The greatest paradox in the Harry Potter books is that the flawed but charming teenager prophesied to slay the evil Lord Voldemort is repeatedly rescued from certain death by the timely intervention of his friends.
JK Rowling’s carefully drawn supporting cast of high school weirdos, gawky outsiders, dreamy loners and comedic double-acts are as crucial to the boy who lived’s continued existence as his best pals Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.
The movie franchise, currently the highest grossing series of all time, is drawing to its conclusion with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 next week and Part 2 next July. The series has thrust Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson into international stardom.
But while supporting characters like Luna Lovegood, the Weasley twins and hapless Neville Longbottom are given precious air time in films which seem to rush through the action-packed stories without catching a breath, the actors who play them are by no means household names.
Despite press attention which would suggest otherwise, it was not just only Radcliffe, Grint and Watson who grew from awkward adolescence into sleek adulthood before our very eyes in ten years of filming. The vast supporting cast did too.
Staunch Potter fans can debate endlessly the merits or demerits of a franchise that has been handled by Christopher Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell and latterly David Yates. But I think its fair to say that, like Potter, the films have been frequently rescued from a linear or overly serious trajectory by the timely intervention of a funny one-liner from the supporting cast.
Identical twins James and Oliver Phelps, who play Ron Weasley’s trickster elder brothers Fred and George, were some of the oldest, at 14, to be granted admission to the wonderful world of Hogwarts when they were cast in 2000.
“Our mum asked us if we wanted to audition,” Oliver told independent.co.uk. “We weighed it up: a day off school and a chance to get in a film? Yup, we can do that. And it all went from there really.”
The Birmingham-born pair’s irreverent attitude, practical jokes and wizarding wheezes have provided much needed light relief from an increasingly dark tale.
Practically indistinguishable in real life, the pair has naturally mousy brown hair which they had to dye the signature Weasley ginger. “It’s a bit sad when you can’t do certain things because you’ve got to get your roots touched up,” James says. “But we’ve certainly learned the right colour mixtures to go for,” Oliver adds.
Their natural humour and teasing banter lends James and Oliver a very Weasley-ish whiff when I meet them out of wizard robes in a London hotel. They tell me that the capacious Weasley family, all with red hair, became a bit like a real family during the extensive filming.
“When we’re all together it’s like a big ginger fun zone,” James says. “Julie Walters (Molly Weasley) and Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley) are just so funny. We once did a whole rehearsal in broad Brummie. The Americans on set didn’t have a clue what we were on about.”
Another figure in the book with quintessentially English characteristics is Neville Longbottom. Matt Lewis, 21, from Leeds, was cast to play him ten years ago. Herbology-loving Neville is supposed to be rather chubby and ungainly looking - something which, as Lewis grew increasingly tall, slim and handsome, had to be rectified with fake ears, teeth, overlarge shoes and baggy robes.
Out of costume Lewis is virtually unrecognisable. “I’m pretty lucky that I don’t look much like Neville,” he explains. “It meant I’ve been able to do all the fun stuff like stay in nice hotels when promoting the movies. But then I can go back home to Leeds and go shopping for bread and milk and not get mobbed.”
Neville is a striking character in Rowling’s books because the tragic torture of his parents by Voldemort's followers, leaving them in an insane asylum and Neville in the care of his batty grandmother, in some way mirrors the death of the Potters, which left Harry in the care of the terrible Dursleys. Neville and Harry are linked by a prophecy which could refer to either of them, something which was rather skipped over in the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.
“In the film there wasn’t really time to put in all the prophecy stuff,” he said. “But I found it interesting that Neville could have been very much like Harry, except that he wasn’t under such pressure. My character didn’t have to mature until the seventh book when Harry leaves Hogwarts. It’s almost because Harry is absent that Neville can form a sort of French resistance to the Death Eaters and really find his strength.”
That Neville could have been rather like Harry but isn’t under nearly the same sort of pressure is a situation which exactly mirrors Lewis and Radcliffe in their careers. Lewis admires Radcliffe in his international stardom – “He’s just the nicest guy you could ever meet” – but his relief that he can maintain anonymity in Leeds is palpable.
Although it is not yet known how Neville’s part in the Hogwarts-based resistance against Voldemort is going to play out in the two final films, from the books it is clear that the battle against the Death Eaters and the elimination of the Horcruxes could not have been won without him. His transition from bumbling geek to heroic figure is something that Lewis takes in his stride.
“David [Yates] and I talked about his defining moment during the Battle of Hogwarts,” he says. “Neville is very adrenalised (sic). He’s just running in head first and putting his life on the line. But as the death toll mounts, there are a couple of scenes where he starts to look really tired and realisation hits that the battle is almost lost.”
Another key figure in the continuation of Dumbledore’s Army, a band of student resistance fighters, something like the Order of the Phoenix, which Harry establishes in the fifth book and Neville takes over in his absence, is the dreamy Luna Lovegood, whose name is often teasingly prefixed with ‘loony.’
Evanna Lynch, 19, from Leinster, Ireland, who plays Luna, is one of the finest examples of casting in the entire franchise. With her huge eyes, wonderfully guileless approach and charm it is easy to see why producer David Heyman picked her out of 15,000 other Luna-wannabes. “The others could play Luna; Evanna Lynch is Luna,” he said at the time.
“I’m not Luna, although a lot of people think I am,” Lynch says. “When I was younger I used to be a little more like her. I’m like her in that I don’t like to judge people and I keep an open mind. She’s so free spirited, she wouldn’t judge someone by their clothes or demeanour and I like that way of looking at life.”
Lynch went along to the audition as a "professional Luna fan" and made her first appearance in the fifth Harry Potter film. She seems to have had a lot of fun with the character and tells me she particularly enjoys wearing Luna’s oversized cork hat and radish earrings.
Xenophilius Lovegood, Luna’s father, makes his debut in Hallows - Part 1. After huge deliberation Rhys Ifans was cast to play him. “They were casting my dad for ages and then someone said Rhys. I was like, ‘Oh my god this is perfect,’ why did no-one think of this before?”
Lynch tells me that all her friends really fancy Ifans: “It’s because of Notting Hill and his grey underwear,” she explains grinning. “Ifans was great to work with. Just nice, you know. We had fun. And he was totally up for the Lovegood dance. He had no reservations.”
The billboards advertising the final Harry Potter films are emblazoned with the words “It all ends here...” The Phelps twins, Lewis and Lynch all express their deep sadness that after a decade of attending wizard school they’re being booted out into the real world. But it also sounds like a bit of a relief.
“There are two sides to it,” Lynch explains. “On the one hand I love it and don’t want it to end. But then again you’re tied to it. It’s a contract. Yeah you can try and do other things at the same time, but Harry Potter has to come first.”
The four actors have all expressed a desire to stay in the film business. Lewis has been acting since he was five years old (“It’s all I know”), the Phelps twins would like to try a Bond film (“I’d be the evil twin,” Oliver says. “Just like real life,” James adds) and Lynch says she’d happily drop her studies for another year for the right role.
Unlike Watson, Radcliffe and Grint the supporting cast in the Harry Potter films will largely evade the acting pitfall of being indeterminate from a character in the consciousness of your audience.
For many, Luna, Fred and George and Neville, the rest of the Weasleys, the Malfoys, the Creevys and other ubiquitous Rowling charcters will bear the faces of the actors who played them in the film. But those faces will go on to represent many diverse characters and it will be interesting to see where the class of Hogwarts 2000 ends up in another ten years.
Let's just hope that this lot, who all scored an impressive O grade in Charms, don't forget what they've learned.