Tom Felton was playing football in the back garden when he got the phone call that changed his life. The back garden belonged to his best friend Richie, and Tom was 2-1 down. Not ideal timing for Richie’s mother to summon him into the house.
“Tom! Your mum’s on the phone!”
Reluctantly dragging himself off the pitch, still panting from his exertions, Tom picked up the receiver.
“Tom! You got it!”
“Got what?” said Tom, his mind still very much on the game. At 12 years old, you know your priorities in life.
“The part for what?”
“The part in the Harry Potter film.”
“Oh right! Cool. As the Draco guy?”
He hadn’t read any of the three books and only had a vague grasp on the characters. He’d screen-tested for the title role – complete with black wig and lightning scar – but the director Chris Columbus felt Tom was a better fit for this other character, the bully. The Draco guy.
“Yes!” said Tom’s mum, who perhaps had a better idea than her son about the bigness of this particular deal. (Although even Tom’s mum couldn’t know, couldn’t have begun to imagine, quite how big the deal would turn out to be.)
“Sweet,” said Tom. “Can I go back to playing football now?
Returning to the back garden, Tom told Richie, “I got the part in this film!”
His friend showed little interest in the news. “Are we playing or not? We’ve only got half an hour.”
History doesn’t relate whether Tom clawed back the deficit or Richie extended his lead. History is slightly more informative on Harry Potter. The best-selling book series of all time, approximately 500 million copies flogged in 80 languages. (Number two on the list, Goosebumps, lags 150 million copies behind – and that series has 62 titles to Potter’s seven.) The third highest-grossing film franchise of all time, banking $7.7bn worldwide, a number that rises to $9.2bn if we include the two Fantastic Beasts spinoffs, which for the purposes of this YEAH! MONEY! paragraph we might as well.
Factor in the video games, the stage play, the theme parks, a merchandise range almost infinite in its variety (Chamber of Secrets panties, anyone? Mounted Dobby head?), and you have a franchise with a value estimated north of $32bn. Which puts it ahead of Transformers and Spider-Man, but well behind Hello Kitty, Winnie the Pooh and Pokémon. Proof that children and animals aren’t always bad to work with.
“I remember after the first couple of films, there was the Comic Con in San Diego…” Tom Felton is sharing this recollection on a bench outside a North London pub, pint in front of him, cigarette being rolled. “We were doing a Q & A with thousands of Potter fans. This little seven year old walks up. We lower the mic. She’s like, [he adopts a childish falsetto]:‘What is it like to fly a broom?’”
The teenage Felton frowned. “‘Sorry, love? What’s it like to fly a broom? Painful! Horrible! You sit on this metal pole and they blow wind in your hair! And her face is just going – [the adult Felton widens his eyes in alarm]. So I quickly realised: ‘It’s one of the greatest experiences in your life! How old are you? You’re nine. You’ve got two more years and you’ll find out for yourself.’”
He grins. “I’ve had many a parent use that as ammunition: ‘Tell them they won’t get into Hogwarts unless they do their homework!’”
Felton has many endearing qualities – he shares tobacco, stands his round, tells a mean anecdote – but his palpable affection for Harry Potter and its fans may be the most endearing of all. Having given a decade of his life to the films, he has spent the subsequent decade embracing their legacy – most joyously on social media. (Yes, we’ll get to #DracoTok.)
“It’s a very common question,” says Felton. “How do you shake off the burden of being part of these things? Honestly? I’ve never, ever felt that this is a weight to carry.”
Even in the age of Twitter? “It can really affect you. I try to do as best as I can, really. We don’t really have too many examples – bearing in mind that when we did it, 20 years ago, obviously there was no social media. There wasn’t anything at all. To suddenly be in this world now where you can type in God knows what… I banned my mum from Googling me. Have you got a lighter? Come on, bring something to the party!”
Turns out I forgot my lighter as well as my tobacco: my pockets contain nothing but spare contact lenses.
