When one thinks of Edgar Allan Poe, words like “charming” and “fun” don’t immediately come to mind. And that’s precisely why actor Harry Melling decided to take his performance as the writer and poet in that direction for filmmaker Scott Cooper’s Netflix murder mystery drama “The Pale Blue Eye.”
“A conversation that came up a lot was the fact that we wanted to reinvent the idea of Poe, to offer more shades to him maybe, to explore a more charming, wittier version of him perhaps,” Melling told TheWrap in a recent interview about how he and Cooper approached the character. “When I first read the script, I thought he should be fun. There should be an element of play to him. And that was something that Scott was really up for.”
Based on the novel of the same name by Louis Baynard, “The Pale Blue Eye” is set in 1830 and stars Christian Bale as a retired (and grieving) veteran detective who is tasked with investigating a string of grisly murders at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As it turns out, a young Poe is a cadet at West Point, and is incredibly eager to help with the investigation.
Melling is probably most recognizable as Dudley Dursley from the “Harry Potter” films, but the actor has been carving out a fascinating and impressive career path in recent years, and “The Pale Blue Eye” is the latest in that string of projects that allow him to stretch his acting chops in unique ways.
When Melling first read the script for “The Pale Blue Eye,” he admits he was daunted by the prospect of playing someone as well-known as Poe, but at the same time, he was excited by the opportunity to deepen the mythology around Poe and “add more color” to the man.
Melling began his preparation by reading as much as possible. “Both books about him but also novels and short stories and other bits and poetry that he’s written himself,” he said. “And then to go back to the script and start creating something and reinventing something, because I knew I had to have the freedom to create something new.”
Through his research, Melling said he latched onto the fact that Poe had a “tumultuous” upbringing.
“He was orphaned very young. He was then adopted by John Allan and his family. They then moved to the UK, to London, for a while, and then they moved back to Virginia. And at all times, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is someone who has no sense of home, no sense of belonging anywhere,’” Melling said.
“And that, I think, really hooked me into Scott’s version of the story, which is we are meeting a Poe who is very chaotic. He is very awkward. He’s trying to fit in constantly. He’s very much in performance mode when he’s holding court with his poems. All that territory was really useful in terms of going, ‘This is someone who’s trying to invent his character. He’s not quite settled in who he is,’ and that was very useful, I think, in terms of the earlier part of Poe in this film.”
Key to “The Pale Blue Eye” is the relationship between Melling and Bale’s characters, and Melling relished the opportunity to work with “one of the most generous, giving actors” that he’s ever worked with.
“He draws you into the possibility of just really engaging in that moment, and it just elevates you. I truly think my performance is better because of just sharing it with him,” Melling said. “It was a truly wonderful, collaborative experience working with Christian.”
And it was precisely that character dynamic for which Melling wanted to lighten up Poe.
“I think we should enjoy him, hopefully, as a character, and if we do that early on, if I give [Bale’s character] enough reasons to fall in love with Poe, we then understand their relationship and why they care and why they fit, because they’re very different,” he explained. “They’re both outsiders, but they do fit. They do fill some kind of void within themselves with that other person.”
Scott Cooper is just the latest in a line of impressive filmmakers with which Melling has worked in recent years – a list that includes the Coen Brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth” with Joel) and Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”) – but this knack for choosing interesting projects with interesting filmmakers is a trait shared by Melling’s other “Harry Potter” castmates.
I mentioned this trend of actors like Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson and Rupert Grint using their “Potter” experience (and clout) to choose projects that are maybe a little off the beaten path in adulthood, and Melling agreed.
“I think that we all have the common thing, which is we’re very proud of those films, very thankful they exist, and we’re amazed constantly at the reach it has in terms of not just for our generation, but now my friends who are having kids’ generation, it’s constantly a story that people will latch on to,” Melling said.
“But at the same time, we have to move forward, we have to move on with our lives, we have to make the choices we want, whether it’s about continuing that thing or not. And I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of storytelling,” he continued. “I always knew I wanted to do that – not just acting, but I just love telling stories and expressing what people might be doing and what’s going on inside. I’ve just been lucky enough that the things that I’ve done have allowed me to explore character and those kinds of stories. And yes, I guess some of them have been experimental, and some of them have been a bit less sort of conventional as I guess your franchise films, but it doesn’t matter what the genre is as long as I feel that I can sort of offer something to it.”
“The Pale Blue Eye” is now streaming on Netflix.