These days, Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has a lot to be thankful for. Aside from being the most recognizable name in fantasy writing, she’s celebrating the success of her new stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, as well as a hefty profit from its printed publication. This week will mark the Wizarding World’s return to the big screen with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a new chapter scripted by Rowling based on one of her shorter books. Fans are gearing up for the blockbuster any way they can, and for many, that means taking a trip down Diagon Alley for some of the fondest Potter memories to date.
In preparation for the big event, we thought we’d get in on all the hype by looking back on all the standout performers who have helped bring Rowling’s world to life so far. With such an exhaustive list of top notch actors, it can be a challenge sifting through all the performances, let alone choosing one to top all the rest. But alas, we’ve managed to come up with some names we’re certain all Potterheads are going to appreciate. So kick back and relax with a tall glass of butterbeer as we count down the 20 Best Acting Performances In Harry Potter.
20. Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawney
The gifted wizards and witches who possess the power of divination in the Wizarding World are capable of looking behind the curtain and into their own futures. As a reader of tea leaves, Sybill Trelawney gets her kicks by seeing the death omens of others. With a certain level of gravitas, she plays the part of a professor well for her classes, surrounding her room with an air of mysticism to showcase the responsibility that comes with being given “the sight.”
With her frizzled brown hair, thick-rimmed glasses, draping shawls and star-gazing stare, Emma Thompson puts on a show, appearing unrecognizable in the role. She puts her Inner Eye to work, frightening her students with prophecies of impending doom. Best characterized as eccentric, no one would describe her as being socially conscious of those around her. Appearing theatrical to her colleagues, she’s more of a loner, caring more for her abilities than about making friends. Thompson has admitted to accepting big studio films like the Potter role for pure monetary reasons, but regardless of why she did it, she put up a fine performance that she can be proud to add to her list of memorable characters.
19. Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter
In the world of cutthroat journalism, it’s often hard to build a rapport with readers. In order to stand out, you must be able to oblige your demographic’s need for entertainment while maintaining an ethical standard. Still, there are those who are willing to take short cuts to fast track their way straight to the top. For those people, a fib is nothing more than a way to strike a chord with readers. Who cares if a bit of information was falsified if it improves the experience for your fan base?
As the blonde-haired, spectacle-sporting gossip girl Rita Skeeter, Miranda Richardson shows a knack for appearing vindictive. Nosy and determined, she’s a thorough researcher who believes her own opinions are more astute than everyone else’s. As someone who isn’t opposed to spying on her subjects for personal gain, she’s willing to do anything in order to better a story, including completely fabricating accounts for the purpose of creating a whirlwind of talk. As a leading voice for the Daily Prophet, her ambition to become a prized writer is so strong that little can stop her, making her a nuisance to all who get in her way.
18. Brendan Gleeson as Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody
If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice we’ve credited Brendan Gleeson with playing the role of Alastor Moody, the Auror for the Ministry of Magic who investigates crimes linked to the Dark Arts. By all accounts, we’re correct in that bit of casting information; however, there are in fact two different Alastor Moodys. It just so happens Gleeson played them both.
Introduced in Goblet of Fire, the scarred Moody is a gruffly, old brute of a man with an electric blue magical eye acquired after sustaining injuries from his days of chasing crooked wizards. While Gleeson captures the tough persona of the character well, it’s later revealed that Moody is actually the Death Eater, Barty Crouch Jr.
While the help of a polyjuice potion is able to transform Barty into Moody, it’s actually Gleeson who pulls off the role convincingly. As the hyper-paranoid survivor who only drinks from a personal flask due a fear of being poisoned, Gleeson captures the growling voice of a man who’s been through the ringer. It’s a multi-layered role given the circumstances, but Gleeson pulls it off with ease, making the twist at the end of the fourth film all the more shocking.
17. Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart
Have you ever encountered that person whose entire life story is a lie? The kind of person whose every word is usually fabricated to make themselves sound more interesting? It’s those people who get so wrapped up in their own stories that they truly start to believe they’re superior to everyone they’ve ever met. Gilderoy Lockhart is exactly that kind of person, and according to J.K. Rowling, he’s one of the few characters deliberately based on someone she knew.
