Sunday Times Scotland June 19, 2005

Culture: From Hogwarts to bigger stuff

In the achingly hip London district of Hoxton, young urban types are checking their BlackBerry phones in a corner cafe, killing time before lunch in one of the nearby Vietnamese restaurants. The cafe goes by the curious name of No-One, which is a bit rich. Almost all the fashionable regulars are convinced they are somebody.

The only two customers not wearing Prada are Sean Biggerstaff and a fellow actor, who are taking a coffee break from a new film being shot in a nearby strip club. “In the scene we’re doing today my character’s job is to find a stripper for his friend’s birthday party,” explains Biggerstaff, “and naturally as an innocent young lad he doesn’t know anything about these things.

 

“So my character has to find one for him,” interjects his companion, the young Liverpudlian actor Shaun Evans. “Which is strange,” says Biggerstaff, his brow furrowing, “because in real life I’m the one who hangs out at strip joints and he’s the innocent one.” They both crack up, and a plucked eyebrow or two is raised in disapproval around them.

If anybody in the No-One cafe is going to be a somebody, it is definitely Biggerstaff. The 22-year-old from Maryhill in Glasgow has secured his first lead role in a feature film, and if his producers are to be believed, it will showcase a remarkable new talent.

The film is called Cashback, and the project is important to Biggerstaff. It gives him the chance to emerge from the shadow of the blockbuster movies that gave him his big break — the Harry Potter series. In the first two Potter movies, Biggerstaff played Oliver Wood, the captain of the Gryffindor house Quidditch team at Hogwarts. It was not a starring role, but Biggerstaff made his mark. His square-jawed good looks attracted the attention of many of the teenage girls in the audience — and a few mums as well. In the crowds of fans at Potter premieres, there was always a disproportionate number who only had screams for him.

Apparently, it’s the combination of baby-faced boyishness and the knowing look in his eyes, although one can’t help suspecting that a name that sounds like the punchline of a dirty joke might also be a factor. In the weird world of the internet, “Sean Biggerstaff” throws up some curious websites, including pleas for pictures of Biggerstaff minus his shirt. Understandably for a young man, Biggerstaff at first revelled in the attention.

Answering an online questionnaire at the peak of his Potter fame, he was asked if there was anything he wanted people to know about him. “Yes! I’m devilishly good looking and single!” he answered. Yet there was disappointment ahead. When the third movie — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — went into production, Biggerstaff was told his character was being cut. Even an online petition of more then 50,000 signatures demanding his reinstatement failed to persuade the producers to change their minds. The petition was headlined: “It’s the Wood that Makes it Good.”

For the past two years Biggerstaff has had to adjust to being a former Harry Potter star. When I tell him I have to ask questions about the Potter films, he grimaces and asks: “Do I have to answer them?” Dutifully, he says polite things about the opportunities Oliver Wood opened up for him, but he does so with a weary air. “I loved the books and I’m very proud of being a part of Happy Potter,” he says. “Sure, I haven’t worked on it for two years and people still ask me about it. But I wouldn’t be where I am in my career or financially without it, so it’s a small price to pay.”

Like Mark Hamill from Star Wars or the little girl from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, does he not realise he will still be answering questions about the film in 20 years? “Well,” he says with a touch of bravado, “I’ll just have to make sure I do enough between now and then to ensure that’s not the case.”

Asked how he dealt with being dropped, he refuses to accept it as a setback. Wasn’t he disappointed? “Well, in some ways, yeah,” he says. “But I don’t think there was anything in particular that my career was going to gain from being in three Harry Potter movies that it didn’t gain from being in two. I think my bank manager was more disappointed than I was.”

The fame which the Potter movies still generate seems to exist in another world, he says. “Most of Thailand have written to me. I’m not sure why. It doesn’t really make itself felt in my day-to-day life.”

In fact, he still lives at home with his parents in Maryhill. His father is a fireman and his mother an adult education worker, and he has a four-year-old sister. “I’m away so long that when I am at home I relish it,” he says. “I’m a real home-bird naturally. I’d like to be in Glasgow 50 weeks of the year.”

Since playing Buttons aged seven in the Maryhill Youth Panto, his ambition had always been to act. But the motivation was different to that of the usual starry-eyed youngsters clamouring for a slice of showbiz magic. “I’m not a natural showman,” he says. “For me, it’s more the opposite — it’s the putting on of a mask. I could never get up on a stage as Sean Biggerstaff. That’s the most terrifying prospect imaginable. When you are playing a character, it is not you that’s being exposed.”

When he was a 13-year-old in the Scottish Youth Theatre, Biggerstaff was chosen by actor-turned-director Alan Rickman to play opposite Emma Thompson in The Winter Guest, a haunting drama set on the Scottish east coast. When Rickman was chosen to play the oily Severus Snape in the Potter movies, he recommended Biggerstaff to the producers.

The new film is set in a Sainsbury’s supermarket, Biggerstaff playing an art student working the night shift. Directed by the fashion photographer Sean Ellis, it first surfaced as a short film last year and won a string of awards, including best short at the Chicago Film Festival. It was shortlisted for a Bafta and is now being expanded into a full-length feature.

Lene Bausager, the film’s Danish producer, says Biggerstaff’s performance is a revelation. “Every single thing I’ve seen Sean in demonstrates his main strength — he’s got a quietness in him,” she says. “He says a lot with his eyes. He also gives off a vulnerability. I don’t think it’s something he learnt, it’s just part of him. He obviously goes somewhere in himself. You can stand with him and chat and then he starts work, and it’s like flicking a switch. He is a very old soul in a young person’s body.”

Biggerstaff is aware of this ability, but he cannot explain how he does it. “Doing my first film with Alan Rickman, that was one of the things he really valued — an ability to just do nothing and trust that by doing nothing the character gains from that,” he says. “It takes a while to be comfortable with the idea. It’s sometimes a very precise nothingness. Other people are a better judge of what you do than you are yourself. I never get what people get when watching me. I don’t see it. I see a glaikit idiot.”

As for his looks, Biggerstaff is aware that having a baby face might not always be an asset. “I do look very young, which could be a problem in terms of getting some of the work I want to do,” he says. “But at the same time, if I didn’t look this young I would never have got Harry Potter and I might be working in a bar in Glasgow. Maybe one day I’ll grow into my face. Just now, clean-shaven and with short hair, I can look 12.” After a beat he adds, sotto voce: “Dammit!” Whatever face he presents to the world, Sean Biggerstaff’s is definitely one to watch.