Tom Felton looks back: ‘I had a nice car, a house in LA. You’re told they make you happy – they don’t’
Born in Surrey in 1987, actor Tom Felton is best known for his role as peroxide-blond baddie Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. Before scoring his major role in the fantasy franchise at the age of 12, he appeared in The Borrowers and Anna and the King. He went on to star in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, has released five EPs and most recently appeared on stage in 2:22: A Ghost Story. His memoir, Beyond the Wand, is out now.
This is me, eight years old and in Malaysia shooting my second film, Anna and the King. As the only English-speaking kid on set, I would have been bored, which is why my mum, who was my chaperone, bought me the book The Art of Getting Even. I have three older brothers, so this was research for when I got back home. Not that I would have put any of it into practice, but you can see from the smirk on my face I enjoyed thinking about it.
Jodie Foster was playing my mum. Instead of being familiar with her oeuvre – I’d watched Terminator 2 by the time I was five, but Mum drew the line at The Silence of the Lambs – I was just a fan of Jodie as a person. Not only for her acting, but her patience while working with so many animals and children.
Growing up, I was the runt of the pack – or “maggot”, as my brothers affectionately called me. Mixing with older people made me confident, but I was still pretty naive and extremely cheeky, which is quite cute for a while but can turn into arrogance as you get older. Nevertheless, it came in handy when I went to my first audition for Potter.
In the queue, I was bored. It was very different from the auditions I’d done before – which had been: get in and get out. This was an entire nation of kids who were major fans of the book wanting to have a go. Hundreds of us were lined up and asked about the part of the book we were most excited about seeing in the film. Every one of them had an excited answer, such as “Quidditch!”, while I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, as I hadn’t read the book. What was Hogwarts? I decided to steal the line from the kid next to me – quite poorly, apparently, because the director looked at me like: “Uh-huh, you wanna see Gringotts the most? A bank?” Still, that cockiness might have helped me get the part of Draco.
While I initially auditioned for the role of Potter, Draco is the best role I could have got, because he’s a slimy git and so vastly different from who I am. He’s an only child with a huge sense of entitlement and crap parents. While we never went without, we certainly weren’t rich. My mum was very supportive of whatever my latest fad was: if I wanted to be a football player for United, then she’d get me the kit, then she’d get me a new kit when I changed to Chelsea the year after. I wanted to be a yo-yo master and a violinist and an ice-hockey player; my mum worked a third job so I could do all of that. When I moved on to the next thing – which was acting – she wouldn’t berate me, she’d just ask what I needed.
I never felt as if I had any underlying talent, but within a few weeks of getting an agent my life had changed for ever. I did an advert and The Borrowers film came a few weeks after that and then Potter. My school experience was pretty poor as a result. I was used to having a whole class to disrupt, and I hated that I couldn’t be the class clown as it was just me and one tutor doing school work in my breaks on set. When I did go back to normal school, I’d get teased for my bleach-blond hair, but I also got to see my best friends. I got straight Cs in my GCSEs, which I attributed to working too hard on the films. When I found out Daniel [Radcliffe] and Emma [Watson] got nine A*s I thought, you bastards!
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Life after Potter was a wakeup call. First of all, I was confronted by the fact that I wasn’t that good at acting. Auditioning as a 12-year-old is one thing – more or less making sure you don’t look down the lens or forget lines – but as an adult it is very different. In LA it was getting on the circuit: three auditions a day, different scripts, different accents and dialects – skills I hadn’t put into practice, even though I was very experienced in other ways. There were a lot of nos, and before I’d even said a word I could often see they were thinking: “Don’t have him, he’s the Potter kid.” Harry Potter got me in the room, but often it was a huge disadvantage and I had to prove myself. Which I am so grateful for now.
Ten years after Potter, I felt depressed and I was visited by a professional interventionist [his friends, family and team met to stage the intervention] and then went to rehab. I remember a sense of betrayal, confusion at why nobody had pulled me to one side and said: “Here’s a suggestion – stop going out drinking all the time.” Instead, it was affirmative action. In retrospect, I was lucky, because no one in that room wanted to be there. It was horrible – they purely did it because they loved me and knew something wasn’t right.
It’s easy to point the finger and say it must be the Hollywood lifestyle, or it must be the drink. If you are in LA and you’re surrounded by a lot of tinselly things, it’s a little easier to get your head lost in the clouds. But the root cause was partly a genetic [mental health] predisposition and a sense of feeling like something was not quite right with my life, which I think we all experience. From the outside it was perfect: I had a dog, a nice car and a house in LA. You trick yourself into thinking, well, these are the things I’ve been told make you happy, but they don’t. The reason I didn’t talk about how I felt before was down to a mixture of being British and male and being told that because everything was apparently going great, I shouldn’t complain.
Life has not changed massively since that experience, but I now know there’s a resource that I can lean on. I went back to another clinic, or rehabilitation centre, of my own volition recently. Jumping in the ocean twice a day and walking my dog also helps. If it gets as bad as it did back then, I know the steps I can take. Saying that I’m not OK has really empowered me.
When I did the audiobook version of my memoir, I kept getting emotional, mostly about what my mum has done for me. I could barely read about all the sacrifices she had made without crying. I wish I could go back in time and tell that eight-year-old version of myself to hug her a bit more. And to take more pictures. And to steal more props.