This Is Growing Up: Meet Paul Thornley, Harry Potter's Adult(ish) Ron Weasley
How finding the middle-aged soul of a childhood icon turned out to be an actor's dream.
"Hopefully by doing this play, we're creating jobs for ourselves in 30 years' time," deadpans Paul Thornley, taking a rather Ron Weasley-ish perspective on the experience of starring in one of the hottest plays ever to hit Broadway. "Because there's some fact, which I'm definitely gonna get wrong," he continues, "that of the people who see this as their first play, [a large percent have] gone on to watch another play."
In addition to shoring up the future of his own livelihood, Thornley is having the time of his life creating the role of Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — a task he first took on for the play's original production in London's West End. "How I imagined being an actor in this play is entirely different to the reality of it," says Thornley, "You automatically think, 'Oh, this is going to be a bit of a cash cow. I'm going to have no creative freedom and…you know, sit on a magic broom and whatever it is.'"
In real life, however, creating the play's onstage magical world has been a drama student's fantasy come to life, from free-form early workshops to audiences packed with enraptured fans. "I don't really want it to end," Thornley confesses. "I'm having a really lovely time."
How did you first get involved with Cursed Child?
I got a call from my agent saying, "Come and read this script; we can't tell you what it is." I arrived in her office in the West End and I opened the first page and went, "Oh, it's Harry Potter. What part am I reading?" They said, "Ron Weasley." I said, "Well, I'm really old. I'm really confused." I couldn't work out what on earth was going on. [laughs]
I went into this workshop, and they said we're going to try a bit of stuff — and trying stuff and seeing if it works is my favorite thing. It was a lovely experience to spend a few days with these amazing artists going, "What's the most fun thing you can do with a cloak?"
And then I did another workshop. Every time, it just felt like the best bits of drama school. The last workshop that we did, they did a presentation of this ballet with the stairs. I sat there and watched a few of my fellow actors lovingly maneuver their fellow actors and some stairs around the stage to Imogen Heap's music, and tears were pouring down my face.
That's the moment I thought, "This is going to be special." And I really hope that they want me to be part of it." Because the actor's joke is that if you get the workshop, you're never going to get the gig. Which was sort of my feeling about it. I thought, "They can get much more famous gingers than me to do this."
But you did get the gig!
The day after the last workshop, I got a phone call going, "Do you want to play Ron Weasley?"
You know when a part's for you, and as soon as I read that part, I thought, "I can do that. This is lovely." And that doesn't happen very often as an actor. It's the dream because the name of the show sells itself and not the name of the actor. That's the only reason I'm here.
How did you create a world onstage that feels so similar to the world in the books?
A lot of that comes from [playwright] Jack Thorne, whose knowledge of those books is forensic. He is a huge, huge fan and loves the world, loves the books, loves J.K. Rowling, all of it.
People have got seven books' worth of knowledge about the play before you've even started. They know these characters, so you don't necessarily have to spend a huge amount of time setting them up. So we've got to introduce you to our new friends: Scorpius and Albus and Rose and all the others. Much of the work is done for you. Which means you can get on with the adventure.
Coming in without that forensic Harry Potter knowledge, how did you find your Ron?
The gorgeous luxury of it is that you've got 19 years to play with. I felt that I had license to try and create my own version of it and…what's happened in that time — because hopefully I've slightly changed from when I was 18. But also there's an element of ourselves that stays exactly the same. You know they've still got the same traits: Hermione still wants to organize; Ron really doesn't like washing his clothes very much, and still likes a good dinner, and thinks everyone needs to chill out a bit.
What's the best part of immersing yourself in the world of Harry Potter?
It was the first preview, we all walked on the stage at the beginning, and there was a cheer and applause from the audience. I think I wasn't quite prepared for the love fans have for these characters and how important they are to people. It felt like they were saying, "OK, we'll accept you. We'll allow you in," rather than the other way around. The Harry Potter fans that have seen the show seem to have said, "You'll do for us. We'll take you." Which is very lovely.
Have you felt the same kind of love from Harry Potter newcomers?
There's a friend of mine, I think she might be 82, and she'd never read a book, never seen a film. But she came with her children and her grandchildren and she said it's the best thing she'd ever seen. It works on so many different levels. Even just as beautiful, beautiful story, really.
A lot of that is because they could get the people they wanted to play the parts. Not a lot of people are gonna say no to it: "Do you want to be in Harry Potter on Broadway?" "No, I'd rather do sh*t telly in England, thanks. That'd be great." No, I'd say yes to this every day of the week.