The Pale Blue Eye is the latest thriller movie from Hostiles director Scott Cooper and follows a mindboggling mystery featuring none other than the iconic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Louis Bayard, detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) must solve a grisly murder in 1830 with the help of a young poet Edgar – played by Harry Melling.
Melling, best known for his work in the Harry Potter movies and on the Netflix series The Queens Gambit, is one of the most versatile actors around. And to celebrate his latest outing as the iconic Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe, we sat down with the star to discuss the ins and outs of his performance in The Pale Blue Eye.
From script readings in graveyards, accents, and discussions on a possible return to the Harry Potter franchise, Melling reveals the method behind his craft as well as some insights into the present and future of his career in showbiz.
The Digital Fix: I read in the production notes that Scott Cooper saw your audition tape and was like,’ yes, that’s the person’ when it came to the role of Edgar Allan Poe. Can you take me through what the audition process for this new movie was like?
Harry Melling: Yeah! So I got sent the script. And I read the script. And they said, ‘if you respond to it, then they’d love you to put yourself down on tape’ – which is something you do just at home. You get a friend to read in with you, and you film yourself doing the scenes. So I did that. I learned two scenes. I then sent it off to the casting department. And then from that, Scott saw it; Christian saw it, too, I believe. And they said, ‘yeah, we think you’re the man for the job.’
So it was that simple in a way. It did help that I think that Scott and Christian saw me in this western called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And I think that’s where the idea of me playing the part came from. So that probably helped my case, towards them being able to see me in this role. But it was that simple, really. And the two scenes I did were quite meaty, nice things to get your teeth into.
Out of curiosity, was one of those scenes, you reciting Poe’s The Raven? Because there are moments in the film where we see some easter eggs from the author’s work pop up.
I have a moment where I recite another poem. But I think, weirdly, that poem is written by Scott Cooper.
Yeah! It’s not an Edgar Allan Poe poem. Because I read it thinking, ‘okay, I’m going to find this in my notes, like, where’s this? Where’s the biography? Where’s his kind of early poems?’ And I can’t find it anywhere. And I remember thinking, ‘because Scott wrote this. So, of course, it’s not here.’ [laughs]
But to me, the ear of – certainly the language of Poe’s writing – is in those poems. Some of his [Poe’s] stuff is very concise and very beautiful. And some are suffering but wander in a very exciting way. But his sentences go on and on and on. And they turn in on themselves. And there’s tangency. And he comes back, and there’s real movement to it. And I think Scott really got his ear perfectly in terms of those poetry moments.
Yeah, the way you talk about Poe’s writing is very technical. And it reminds me of the fact that you are actually a writer yourself.
You have written a play before.
I did! Yeah.
After now playing Edgar Allan Poe, are you ready to pick up the pen again? Have you got any ideas?
I’m always ready to pick up the pen again; to be honest, it’s just a matter of time. And about an idea being worthy of that time. I’d love to write something again. But that thing I wrote, that play, took a long time to sort of, for me to go, ‘Okay, I’m ready to do this now.’ And so maybe it’s just gonna take another long time to find the second one.
And also, you know, second plays, I think, are tough in terms of knowing exactly what you want to say, not trying to do the same thing. But obviously, the thing you established is obviously, a voice, your voice, maybe. So yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see. But right now I’m very obsessed with the idea of investigating characters and people as an actor. And we’ll see if that migrates again into writing or somewhere else.
Speaking about investigating characters, going back to Edgar Allan Poe, he’s such a beloved figure and is a gothic icon. Did you feel any pressure when you got the part?
Yeah, I did! I really did. I thought I best read up. And so I did as much as I could. And then you get to a stage where that pressure goes because you feel like you’re working [laughs].
So it is like, ‘I’m doing stuff. It’s fine. I’m doing stuff. I’m learning all the stuff I need to learn about in order to play him.’ And then you get to the other side of it. And you go, ‘I don’t know how much of this stuff is actually useful.’ So you go back to the script, and you start reading the script. And you go, yeah, ‘I was right. Some of it is useful. Some of it isn’t useful.’
And what Scott, the writer and director, has brilliantly done, is he’s decided that [The Pale Blue Eye] is a Poe origin story. And so the icon that you mentioned before is something that we all think of when we say Edgar Allan Poe, but we’re looking at him before that. And so that allows certain freedoms to create stuff.
And so I’m sure some people will be surprised at how light, maybe how fun he is. How silly he is. Those things may be surprises to an audience that is expecting someone to be more sombre and moodier, more anguished. And I think; certainly, we get there in terms of where the story ends. And we understand where those sensibilities of those darker moments of writing came from.
But certainly, early on, I was very interested in playing with the idea of, he lost his parents when he was very young. He was adopted. They then moved to London for a while and then moved back to Virginia. Here’s a person whose whole sense of home, family, father, mother, sense of belonging is in question. He’s in flux his whole life. And so when we meet him, he’s very much inventing his character all the time, which is where I think that element of performance comes in.