“Well, if you rub them together fast enough…” says Felton.
Our interview was meant to take place at Parliament Hill Café on Hampstead Heath. However, the café is busy and so we retreat to a nearby pub (shoutout The Bull & Last), plonk ourselves on a bench out front and order a pint. I suggest finding somewhere less public – Highgate Road, like most roads on the planet, won’t be short of passing Harry Potter fans – but Felton dismisses my concerns, claiming he rarely gets recognised in public these days.
“I got the best of both worlds,” he says of the balance between celebrity and civilian life. “I take the Tube, I take the bus, I walk my dog in the park. I saw Emma the other night – she looks exactly the same as she did ten years ago. It’s almost impossible for her to not be spotted. I get a lot of people whispering, ‘is that whatshisname?’”
He calls it the “familiar eyes syndrome” – when people accost him at a party or wherever and greet him like an old friend. “Hey, Tom! How’s it going?” For somebody who describes himself as “bad with names and worse with faces” such encounters aren’t ideal; but being, well, British, he tends to return the greeting with equal gusto to avoid causing offence. “Hey, man! What’s up?”
Five, ten minutes into the conversation, he’ll ask: “Remind me, when did we first meet?” Only to be told: “Just now.”
Would you recognise Tom Felton if you passed on the street? Presumably yes, if you’re among his 11.1m followers on Instagram or 9.4m on TikTok (one assumes a fair amount of overlap). But otherwise? Felton is a beloved figure online but on-screen his presence has been lacking in recent years, his occasional roles generally limited to British films and American TV.
In a sense, this is hardly surprising: of his Hogwarts contemporaries, only Emma Watson and Robert Pattinson have embraced the blockbuster and ascended to the A-List. Daniel Radcliffe has tended towards the independent and quirky. Rupert Grint became a father. Matthew Lewis stripped off for Attitude magazine and duly broke the internet. How has Tom Felton spent the past decade?
Living, essentially. He recorded music. Went backpacking. Saw the world. Enjoyed his friends and family, tried to strike a balance between work and play. As he says: “I’m not desperately trying to win a Golden Globe or an Oscar. I’m more interested in a happy balance between Muggle life and getting out there to experience lots of things.”
A recent collapse at the Ryder Cup, the day after his 34th birthday, made news around the world. He’d flown into Wisconsin the day before, and headed straight to the course. “I hadn’t slept, not out of any other reason, it was just jet lag. Time difference. I was so fucking excited to be playing at the Ryder Cup!”
I’m no good to anyone unless I’m good to myself
He credits the incident with offering a salutary reminder that his twenties lay in the past. “I felt fine immediately afterwards. But yeah, your body is going to need a little more attention… I’m no good to anyone unless I’m good to myself. And I hate to say it but I’m finally realising that.”
It’s been an eventful few months for Felton. In November, his WWII film The Forgotten Battle trended to the top of Netflix – a surprise to everyone including its cast. Felton is excellent as a stoic British officer; he’s even better playing a lovestruck Welsh postman in the upcoming Save The Cinema, a feelgood comedy as sweet and gentle as a newborn lamb. Who knew Draco Malfoy would make such a winning romantic lead?
But then Malfoy wasn’t even his first role. Pre-Potter, there were appearances in The Borrowers (playing a Borrower) and the historical drama Anna and the King (playing Jodie Foster’s son). Raised in Surrey, the youngest of four brothers, Felton didn’t come from some great theatrical family. He just enjoyed playacting, spending his afternoons in drama club. “It wasn’t drama school because no one took their shit seriously. It was just drama club. It was fun to dress up as a pirate, I guess. They give you a sword, I’m in!”
He was a teenager by the time Potter changed his life. “I had already been to the first year of secondary school before I was cast so I had already claimed my degenerate group of friends. And they cared as little then as they do now. I always feel for Emma and Daniel. They started when they were nine, 10. That’s a big difference, man.”
