Taking the wheel
'Harry Potter' star Rupert Grint in 'Driving Lessons'
by David Lamble
Rupert Grint is the embodiment of the perfectly brought up English schoolboy; alas a schoolboy who never particularly liked school (except art, where he shines), but who at age eleven â€“ an age when the majority of British kids face a dreaded exam that will determine their future â€“ composed a silly rap song that got him cast as the very shy Ron Weasley in the projected seven-film Harry Potter saga.
In Driving Lessons, the new British comedy, literally a road comedy, a bashful redhead named Ben (Grint) struggles to get out from under the clutches of a grinch-like religious mother (the amazing Laura Linney sporting a very authentic accent along with an air of icy disdain) only to find himself camping out with a wildly eccentric lady of the theatre (the scene-stealing Julie Walters of Educating Rita and also Harry Potter fame).
Driving Lessons is based on writer/director Jeremy Brock's own experience as the socially inhibited son of an English vicar who suddenly found himself working as an assistant to the legendary Dame Peggy Ashcroft. In the film, Ben at first takes after his henpecked preacher dad. Neither male is willing to cross his formidable mom, who combines moral scorn for the modern world with her own indiscretion, a sly affair with the handsome young man portraying Jesus in a church play. In that drama, poor Ben is stuck playing a tree, not even a burning bush but rather a suspiciously passive eucalyptus tree.
Driving Lessons is an updated variation on a sublimely old fashioned theme â€“ the tale of a young lad gaining knowledge of the world and learning to overcome a degree of shyness that's akin to a kind of social autism. In an early scene, poor Ben reads a soppy romantic poem to the very girl it's about. "You're too weird," is her all too predictable reaction.
Ben next answers an ad placed by an older actress, Evie (Walters) who has a way of inflating her resume, disguising the fact that her most recent credit is a mildly silly nighttime TV soap that's a favorite with gay men. With Ben, Evie constructs her myth about being a Shakespearean actress, leading the boy out of his shell and into some meaty speeches from Othello and Coriolanus.
Evie tricks Ben into driving her to a Scottish literary festival â€“ totally disregarding the fact that Ben has failed his driving test and must only be on the road with a licensed adult, which Evie isn't. The auto slapstick takes Ben to Edinburgh and his first real date with a very forward festival publicist (Michelle Duncan).
Driving Lessons climaxes in a frenzied tug of war over Ben's future between Walters and Linney, featuring some of this year's best female acting outside of the fabulous Running with Scissors.
Growing up in the Northern London suburb of Hertfordshire (pronounced Hartfordshire) Rupert Grint endured only a mild "stink" about his flaming red hair â€“ the usual taunts of "carrot top" or peculiarly British, "ginger."
Perched on the back of an expensive sofa in a suite at the Ritz, Grint is a slight lad by today's steroid standards â€“ five foot ten inches. The red hair and blue eyes (with just a hint of green) frame a round face that is constantly going from engaging grin to full out smile as his favorite word "cool" and least favorite, "embarrassing" duke it out â€“ in a London accent with just a hint of Cockney: his descriptions of his first movie sex scene, the diff
On the script for Driving Lessons , Grint said, "I was doing the fourth Harry Potter film, Goblet of Fire, at the time. There was just something really refreshing, really different about it. I met Jeremy Brock, the director, and really got along with him, and then I found that Julie (who had played his mom in Harry Potter) was going to be in it."
Driving Lessons "is a much more grownup film," said Grint. "We just sort of film around London â€“Harry Potter's got all these amazing sets and big studios â€“ it was quite hard to get used to this much smaller sort of environment: no special effects, no blue screen sort of dragons."
Of his first adult sex scene, Grint said, "I was really dreading it. I was really nervous, because you're in this tiny little room, the whole crew watching. It's quite scary. There were so many takes, once you got into it, it was alright. The worst part is watching it back with your family. That's the thing that really gets embarrassing."
While discussing American religious protests to Harry Potter, I show Rupert my article on Jesus Camp in which an American Evangelical woman is quoted declaring, "Harry Potter should be put to death!" I ask him whether the fundamentalist mother played by Laura Linney in Driving Lessons is a rare figure in Britain. "It does exist, but it's not really as big as it is out here," he said. "I'm not religious â€“ I went to a Catholic primary school, there's certainly a few people like Laura's character in there. It is quite a strange sort of world."
On becoming Ben: "Jeremy, because it's sort of about his life, was really good about giving advice and being really clear about what he wanted."
On failing his driving test in real life: "I had an embarrassing amount of lessons and I failed my first test, it was stupid: I was doing a three point turn and I didn't look over my shoulder. I passed my second test last week and now I can drive my Mini Cooper."
On getting into great shouting scenes with Julie Walters: "That was something I'm definitely not used to. Playing Ron, I'm usually just sort of being scared all the time."
On Laura Linney as his movie mom: "Laura's really cool. She's quite scary as my mom. She was quite funny."
Grint is still close to his Potter film mates. Daniel Radcliffe is set to be in a major play on London's West End, and Emily Watson has just passed her exams with straight "A's."
While waiting to shoot the sixth Potter film next summer, Rupert giggles at fan web sites, one saluting him as "the Ice Cream Man," enshrining a long ago childhood ambition into a bit of nutty web buzz. His last word for me is the lovely, "Cheers."