Each of Melling’s characters share an intensity that few performers can muster, let alone replicate. “I think that comes from a place of exposing your inside, your inner life to people. And I don’t know if that’s where the haunted quality comes from,” he tells Vanity Fair. “I mean, my head goes to The Devil All the Time. Certainly there’s something that is definitely eating him away, and Poe to a certain extent as well.”
He’s always striving for difference, so it becomes hard to see similarities. Melling admits he might just be too close to it. “A friend said this to me: ‘You always play restless characters. They’re always on edge in some way,’ which I thought was an interesting observation,” he says. “But it’s very hard to take a step back and to try and work out what is the thing that truly lights the fire in terms of finding a relationship between those performances.”
There are other places you’ve seen Melling: He was the pharma villain Merrick in the Charlize Theron action film The Old Guard, Malcolm in the Denzel Washington version of The Tragedy of Macbeth, and Anya Taylor-Joy’s rival turned ally, Harry Beltik, in The Queen’s Gambit.
But there is one performance for which he is most widely known, although people tend not to recognize him unless it’s pointed out. He was Dudley Dursley, the no-good Muggle cousin in the Harry Potter films. And that role kind of haunts him too.
It’s not that he’s ashamed of Dudley. Melling is proud of his work as Harry Potter’s spoiled bully, but he has worked so hard to escape that role, and yet…it’s the one everyone always brings up—as we’re doing now.
Asked if this part of every interview is a pain in the ass, Melling laughs. “No…I mean, the easy answer is yes, but that’s not the full answer,” he says. “I’m completely and overwhelmingly appreciative of being a part of something as brilliant as Harry Potter. I really am. I’m amazed at generationally how many people have been wrapped up in those stories. But it is amazing that something you did when you were 10 is still something that is very much a priority on the list of talking points. It’s just something that I’ve kind of got used to in a certain sense.”
Also, he understands the curiosity. If he still looked the same, if he was playing similar dim-witted brutes, or just stopped acting completely, people wouldn’t be as thunderstruck when they see who he has become now.
“Part of the fascination is like when you talk about old schoolmates and, ‘Oh, they’re doing this now?’ It’s that same culture of being fascinated by, ‘Oh, you’ll never guess what so-and-so is doing,’” Melling says. “I completely get it, but it’s a mixed bag of both feeling extremely grateful, but naturally, you want to move on. You want to be talking about the work that you’re doing now.”
That brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe. To look at Melling in The Pale Blue Eye is to see a face that looks eerily familiar. We’ve seen it staring forlornly from the textbooks and author bios about the “Raven” and “Fall of the House of Usher” writer since time immemorial. Even if he doesn’t have Poe’s mustache, or the lines from his full 40 years, evident in daguerreotypes from the end of his life, Melling has the eyes—and the sense of dread and sadness welled within them.