Tom Felton looks different. It may seem like a cliché to point that out, but it’s the first thought I have as we shake hands inside a sparsely filled canalside pub in King’s Cross, north London. The man that sits before me couldn’t be further from Draco Malfoy. Long gone is the bleached blond hairdo, the snide Slytherin glint in his eye. He wears a white woollen cardigan, and sits drinking tea; before we speak, he politely explains that he has to first make a phone call to his mother. Some villain.
Felton is here because he has written a memoir, Beyond the Wand: The Magic and Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard. It’s been 11 years since the final Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, and more than two decades since he was first cast as the flaxen-haired Draco. Despite a memorable role in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and supporting turns in Amma Asante’s period dramas Belle (2013) and A United Kingdom (2017), Felton, now 35, has struggled to escape Potter’s huge gravitational pull.
In his memoir, he recalls the harsh realities of auditioning out in Hollywood as an adult. “It wasn’t really returning to auditioning. It was learning to audition all over again,” he says. “When children are brought in, half of it is, ‘Can you stand on the mark, not look down the lens of the camera, and take basic direction?’ I mean, really, how good can any seven-year-old be at anything?
“Going in there as a 20-year-old, especially in Los Angeles, the auditions are far more frequent and cut-throat. It’s a lesson – not necessarily in brutality, but in acceptance,” he continues. The one exception was Apes, a major blockbuster that arrived at his door audition-free. “It was an incredible, strange anomaly that hasn’t really happened since,” he says.
Beyond the Wand covers Felton’s life, pre-, mid- and post-Potter. The bulk of it comprises affable anecdotes about his time on the franchise – his dealings with the other actors, his teenage transgressions off-screen. Towards the end, though, he opens up about his mental health struggles in the years afterwards, which culminated in an intervention and a couple of short stints in rehab, as well as a break-up with his long-term partner, stunt assistant Jade Olivia Gordon. “I was encouraged by a few people, Emma Watson specifically, to tell the whole story and not just sort of cherry-pick the fluffy bits,” he says. “Not just because it was cathartic for me. But also in the hope that sharing those parts of my story will help others that are maybe not going through the best time.”
Felton is careful not to label exactly what he was going through; in his book he describes his drinking as the “symptom”, rather than a cause. But it’s fair to say back in 2016 he was approaching a point of crisis. “I think one of the problems with the word ‘intervention’ is that it naturally insinuates that there is some specific thing that is a problem in most cases, either depression or substance abuse or whatever it may be,” he says.
“The reality of my experience was that I had a group of people around me that knew me well enough to know that I was not happy. That I wasn’t being the Tom that they knew. I wasn’t thinking clearly. And it has less to do with what I was doing, and more a case of, they could see that I needed help. I think a lot of people when they’re in the muddiest of waters don’t acknowledge how muddy it is.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Watson was the one to encourage him to open up. He and the Hermione Granger actor have always shared a bond, dating back to when Watson – four years his junior – used to follow him around “like a puppy desperate for his attention” (her words) on the set of The Philosopher’s Stone. The pair’s friendship has long been a point of particular interest to Harry Potter devotees. “I think it was only through comic cons that I was introduced to this idea of ‘shipping’,” he says. (For those who don’t know, it’s the desire of fans for their heroes to get together, in real life or on-screen.) “I know Emma and I don’t have any problems with it,” Felton adds.
Felton keeps a lot of eye contact when he talks, breaking only when a dog enters his peripheral vision (“Good lord, what a beautiful beast!”). As is obvious from the branding of his book, he is not one of those stars to have turned his back on the franchise that made him. He still goes to conventions, speaks warmly of his fans – next week he’s even off to go see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the West End stage. Asked if he’d be willing to pick up the peroxide again for some manner of Harry Potter sequel (which almost seems an inevitability at this point), he appears receptive to the idea: “I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t consider it.” It’s clear he has tried to move on, even though he remembers the role with nostalgia. “I definitely don’t miss Draco Malfoy, but I am very affectionately linked to him,” he says.
“It seemed, looking back at it now that Potter would be the only thing in my life,” he muses. “But there were many, many things ahead of that.” Any of his Instagram followers could probably tell you what some of these things are. For one, Felton recently made his West End debut in a production of 2:22: A Ghost Story (“I was absolutely terrified and convinced I was going to be awful… but I’d definitely go back”).
Then there’s music, about which Felton is a fanatic, both listening and playing – there’s an album already “in the works”. There’s also his black labrador, Willow, about whom he speaks with real affection. “She doesn’t care about Harry Potter,” he says. “She doesn’t care about me being on stage. All she wants to do is chase squirrels.” There’s something quietly heartbreaking in the way he says that – but something hopeful, too. “Being around something as pure as that really helps me.”
JK Rowling is mentioned a few times throughout Beyond the Wand; she could perhaps be considered a conspicuous absence in an acknowledgements section that goes out of its way to thank many of the Potter films’ cast, crew and others. Rowling has become a polarising figure in recent years, predominantly for her many comments on trans rights, which many LGBT+ people and activists have described as transphobic (something she denies).
“First of all, I don’t know enough about the specifics of what anyone said. My dog takes up far too much time for me to go into such matters,” Felton says, appearing to bat away the topic – but he goes on. “I mean, the obvious things to say are that I’m pro-choice, pro-discussion, pro-human rights across the board, and pro-love. And anything that is not those things, I don’t really have much time for.
“It is also a reminder that as much as Jo is the founder of [these] stories, she wasn’t part of the filmmaking process as much as some people might think. I think I only recall seeing her once or twice on set.”
He is, however, keen to express his admiration and gratitude for Rowling’s writing, noting that she is “responsible” for stories that are beloved by people “of all ages, of all backgrounds”. “Honestly, with my friends, we all have differing opinions on various matters, and we celebrate our own choices,” he adds. “We certainly don’t take any pleasure in putting crosshairs on people that may have said things that we disagree with.”
Our time now is almost up; talk meanders back to the book. Is he not apprehensive about how readers will react to some of the revelations in it – his trips to rehab, his mental health struggles? “I think one of the joys of creating art – music, film, TV, literature, whatever it may be – is the journey. What someone else gets out of it is really not up to me,” he replies.
“I can sleep well, with the knowledge that it’s all true. And I think sharing it will do more good than bad.” It may be a modest statement of intent, but it’s an admirable one. More Gryffindor than Slytherin, at least.
‘Beyond the Wand’by Tom Felton is out on 13 October 2022, published by Ebury Spotlight
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