The Harry Potter films are renowned for just how many huge British stars are in the cast. Due to the ‘only British’ rule that the vast majority of the actors in the films should be from the UK, the cream of British talent were recruited for the eight films – a lot of them award-winning stars, many of them knights and dames, at the top of their game.
In fact, there are simply too many to name, but let’s look at a few, and their lives before and after Harry Potter.
It is very hard to imagine Potions master Severus Snape being played by anyone other than Alan Rickman – an actor who managed to nail Snape’s multi-faceted character; the sardonic, the cruel, the troubled, the conflicted. J.K. Rowling famously told Rickman secret information about his character before we learnt ‘the truth’ about Snape ourselves in the final instalment of the stories – and has praised him for doing ‘justice’ to one of her most complex characters.
Rickman’s career spanned numerous iconic roles well before Snape, such as his iconic villain Hans Gruber in the action classic Die Hard, his BAFTA-winning Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, and Alexander Dane in sci-fi cult classic, Galaxy Quest – to name a few. Rickman was especially lauded for applying his famously dry sense of humour to many of his performances, as well as his instantly recognisable voice: two factors that he fused perfectly for playing Severus Snape.
Rickman’s career went from strength to strength during and after the Harry Potter films, such as memorable turns in Love Actually and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and his later work with director Tim Burton, including Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Alice in Wonderland – both of which starred many more of our Wizarding World family.
It’s hard to sum up how special Alan Rickman’s performance in Harry Potter truly was – but his frequent collaborator and fellow Harry Potter star Emma Thompson does it wonderfully here:
‘What I remember most in this moment of painful leave-taking is his humour, intelligence, wisdom and kindness. His capacity to fell you with a look or lift you with a word. The intransigence which made him the great artist he was— his ineffable and cynical wit, the clarity with which he saw most things, including me, and the fact that he never spared me the view. I learned a lot from him. He was the finest of actors and directors.’
Dame Maggie Smith
Over her huge career, Dame Maggie Smith has collected two Academy Awards, eighteen BAFTA nominations, five BAFTA wins, three Golden Globes, three Emmys, four Screen Actors Guild Awards, a record five Evening Standard Awards for Best Actress, and a Tony – and it’s easy to see why. Her charming and commanding presence on the stage and the screen made her the perfect choice to nail the hard-edged yet sentimental Professor McGonagall.
Before the Harry Potter films, Dame Maggie Smith was already a name British households knew and loved, with generations following her work across stage, film and TV since the 1950s. It would be fruitless to try and list all of Smith’s biggest career highs and accolades, but some highlights from her filmography before Harry Potter include award-nominated (and in some cases, winning) turns in Tea with Mussolini, A Room with a View, Othello and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And this was before the world knew the Essex-born actress as Professor McGonagall.
In her performance as the no-nonsense deputy headmistress, which Smith debuted to the world back in 2001, millions of Harry Potter fans instantly warmed to her – with Smith emulating the book version of McGonagall to a tee. Emma Watson once remarked that she almost ‘stole the show’, when in the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2, McGonagall helped man Hogwarts during the final battle.
Just like McGonagall, the hard work never stops for Smith, who went on to take on a huge role in ITV’s hit drama Downton Abbey and scored more accolades for her role in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. Take any role of any medium: Smith is simply unstoppable – and Hogwarts was all the better with her there.
Albus Dumbledore is perhaps one of the most beloved fictional characters in the entire fantasy genre – and we’re about to see a new star take him on in the shape of Jude Law. But before Jude, two Irish greats tackled the legendary wizard across the Harry Potter films in very different ways.
In the first two films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, directed by Christopher Columbus, the first Dumbledore we saw grace the silver screen was played by Richard Harris. Harris soared to fame in the 60s with his starring role as a bitter Yorkshireman in This Sporting Life – one of many films of the era that sparked the ‘angry young men’ British New Wave sub-genre. Harris’s performance earned him many accolades, including Best Actor at Cannes festival, and his first Academy Award nomination, and a rich and varied career followed: such as starring roles as King Arthur and Oliver Cromwell. Upon taking on Albus Dumbledore in his twilight years, Harris was tentative, but eventually did so for his granddaughter. Although Harris sadly died of cancer after Chamber of Secrets, his way of playing Dumbledore set a standard, with co-star Robbie Coltrane saying he was ‘like everyone’s favourite grandfather’.
Sir Michael Gambon
It may have been nerve-wracking for an actor to tackle Dumbledore after the fine example set by Harris, but Sir Michael Gambon was not nervous when he took on the role of the headmaster in Alfonso Cuaron’s darker and more idiosyncratic third instalment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While Harris’s Dumbledore was altogether calmer, Gambon delivered Dumbledore with the fire that we saw in the later books, but still applied the old wit and panache.
Gambon was a theatre regular in his early acting days and was part of a group of promising new talent in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company. His work with Olivier led him to cinema, debuting with a role in Othello in 1965. Many powerful performances in both stage and film would follow, but it was a TV performance in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective that cemented Gambon’s status as a star, earning him his first BAFTA in 1986. He was knighted in 1998, all the while enjoying an illustrious film and theatre career that continues to this very day. He may have been a very different kind of Dumbledore, but Gambon’s gravitas gave the headmaster a new depth and formidability.