Conceited, vain, and self-obsessed, Lockhart is interested only indiscussing himself. Moving with a swaggering charm, he claims to have won the Witch Weekly’s Most Charming Smile Award five years straight, a feat he sees as more of an accomplishment than Harry escaping from Lord Voldemort as an infant. Branagh steals the show in Chamber of Secrets with his larger-than-life persona hidden under a shroud of fraudulent claims. Nothing more than a waste of potential, he serves as an example of ineptitude resulting from more talk than hard work. He may have only appeared in one film, but Branagh left an impression in a movie that’s usually seen as one of the lesser entries in the franchise.
16. Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy
If you ask actor Jason Isaacs about Harry Potter, you’d be surprised to find that he believes he played a large part in the series’ happy ending. That’s because, according to him, it’s Draco and not Harry who becomes the ultimate hero of the tale. When it comes down to it, Harry’s destiny was already intertwined with Lord Voldemort’s, but it was the troubled minds of people like Draco who truly added fuel to the winning side, opting to join Harry’s cause despite being reared by his overbearing father to do otherwise.
As a member of Voldemort’s council of Death Eaters, Lucius embodies everything vile about the dark side. He feels a sense of entitlement because of his status with the evil wizard, believing his own life should be held in higher regard for it. Isaacs plays the character as a bigoted servant whose efforts are one hundred percent invested in his aristocratic standing. Slipping into the role of a man with a tragic outcome, he’s selfish and soulless. Isaacs described him best when he compared him to “a wounded animal slipping down a well”, and with his fall, he drags his family into the muck with him.
15. Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore
The first of two actors who portrayed Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, Richard Harris’ performance was by far the better version. Appearing wise, serene and composed at all times, Harris had not only the look for the character, but also the better read of how he should be depicted. As one of the strongest wizards of his time, he was the only man Lord Voldemort ever openly admitted to fearing in his lifetime. While Harris’ losing battle with Hodgkin’s Disease ultimately ended his portrayal prematurely, he captured the essence of the character in a way that his successor, Michael Gambon, never did.
Already looking frail from his illness, Harris didn’t have the strength on screen to pull off Dumbledore’s more intimidating side, but nonetheless, he appeared stern when the situation called for it. Slightly eccentric, he carried a benign sense of knowledge in his posture, a nuance which was done away with in Gambon’s louder, more abrupt take on the character. While we’ll never know how far Harris could’ve developed his take on the wizard, we still have the first two films as evidence that Albus Dumbledore can be played on screen as he is in the books.
14. Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn
The bumbling potions professor Horace Slughorn is first introduced in Half-Blood Prince. Years prior, Slughorn had given information to a young Tom Riddle about the use of Horcruxes to achieve immortality, leading to the eventual evolution of the gifted wizard into the Dark Lord Voldemort. Having later erased his memory to eradicate the event from his mind, Dumbledore sends Harry Potter to the potion master’s London home to retrieve the information that could help stop the dark one.
Making his first appearance disguised as an armchair, Broadbent brings a breath of fresh air to the series as the jovial but self-centric Horace. A social-climber, he’s depicted as a hypocrite who suggests he doesn’t pick favorites when it comes to students, yet only ever gets close to people he perceives as talented enough to someday benefit him. Cranky and shallow, Broadbent’s portrayal of the ambitious professor is at times endearing, showing a man who’s lonely and expresses deep regret for his past actions. Despite his own self-centeredness, he never loses touch with his own sense of morality, making him kind-natured at heart and one of the more complex characters on our list.
13. Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood
Irish-born actress Evanna Lynch came as a complete surprise to many in her quirky role as Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New to the luxury of Hollywood, she had no prior movie credits to her name, but at sixteen years old, with her long blonde locks of hair, wild gazing eyes and pale skin, she was a grade A casting choice for the franchise.