We’ll return to Emma and Daniel. Let’s stick with Tom. You know he hadn’t read any of the books when he auditioned? His agent put him up for the film, open to every prepubescent in the UK, hundreds of thousands of diehard fans and Tom Felton who would have assumed Hogwarts was a type of pig disease.
Weirdly, this helped. In one early audition, 20 hopeful kids were lined up, and the director Chris Columbus walked down the line asking each of them, “what are you most excited about from the book to the film?” Only when Columbus reached his neighbour did Felton realise: “Shit, he’s gonna ask me this question! I have no idea what Harry Potter is!
“The kid next to me was like, ‘Gringotts. I’m really excited about Gringotts.’ Moved to me and I just repeated what he said! ‘Mate, those Gringotts. I can’t wait to see the Gringotts.’ Obviously that doesn’t make any sense, so he knew straight away that I was bullshitting – which I think gave him an idea that maybe he’s a good Draco.
"But I tried for Harry. Four times, I think. Dyed my hair, did the scar. There’s a video somewhere of me auditioning at least twice for Potter. Then they dyed my hair ginger once to do Ron – didn’t get that one, either. Finally they dyed it blonde for Draco.”
Well, blondes have more fun – and nobody is more grateful than Tom Felton that he ended up a Slytherin. Leaving aside his devotion to Malfoy, Felton was peripheral enough to the main cast to avoid what he terms “all the bells and whistles” of Potter: the junkets, the tours, the conventions.
Emma Watson put down her ping pong paddle and smacked me across the face
“No one in my school seemed to care, to be honest. I didn’t do any of the press junketing. The poster kids, Daniel, Rupert and Emma, they took all of that weight. Back in the first film or the second film it wasn’t so bad but by the time of the third and fourth, they had a lot of people looking at them. I wasn’t peddled around the world.”
He didn’t experience the full force of the fandom until the Half Blood Prince. “It got to a point where they couldn’t fly Daniel, Rupert and Emma around the whole world, they had to find some other people to step in. Going to Japan, seeing people at the airport – it was like, “you’ve got to be kidding me. No way!’”
In the early years, before Potter became a phenomenon, the films could be a massive inconvenience to their teenage cast. No school trips, no ski trips, no French exchange. Rollerblading is a no-go, and don’t you dare even look at a skateboard.
“I brought in a remote control car once. Studios, as you can imagine, are massive, flat pieces of concrete with very leaky roofs. Brought in a remote control car, as any 14 year old would. Health and safety banned me from doing that within five minutes because I might drive it into one of the other kids.”
That would be very on brand for Draco: see Radcliffe sprinting off to Quidditch and steer a Nitro Monster Truck between his legs.
In fact, the young cast were close. No rivalries between the Gryffindors and Slytherins; Felton’s friendship with onscreen sidekicks Jamie Waylett and Josh Herman was down to age and shared interests rather than house allegiance. “Me, Crabbe and Goyle, we were pretty naughty kids. We were into Wu-Tang and rappers, things like that. We were a little bit older, little bit cheeky I suppose, less childlike. I’ve got three older brothers and you grow up quick when that happens. You tend to watch Terminator 2 when you’re six years old.”
But no – they didn’t heckle Rupert Grint off-camera or steal Matthew Lewis’s lunch money (good luck these days). “Everyone was sound. It sounds like a Warner Brothers mandatory quote but we really were all very good mates. If there was a scene with Radcliffe, we’d spend an hour doing a Simpsons challenge. He’s got a furiously good mind for knowledge. He’s like a statistician.”
He took longer to bond with Watson, for no other reason than a three-year age difference is nothing in your 30s but a fair amount in your teens. Of course, in the third film the pair shared one of the series’ most iconic scenes: when a furious Hermoine punches Malfoy in the face.
