Eavesdropping on a conversation during the drinks reception held prior to Oliver and James Phelps’ Q&A at the Oxford Union, I am struck by a comment made by one attendee that, “it would be weird to interview them and ask questions about things they’ve done apart from Harry Potter.” Ever a sucker for a challenge, I endeavour to press the Phelps twins on a variety of non-Potter related matters, ranging from politics, to travel to football. It’s when we’re talking about their rival football allegiances (Oliver supports Aston Villa whereas James supports Birmingham City) that I am struck by how down to earth they both are; Oliver has read a lot of autobiographies, and addresses the anxiety of letting on how much you know about someone whose biography you’ve read when you meet them, an incredibly humble anecdote which puts into perspective for me the fact that our idols have idols as well. When I point out the irony of me, a self-confessed Potterhead who – embarrassingly – used to write fanfiction about Fred Weasley, interviewing the actors who played Fred and George, Oliver remarks, “I don’t think you’ll ever meet somebody who’s not in awe of anyone else, though.”
Perhaps it’s because I’m deliberately pressing them on matters that are distinctly not Potter-related, but I get the sense from our brief chat that James and Oliver rarely get asked questions about the real world instead of JK Rowling’s magical universe. Especially after an hour long session answering questions from the student body’s Potter fans, they seem relieved to have been given a breather from answering questions about the pranks they pulled on set, and how it was decided who was to play who (no, they never actually switched places during filming, and as for the decision as to who was to play Fred and who was to play George, it seems to have been a panicked case of finger-pointijng during the first official read-through).
My first non-Potter related port of call is Brexit. The EU referendum created a huge divide across Britain, but especially Birmingham – with more that three quarters voting to Remain in some wards and the same ratio voting Leave in others. The Phelps twins are from Sutton Coldfield, a Birmingham constituency that had internal division between its four wards, with Sutton Four Oaks and Sutton Vesey voting to Remain, and Sutton New Hall and Sutton Trinity voting Leave. I ask the twins if they’ve noticed any change in the atmosphere in Birmingham post-Brexit, but they remark that it’s been much the same. Plus, they haven’t really had that much time at home because they’ve been doing so much travelling of late.
When I enquire about their travels, I seem to have touched on a hot topic, as they are extremely coy, suggesting that there is a new project in the works; there is the suggestion that this project will, to some extent at least, follow on from Oliver’s website – jopworld.com – where he has documented his love of travel with articles such as ’10 Top places in the world (in no particular order)’. They tell me to “watch this space”, and say that hopefully there will be an announcement by the end of the year, all the while apologizing for the cryptic nature of their utterances – no doubt their hands are tied by an embargo or non-disclosure agreement.
Like many actors, the Phelps brothers have spent time in both the UK and overseas in LA. Given how close we are to the nomination of the next US president, I ask them what they make of the entire presidential campaign thus far. James remakes, “if this is the best they’ve got then it’s a bit of a bad system.” They were Stateside at the time the Republican nomination opened, and one twin quips that the televised debates between the twelve nominees was, “the biggest waste of TV I’d ever seen.” However bad the situation in post-Brexit Britain, both twins are in accordance with me that things are looking a lot worse over the pond.
In light of JK Rowling’s recent political commentary on Twitter, and the subsequent criticism she has faced from a number of Jeremy Corbyn supporters for referring to them as ‘angry trolls’, I try and gage to what extent the twins feel that celebrities like themselves have a duty to be vocal about their politics. There’s an acute sense that the Phelps twins feel more like Fred and George than they do the actors who played them; there’s a sense of caution that accompanies their comments, as if the brothers fear losing Twitter followers if they in any way are seen to deviate from fans’ perceptions of how Fred and George should ac. Oliver comments that, “I don’t think people subscribe to me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to hear me talk about politics, on the whole”; but it’s not that they aren’t interested in politics – far from it, in fact. Oliver stood for some of his Q&A at the Oxford Union this evening like an impassioned young MP presenting his constituents’ cases to the House of Commons: feet firmly planted, hands gesticulating wildly. It is something his quieter brother, James, is quick to mock him for, taking a sly photo of his twin during our interview because he is sat in front “of a load of books” and, “looks like a politician”. In terms of specific political views that they don’t mind sharing, both twins have very strong opinions on the credibility of the HS2 project, lambasting Westminster for its investment strategy: “If they’re going to be investing in transport and trains, why not invest in cities and commuters?” Similarly, James is quick to dismiss people who don’t take advantage of the democratic opportunities afforded to them in this country, as he says, “If you’re one of those people that complains, complains, complains, but doesn’t vote, I’m sorry but your argument is invalid.”
Although the twins are reluctant to share their political views on public forums such as Twitter because they don’t think it’s what their fans are primarily there to see, they are far more vocal about their involvement in a number of charities, including Teenage Cancer Trust and Help Harry Help Others, which the twins are ambassadors for. James notes that it can be frustrating lobbying politicians, “Not everything that you say to politicians may get through because things may be going on that you don’t know about.” However, he was keen to stress the fact that, “Charity is something that everyone can get involved in.” Even for us poor students, both twins praised the act of volunteering, stressing that, “It’s not about financial donations: it’s if you’ve got time to maybe help out at an event or even just listen to someone.”
Overall, Oliver and James Phelps seem content with their continued recognition as the ginger prankster twins from Harry Potter; their Q&A at the Union this evening demonstrated that Potter is still very much a part of their lives – and, to their credit, they still manage to answer questions they’ve probably answered a thousand times before with a childish glee, undoubtedly befitting for Rowling’s immature pranksters. However, they are actors, after all, which raises questions about the sincerity of their passion for all things Potter. Although they have spent the last year touring as part of the continuing Potter franchise, I get the sense that the Phelps twins want to move on from Potter, but possibly don’t know how. After all, they were amongst the oldest of the child actors when the shooting for the films began, and perhaps having been involved with the franchise since they were fourteen, they are finding it hard to break ties in the way that their co-stars – particularly the Golden trio, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe – have successfully managed. Their upcoming project, filmed in the States, certainly seems to be an exciting opportunity for the twins to make their mark as the Phelps rather than the Weasley twins, but time will tell as to whether or no the brothers will put the Boy Who Lived to bed and start living as themselves, rather than as their much-loved fictional counterparts, Fred and George.