don’t get to see the box office figures of your movies. Is it a freeing thing to have your work unattached to a number or dollar figure?
I think it is. I’ve always found that the second I try to engage with any noise—positive or negative—it’s always backfired. So, hearing box office figures is going to freak me out. It incentivizes me to the next, or what might be possible after that. I’ve always been sort of work-focused: What’s the script, the role, can I offer anything to this? Anything beyond that I do my best to dull it out.
As Harry Potter came to an end and you pivoted into studying theater, was there ever an tendency to compare your career with Daniel Radcliffe or Emma Watson or some of your other peers?
I honestly think no. Their role within those movies was very different to mine in terms of their responsibility. I would spend a month on set and do a small section and go back to life, whereas they had to carry those films. I could never compare any journey they had with mine, because it felt a million miles away. Also, Harry Potter happening was a wonderful thing but I didn’t get into acting because I wanted to be in Harry Potter, or wanted to be a film star. I always wanted to tell stories, so I was driven by a sense of, “How do I get into theater? How do I become the best storyteller I want to be?” Those are things that drove me as opposed to career stepping stones. That happens more now. You kind of understand what the industry is looking for. But I don’t try to engage too much in that world because then it often backfires. It’s about staying true to the artist you want to be.
That’s hard to do.
I think so. In fact, a certain level of ignorance is actually bliss in that case. The more you tune out, the better.