Harry Melling on playing Edgar Allan Poe in the new movie 'The Pale Blue Eye'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"The Pale Blue Eye" opens with the death of a West Point cadet who was found with his heart ripped out. Detective Augustus Landor lives nearby and responds to the scene. And soon, the body of another cadet, similarly brutalized, is discovered - and within a month, another. To try to gain information in a community bound together by a code of silence, the detective enlists a cadet who doesn't seem to quite fit in at West Point and who will soon become better known as the writer Edgar Allan Poe. "The Pale Blue Eye," which is in theaters and now on Netflix, is based on the 2003 novel of the same name. It stars Christian Bale as Detective Landor, and Poe is played by Harry Melling, who's been in five "Harry Potter" films and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.
HARRY MELLING: Thank you for having me. Thank you.
SIMON: The film is set in 1830. But I got to begin by asking, what's Edgar Allan Poe doing at West Point?
MELLING: I know. That's what I thought, right? He was there in real life, which is extraordinary.
SIMON: I had to look that up. Yes.
MELLING: He thought it was a good place to write, have some downtime to write, which I just thought was a wonderful insight into who this man is. Of course, he had no time to write whatsoever.
SIMON: Yeah. What do you think, in the story, Detective Landor sees in Edgar - young Edgar Allan Poe?
MELLING: Well, I think to begin with, he just enjoys his company. I mean, he's very flamboyant and very eccentric. And I think - when I was playing him, I remember thinking, I need to give Landor enough reasons to fall in love with Poe. And then, I think he cottons on to, actually, this guy may have something to him. He goes - he keeps trying to tell the audience how wonderfully smart he is. And I think Landor already understands, actually, he really does contain a real sharp intellect.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PALE BLUE EYE")
MELLING: (As Cadet Edgar Allen Poe) Oh. Pardon. Are you Augustus Landor?
CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Augustus Landor) I am.
MELLING: (As Cadet Edgar Allen Poe) Unless I'm mistake (ph), you've been tasked with solving the mystery surrounding Leroy Fry.
BALE: (As Augustus Landor) That's so. What might I do for you?
MELLING: (As Cadet Edgar Allen Poe) It is incumbent upon me and the honor of this institution to divulge some of the conclusions which I have reached.
BALE: (As Augustus Landor) Conclusions.
MELLING: (As Cadet Edgar Allen Poe) Regarding the late Mr. Fry.
BALE: (As Augustus Landor) I'd be most interested.
MELLING: (As Cadet Edgar Allen Poe) The man you're looking for is a poet.
SIMON: What did you try to capture and evince in playing Edgar Allan Poe? Let me put it this way - a character in a film? Or did you want to somehow suggest the writer so many people grow up reading?
MELLING: It's a hard challenge because you're doing a balancing act, really, of playing this icon, but also giving yourself enough room to reinvent who he is. And I think that was the constant thing I was trying to do, was to take the historical fact of what was useful - his nomadic life, certainly, as a much younger man - but also having enough room to invent, to challenge those perceptions of how we might think Edgar Allan Poe and who he would be.
SIMON: And I have to ask, do you think young Poe was excited, enthralled, engaged by murder?
MELLING: Oh, absolutely. Yes, I think he was enthralled in how his ego might interact with the idea of discovering who had done this act. I think certainly the young poet is someone who relished the opportunity to work out who did what. And certainly, his younger writings was filled with this idea of - you know, he had a really high opinion of himself as an artist and as a poet. So that was very interesting to try and delve into.
SIMON: Yeah. And I have to ask - so many well-known actors in this film, and all of them British.
SIMON: I mean, with respect, did you and Christian Bale and Gillian Anderson and Lucy Boynton and Toby Jones and Charlotte Gainsbourg and Simon McBurney and Tim Spall ever turn to each other and say, wait a minute. This movie's set in America. Why did they hire all us British people?
MELLING: Yeah, so what was Scott Cooper thinking? No, I think there's something about - I mean, Scott talks about it and can talk about it much better than me. But there's something about...
SIMON: This is the director, yeah.
MELLING: The director, sorry, yeah. There's something about the language that he felt fitted with the English sense of language, which he was excited by. And, yeah, I mean, I can't speak to that. I'm just very happy that I'm in the film.
SIMON: You're a busy man. I don't know if you saw any coverage of new U.S. senators being sworn in this week. But did you happen to see a former extra in this film who took the oath of office?
MELLING: I sadly didn't, but I was lucky enough to meet him on set. And what a joy that was to have met him and what a real privilege to have, you know, spent some time with him.
SIMON: We should explain, I guess. John Fetterman was - was he the lieutenant governor? And he was an extra in the bar scene?
MELLING: He was. In the tavern scene the first time that Landor and Poe properly meet, there was John at the end of the table having a pint, nursing a pint. So, yeah, it was wonderful to get the opportunity to celebrate him.
SIMON: Yeah. We learn in the course of the film, of course, that Augustus Landor is struggling with his own personal loss. And that adds a whole new dimension to the story, doesn't it?
MELLING: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think they're both, in some way, dealing with loss. And their relationship - they're both outsiders. And somehow, they find this intimate bond. And I found that very moving when reading the script.
SIMON: You play Poe as a young man before he's famous. But, of course, we know that he would be famous and then died just 19 years later at the age of 40. Did he take his life? Did he drink himself to death?
MELLING: Oh. I mean, it's - every time I come across reading about his death, it's just shrouded in such mystery. And it almost - you know, the mythology of who this man was, it kind of elevates it into a different space. And I don't know. I mean, what I do know is he was restless, and he was his own worst enemy. And when he was productive, he was incredibly productive. But also, when he wasn't, he just went off the rails. And obviously, the last moments in his life, he was going off the rails, but - and ended up in someone else's clothes, I believe...
MELLING: ...On a park bench somewhere. So it's an extraordinary ending, an extraordinary ending.
SIMON: Did you immerse yourself in much Poe to play this role?
MELLING: I did. I mean, it was - like I say, it was a combination between reading as much as I could about him and his own works, and then also allowing there to be enough room to have a play into - to challenge this idea of who he think he is. But I loved the whole - reading about him. I would go to Highgate Cemetery, which is a cemetery quite close to me, and just walk around and recite "The Raven." So it was a wonderful time getting to learn about this character.
SIMON: And what do you think Poe sensed in storytelling that we might take from him today?
MELLING: With all his writings, there's a sense of an otherworldliness, this life happening outside of what he's written. And there's something about that, the stuff that lives underneath the words. That's what I always think of with Poe. You know, it's the things under the floorboards. And certainly, that was my idea, is - this is a man with many layers. You know, when we first meet him, he is performing to everyone. But actually, the more the film goes on, the - more layers and layers and layers are revealed, and we get a real sense of who this person is. And I think of that when I read his writing.
SIMON: Would you be game to play him again. It'd be kind of irresistible for someone to ask you - maybe at another moment in his life?
MELLING: Who knows? I mean, if a script comes along that is good and I think I can offer something to it, then I would love to. I mean, he's such an endlessly fascinating, mysterious character that I would love to have a go. Yeah.
SIMON: Harry Melling is Edgar Allan Poe in the new film "The Pale Blue Eye." Thank you so much for being with us.
MELLING: Thank you. Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.