Evanna Lynch was mentored by Rowling, and went on to star in the Harry Potter films – then cancel culture arrived. Etan Smallman meets her
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Evanna Lynch, the Irish actress best known for playing Luna Lovegood in four Harry Potter films, has been facing up to her prejudices.
Growing up in County Louth, near the Republic’s border with Northern Ireland, in the 1990s, she remembers the Troubles only ever being discussed “in hushed tones”. Yet while rehearsing a new play, Under the Black Rock, by Tim Edge, which opens at the Arcola Theatre in east London next month, she discovered she had absorbed more from that time than she realised.
On the first day of rehearsals, the cast shared their own backgrounds and views. Lynch had always subconsciously considered nationalists the “good guys”, she tells me when we meet in the theatre’s bar. “I’d had this nice chat with one of the cast – he was so friendly. And then when it got to his turn to share about himself, he said he was a unionist, Protestant, and that he would have seen some of the political figures on the republican side as the devil. I immediately had this sense of ‘Ahh! I thought you were one of us!’ I was sort of holding on to this righteous republican angle, but I live in London. I’m enjoying the benefits of the British Empire, I love my life here, so I think it was right that I’ve been challenged.”
The darkly comic thriller has also opened her mind to the importance of open discussion when it comes to the politically charged issues of today.
“During the height of the Troubles, the way of dealing with it was to kind of shut down people who disagree with you,” she says. “And I do see a parallel in today’s whole cancel culture thing. I just don’t feel comfortable with this idea that if you don’t like what people are saying, you silence them. I do think the next step is violence, really. I think it’s a similar mindset.”
I could not have asked for a better segue to the tricky question we both know is coming.
In 2020, the Potter creator JK Rowling tweeted an article referring to “people who menstruate” and said: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Three days later, after an intervention by Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe, Lynch posted a lengthy response. “I won’t be helping to marginalise trans women and men further,” she wrote, adding: “I think it’s irresponsible to discuss such a delicate topic over Twitter through fragmented thoughts and I wish Jo wouldn’t … That said, as a friend and admirer of Jo I can’t forget what a generous and loving person she is.” Headlines accused her and fellow castmates of being “Wizards of Woke” responsible for a “great betrayal”. Meanwhile, fans lashed out at Lynch for trying to posit any defence of Rowling at all. The actress soon closed her Twitter account.
The rupture between the 31-year-old and the woman she describes affectionately as her “mentor” must have felt profound. When Lynch was 11 and living with anorexia, one of the only people she opened up to about her torment was Rowling, in a letter sent via her publisher. A response arrived in an envelope marked “By Owl Post”, and so began a touching pen friendship, with Rowling continuing to send her “incredible, wise letters” even while Lynch was in a residential clinic.
It was an obsession with Rowling’s universe that had offered the only solace for Lynch, the bookish third daughter of teachers Marguerite and Donal. Doctors allowed her out for a morning to be the first in the area to buy a copy of The Order of the Phoenix, before she tore through it it in her hospital bed. It was there that she became “instantly entranced” by Luna, “the girl with the aura of distinct dottiness” who, she later decides, “possesses this simple quality of total self-acceptance”.
Two years later, and following a painful recovery, the schoolgirl was reading her favourite fansite, MuggleNet, when she discovered producers had put out an open casting call for Luna. With both penpals keeping their connection and Lynch’s eating disorder a secret, the 14-year-old beat more than 15,000 girls to win the part.
I ask Lynch, as someone who loves people on both sides of the gender debate, if she is any wiser on how to bring the two together. She takes a big intake of breath.
“I was very naive when I was dragged into that conversation,” she says. “I didn’t even know there were two sides. I had a view of, like, good and bad. I do have compassion for both sides of the argument. I know what it was like to be a teenager who hated my body so much I wanted to crawl out of my skin, so I have great compassion for trans people and I don’t want to add to their pain.
“I understand being too triggered to be able to have a conversation. If you put me in a room with one of my doctors who treated me in the past, ooh, I’d kick off. Like, I would want to scream and yell names.
“I do also think it’s important that JK Rowling has been amplifying the voices of detransitioners. I had this impulse to go, ‘Let’s all just stop talking about it’, and I think probably I’m a bit braver now about having uncomfortable conversations.”
Since starring in the Potter franchise, Lynch has gone on to take third place on Dancing with the Stars (the US version of Strictly), and has just been announced as the star of a biopic of James Joyce, playing the Irish author’s daughter opposite Rupert Friend.
Lynch still has an ethereal touch of the character whom she used during fraught social situations as a teenager. Does she still rely on her now as a crutch?
“Not so much consciously. But the thing I’m exploring lately is neurodiversity. I’ve always just said: ‘I’m too sensitive, life is overwhelming.’ I’ve started to think there might be a more scientific reason for this feeling of oddness.” She says she is seeking a diagnosis, but does not want “to cling on to one label yet”.
There is something very precise about Lynch. During our interview, her poise is broken only by her dog, Mallow, rescued from a bin on an island in the Indian Ocean, scurrying around the table. She says she was shocked by the backlash against Rowling “especially when she wrote her essay [revealing experiences in her unhappy first marriage]. I just felt that her character has always been to advocate for the most vulnerable members of society. The problem is that there’s a disagreement over who’s the most vulnerable. I do wish people would just give her more grace and listen to her.”
Lynch, who sent Rowling a copy of her 2021 memoir, says she will “always defend her character” and would happily work on Potter projects again: “These books formed me and JK Rowling inspired me. She inspires me still.”
- Under the Black Rock is at the Arcola Theatre from March 2-25; arcolatheatre.com.