Matthew Lewis on getting gritty and reuniting with Zoe Wanamaker for Girlfriends
Matthew Lewis has come a long way from portraying Neville Longbottom, the Hogwarts punching bag with extraordinary moral courage. The British actor and Harry Potter alum has put his past behind him with a string of roles ranging from fitness junkie (Me Before You) to by-the-book Victorian police sergeant (Ripper Street).
Now with ITV’s Girlfriends, premiering Jan. 29 in the U.S. on the streaming platform Acorn TV, he’s taking on the role of a single dad living under house arrest with his mother in the north of England. Reunited with his Harry Potter costars Zoe Wanamaker and Miranda Richardson, Lewis adds some grit to a cast that also features Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey).
Created by renowned British drama writer Kay Mellor (Love, Lies & Records), Girlfriends follows three 60-something women who are longtime best friends grappling with such issues as sudden widowhood, divorce, and losing one’s job due to age discrimination. Lewis portrays Wanamaker’s troubled son Tom, who has come home to try to sort out his life after being convicted of selling stolen cars.
The role is far from his wizarding days, including a shirtless scene, featured in the trailer, which capitalizes on his post-puberty transformation into a veritable heartthrob (hence the coining of the slang term “Longbottoming”). EW called up Lewis to talk about the very different role, what it’s like reuniting with actors from the Potter films, and why he was reluctant to sign on to a shirtless scene at all.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with Girlfriends, and what interested you about the role of Tom?
MATTHEW LEWIS: I’ve worked with the writer, Kay Mellor, twice before. I’ve known Kay for probably nearly 20 years now. She actually gave me the first role that I ever had, when I was 5 years old. She sends me scripts for different things, and she sent me the scripts for this and she said she wanted me to play Tom. I devoured the scripts in no time, read all six, and immediately gave her a call and just chatted to her about her vision for it. Even before I called her, I realized I wanted to do it. But once on the phone, you realize very quickly just how much passion she has for this. She’s always been a champion of stories about normal working-class people, but this one really came from Kay’s heart. There was so much of herself in these characters and her friends in these characters and in these stories. Once she explained to me her idea for it, her vision for it — not just for my character, but for the whole story — I couldn’t say no, really.
This is a bit of a departure for you — a single dad who has a police record and is on house arrest. What’s it like delving into a character like that who is maybe a bit edgier than some of the other roles you’ve taken on, and is that something you purposely seek out?
When I first finished Harry Potter, it was probably a conscious decision that I wanted to take roles that were very, very different. Less so now. I feel that I was very fortunate after Harry Potter that the roles that came up did offer me the opportunity to play drastically different roles, whether it was in Happy Valley or Ripper Street or Me Before You or whatever. The roles that came up were so eclectic and different from Neville that I felt I’d done what I set out to do — to show a different side of my acting and what I could do, really. The range was larger than Neville, as it were. Now, seven years later, I felt like I achieved that. I achieved what I wanted to achieve personally, that I don’t sit and think, “Oh, I must do a guy who’s been in prison.” I think out of my last six roles, three have them have got a record, so I’ve ticked that box now. I’m just drawn to stories that people can relate to, stories that people can find a piece of themselves in and that they’re inspired to or relate to or just enjoy. Luckily, that’s what keeps coming up. I wouldn’t shy away from anything nowadays. I wouldn’t deliberately turn down a role because it’s too similar to this or what not. Physically I’ve changed a lot since I was in Harry Potter, which probably is one of the main reasons I’m not still approached with those kinds of roles anymore.
Going off of your mentioning that physical change — in the very first episode, we see you shirtless, and that’s received a lot of play in the trailers. Obviously much has been made of your appearance and this slang term of “Longbottoming.” Was shooting that something that gave you pause, like, “Oh no, I’ll be feeding into that?” Or what did you think?
