Twenty years on, the intense furor around the casting of Harry Potter himself is sometimes forgotten – a kind of scrutiny usually reserved for a new James Bond. More American actors were linked to Harry, including Jake Lloyd who had already fallen foul of Star Wars fans as young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace.
Ten-year-old actor Liam Aiken – who later appeared in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events – seemed to be the frontrunner at one stage. Rumours about Liam Aiken were so convincing that Rowling called Chris Columbus to ensure that Aiken hadn’t been cast as Harry.
Columbus wanted Daniel Radcliffe for the role from the start, after seeing him in the BBC’s 1999 adaptation of David Copperfield. But Radcliffe’s parents were unsure at first.
After an appeal on BBC’s Newsround, they saw a whopping 40,000 kids. Casting director Susie Figgis reportedly quit over frustrations with Columbus and an American casting director coming onboard to extend the search stateside.
“I feel I have done my absolute best to find a child and during our search we’ve met some great kids,” Figgis told the Daily Mail. “Ultimately, it’s the director’s point of view and vision.”
A source from the production wrote the story off as tabloid hysteria. “This will be a British Harry,” they told ABC News. “Not a single person in this film will be anything other than British.”
Columbus recalled his commitment to a British cast from the start. “Jo Rowling and myself said to each other when we first met, ‘Look, we want this cast to be 100 per cent British,’” Columbus said. “And by the way, I stuck to that.”
When Daniel Radcliffe was eventually cast – joining Rupert Grint as Ron and Emma Watson as Hermione – JK Rowling approved. “Having seen Dan Radcliffe screen test, I don’t think Chris Columbus could have found a better Harry,” she said.
The “Brits only” rule was so steadfast that Columbus turned down major Hollywood stars. Robin Williams – a self-confessed Potter fan – called Columbus and lobbied to play Hagrid. Williams was refused. “There were a couple of parts I would have wanted to play, but there was a ban on American actors,” Williams told The New York Post. “Maybe one day. Say if [Harry] goes to Yale and becomes president.”