Described by Harry to be an oddball with a distinct dottiness about her, Lynch played Luna as the nonconformist she was. Eerily distant at times, she speaks with a dreamy cadence that is at once nonjudgmental and filled with an air of acceptance for everyone around her. Since taking up Harry’s cause after he declared war on the dark lord Voldemort, Lynch has been relatively quiet on the movie front. We don’t expect to see her gone for too long though. With her proven ability to play both an alluring and eccentric character on screen, she has the potential to break out if given the right role.
12. Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid
“You’re a wizard, Harry!”
Few people will forget the words that set the magical world of Harry Potter in motion for the first time on screen. Spoken by the friendly half-giant, Hagrid became an instantly recognizable face of the series. Grizzled, bearded and stout, Robbie Coltrane brought the kind-hearted groundskeeper to life with a mountain-sized presence and deep-set voice.
A friend to all who got to know him, Hagrid is portrayed by Coltrane as a loyalist with an immense compassion for magical creatures. He has a deep-seated affection for the lives of the misunderstood inhabitants of the Forbidden Forest, a fact which often showed in his jovial appearance around the creatures. With a hint of menace in all his work, it’s the contradiction between Coltrane’s exceptional size and his warming nature that makes him one of the most likable characters on screen. Often comical, but never completely unaware of the seriousness of a situation, he’s the kind of ally that Harry would trust with his own life, giving audiences all the more reason to cherish him as the benevolent guardian he is.
11. David Thewlis as Remus Lupin
David Thewlis isn’t your typical Hollywood actor. The now 53 year old has built his repertoire around bold films that don’t always attract large audiences. That’s why his part as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series wasn’t only a cause for celebration, but actually proved to be a bit of genius casting.
According to the actor, when he first began playing the part in 2004’s Prisoner of Azkaban, he was asked by director Alfonzo Cuarón to play the part as a “gay junkie.” Having never read the books, he did as the director told him, and as it turns out, the performance suffered little from the change. As Harry’s third year Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Remus was hiding the secret of his lycanthropy from the Hogwarts staff, forcing him to remain closeted to the world.
Despite being underused compared to the books, Thewlis was intelligent, selfless and brave as Lupin. He stood out due to his wolfish desires, but was still able to remain as peaceful as possible. In one of the saga’s best films, he became one of the cast’s best additions, and remains so due to the thoughtful work put into the role.
10. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
You have to give Daniel Radcliffe some serious props for what he was able to accomplish in his ten years carrying the Harry Potter franchise. Most actors suffer from typecasting after playing such a high profile character for so long. Radcliffe has admitted to showing up drunk on set and appearing nude in the stage play Equus just to rebel against the Potter persona, but in the end, his performance was one of steady progression that saw him transform from a boy to the savior of the Wizarding World.
Radcliffe has noted in previous interviews that his least favorite performance of the series was in Half-Blood Prince, while he particularly admired his progression as a performer in Order of the Phoenix. The dramatic transformation from an adolescent to a traumatized young adult leading Hogwarts against the master of the dark arts all culminated in an epic showdown in the final film that let Radcliffe’s pent-up frustrations shine on camera. It’s hard to see anyone else in the role at this point in time, but if the moment ever comes for someone to step into the part again, they’ll have some big shoes to fill.
9. Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley
If you grow up with a character for long enough, you’ll either learn to resent them or watch them progress well beyond the person you thought you knew. It was a ten year journey from start to finish for fans of the Harry Potter movies. That’s enough to see a child grow into young adulthood, and that’s exactly what we got from seeing Ron mature from Harry’s best friend to a man of considerable strength and guidance.
As the wisecracking funny man of Harry Potter’s trio, a young Rupert Grint played Ron with an emotional insensitivity that often saw him in trouble with his friends. At the height of his maturation, he still lacked the acuity to pick up on social cues, often unable to understand everyone’s complaints about his inability to read people. Still, whether he was arguing with Hermione or stepping up to protect his loved ones, he exhibited a courage that shined through his sense of humor. Developing confidence later in the series, Grint shows Ron’s capabilities outside of being a comical side character, expressing a true chemistry with the series’ leads and showing how insecurities can sometimes provide the backbone from which bravery emerges.
8. Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy
You have to feel sorry for Draco Malfoy. Sure, he’s a narcissistic bully that says spiteful things, but he’s also the product of a disagreeable father with a superiority complex. He may have bullied Harry for believing he chose the losing side of the Second Wizarding War, but he was pushed into that position by the expectations of his family. Besides, it not like Harry never acted horribly. At the end of the day, he was asked to walk the walk after running his mouth, and his true trepidation showed, revealing a character that was much more vulnerable than he let on.
As the arrogant first year student of Hogwarts, Felton already had the on-screen persona down. The character grew as his responsibilities and ties with the Death Eaters came to light, but his quick-witted facade as the bad guy began to show its cracks. His desire to appease his father is later laid to the side as he begins to see Potter’s intentions for what they are. He defies his family and ultimately flips the script on a character that becomes more complex than meets the eye, making Felton’s performance an admirable turn for fans and first-time viewers alike.
7. Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange
Versatility is a word you’ll often hear being thrown around to describe great actors. While plenty of the performers on this list can claim to be versatile, perhaps none have portrayed a wider assortment of eccentric, offbeat or downright strange characters than Helena Bonham Carter. With her messy hairstyle, black clothing and mastery for fine tuning every one of her characters, she was an optimal choice to play Bellatrix, and judging by her placement on this list, you can bet she didn’t disappoint.
One of the evildoers to escape Azkaban during the mass criminal breakout, Bellatrix is a sadistic witch prone to violent outbursts. Mentally deranged, her cruel personality is only outmatched by her madness and undying devotion to her master, Lord Voldemort. Despite not being of sound mind, Carter adds a charm to the character that is as repelling as is it enticing. Fond of torture and vehemently against anyone not of pure blood, Carter is frightening in the role, rivaling Voldemort as the most captivating villain of the series. While it’s never a good thing to admit to being entertained by such a wicked character, this is one performance that’s too hard to resist.
6. Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge
Described as a small, bureaucratic, ugly, toad-like woman in the novels, Dolores Umbridge has been called “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter” by horror writer Stephen King. At first thought, that might not sound like the kind of role actress Imelda Staunton would want to attach herself to, but after witnessing perhaps the most despicable persona to grace the Harry Potter franchise, there’s no doubt she was made to play the part.
When Dolores is introduced in Order of Phoenix as the High Inquisitor of Hogwarts, she’s perceived as a laughingstock for her regard for rules and regulations. Judged by her small stature, pink cardigan, and love for fluffy kitty decorations, she quickly changes the beliefs of the school with her strict, no-nonsense policies intended to cleanse the students of their impudence. Lurking under her cutesy facade, Staunton delivers a character to the screen that is devoid of an ethical center and is at once one of the most despised villains to ever butt heads with Harry and his friends, making for one finely written character that’s hard to forget.
5. Gary Oldman as Sirius Black
Often heralded as one of the true kings of exaggerated performances, Gary Oldman has built his reputation on his method approach to every character he plays. Despite spending much of his time as the hammy bad guy who yells a lot, he’s since shown his range in quieter, more subtle performances. It’s no surprise then that he showed up and showed out during his time as Harry’s godfather Sirius Black, turning in a fine contribution to the franchise that continues to resonate with viewers.
The first known person to escape Azkaban, it’s easy to see why Harry was frightened of Sirius before meeting him. Besides being framed for turning Harry’s parents over to Voldemort, Oldman’s weathered appearance did little to make him look approachable. But it was his true-hearted nature and boldness that proved to be his greatest attributes. Serving as a loyal friend to Harry’s father, he became the closest thing to a parent that Harry ever had. In the role, Oldman avoided overacting by staying funny, caring and just a bit impetuous. In the end, he left viewers heartbroken with his departure, stripping yet another family member from Harry and leaving us grieving for his loss.