Dame Julie Walters
The warmth needed to portray Molly Weasley came in spades thanks to Dame Julie Walters, who has been bringing her wit, energy and eccentricities to the screen, whether it be drama or comedy, for over five decades.
In her earlier career, Birmingham-born Walters was known for frequent collaborations with comedian Victoria Wood. The pair worked together on numerous projects, including the sitcom Dinner Ladies and parody soap opera Acorn Antiques. However, Walters has always been a adaptable and effortless actor, characteristics which came to prominence in 1983 with her Academy Award-nominated turn in the comedy drama Educating Rita. From there, Walters got her teeth into all types of roles, across TV, film, and stage, with notable performances in the films Buster, Stepping Out and Billy Elliot across the 80s and 90s. In 2001, just before the first Harry Potter film was released, she won a Laurence Olivier award for her performance in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. With a string of accolades already under her belt, Walters was well-suited to the role of the fiery yet good-hearted matriarch Mrs Weasley.
On joining the Wizarding World, Walters said: ‘It was a phenomenon and my daughter was nine when it came out – just the right age. I read the book long before the film and when they said, about three or four years later, we’re going to make a film and would you like to play Mrs Weasley, I thought "absolutely! I want to be part of that. What fun!"’
She would go on to have one of the famous lines in the Harry Potter films, yelling ‘Not my daughter, you bitch!’ when Ginny Weasley is nearly attacked during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2. The already iconic line was given heft thanks to Julie Walters’ perfect delivery.
Beyond Harry Potter, Walters would go on to join two other prominent movie families – becoming a key member in musical sensation Mamma Mia, and a role in the Paddington films. Her Molly Weasley warmth continues to shine through in every role. Long may it continue!
The humour and grace of Emma Thompson made her a perfect match for Harry Potter – in fact, we could imagine her playing numerous characters. In the end, she took her more eccentric side to the role of Sybil Trelawney, Harry’s Divination professor. Emma Thompson’s take on Sybil was eerily similar to the description of her in the books – encased in beads with glasses so thick it gave Thompson bug eyes.
Emma Thompson was beloved before joining Potter of course, working with fellow Potter legend Alan Rickman many times during the course of her career. In 1995, she won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film Sense and Sensibility in which she also starred. Beyond Potter, Emma took many of her co-stars with her for her Nanny McPhee movies, which she also wrote and appeared in, including Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton and Maggie Smith.
Not all the roles in Harry Potter were nice ones, of course. Helena Bonham-Carter got the opportunity to take her love of dark and gothic films to that of the cruel Bellatrix Lestrange, one of the most deranged Death Eaters in the wizarding world.
Before meeting Bellatrix, Helena Bonham-Carter was not scared of taking on challenging roles, making a name for herself in her late teens starring in Merchant Ivory films (co-starring with fellow Harry Potter alumna Maggie Smith). She also starred with Gilderoy Lockhart himself, Kenneth Branagh, in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as the doomed Elizabeth. In the mid-90s, Bonham-Carter started taking on edgier jobs, such as the chain-smoking Marla Singer in Fight Club. Around the same time, she met Tim Burton, who she famously collaborated with on numerous projects, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Sweeney Todd. Bonham-Carter’s attraction to these quirkier projects soon landed her a role in the fifth Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where she shone as one of Lord Voldemort’s more adoring allies. Bonham-Carter quite literally let her hair down for this job, and added a new deranged, twisted layer to the character, such as her taunting of Harry: ‘itty, bitty baby, Potter.’ As well as contributing stylistic tips to the character, the actress even kept Bellatrix’s gnarled teeth after filming.
During and beyond the Potter films, Bonham-Carter continued to inspire and surprise, landing roles in films such as The King’s Speech. She will soon appear in the next series of The Crown as Princess Margaret – far more dignified than Bellatrix.
It would take a very grandiose actor, with an impressive background in theatre and Shakespearean roles, to take on one of the most evil wizards who ever lived – and Ralph Fiennes did not disappoint.
Fiennes was already a seasoned and loved performer before he got to dig deep into the psyche of Lord Voldemort. The twice Academy Award-nominated actor was notable for his roles in Schindler’s List and The English Patient.
When Lord Voldemort was reborn in Goblet of Fire, Ralph Fiennes relished the opportunity to take on one of the most dangerous and cruel characters in the Harry Potter books. Perhaps even more terrifying was the enigmatic grace with which he portrayed Lord Voldemort – making one of the Darkest wizards of all time not just pure evil, but captivating. Daniel Radcliffe admitted, ‘Ralph genuinely scared me for a few years.’
On the role, Ralph once said to the Guardian that he tried to play Lord Voldemort as a damaged human: ‘It can be thrilling and quite freeing to play, because all the rules disappear. In Goblet of Fire, director Mike Newell encouraged a switchblade explosion of venom and rage.’
It’s fair to say that definitely came across.
After Lord Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes surprised us all with his comedic acting. His role in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel had him swimming in awards glory once again for making people laugh. Well, maybe he needed a laugh after Lord Voldemort.
And if you’d like to see how all of our Wizarding World connect together, have a gander at this infographic.