He’s performing who he wants to be when we meet him in the movie, these flourishes, of how he wants to present himself, this young poet. And all of that territory found was very interesting. But I kind of needed to do that research in order to know what was useful and what wasn’t useful.
You mentioned this lighthearted side of Poe. But there’s one scene I think of in the film. That is when your character, in the middle of a murder mystery, went on a date in a cemetery
Is it true that you rehearsed your lines in the cemetery, too?
Yeah! So it was very early on when I was trying to build an idea of who this person is. And I kept reading this thing about him, which was that he was obsessed with death, the idea of death; he was obsessed with the occult, what happens? And I just on a whim, decided that I’m just gonna walk up to a cemetery, and just kind of hang out there. I’ve got my book with me; maybe just read some stuff there. I mean, it was really early on.
So you haven’t taken any more dates to the cemetery, then?
Yeah, well, actually, not since, no. [laughs] But then when I did walk in the cemetery as preparation, I was like, ‘Okay, this is interesting.’ I kind of feel in the space and environment that makes me feel like Edgar would feel there’s a romance to it. But at the same time, there is a sort of darkness to it. There’s lots of shade on the trees, and it just feels like death is literally in the atmosphere.
And I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll go again tomorrow’. And I went again the next day. And I would just kind of, you know, very respectfully, I must add, I would kind of read the script, I’d kind of go with some lines, I just kind of would decide that this is maybe a place, a routine, that I can get on board with.
Because I think a lot of that early prep stuff is just about establishing a routine to build a character, and that kind of became a bit of one. Plus it sounded suitably strange! A suitably strange thing for me to do, that is in keeping with certainly via the strangeness, the misfit quality of Poe in those early scenes.
Whenever a British actor takes on an American role, people scrutinise the accent.
And you do very well keeping yours in this movie. I wanted to know, how did you maintain that? Did it take a couple of tries?
Well, what was great was it was one of the first choices that Scott made in terms of because Poe could go different places with his accent, to be honest, because he moved about so much in his early life. But we liked Virginia because that would be the voice he hears most. It is where John Allan’s from. It’s where he spent, I think, the majority of his early life. So we landed on that, and then we went, ‘okay, whereabouts in Virginia?’ Tidewater accent that sounds like a specific place we can latch on to.
Also, Scott, the director and writer, is from Virginia. So he had lots of attachment, a connection to the area. And then it just became a case of just rehearsing, just kind of going over and over and over that accent. Again, again, again, working with this amazing dialect person. And just kind of practising. And what’s weird about an accent is, I think this is true when you’re working on a specific accent, is it always feels a bit crap to begin with, you know?
There’s always moments of ‘I’ve dropped that a bit’, or ‘that sound of the bit this’, ‘that sounds a bit that’. But you want to be in a place where you just aren’t thinking about it. And when you get there, it’s great. But it just takes a bit of time. It’s like going to the gym, I guess, not that I’m a big gym person, but it takes time to kind of build those muscles and for your voice to know what it wants to do. And then the goal is: I do it so much that then it just happens.
You just walk around the house now with an American accent?
I just walk around, and I have this Virginian accent, and yeah! I probably wouldn’t be able to do it now because I haven’t been in that for a long time. But it’s a muscle, and it’s something that you just have to engage with, and practice really.
So, while The Pale Blue Eye is more dealing with murder and the occult, you have been on the supernatural rodeo before. Warner Bros has said that it wants to potentially do more Harry Potter movies and TV series. Would you ever consider going back to the franchise as Dudley Dursley or another Harry Potter character?
Well, you know, never say never. That is my general rule of thumb. But I mean, hey, who knows? If the right thing came along that made sense, and I felt that I could offer something toward that role or that character, then who knows? I mean, it probably isn’t the smartest choice, to be honest [laughs]. But I mean, who knows?
If something tickles my fancy, then I will pursue it, really. That’s always been my general rule of thumb. And I’ve tried not to engage in the outside noises of, ‘well, that doesn’t make sense because he’s so and so, or how can he be a part of this and also part of that’. I’ve just tried to follow my nose as much as I can. So never say never.
So obviously, The Pale Blue Eye isn’t so much a biopic but is a murder mystery featuring a real-life icon. But after playing such an important figure, I want to know who your dream person would be to play in their biopic, if given a chance.
I just got this question earlier, and it stumped me because I’ve always been one not to try and have passion projects or people that I’ve always wanted to play. I want to respond to the work. I don’t want to respond to the idea of playing someone. Does that make sense? If the writing is good, if it happens to be someone who is a real person, then that’s great.
The other person kind of started the interview earlier by mentioning my Reddit page, where certain people mentioned, ‘oh, you should play this, and you should play that.’ They also said, ‘oh, apparently Morrissey is one of the people who you should be playing,’ and I was like, ‘wow, okay then.’ But I don’t feel anything with that dude. I mean, I don’t feel a sense of, ‘oh, yes. That’s a great idea. I’ve got to pursue that.’ It just has to be held within a piece of work, if that makes sense.