By the time the first “Harry Potter” film was entering production, the character was already known to millions as The Boy Who Lived. But casting director Janet Hirshenson was just hoping he was The Boy Who Lived Somewhere ... Anywhere ...
It’s been almost 19 years since we saw Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint bring Harry, Hermione and Ron to life in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Apparently the road there wasn’t as smooth as the Hogwarts Express ― unless you’re thinking about that time Dementors attacked it.
Hirshenson told HuffPost that another casting director had been working on the project for a year by the time she joined it. Because of that, some of the parts ― such as Ron and Hermione ― were already narrowed down to a few options. Harry, however, remained elusive.
One of the hurdles was that Harry, like all the main actors, had to be British. The casting director said the only American tested for Potter was Liam Aiken, who had previously worked with director Chris Columbus on “Stepmom.”
The “only British” rule was so important that Robin Williams was even turned down to play Hagrid.
“Robin [Williams] had called [Chris Columbus] because he really wanted to be in the movie, but it was a British-only edict, and once he said no to Robin, he wasn’t going to say yes to anybody else, that’s for sure,” said the casting director. “It couldn’t be.”
Wow. All those stipulations could give a person such a crick in the neck.
(Hirshenson said Robbie Coltrane was author J.K. Rowling’s first choice to play Hagrid, anyway.)
Other obstacles included Harry’s young age and pivotal characterization details in the books.
“It was really specific on ages because there were several movies hopefully, so we could not go for a small 13-year-old to play anybody. They had to be at least the proper age of the character,” Hirshenson said.
The casting director even recalls an unsuccessful attempt for an older actor to take the role. “I know at one point there was a push for the actor who did ‘Billy Elliot.’ He was a really good actor, but he was 14 years old. It’s like, ‘No, he was 14 years old. It just can’t be.’”
She said, “And for Harry, to complicate things, I needed a blue- or green-eyed kid because part of Harry is his green eyes or blue-green, but they couldn’t be brown eyes, so that was another elimination thing. We said, ‘Oh, drat! He’s great, but he has brown eyes.’”
So there were kids who were good but had the wrong eye color?
“Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah,” said Hirshenson.
The search for Harry continued. But Columbus apparently had his eye on Daniel Radcliffe from early on in the process. The director even showed Hirshenson a tape of the actor starring in the BBC’s 1999 version of “David Copperfield.” The problem was that Radcliffe had taken himself out of the running.
“He just wasn’t interested. He didn’t want to be an actor anymore,” Hirshenson said.
But happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light. And a serendipitous night at the theater was all the light the movie needed.
“One evening, David Heyman, the producer, went to the theater and he knew Daniel’s father, who was an agent ... so the producer ran into Daniel and his dad and said to Daniel, ‘Why don’t you come in and audition? Think about it.’ So he said, ‘OK.’”
Radcliffe wasn’t yet a lock. Next came screen tests.
The casting director said tests for the three main characters were done at the same time with “mixes and matches.”
“We must’ve had about six Harrys, only two or three Hermiones ― there wasn’t a lot ― and there was probably five-ish Rons,” Hirshenson said.
Hermione and Ron were fairly easy choices.
“For the Hermiones, as soon as Emma came on, there were six of us in the screening room. We just gasped. It was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Like, ‘Whoaaa!’ She took up the screen.”
The casting director recalled, “There was another little girl that we tested who had just done I think ‘Madeline.’ She had done a big movie, and she was quite Hermione-ish, so I think Emma saw her at the auditions and went, ‘Oh, well, I got no chance. There’s her.’”
But Watson quickly won everyone over.
“The character needed to be towards the annoying side at times, but not too annoying, so the other one we said, after a while she’s going to be annoying. But with Emma, after a while you’re going to love her all the more. One of the producers said, ‘Can I have her under contract until she’s 21?’ All of us were just, ‘Oh my God. A star is born.’”
Ron became pretty apparent after the tests as well. The director liked another actor, too, but Hirshenson said Grint just won them over.
“We said, ‘Look at that face on Rupert. ... That’s Ron. Look at that face,’” said Hirshenson.
Finally, there was Harry.
“When we sat down to look at the tests, there was another guy that we kind of liked, too. There were two. Chris right away liked Daniel, but there were a couple of people who went, ‘Hmm. That other kid’s interesting.’ So we thought, ‘Let’s all go to sleep on it. We’ll come back and look at this again.’”
So how’d Radcliffe become Harry Potter?
“We went back and looked at Daniel again. The other kid was terrific and very vulnerable and very Harry-looking, but besides that, Harry was going to become a very powerful kid, too. And Daniel had both sides. He was very vulnerable, but the other kid ― it was like, he [was] not going to have the balls that Daniel has, to put it that way.”
That’s right. Daniel Radcliffe just had the Yule “balls” for it, and we don’t think she’s talking about Quidditch.
After all the searching, the team made their choice “pretty quickly.”
“We all came back and all said Daniel,” Hirshenson said. Little did she know the most enchanting moment was still on the way. Hirshenson said it happened when the three young actors were told they got the parts.
“After we chose, they pulled the three of them up to Chris’ office, not telling them they got the part, but they were standing there, the three of them, looking at each other, probably figuring, ‘I think we may be it.’ So they told them they had it. ‘Yay, yay, yay,’ and then they started chattering amongst themselves because they hadn’t known each other very much. Emma asked Daniel if he liked the books and he said, ‘Yeah, I like WWF better, and she did a harumph or some Hermione thing that was so perfect, just as herself. ’[Gasp] WWF!’ And we just all were like, ‘Whoa, this is them.’”
At the first table read, Hirshenson remembered how Rowling had “such a smile on her face.” Probably because she knew it was magic.