The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Takeaways from HBO Max’s Harry Potter reunion: tears, nostalgia and a curious lack of J.K. Rowling

Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe reminisce about starring in the Harry Potter movies. (HBO Max)
9 min

Note: This article discusses conversations and other details from “Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts.”

Unless you’re in possession of one of those trusty time turner necklaces that Hermione Granger found so useful, time marches on just as relentlessly for the wizarding community as for us muggles. And, so, November marked two decades since the first Harry Potter movie was released.

Warner Bros. celebrated the occasion by releasing a behind-the-scenes retrospective documentary of sorts titled “Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts.” (Think: The “Friends” reunion, with more whimsy and fewer couches.) It will stream on HBO Max at midnight Pacific time (3 a.m. Eastern) on New Year’s Day.

The special finds much of the original cast — including the usual suspects like Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) along with heavy hitters such as Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort) and Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange) — reminiscing with each other while visiting sets from the eight films.

Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and David Yates, all the directors who worked on the series, show up as well.

The special is more heartfelt than revelatory. Many tears are shed and, throughout its 1-hour, 45-minute runtime, you will be consistently assured that the actors think of each other as family. There are a few interesting nuggets throughout — e.g. Newell cracked his ribs showing James and Oliver Phelps, who play the Weasley twins, how to wrestle for a scene in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” — but the general tone is one of adoring nostalgia.

Here are a few takeaways.

Casting curiosities

What’s particularly striking about much of the casting is how many of the adult actors weren’t versed in the books. “I remember saying to a friend, ‘I’ve got this part. It’s an elf in Harry Potter.’ And the squeals of joy and the complete despair of my not understanding how important this character was,” says Toby Jones, who voiced Dobby the Elf. Oldman was aware of the books, but says working with director Alfonso Cuarón is what drew him in. When asked to play Voldemort, Fiennes says he reached out to his sister and said, “I don’t know about this Harry Potter thing. Voldemort? Who’s that?”

Others were more intentional in chasing certain roles. “I always knew that I was going for Hermione, in a way that I think terrified my parents because they were like, ‘What are we going to do with her if she doesn’t get the part?'” Watson says. “Hermione made complete sense to me. That’s me. Like, I am that girl.”

“I think I’m scarily like my character,” Grint says. Cuarón agrees. He tells a story of giving the actors an assignment to write an essay in character. Grint didn’t do it. “I say, ‘Rupert, where’s your assignment? He says, ‘Well, uh, I thought that Ron wouldn’t do it. So I didn’t do it,’” Cuarón says. “Rupert is Ron. One hundred percent.”

One piece of the puzzle, though, was tougher to find: Harry himself. “The search for Harry Potter was insane,” says Columbus. “I think the biggest pressure at the beginning was who was going to be Harry Potter.”

One night, Columbus was in his hotel room watching “David Copperfield,” a BBC miniseries that included Radcliffe’s first role as young David. “Immediately a lightbulb went off in my head, and I said, ‘This is Harry Potter. This is the kid we’ve been looking for for months.’” Radcliffe’s parents, however, were adamantly against him signing on for such a lengthy commitment — until producer David Heyman somehow convinced them to let the boy audition. (This is one of the many disappointingly surface-level anecdotes that the special offers without much more detail, such as how Heyman convinced them.)

A cast? A family.

A particular theme the special hammers is how Radcliffe, Grint and Watson grew as close to one another as the characters they played. In Grint’s words: “We grew up together. We’re family. We always will be.”

“No one else can really quite understand what we experienced. It was a very unique thing,” Grint says. “David Yates used to describe us of astronauts, because no one else has really experienced this on this scale, and we’ll be forever kind of bonded by that.”

This might seem familiar if you’ve ever watched one of these reunion specials. Here’s what The Post’s Emily Yahr reported about the “Friends” one earlier this year: “’No one was going through what we were going through except the other five,” [David] Schwimmer says. [Jennifer] Aniston agrees, saying it was “imprinted in our neural pathways this sort of like, ‘We are actually family.’”

The difference, of course, is that the Harry Potter characters were cast as children and quite literally grew up together. The main trio frequently refers to each other as siblings thought out the special. “I love you, as a friend,” Grint tells Watson at one point. Watson, meanwhile, remembers how she and Radcliffe would help each other text potential dates when they were teenagers.

That isn’t to say things were always easy. The day the casting of Harry, Ron and Hermione was announced, the actors were told they shouldn’t go home to avoid the media frenzy. It never really abated, and around the filming of the fifth film, Watson told the producers that she might not return. She wasn’t the only one suffering under the sometimes crushing weight of fame.

“I could see that, at times, I was lonely,” Watson says.

“We never talked about it on the film, because we were all just kids,” says Radcliffe. “As a 14-year-old boy, I was never going to turn around to another 14-year-old and be like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Is everything OK?’”

“I had similar feelings to Emma, contemplating what life would be like if I called it a day. But we never really spoke about it,” Grint says. “It just didn’t really occur to us that we were all having similar feelings.”

So I guess this is growing up

Herding cats is the long-standing cliche for attempting to control the uncontrollable. But the phrase might as well be “wrangling a gaggle of child actors.” Behind-the-scenes shots from the set of the first film find the kids all “mucking about,” as Felton puts it, playing hand-slap games while Columbus tries to film a movie.

“They probably made their jobs harder for themselves by letting us have as much fun as we had, because it distracted us from the work we were supposed to be doing,” Radcliffe says.

“They’d say a line, and then they’d smile at the camera. They were just so happy to be in a Harry Potter film that they couldn’t contain their excitement long enough to focus on an entire scene,” Columbus added.

Another feature of their youth, as they joke about, is the fact that they were working alongside some of the finest British actors in the world and had no idea who they were. Radcliffe wouldn’t be star-struck until the third film, when he got to work with Oldman.

“I remember the Gary chat. You were like, ‘Listen Emma. You need to be cool. It’s Gary Oldman. It’s a big deal,'” Watson tells Radcliffe.

By the fourth film, Radcliffe says, they were all hormonal teenagers playing hormonal teenagers: “I feel like it did not take a huge acting stretch for me to tap into my awkward, nerdy teenage side.” By the fifth, he added, he and the rest of the young cast were ready to commit more seriously to acting and felt like the new adult actors, including Oldman and Bonham Carter, were taking them seriously.

“I loved it. You saw in us that a few of us were ready to [be pushed.] That we wanted to be actors too,” he tells Bonham Carter.

J.K. Rowling — or the lack thereof

When WarnerMedia first announced details of the special, one name was conspicuously absent from the cast list: J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. At the time, both Rowling and Warner Bros. declined The Washington Post’s request for comment. As it turns out, she is in the special — albeit for about a minute in a couple of exceedingly brief and insubstantial clips gleaned from archival footage.

While her lack of participation in the special remains unexplained, it’s not difficult to guess what’s going on here. Rowling has come under fire in recent years for her statements regarding the trans community. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth,” she tweeted in June 2020, earning her the moniker TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) and losing support from many of her fans.

As she’s continued making similar comments, many spinoff properties of the Potter universe have distanced themselves from her. Both U.S. Quidditch and Major League Quidditch announced they will be changing their names, and you’d practically need an electron microscope to see her name in the trailer for “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” the newest movie in the spinoff series.

Sure, perhaps Rowling was too busy on Twitter to participate in the special. It seems far more likely that Warner Bros. didn’t want their special, which is meticulously designed to pull on the heartstrings of the series’ fans, to carry any hint of controversy.

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts (1 hour, 45 minutes) begins streaming Saturday at 3 a.m. EST on HBO Max.