Tony Awards 2018: Noma Dumezweni Breaks Stereotypes in ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ (Exclusive)

Harry Potter
Manuel Harlan

The actress realizes she’s a “lightning rod” for conversations, but is happy to see a new generation of fans challenge their own preconceived notions about who the character is.

Noma Dumezweni, nominated for playing Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II, is one of ET’s Standout Performances on Broadway.

Noma Dumezweni’s favorite magic trick to perform in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II on Broadway is the one she’s most worried about.

“Every night, I still go, ‘Have I done it right?’” she admits to ET about one of the play’s many illusions -- without revealing the exact one, in order to “keep the secrets” about what happens onstage at the Lyric Theatre. “It’s the kind of choreography you have to trust with your fellow actors. What you're seeing in the play is real magic in front of you, and that's what I love. I don't need to explain to you how the magic is done; you just need to look right in front of your eyes.”

As Hermione Granger, Dumezweni, 49, is making her Broadway debut in the original two-part play written by Jack Thorne and conceived with J.K. Rowling and director John Tiffany. A transfer from London’s West End, where the show premiered -- she is one of six principal actors to come with it -- the production cost a reported $68.5 million and took 15 weeks of rehearsal to mount in New York City. (“Yes, we needed it,” she quips about the preparation -- and after seeing the show, you will understand why.) After opening to rave reviews and fandom, the play is now nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including one for the English actress for Best Featured Actress in a Play.

“It's a weird thing. I don't know how to describe it,” Dumezweni says, trying to explain how she feels about being recognized for such a prestigious award. “It's like a lovely, shiny bouquet.” It’s a “beautiful bonus” for the actress who just wants to put the work in and tell the story of what happens to the boy who lived and his friends 19 years after the final chapter in the Harry Potter series. “I love that there is heart and you feel something for these characters by the end of this whole experience.”

Born in Swaziland to South African parents who had fled the apartheid regime, Dumezweni moved around Africa before landing at a seaside town outside of London. Only 7 years old, she was a refugee, going to a school where she and her sister were among the only four kids of color out of 1,500 students.

“I remember those feelings of anxiety, like ‘I’m not the prettiest at all.’ You try and make yourself small because you don't want to make people feel uncomfortable,” she recalls of her childhood. On Saturday mornings, she would watch old movie musicals like On the Town with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly and idolize Hollywood’s golden age icons. She recalls Ann Miller’s tap routine in Kiss Me, Kate and all the glamorous Follies girls. Back then, she wished she could be Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis or Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

It was theater, she says, that kept her going through school before moving to London, where she auditioned for drama school twice but didn’t get in. She earned a living working in cafes, as a receptionist and at a PR company. Eventually, though, Dumezweni found her place on the London stage, becoming a well-respected Shakespearean actress and winning her first Laurence Olivier award -- the English equivalent to a Tony Award -- for a 2006 production of A Raisin in the Sun. (Her second would come for playing Hermione in 2017.)

It was a prior acting project at the Royal Court Theatre in the U.K. that first connected Dumezweni to Thorne and choreographer Steven Hoggett. When The Cursed Child came along, they asked her to participate in a workshop without telling her what it was for. It was so secretive, she could only read the script in producer Sonia Friedman’s office. “Shut up! It's Harry Potter? What the f*ck?” Dumezweni recalls thinking when she finally learned what the project was.

In December 2015, it was announced that she was going to play Hermione in the play -- the first time a black woman had portrayed the character, originated onscreen by Emma Watson for the film franchise. There was intense reaction to the news, but Rowling gave the casting her seal of approval and clarified that the only thing canon about the character was that she has “brown eyes, frizzy hair and [is] very clever.” Race was never specifically defined.

“What I've realized when the news of me playing Hermione came out is I'm a lightning rod for conversations,” Dumezweni explains of people’s perception of a woman of color portraying the character. At the stage door, however, she gets the biggest compliment when fans come up to her to say, “Thank you. This is the Hermione I read in the books.”

“What's exciting for the younger generation is that there are conversations going on amongst themselves and they're challenging each other, and I want to be part of that, going, ‘Yay! I'm here cheerleading you on!’” she continues. “The closest I can get to that at the moment is being Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

While there are seven books of source material, which she and the cast all studied, Dumezweni recalls Rowling telling her, when they offered her the part, “I want you to do it and it will bring something else, which is all with you right there in the books.” For the actress, what resonated most was Hermione’s interest in fairness and justice. “A specificity to Hermione is all in the books,” she says. But she was able to connect with the character on another level -- as a grown woman and a mother -- that’s new to the story. In the show, Hermione is now married to Ron Weasley and the two have a child together. “There’s a world there.”

Ultimately, she and the production got Rowling’s blessing. The author, who was at the first preview in London, was in awe after seeing it. “She was in awe of the world that had been created,” Dumezweni recalls.

Now two months into performances on Broadway -- and nearly two years into playing Hermione onstage -- Dumezweni is not afraid to admit it’s still hard. Three times a week, both plays -- running two and a half hours each -- are performed on the same day with a dinner break in between. Everyone “is working their tits off,” she says. But it’s those days she finds thrilling. “There is something about the continuation of a story,” she says, that gives her the stamina to keep going during long days. “It's the epic storytelling. The same audience is coming back, so they've gotten to know each other by the break and they're sharing that electricity.”

With seven more months left on her contract for the current run, Dumezweni hasn’t been able to think about too many outside projects. However, she’s managed to squeeze in a few screen roles. She’s set to appear on Netflix and BBC’s eight-part political thriller Black Earth Rising, starring John Goodman and Michaela Coel, as well as Mary Poppins Returns with Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who sent a note congratulating her on her Tony nomination. “I had a couple of scenes in that, which is such a joy to be part of,” she teases.

Ultimately, the opportunity to be in The Cursed Child has allowed her to not to feel limited in what she does or who she works with. “If you meet the right people to work with, make the choices about the people that we want to experiment with and play with in the rehearsal room, you never know where it's going to lead,” Dumezweni says, calling the play “the greatest gift.”

“Once I've put my foot on stage for the scene that I am in, and play with my fellow actors, I'm happy. I'm absolutely happy.”

The 2018 Tony Awards hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles will be handed out live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.