4. Emma Watson as Hermione Granger
A hands-down standout among the Harry Potter franchise’s core three actors, Emma Watson has evolved from the messy-haired child actress of Sorcerer’s Stone to a women’s rights advocate whose helping rework the depiction of actresses in Hollywood. It’s not surprising that she’s become such a big spokeswoman for gender equality. She quietly became the most assertive, strong-minded lead in the later Potter films, brushing her co-stars to the wayside.
As the brainy friend of Harry and Ron, there was cause for concern that Hermione could fall into the stereotype of the typical straight A schoolgirl. Luckily, her perfectionist attitude made her the responsible glue that held the trio together. Although she was given the reputation of being opinionated, she could see through her own faults and the faults of others, giving her the distinct advantage of being able to dole out advice in times of extreme duress. Watson matured in the role through her own personal growth, giving compelling displays of emotions in the later films. Hermione became not only a role model for young girls, but effectively became a leader that could rival the series’ titular character as the most recognizable face of the series.
3. Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort
His name is spoken throughout the series, but Lord Voldemort doesn’t appear in the flesh as the villainous rival of Harry Potter until the end of Goblet of Fire. In his final bodily form, he returns with a snow white appearance with the slit nostrils of a snake and the merciless expression of evil incarnate. As a performer, Fiennes had to relieve Voldemort of any humanity, stripping him of any needs which might impede his megalomaniacal search for power. Using digital prosthetics, Fiennes brings his own nuances to the character, imposing his own facial expressions onto the serpentine appearances of the villain, making his cold but charismatic performance all the more impressive.
As a highly intelligent manipulator, Voldemort’s interests in others only goes so far as to help him meet an end goal. As such, there’s a certain level of wisdom conveyed in Fiennes’ version of the character, but it’s overshadowed by his consummate need for control and his ultimate fear of death. With the slightest hint of weakness in his voice, his destiny intertwines with Harry’s when he’s at his most vulnerable, giving Fiennes a lot to work with to keep viewers waiting for the final showdown.
2. Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall
Much like the top choice on this list, Maggie Smith gets a high spot not for any particular performance in the series, but for being one of the most consistent actors throughout all the movies. As the 70 year old Deputy Headmistress, Head of Gryffindor House, and Professor of Transfiguration, Smith demands a certain level of respect from her students. She’s highly regarded for her talents with a wand, exuding confidence thanks to the heart and effort she puts into her work.
Smith is without question one of the more accomplished actors to be cast in the Harry Potter world. Being openly candid about her struggles during the filming of the movies, Smith battled breast cancer and chemotherapy while working through the later productions. What’s just as impressive is just how well she kept the character alive during the grueling process, remaining as stern and forthright as ever. Her strict demeanor and bravery as Minerva never wavered. Her character kept her sharp tongue, dry sense of humor, and opinionated attitude while proving to defy her age as a force to be reckoned with, making Smith’s turn one of the most admirable to watch.
1. Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
An expert at his profession, the late Alan Rickman didn’t get his start in the film industry until later in life, but after arriving onto the scene, he made an impact right out the gate thanks to his calm line delivery and intelligent character portrayals. The World of Wizardry was saddened to hear of his passing earlier this year, but his performance as Severus Snape, the repressed Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, remains as a testament to his talents as an entertainer.
At once cold, malicious and cynical of everyone around him, the Snape of the films is both vulnerable and lonely, a product of ridicule from an earlier age. Dressed in all black, he’s the epitome of an outsider, driven by motivations to fit into something powerful that can give his life more meaning. Although his own bitterness leads him to become a member of Lord Voldemort’s inner circle, he’s never portrayed as inherently bad. An expert sorcerer with an intellect beyond compare, he’s a man who values logic and deductive reasoning above the weakness of one’s emotions. Eloquent and moving, he easily became a fan favorite among a crowd of notable performances, making him the best Harry Potter actor on screen.
Best Performance: Half-Blood Prince
Who do you think gave the best performance in the Harry Potter film series? Sound off in the comments.