Felton chuckles when I bring it up. “In the books, I believe it’s a slap,” he says a little ruefully. [He’s correct: Hermoine “slapped Malfoy around the face with all the strength she could muster.”] Anyway, I’ll let the injured party tell the story. Him and Watson are playing ping pong in the holding tent while they film Chamber of Secrets…
“Emma’s very good at ping pong. I stopped her mid-game and said, ‘You know you have to slap me in the next film?’ She’s like, ‘Oh right, OK.’ I was really into my Jackie Chan at the time; I was developing this idea of how the stunt should look. Cameras behind. ‘You slap miles away from me, and I sort of react: ‘Ow!’ Come on, let’s do it. Let’s get ready for the slap. How are you going to do it?’
“She simply put the paddle down and smacked me across the face. Pretty freaking hard! And my little 14-year-old self started tearing up a little bit. [Whimpers] ‘Yeah, that was a good one.’ That was pretty emasculating! I lost all street cred. Down the drain after Hermoine beat the shit out of me.”
Cardigan and T-shirt by Samsoe & Samsoe; Trousers by Reiss; Socks by The London Sock Company; Loafers by Christian Louboutin; Glasses: Reed by Kirk Originals; Necklace: ID tag by Tiffany & Co
The Half Blood Prince was Felton’s showcase, the one where Lord Voldemort orders Malfoy to assassinate the headmaster Dumbledore. (Perhaps optimistically, I hope at least one reader has no knowledge of Harry Potter and is trying to decipher the previous sentence.) This is the film that sent Malfoy fandom into overdrive.
For starters he was hot, in an I Sleep Upside Down kind of way, sporting jet black designer suits and cheekbones that would cut a Hippogriff. He was also tormented: a character whose primary function had been to sneer at Harry and lose at Quidditch was suddenly having panic attacks in the bathroom. Nobody likes a bully but everyone loves a bad boy – and when your rival is basically Teenage Wizard Jesus, there’s not much room on the side of the angels.
“It’s a really cool shift,” agrees Felton. “I claim no merit in that. I just turned up and did what they told me. It’s a really nice example of how the bullies are bullied. Harry has no parents, no money, no friends and he is the light of truth and honesty. And I have two parents, lots of money, lots of prestige as a family. You can see how they cross over.”
The climactic confrontation with Dumbledore atop the Astrology Tower offered Felton a rare opportunity to work with Sir Michael Gambon. The series had always been packed with British acting greats, although in the early films their greatness was sometimes lost on Felton. “I had no idea who anyone was! Alan Rickman, definitely, cos of Robin Hood. I knew him very well. But everyone else? No. I thought Gary Oldman was part of the crew.”
Now in his early 20s, Felton obviously recognised Sir Michael Gambon. Perhaps that was the problem. He got nervous. He kept messing up his lines. And the more he messed up, the more nervous he got. Fucking hell, Felton! It’s you and Michael Gambon, Sir Michael Gambon, and you’re wasting his time! Pull yourself together!
I couldn’t tell if Sir Michael Gambon was being serious!
After yet another botched take, Gambon turned to Felton and calmly suggested a breath of fresh air. Once outside, the knight of the realm retrieved a cigarette from within his fake wizard beard. “That’s where he used to stash them,” recalls Felton. “‘Breath of fresh air’ was the code word.”
Tom started apologising profusely to his illustrious co-star. “‘I’m so sorry! I will get my shit together, I promise you!’ Really putting a lot of shit on myself: you’re shit, Felton, pull your finger out!”
Sir Michael smiled. “Oh boy, boy, boy,” he said, soothingly. “Do you have any idea how much they’re paying me per day? If you keep fucking it up, at this rate I’ll have a new Ferrari by tomorrow.”
“I didn’t laugh,” says Felton. “I couldn’t tell if he was being serious! And of course he was kidding.” But Felton’s nerves were calmed and the scene completed. Proper headmaster shit from Gambon, who famously never bothered to read the books. And I hope you, like me, will never be able to rewatch Harry Potter without speculating whether Dumbledore’s beard contains a packet of Marlboros and a lighter.
