Smash-hit West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child celebrates its 7th anniversary in London on 30 July 2023.
The show had its official world premiere in London on 30 July 2016, and went on to scoop a record-breaking 9 Olivier Awards including Best Play, and countless other awards around the world including 5 Tony Awards.
James Howard has appeared in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre for the show’s entire run, most of that time playing starring as Draco Malfoy.
We caught up with James ahead of the anniversary to talk about the joys and challenges of long runs, how you play such a famous fictional character, and breaking in new cast mates!
Tell us a bit about your first years working on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? How did you originally get cast for the show?
I auditioned for the show at the beginning of 2016, and we started rehearsals in February. Everything was top secret, including reading the script for the audition, and it was the most exciting rehearsal process I’ve been involved in. Being part of such a huge project with such an amazing team was a dream and our first previews were electric. Nobody had ever seen this story before and the shocks, the reactions and magic were thrilling for the audiences and for us!
“Everything was top secret, including reading the script for the audition”
You have been in the show for 7 years. Did you imagine that this job would become such a big part of your life?
I had no idea that this job would become such a big part of my career and life, but I’m so thankful that I’ve had the chance to be a part of this incredible world for so long. Every time I walk into the theatre, I feel lucky to be a part of this production and I’ve made so many friends over the last 7 years.
When did you start playing Draco Malfoy in the show? And has your relationship with the show changed over the years you have been working at the Palace?
I covered the role of Draco in the first year and then took over in May 2017, so I’ve played him in every year of the show. That means I’ve worked with a lot of different actors and had a lot of sons! So much has changed in the world over the last seven years, but the show has been a constant light in the darkness.
How did you originally prepare for playing Draco? And was it easier to develop the role of Draco because of the books and movies, or harder?
The books were my first source of inspiration and preparation. The original stories provide so much rich character detail, and it’s been important not to shy away from the behaviour and experiences of Draco as a child because that has influenced so much about his character as an adult. It was great to have the films as a reference too because Tom Felton was such an incredible young Draco.
What is your favourite scene in the play and why?
I have so many favourite moments in the play, some when I’m on stage and some when I hear them backstage. I adore the Staircase Ballet routine, where Albus and Scorpius are separated by the moving staircases. It’s a beautiful routine. And for me the reunion between Draco and Scorpius towards the end of the play is always a highlight.
Is it challenging to have yearly cast changes in the show? Do new actors introduced to the cast change your performance?
We have to rehearse the show every time we have a cast change which can be a tiring process as we are still performing with the current company. But every new cast brings something new and unique to the show and it helps us oldies to keep it fresh! I’ve loved working with new Harrys and sons to explore new things together.
“Every new cast brings something new and unique to the show”
What are the pros, cons, challenges and joys of being in a long-running West End show?
The best thing about being part of such a huge West End show is undoubtedly the audiences. It’s hard not to take for granted knowing that every show will be a full house with 1400 people excited to be there, and to be taking them on a journey over a whole day. The challenges, I guess, include keeping the show and the performances fresh, and making sure you get enough rest. Holidays are definitely a grateful luxury!
If you only just joined the cast now, would your performance be different?
I’m so lucky to have been part of the production since the beginning, so I know so much about how the show was created by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne and the whole amazing team. But the show has been so well looked after over the years that it still feels like the original heart and soul is still alive.
Is it important for an actor to like the character they play, even if they are perceived as malevolent?
I don’t think you have to like your character (although I love Draco!) but you do have to have an understanding of what drives them and why they behave as they do. Draco may have been a bully as a child, but he had a very traumatic relationship with his parents and his time at school and that influenced his behaviour. It’s also nice to be able to find something surprising about the way a character can behave in new situations.
Where does playing Draco rank in terms of the most challenging roles that you have played on stage?
It’s definitely my favourite role I’ve ever played and there are some challenges, but mostly it’s a joy to play him. I was lucky enough to also cover Harry in my first year, and I think that’s a more challenging role to play physically and emotionally. I’ll always prefer being a Malfoy!
“It’s definitely my favourite role I’ve ever played and there are some challenges, but mostly it’s a joy to play him”
What kind of reactions do you get from audiences to you playing Draco?
What I love most about playing Draco is that his character has a huge journey in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and his story has a lot of interesting twists and turns. By the end the audience are hugely invested in his relationship with his son Scorpius, and that is very satisfying when you hear the audience reaction. I think everyone is surprised by how much they love the Malfoys!
West End Theatre Quick Fire Questions!
What’s your favourite West End theatre and why?
Definitely the Palace Theatre. It’s stunning inside and out. And it IS Hogwarts!
What was your first acting role?
Apart from the school nativity play, my first amateur role was as one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men in the pantomime Babes in the Wood. My first professional role was in The Duchess of Malfi at the National Theatre.
What was the last show you enjoyed in London as an audience member and why?
Which do you love best? The first day of rehearsals, the first night of the show or the last night?
The first night of the show. The adrenaline rush and the first audience reactions. On Harry Potter and the Cursed Child they were insane!
What was your very first theatre experience (as either an audience or actor)?
I can’t recall my very first experience, but I remember watching Les Miserables for the first time – at the Palace Theatre. Who knew I’d be working there so many years later!
Which role or show have you most enjoyed being part of in your career and why?
Draco in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is definitely a career best. I also adored being part of the Donmar Warehouse in the West End companies of Ivanov and Twelfth Night. Two beautiful productions.
If someone could only see one musical or play before they die, what should it be?
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child obviously! And any production of Twelfth Night (preferably with Mark Rylance as Olivia!)
What would be your profession be if you hadn’t chosen the theatre and entertainment industry?
I would have loved to be a lawyer in big court cases – still a lot of performing, and probably a safer profession!
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is playing at the Palace Theatre, and is currently booking to 3 March 2024.