Great Scot Robbie Coltrane looms large in From Hell and the upcoming Harry Potter.

By Daniel Fierman
Updated October 26, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Robbie Coltrane explodes into his favorite Indian restaurant in London. A towering, almost impossibly large man, he offers a quick ”hullohowd’yado” to a stunned maitre d’, a slap on the back to a suddenly lilliputian journalist, and then twiddles his fingers over a sprawling buffet. He gathers up a steaming platter of chicken tikka, savory nan, rice, and yogurt dip and squeezes into a table that needs to be pulled two feet from the wall to accommodate him.

Did we mention that he’s a pretty big guy?

Coltrane, a Scotsman, will be hard to miss in the coming months, for reasons entirely unrelated to his size. He’s currently in theaters playing Sergeant Godley, Johnny Depp’s skeptical sidekick, in From Hell, and will next be seen as — surprise — the giant Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. So how, at 51, did this longtime comedian and cultish actor suddenly achieve such Hollywood stature?

”The truth is nothing very dramatic happened,” laughs Coltrane. ”I mean, I’m obviously not one of those people who’s so beautiful women just take their clothes off when I walk into the room. I didn’t become a star overnight.”

With more than 60 television and film credits since 1980, Coltrane has, indeed, walked a long road to stardom. A product of the Glasgow School of Art, where he majored in drawing, painting, and film, he began his career in sketch comedy, tasting his first success with The Comic Strip Presents…, a sort of across-the-pond SNL. (A conversation with Coltrane is still an uproarious experience, marked by flying hands, pitch-perfect Valley Girl and De Niro imitations, and genial self-deprecation.) But his full transition to drama didn’t come until 1993, when he was cast as hard-drinking criminal psychologist Eddie Fitzgerald in the BBC series Cracker — a role that won him consecutive BAFTA TV awards (Britain’s Emmy equivalent) and made him a household name in England. ”Cracker was it,” he says. ”It showed a lot of people who thought I was a wank comic what I could do.”

The show gained a small but devoted Stateside following (even inspiring a short-lived U.S. version). That, combined with Coltrane’s turn as a Russian mobster in the 1995 007 flick GoldenEye, put him in the sights of major Hollywood casting directors. ”We originally thought of Bob Hoskins,” From Hell codirector Allen Hughes says of the Godley role. ”Then we saw Cracker and went, wow, man, this guy is just the s — -! He has this great spirit, which is exactly the element we needed.”

Coltrane currently makes his home in the bucolic Scottish countryside with his wife, Rhona, a sculptor, and their 8-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. But he won’t be there long: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second adaptation in the series, starts shooting in London in November. ”It’s like going back to school. You know, autumn! Time for Harry Potter!” he says of playing Hagrid the groundskeeper, one of Harry’s closest friends and a key character in all of the J.K. Rowling books. ”But I tell ya, my kids love it. I thought I was the coolest dad in the world when I got to be in a Bond film, but Harry Potter, too? Well, I think I qualify for a medal for exceptional parenting or something, don’t you?” Indeed. A great big one.

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