Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
In reading the Harry Potter novels, you can almost always envision your ideal cast, as though Rowling wrote the characters with specific performers in mind. For example, when I first "saw" Sirius Black, I envisioned someone like Alan Rickman. Mind you, I knew this would never work out (since I had already seen the first Harry movie), so I moved on to the next best thing, Gary Oldman. Now that I have become immersed in the filmdom that is Harry Potter, I see that my second hunch was correct, and there really is no substitute for Oldman as Black.
Most associate Harry Potter with the young, blossoming cast of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. However, in looking up the casts of each film on IMDB, fans might be surprised to see just how impressive the roster is below them; it's a veritable who’s who of English cinema..
And that’s what’s so fun about these movies: wondering what major English star is going to join the Potter ranks next. In perusing each of the casts for this article, I discovered incredible actors from top to bottom, some even accepting roles that are too small to be remembered. Their ranks include Oscar nominees and winner, along with veterans of the London stage, and others who are "merely" highly respected in the field.
What makes the various Harry Potter movies so intriguing to watch as a whole is just wondering “Who will make an appearance this time” and/or if they’ll live up to your expectations of the character. To me the films are more than just the roles of Harry, Ron and Hermione; they are the adults who bring that smart edge that is needed to bring the franchise to where it is today.
The first film introduced us to most of the big players that would continue on in some form throughout the movies. Veteran actor Richard Harris was the original Dumbledore, but was sadly replaced by Michael Gambon after Harris’ untimely passing. Maggie Smith was Professor McGonagall and theater vet Alan Rickman was Professor Snape, while character actor Robbie Coltrane was in the role of Hagrid. We also met the Dursley’s consisting of Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths (two well-known character performers of stage and screen). These cast members continued on to each successive film. A couple big names had incredibly tiny roles in the first film, like Aliens actor John Hurt as Mr. Ollivander the wand owner, and Monty Python star John Cleese as the ghost, Nearly Headless Nick.
The first film shows the caliber of supporting players the franchise could get at the time. Each actor had been known for something recent at that point (like Harris' turn as Marcus Aurleius in Gladiator) but none to my knowledge had done anything that would make them recognizable to kids…well, American kids at least. I know when I first saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone I kept shouting out “Where do I know that person from?”
The second film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets opened the doors to two bigger stars with a lot of clout behind them. Kenneth Branagh had the enviable role of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh had been known for his various Shakespearean films, and for being Emma Thompson’s ex-husband, (a thing that makes me wonder if having Emma Thompson in the third film was a pre-planned thing). Branagh brought the films a whole new audience and showed that many a fine English star was willing to take up the call of joining a Potter film.
The second addition that was predominant in the second movie was the role of Lucius Malfoy, played by Jason Isaacs. Isaacs has gone on to do other children orientated things but was mostly known for doing more adult fare.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban took the cameos to a new level with a brand new caliber of actors. Pam Ferris was the first cameo the film shows, as the despicable Aunt Marge. To children, she was Agatha Trunchbull from Matilda, but in this she brought the Muggle villains to a new peak. The big news that came from the third film was the casting of Gary Oldman as Harry’s uncle, Sirius Black. Oldman’s casting was considered odd at the time since he’s made most of his film career out of playing psychotic characters. Having this versatile actor play a killer but also a somewhat loving father figure to the young Harry gave Oldman a new challenge, as well as something of a new look.
David Thewlis and Emma Thompson were also added, providing further English class to the films. Both gave something special to the teaching roles of Professors Lupin and Trelawney. And we also can’t forget Academy nominated Julie Christie in the small role of Madam Rosemerta and character man Timothy Spall as Peter Pettigrew.
As the films go on, the addition of big actors in small roles did decrease, though one is forced to wonder if this is due mostly to the fact that every prestigious actor had already been cast to that point. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire there are only four new actors of note in minor roles, most interestingly the recent Dr. Who (David Tennant) as the evil and insane Barty Crouch, Jr.
The three major players to this film, once again, opened the movies up to an entirely new audience. Brendan Gleeson took up the mantle of “Mad Eye” Moody. Gleeson was coming off major roles in films like 28 Days Later, Troy, and The Village, and gave another mighty name to the world of Potter. Miranda Richardson also had a great part of Rita Skeeter while another huge casting decision came for the role of the mighty Lord Voldemort.
I remember heated debates at my school about who should take on the part of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and every actor known to man (or at least, us) was mentioned as being up for the role. Ultimately it went to character actor Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes has played many villains up to and after this, but to an entire generation of children, he will forevermore be labeled as Voldemort.
The latest film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, only has two major actors worthy of mention, both female. Oscar nominated actress Imelda Staunton fills the role of Professor Dolores Umbridge, and Helena Bonham Carter steps into the evil role of Bellatrix Lestrange. How these two actresses will continue their careers beyond Potter is anybody’s guess, but suffice it to say they will be hard pressed to shed their Potter personae from here on out.
And that’s what having a part in a Harry Potter film does, it makes you instantly recognizable (which paradoxically, is not always a good thing for a character actor). All of these performers are known for their versatility, but to countless fans they will be remembered for the part they played to make the Harry Potter universe so special. Potter nuts wait anxiously every year to see what actor will join the cast, and I’m sure the directors and producers have a couple actors hiding in the wings waiting to announce their parts. In the end, the Harry Potter films will be remembered for how the cast worked as a whole, along with the high caliber of actors that took part in making it what it is.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.