Harry Potter's Noma Dumezweni on the Virtues of Kindness, Hard Work, and The Undoing
The Tony and Olivier Award nominee co-stars on the new HBO drama opposite Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant.
March 2019 was a whirlwind for Noma Dumezweni. In the span of one week, she twirled her cloak one last time as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and began donning the fashionable suits of a new role as filming commenced for HBO's The Undoing.
This new miniseries, which airs on Sunday evenings, is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel You Should Have Known, and is created by David E. Kelley, mastermind behind beloved shows like Ally McBeal and The Practice. Dumezweni costars as Haley Fitzgerald, a high-powered defense attorney hired by characters played by the show's stars, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, after a mysterious acquaintance of theirs ends up murdered.
Here, Dumezweni tells us all about her latest project, and also why it pays to be kind.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about your character on The Undoing.
I play Haley Fitzgerald, and she's a defense lawyer. Haley is fabulous. She wears great clothes, she's great at her job, and she's very, very, very expensive. She's tough. It's a fun role for me, and it's different from what I think people have seen from me. But she's still got that Hermoine-esque "Can we get this s**t sorted out please?" I really enjoyed playing her.
What was it that interested you in playing Haley?
The first thing that interested me was David E. Kelley's writing. We know him from Ally McBeal and Boston Legal, and he's a brilliant writer. I read the first episode, which Haley didn't appear in, and I was like, "What's going on?" I love that feeling, where you just keep wanting to find out what's happening.
When I was sent the audition sides for Haley, I went, "I like her." As an actor, what one can't help...You go, "Well, if I go in for this, this is a Black woman playing this part." Because that's how I have to think in every situation — What do I bring with my history and experience? And I just loved that there was this woman who was very much at the top of her game in this well-to-do law practice. I remember going "I would love to be in this." I was so shocked to find out that I got it.
Tell me about the acting adjustments you had to make when you started on the new project after three years of doing magic.
That three years of magic is standing on that stage swishing your cloak, moving a wand, projecting to the back stalls, and then all of a sudden there's no audience; it's just a camera in front of you, and everything becomes really small. I remember someone saying, "We have to take three years of theater out of you now." It took me about a week to course-correct. I got a very beautiful piece of advice from a casting director friend, Alexa Fogel. She said to me, "One thing you need to do, when it comes to TV and film, is 'speak to the distance of the person you're speaking to.'" If someone's right here, you can speak quietly, because there's a mic. I remember apologizing to Danny the sound guy for that first week of being really loud in his ears. He totally laughed. It was a learning curve, an absolute 360 learning curve.
The Undoing is filled with heavy hitters.
I'm still doing the "What? I'm in that show?" I had the joy of working with Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman for the majority of my scenes. Their characters call in my services via Nicole's character's dad, played by Donald Sutherland. They're iconic. I remember joking to a friend, and no diss to these cars, but...I'm a really good, comfortable Volvo, and I get to be in a room with these two Ferraris, Grant and Kidman. And then there's Donald Sutherland, and my friend goes, "Oh, the Maserati." [laughs]
What I will always be grateful for is that they're good people. They're lovely people. They're about the work. They question things. They're serious. There was no diva-ish-ness. You're going, "Come on, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant?" They're film stars. But they're people who love their work. Donald Sutherland was making everyone laugh. They are really cool people.
That, for me, is what I'm most grateful for, apart from the actual gig itself. You don't have to be a dick or dick-ess. You can get on and do your work, and be respectful. That's what I saw of them, that's what I shared with them, and that's what I really appreciated.
Were you still doing Harry Potter on Broadway while you were shooting?
I knew that I got the gig during the last month of doing Harry Potter. We finished on March 17, 2019, and I was going to be starting The Undoing on March 22. The brilliant thing about The Undoing is that it was filmed in New York. I finished Harry Potter, the kid was still in school, and we didn't have to pack up everything at the same time and head back to London, which is what a lot of my colleagues were doing.
Was it hard on an emotional level for you to be done with Harry Potter after three years and immediately start on a new project?
Absolutely. Three years on one show is extraordinary, and if you told me that when we were starting out, I would have said, "Go away. I'm not doing that." In London, the gig was 15 months. Ten weeks rehearsal, five weeks tech, and then a year doing it. I'm the actor who does three months on tour in Manchester, or three months at the National or the Almeida. That's what I'm used to. But a year? On one play?
My biggest fear with Harry Potter was getting bored out of my head. But my realization of "Oh my goodness, I'm so lucky..." Paul Thornley, who played Ron...I knew that when I stepped onstage, there would be a twinkle in his eye and I would say, "OK, where are we going today?" That made it easy for me to say, "Yes, I will go to Broadway with these seven actors." They just wanted to keep it alive. We were tired. I was tired. But I'd look at the other actors' eyes and I saw that we were playing. And it never became boring.
That last month was intense for the original seven of us. We had this wonderful safety cushion of work. During that last month, we all got very aware that we had to go out to work again. It wasn't our world anymore. But it's because of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, on the West End and on Broadway, that I got the opportunity to be in The Undoing. Harry Potter changed my life and how people see my work. I'm still in awe. I'm so blown over.