What’s his favourite memory of the series? “Tough thing with that question is, what’s your favourite day that you ever spent in school?” He nominated the duelling scene in Chamber of Secrets, him and Alan Rickman facing off against Radcliffe and Sir Kenneth Branagh. (The Potter films boasted nearly as many knights as wizards.) Felton was all harnessed up, wires suspended from the ceiling.
We suddenly notice a girl in a school uniform standing on the pavement in front of us. She’s staring at Felton, her hands clasped to her mouth. He smiles at her. “Hi,” he says.
Her reply comes out all at once: “I heard your voice before your face and I was like wait that sounds familiar!”
“How are you?” asks Felton.
“Shit!” cries the girl. She backs away, almost off the pavement, and Felton quickly goes to check her before she ends up in Highgate Road. He gives her a hug.
“Look who it is!” says the girl to her friend.
The friend looks nonplussed. “Am I supposed to know who you are?”
“He’s from Harry Potter!”
Heads are turning at the bus stop across the road. I realise that our pub is directly opposite a school and it’s bang on half three. Students are flooding out of the gates. The bartender, God love him, collects our empties and suggests we take the second round inside. This seems like a very solid idea.
Inside we find a quiet corner table. It’s a very nice pub, The Bull & Last, all oak panels and bonhomie. While I’d happily sit there and listen to Harry Potter anecdotes all afternoon, Felton has a birthday surprise planned for a friend. He tells me the details before I resume recording, but if memory serves he’s pretending to take his friend to the theatre, except it will be a party and the brother she hasn’t seen for ages will be there. Something like that. Something wholesome.
But we still have half an hour, and I probably should ask about his new film Save The Cinema. He’s really very good: a sweet, charming presence who works as the perfect love interest for the type of film that aims first and foremost to make you smile. “I haven’t seen it,” says Felton.
What, really? Really. Nobody has yet sent him the link to the finished film.
Oh. They sent me the link to the finished film. I have it on my laptop; I can email it over. Am I allowed to do that?
“Yes, you are,” says Felton, a little indignantly. He writes his email in my notebook, and above the email he writes, ‘Tom / 11/11/21 / Hampstead’.
“Did you manage to get over the Welsh accent?” he asks as I retrieve my laptop from my backpack.
I tell him I have a terrible ear for accents but it sounded fine to me.
“Well, that’s all you need. So it wasn’t obnoxiously intrusive?”
Not at all. Link has been sent.
We watch a clip of his character Richard Goodridge addressing a crowd. “Thank you very much!” says Felton, briefly slipping into his Welsh accent. (Which sounds fine.) He giggles, claps his hands. “This is really cool!”
OK, so #DracoTok. What’s #DracoTok? #DracoTok is a hashtag linking the millions of TikToks that celebrate / reimagine / thirst over Draco Malfoy. Last year, Felton created his own TikTok profile and started uploading reaction videos: him left of screen, the original TikTok on the right. Obviously the fandom exploded (like, joyously) and #DracoTok videos are about collectively to hit 23 billion views.
“I’d like to take full credit for that but that’s not the case,” says Felton. He notes most fans weren’t even born at the time of the first film. But of course he got involved spreading Draco to the next generation because how could he not? He loves Malfoy. Loves him to the extent that watching another, adult Malfoy on stage in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child proved to be a little disorientating.
“I get a bit agitated when someone else is playing Draco. Even when I saw the Cursed Child – that’s me, isn’t it? I think there’s just a sense of pride over it.”
The Cursed Child has yet to be filmed, and he’s approaching the age of its Malfoy… “I’d love to go back and play Draco again!” says Felton without hesitation. “Older Draco, obviously. Yeah, the Cursed Child would be perfect. Not right now. I’d need another five years or so. I don’t know how many of them would go back and do it. I’m the no-brainer – although don’t print that because I want to make sure they give me a decent fee!”
