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Growing Up Potter

6 minute read
Lev Grossman and Jumana Farouky/London

The Harry Potter movies are filmed primarily at a former airplane factory 20 miles outside London. Inside Leavesden Studios, as it’s called, is a dreamlike mishmash of Harry Potter’s past: bits and pieces of the Whomping Willow, signs from the stores in Diagon Alley, the smashed-up remains of giant chess pieces from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Honestly, is this any place to raise a child?

But that’s what’s been going on at Leavesden for the past five years. When Daniel Radcliffe was cast as Harry (after a small part in The Tailor of Panama), he was only 11. Emma Watson (who plays nerd-girl Hermione Granger) was 10; Rupert Grint (Potter pal Ron Weasley), almost 12. Now, with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire set to open in two weeks, they’ve spent a third of their lives making movies. They’ve gone from children to teenagers entirely within the weird, closed bubble of the Potterverse.

Radcliffe, now 16, seems to be aware of what a strange childhood fate has consigned him to, but having nothing else to compare it with, he isn’t that bothered by it. “I’ve got quite a surreal mind anyway, so I don’t think it’s made much difference to how I see everything,” he says amiably. “That’s what’s weird: I don’t think of it as being that bizarre.”

A lot has changed for him since he first picked up a wand. He has got taller and lost his round little-boy’s face. He has gone through puberty, and his voice has broken. He’s dealing with some complexion issues, and he’s working on some beginner’s stubble. For Goblet director Mike Newell, shooting him is like shooting a moving target. “I’ve just been working on a scene which we shot in our first week, and Dan still looks the little kid that he was in Sorcerer’s Stone,” says Newell, who’s probably best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral. “Now, 11 months later, he doesn’t look like that at all. And that scene of him comes two-thirds of the way through the movie. So he starts as a kid of 15, then he gets younger, then he gets older, then he gets younger.”

When Warner Bros. set about filming the Harry Potter books, it wasn’t exactly uppermost in everyone’s mind that the company would essentially be opening a boarding school for child actors (who must spend three hours a day with an on-set tutor). “When you start, you don’t really anticipate that it will last seven films,” says David Heyman, who has been a producer on all four movies (he calls himself “the longest-standing student at Hogwarts”). “It is its own universe. But we try to maintain a real normalcy about it.”

Heyman insists that things have never got out of hand. “It’s like school, so you have people getting closer and people growing apart, but we’ve never had a fight.” And what about puberty, a specter almost as unmentionable as He Who Must Not Be Named? “There are crushes and romances here and there, but nothing to do with the central characters,” Heyman says. “I’ve never caught anyone making out behind one of the backings or anything like that. I’m sure it’s probably gone on, but I don’t want to know about it.”

In that respect, life distinctly imitates art: Goblet of Fire is the first of the movies to deal explicitly with sexual tension between the characters, especially Ron and Hermione. It’s also the first movie in which a major (all right, sort of major) character dies. Newell, the series’ third director, has crafted the movie to reflect the edgier, scarier material: “It’s very, very dark and sort of a classic thriller,” he says.

Social life on Planet Potter doesn’t always mirror that in J.K. Rowling’s books. Radcliffe and Grint aren’t actually very close. “Rupert I don’t know that well,” Radcliffe admits. “Which is weird. I think it’s partly because he finished school before I did. Emma, I do know exceptionally well. Very, very well.” Um, so did they ever, like … you know? “No. But I had a big crush on her when I first met her, definitely. But she’s more like a sister now, so it would be a bit incestuous. It’s too weird.”

Radcliffe’s best friend at Leavesden is, of all people–well, let him explain it: “Will Steggle, who’s my–I hate to use the word, because I’ll sound like a precocious child star–but he’s credited as being my personal dresser. He is in actuality my best friend in the world. And he’s 39. Which is upsetting, because he is so much older, and it means he’s gonna die probably before me.”

Life on set can be tough on adults too. The Goblet of Fire shoot took 11 months, an eternity in Hollywood time, partly because kids can legally work only four hours a day. “Every moment that they’re in front of the camera is precious,” says Newell. “So rehearsals–which for somebody like me are absolutely vital–you get none of it.” Though with the kids getting older, they do have more of a personal life to draw on, especially the dating part. “Mike really brings out how awkward and awful and how embarrassing the whole situation is,” says Watson, who’s now 15. “All of the younger actors played on their own experiences to make that feel as real as we could.”

The Harry Potter set is an exclusive microcosm, one that comes with its own delights and its own dangers–in other words, it’s not all that different from Hogwarts. “There’s never been a day when I’ve thought, I really don’t want to be here,” Radcliffe says. “Because for me, it’s this or it’s school. And I’ve never really loved being in school that much.” He does leave Leavesden from time to time. This month he’s acting in an Australian coming-of-age movie called December Boys. But the outside world can take a little getting used to. After all, he’s a star. “I don’t think about it because when you start to think about it, that’s when it gets a bit weird and you put up perimeter fences and things.”

If there’s a real downside to growing up Potter, it’s that your adolescence is on display in multiplexes the world over, in excruciating close-up. “When you see [the film] sometimes you can think, Oh no, they used that bit!” says Bonnie Wright, 14, who plays Ron’s little sister Ginny. “I think everyone sometimes feels intimidated by themselves when they see themselves on the screen.” After all, it’s hard enough figuring out who you are when you’re a teenager. How much worse is it when you spend all day pretending to be someone else?

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