Matthew Lewis, Neville Longbottom in “Harry Potter,” looks back, ahead during Chicago visit

A whole generation of kids may have grown up with Harry Potter, but for no one is that truer than the group of former child actors who have portrayed Harry and gang for the past 10 years.

Matthew Lewis has played Neville Longbottom since he was 11 years old. And in the last movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (in theaters today), the bashful, awkward boy finally transforms into a hero of sorts.

“What J.K. Rowling did, to take that shy, bumbling little boy who was bullied and afraid of his own shadow, and to take him into this unlikeliest of heroes, the savior of the wizarding world, it’s such an inspiring message,” he says. “People love it when characters come through adversity, and Neville is really the epitome of that.”

Lewis says the response to the character, often declared a favorite by fans, has been incredibly positive, largely because Neville overcame the loss of his parents and torment by classmates.

“I get a lot of fan mail from people saying they’ve had a tough childhood, a tough time at school, and Neville sort of inspires them to stand up to the bullies or to make something of themselves, despite their beginnings,” Lewis says. “All the way through the early films, he’s terrified, but he still wants to do the right thing – and that’s courage.”

The actor says that as a young boy just starting out in the movie industry, he wasn’t so far from the character he was portraying. In fact, he says a lot of the nervousness and fear Neville exhibits in the early films mirrors his own terror at being part of a “huge Hollywood movie.”

But as Lewis matured, he began to look a lot different from the chubby, snaggle-toothed boy in the books. So to maintain his appearance as Neville, he wore a fat suit that covered his entire torso, false teeth, pieces of plastic to make his ears stick out, too-big shoes, a bad haircut – and lots of sweaters.

The upside to the physical discrepancy between him and the character he portrays is that Lewis rarely gets recognized like many of his co-stars do. And it also means that he’s probably less likely to face typecasting in his future roles – a future he’s still trying to determine.

“For the first time in a decade I have that feeling, and it’s exciting, it’s refreshing, you know?” he says. “I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned and my experiences into different, new things.”

For the past six months, he took the advice of co-star Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) and worked on a play, Agatha Cristie’s “Verdict.” And he says the experience of working with Rickman and other British acting legends on the Potter films has been “more helpful than I think they’ll ever know.”

And of course, he’s also grown close to the group of actors who have portrayed Hogwarts students for the past 10 years.

“We share a bond that’s unique to us, really,” he says. “We were all in the same boat when we started at roughly the same ages, and we grew up on these film sets.Ringo Starr said that nobody could understand what it was like to … be a Beatle but the four Beatles themselves. And it’s like that … That’s kept us really tight and together.”

And as for Neville’s future, Lewis adheres to Rowling’s telling in the books, where Neville assumes a Herbology teaching post at Hogwarts. But he also thinks Neville’s in his element and is as beloved to students as Dumbledore himself.

“Neville is such an amazing character,” Lewis says. “I feel very proud to have been able to play that.”

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