Would the leads sign up? Felton is doubtful: “I can’t imagine them reprising their roles.” Nonetheless, the affection he feels for the three is palpable. Grint is now married to Georgia Groome, who played Felton’s sister in 2008 thriller The Disappeared. (He didn’t introduce them.) “They’re a great couple,” says Felton. “The quintessential ‘let’s just do us’ couple. They don’t pander to anyone else’s way of life or thoughts. They’re free spirits.”
Nobody acknowledges how difficult it would have been for Daniel, Rupert and Emma
Radcliffe? “Daniel couldn’t be more disarming if he tried, I’ve never seen him lose his temper. He’s very passionate and strongminded but relentlessly patient.”
Watson made headlines a few years ago when she identified Felton as her first crush. “Well, I don’t know about first,” he says, a little awkward for perhaps the first time. “That came out years after. But yeah. We became really good mates. Very, very close to each other.
“I don’t think anyone really acknowledges how difficult or how challenging it would have been – and still is – for Daniel, Rupert and Emma. I’m not saying it’s a sob story. But no one wants to hear the fact that they’re alienated or alone in their positions.
“You won’t hear them say a word about their positions because they’re lovely, grateful, phenomenal people. But I can definitely see it and go, ‘You know what? That’s a lot. That’s a lot.’ Especially as we weren’t signed up for eight films: we signed up for one. And then we signed up for one more. And then one more. And then one more. It was never, we’re making all these movies. You’re our Hermione.”
View on Instagram
Grint nearly quit the franchise after Goblet of Fire; while Radcliffe has spoken candidly about his alcohol use as the series ended. Did Felton empathise with these mental health struggles? “Yes,” he says. Then he pauses.
“It’s really nice when you wake up in the morning and someone gives you a call sheet. Call sheet, piece of paper with your numbers on it. And your number is who you are, obviously. One, Harry; two, Ron; three, Hermione; four, Hagrid; five, Neville. And then there was six. Six was Draco. So you see your number, it tells you what scene you’re doing, it tells you how many pages it is, it says this is where you need to be.”
Everything is timed, structured down to the minute: from meals to hair and makeup to shooting. Go there, do that. “In that regards, I felt very lucky: my call sheets were there for two weeks, and then two weeks off. So I got a chance to figure out myself, what are you doing today? Where if you get years and years and years of these structured call sheets, when you don’t have them, it’s a bit like, what am I doing with myself? No one’s telling me where to be or where to look or how to do it. It’s quite daunting, to be honest with you.”
“So your point on mental health – you have to spend time away from it. You’ve got to realise that it doesn’t matter. I often say the expression, ‘we’re not curing cancer’. Even if we were, it’s still not a reason to run around thinking you’re some sort of higher class citizen.”
For the Potter cast, “We’ve got all the things that everyone else wants. We had them really early. So we know, this isn’t it. There’s no amount of Ferraris or houses that are going to make you feel – so then you go, what’s the next thing? How do I find a balance of life?”
He recently recorded a two-handed poem with writer Tom Roberts. Entitled A Tale of Two Mindsets, Felton’s anxious, fatalistic character is gently reassured by Roberts’s more positive outlook: “I’d rather be an optimist proved wrong than a pessimist proved right.” Felton reached out to Roberts over Instagram: one of the perks of social media. “There are so many augmented realities,” Felton notes of the 21st century. “People forget the importance of a simple poem.”
Or a simple song: a keen musician, Felton released new album hOLDing On and regularly uploads videos of him on the guitar. There’s a forthcoming clothing line depicting cartoons of him and his dog, Willow, reenacting notable scenes from Harry Potter. Plenty lies ahead for Tom Felton – but for now, he has a surprise party to attend. His Uber awaits.
Walking back to Kentish Town, I reflect on the afternoon. To emerge from something like Harry Potter and feel not resentment but gratitude, happiness, is an impressive thing. To take that happiness and strive to make other people happy, whether through reacting to a TikTok or appearing at a fan convention or posing for a photograph in the street, that’s something greater. It’s a kind of magic.
View on Instagram
Save The Cinema is out 14 January 2022 on Sky.