In Focus

Rupert Grint: In the Driver's Seat Now

Rupert Grint -- best known as the sidekick Ron in the
Rupert Grint -- best known as the sidekick Ron in the "Harry Potter" films -- takes the wheel in "Driving Lessons," also starring Julie Walters. (Jay Maidment - Sony Pictures Classics)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006

He's not a Republican running for office, but Rupert Grint has built a career out of fear. Or at least out of his ability to look frightened.

At the ripe old age of 18, the British actor is famous the world over for playing Ron Weasley, the occasionally bumbling -- and often terrified -- red-haired pal of Harry Potter in all four film versions of J.K. Rowling's popular fantasy novels about pubescent wizards. Aside from a part in the regrettably named "Thunderpants," in which he played the best friend of a boy with a flatulence problem, the "Potter" films have been Grint's big-screen legacy to date. The fifth film, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," is close to wrapping at Leavesden Studios outside London. Taking a break from that shoot, Grint spoke by phone about what really frightens him, including spiders and the love scene in his new movie, "Driving Lessons" (see review on Page 35), a coming-of-age drama that was a change of pace in almost every way from what he's used to. In the film, Grint plays an awkward teenager who takes a part-time job as a personal assistant to an eccentric actress (Julie Walters, who coincidentally plays Ron's mother in the "Potter" films).

"It's sort of like two extremes, really," says Grint, ticking off the obvious differences between "Driving Lessons" (low budget, six-week shoot, no sets or special effects) and the "Potter" series (large budgets, shoots of up to 11 months, elaborate sets and effects). Oh, and there were no eight-legged monsters to deal with in the new movie either.

That's a relief for the actor, who in real life shares Ron's deep-seated fear of arachnids, a running theme in the "Potter" films. "Yeah," Grint says with a nervous laugh, "in the second film ["Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"], there was a pretty heavy spider theme in that, which I didn't really like. Aragog was a really big, sort of massive spider puppet, which was pretty nasty."

Not as nasty, apparently, as the live one that "Phoenix" director David Yates recently tried -- repeat, tried -- to get the actor to act opposite. "There was going to be a scene where they dangled over a spider by my shoulder," recalls Grint, audibly uncomfortable. "They were doing tests with these real tarantulas -- sort of baby ones -- and they were doing loads of tests with me holding them. And I hate -- I, I don't like spiders at all. I couldn't really do it in the end."

Playing Ben, a gawky 17-year-old who has his first sexual experience with an older Scottish lass in "Driving Lessons," posed a similar, if less insurmountable, problem. "I was really sort of dreading that scene," Grint says. "I was really quite nervous about doing that. Because you've got the whole crew watching. It's really sort of a small set. You do feel very self-conscious, and it's a bit embarrassing." Putting him at ease, he says, was that the actress, Michelle Duncan, was "really nice" (and, um, 27 at the time).

"I think, in a way, because she was a little older, it probably helped a little bit," Grint says. "Because she was probably a bit more . . . I don't know." He pauses, as if struggling to avoid using the word "experienced," because of its, you know, ungentlemanly implications.

Because she was a bit less nervous, perhaps?

"Yeah, sure," he says, letting out a long exhalation of breath that sounds very much like relief. "That did help."

Still, the worst was yet to come. That came, according to Grint, during a screening of the film with his parents and siblings in attendance. "I was embarrassed," he says, even though, in the end, "everyone was all right about it."

So, does he have a girlfriend of his own? "No, no, I don't actually at the moment, no," he answers. When asked about whether that might be because he shares some of Ben's tongue-tied, er, ineptitude around the opposite sex, Grint fumbles for the right answer. "Most people relate to the, especially, sort of like the, sort of, um, around girls and that, he's -- there's trouble there, I suppose."

I'll take that as a yes.

The eldest of five children -- a role reversal that Grint says ironically helps him relate to the character of Ron, who is the second youngest of seven -- the actor lives with his family in Hertfordshire, England, where his leisure interests include golf and the guitar. "I'm trying to learn," he says modestly of his incipient ax-wielding skills. Having said goodbye to formal education at 16 to concentrate on acting-- "I didn't really like school that much," he says -- he sounds in many ways like the stereotypical aimless teenager, only with a much better-paying job.

Speaking of finances, Grint says he's "not totally sure" how much money he has. "I don't have a lot to do with it," he insists, explaining that his father handles all his money. So what's his allowance look like? Well, his most recent indulgence was the purchase of a Mini Cooper -- something that should go well with his new driver's license, earned just last month after two attempts. "I was doing a three-point turn," he says sheepishly of his first failed attempt in July, "and I didn't look behind me."

Looking forward, Grint says he can't see moving out of his parents' house for at least another year or two, as he finishes work on the remaining three "Potter" films. While nothing official has been signed, the actor says he's committed to working on "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which is scheduled to begin shooting next summer. After that, Grint hopes to give Ron Weasley one last run, when the film of the book Rowling is currently writing -- projected to be the final installment in the series -- gets made into a movie.

In between, he says, he'd love to do more small films along the lines of "Driving Lessons." Films that allow him not just to explore other characters than Ron -- a role that will, when all is said and done, have consumed an entire decade of his young life -- but to take on larger and more complicated acting assignments.

"It's quite scary, obviously," he says about the challenges inherent in stepping out of "Potter" co-star Daniel Radcliffe's (not to mention Ron Weasley's) shadow. "It's quite a big step, really."

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