Yeah, it’s a tricky one really because it’s all about context, that kind of thing, and in this series, the joke was that he’s applying fake tan. That had to be very visible, that he was applying fake tan and he wasn’t very good at it and he didn’t know what he was doing. Frankly, in that scene, the character’s almost pathetic. He’s covered in this lotion and he looks ridiculous, and it was more about trying to look silly than anything else. But obviously you have that concern when that becomes a talking point — like, “Oh, you’ve changed from when you were younger and you look like this,” and all this. As much as I have changed and I would like to be able to showcase a change in terms of my range, I don’t want to get bogged down in it either. I don’t want to be known as the guy who changed into someone who looks better or whatever. It is — I don’t want to say a concern — but it certainly is something I think about when I take roles. When opportunities come up sometimes and you read in the first sentence of the character description “has great abs,” I’m like, I’m not so sure I want to do that. Not least because I don’t have great abs, but because you don’t want to get known for one thing.
The show reunites you with Zoe Wanamaker as your mother, whom keen Harry Potter fans will recognize as flying instructor Madam Hooch in the first film, when Neville breaks his wrist. What was it like reuniting with her and working with her as an adult actor and playing her son?
It’s wonderful, actually. I was a very shy boy, a very nervous kind of boy, a bit like Neville actually. I don’t think I really spoke to many people on the set that weren’t my age, whether that was crew, directors, DPs, or the adult actors around us, who were all wonderful and very approachable, but I was just such a nervous kid that I didn’t really form strong relationships and bonds with them. It was only that I got older and matured and grew in confidence in myself that suddenly I started to have these relationships. I look back on Potter and I think, “Oh God, I wish I spent more time talking to Gary Oldman. I wish I spent more time talking to Richard Harris or whatever.” Lucky for me, I’ve been able to continue my career and have had the opportunity to work with people from Harry Potter again on different projects and have those relationships. It’s brilliant. Robbie Coltrane, who I don’t think I hardly said anything to during filming, I now text him.
To come on to set and have Miranda Richardson and Zoe Wanamaker — Zoe playing my mother, and to be able to have this relationship. I was always terrified that none of these people would even remember who I was, that they’d be like, “Oh you were Neville — who is that? I don’t know who you were.” They’re all just so charming and so full of humility. And Zoe straightaway was like, “I’ve been so looking forward to it. I was so thrilled when Kay told me you were taking this role.” It was just so nice to be able to speak to her and not feel like this terrified little boy, and to be able to just be an actor on set with her and to talk about the old times, but just enjoy the now.
It’s still really rare to see storylines that circle around older women; was that something that attracted you to the project and something you’d like to see more of personally?
Absolutely. On that phone call I had with Kay, you could see how much it meant to her from that perspective, and what I meant when I said there’s a lot of her in this script. What Kay said was there’s just not a lot on television for women of that age, for women full stop. Obviously there’s a lot more women playing lead roles on our TV screens than ever before, but in truth, it’s still not an equal playing field. So to have three strong women in these lead roles and then to have them of a certain age is just, it’s wonderful, it’s brilliant. There is a huge group of people who are marginalized and don’t often get heroes they can relate to on TV. This is filling a void there and also being performed by three fantastic actresses, who I’ve grown up watching on television and film. When Kay described it to me and I heard her passion for it, it felt like a wonderful opportunity to be involved in. Kay said at the read-through before we all sat down to read the first script, “So often throughout my career, I’ve watched television and I’ve seen men being propped up and supported by women who are playing the wife of, the mother of, the daughter of, the secretary of, etc., and finally I’ve written something where it’s the men that are supporting these women. It’s the women who are leading and the men who are being the husbands of, the sons of, the secretaries of.” When she said that, I just thought that was something brilliant.
For those who might still be on the fence about watching, what’s your quick pitch for them to tune in?
In terms of pedigree, you won’t find much better than Kay Mellor. I don’t think she’s ever had a poor script in her, to be honest. Everything she’s written has been very, very well received critically and by the general public. In this particular series, we’ve got what may on the face of it feel quite niche, [but] it’s very accessible to everyone. These are real people — every single one of these characters, not just the three women, every one of these characters are quite a bit relatable. They’re people you know; they are you. It’s a piece of England that, maybe in America, people aren’t really aware of. It’s not London, it’s the north. It’s kind of grittier, it’s more real, it’s more human. The issues that these people face are universal, and there may be some dark moments, some real heart-racing drama, but that just makes the humor, of which there is plenty, so much more heightened and laugh-out-loud funny. There’s something for everyone.
Girlfriends is now available for streaming on Acorn TV.