Daniel Radcliffe: Master of the Dark Arts
On entering the London studio to meet actor Daniel Radcliffe for today’s shoot — yes, of course we shot him in London, where else? — it starts to dawn on us that this guy is a bit of a legend.
“Hey, nice to meet you! I’m Dan” he says with an extended hand and a look of enthusiasm that for 2pm on a Friday — post another photo shoot — is an admirable first impression.
At 5’5”, his lack of height makes the second shortly after. He’s even more polite and ‘British’ than you would expect. Today should be easy. He is cool, calm and collected but gives off an immediate warmth. Obviously this isn’t his first rodeo, the shoots and interviews over the years have come thick and fast, but you can also see he takes it all with a pinch of salt.
Grounded and certainly over the immediate thrills of fame, at 28 he is already a seasoned professional, much more focused on his work and proving himself post-Potter than chasing tabloid headlines. And he’s done alarmingly well.
“You can take out any swearing as appropriate, by the way,” he exclaims through a smile. His team is organised and efficient, and as they inspect the clothes rail for today, the Esquire Middle East team breathes a sigh of relief as they nod in agreement with our choices. Okay, today is going to be very easy, and maybe even a little fun.
Radcliffe made his acting debut at the tender age of 10 in BBC One’s 1999 television film David Copperfield, followed by his cinematic debut in 2001’s The Tailor of Panama.
What you will of course know him best for is his role in the Harry Potter franchise, in which he plays the titular bespectacled wizard. The film series has been recognised as the box office’s second-highest grossing film franchise (behind Marvel’s cinematic universe that includes The Avengers), according to Forbes.
The eight-film adaptation of the seven-book Harry Potter series has earned $7.7 billion. Behind it, despite 24 movies over the last 56 years, the collected James Bond movies managed only a bronze.
When you consider some of their Nineties peers who have fallen victim to the pitfalls that beset many blessed with fame at an early age — Macaulay Culkin (narcotics, prison) and Saved By The Bell’s Dustin Diamond (explicit videos, stabbiness, prison), spring to mind — Radcliffe and his Potter-era co-stars have apparently kept their heads throughout the maelstrom and emerged on the other side as gleaming, respectable actors.
Although not one for the celebrity games, Radcliffe did make headlines back in 2014 when he performed Blackalicious’ ‘Alphabet Aerobics’ on hit US show The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. “I like a lot of rap, sure, but I’m quite hesitant to talk about it that much, because ever since I did the Jimmy Fallon rap, people have been asking ‘oh you’re a massive hip-hop fan?’ I am, but the thing I know really well is punk and indie; that’s the stuff I grew up listening to and that’s my first go-to.” The clip of course went viral, but Daniel resists bragging about his hip-hop love too much.
“I just don’t want to say I listen to Eminem and be like every other white guy in the world. But yes, I’ve got more into hip-hop in the last few years, but predominantly I have basic white boy hip-hop taste. I do like rap, and I like lyrics.”
His love of music is clear to see, showing even more of his grounded nature, you can tell it has been a friend to him on many a film set. “I am into music big time, I’ll give my friend a shameless plug, Rebecca Lucy Taylor, she’s got her new single out, which is called ‘Your Wife’, but the B-side is called ‘O.M.G.’. I can’t stop listening to it.”
His love of wordplay seems to extend to other areas of his life, such as the stage plays and films he chooses to star in. Radcliffe is actually a published poet — another notch on his intimidating belt — he wrote a series of poems under a pseudonym back in November 2007 for Rubbish magazine, an annual publication with a circulation of 3,000.
“I still write. Less poetry now; I’m working on scripts at the moment as I want to get into directing.” He hints at his next career move, from in front of the camera to behind it, with a look of excitement.
“I don’t want somebody else to give me their script and me to mess it up, as it’s my first job; whereas if I mess up my own work I’ll feel less guilty about that.” He laughs. A true Jack of all trades, he’s also an avid sports fan.
“I do love cricket but I don’t play it. My hand-eye coordination for ball sports is pretty appalling.” Like so many expats before him, living in the US has turned him into a massive American football fan. “I love the NFL; that’s become my biggest thing in the last few years, it’s my obsession. Sunday is all about doing everything you’ve got to do until 5pm and then I park myself in front of the sofa and just watch seven hours of American football; it’s great.” We feel you, brother.
Throughout the interview and shoot, it is increasingly obvious that the star, unveiled as eighth on The Sunday Times Rich List in the under-30 category with reported earnings of Dhs395 million, is unusually grounded. “I am not clever with my money but I have people in my life who are, thankfully, so it’s not just sitting there… I mean, I don’t know what to do with it!” laughs the young millionaire.
“I was incredibly lucky to fall into a career, and a role, where I got paid very well. I’m almost embarrassed by it, I don’t drive really so the flash car thing never happened for me. The real thing money does for me is let me not have to worry about it, which is such a massive thing for people in their lives.”
He says this with a sincerity that is refreshing to hear. It seems Radcliffe’s only real luxury is his travelling habits. “If there was one thing people would be, like ‘wow, you spend loads on that’, it would be air travel. Aside from that, I don’t think anything I do could even be considered extravagant.”
Radcliffe’s recent portrayal of Yossi Ghinsberg in Jungle released last year, directed by Greg McLean and filmed in both Australia and The Amazon, shows a very different side to this talented actor’s skillset.
The story is of a mysterious guide who escorts an enthusiastic adventurer and his friend into the Amazon jungle. Their journey turns into a terrifying ordeal as the deadliest threats of the wild force them to fight for survival.
An edge-of-your-seat film that is as difficult as it is thrilling to watch. How did the actor feel about telling such an emotive story that is based on a real life when he is so used to playing fictitious characters? “It wasn’t intimidating, it’s just that feeling of ‘we’ve got to get this right’.”
Having been burnt before by the retelling of a real-life event (2015’s The Gamechangers), it was important for him to get this right. “I did a TV film a few years ago for the BBC and I learnt a very valuable lesson from it, which is: it’s really hard to do a true story if you don’t have the permission of the people whose story it is. We made a film about Grand Theft Auto and the guys from Rockstar Games, the guys who created it, and I still think it’s really good. It’s well-made and well written but the Rockstar guys hated it and said it was so far from reality.”
You can hear how this made him aware that telling this story properly was so important. “I was actually more concerned about Kevin, one of the other characters. It was very much Yossi’s experiences as the script is so heavily based on his book, but Kevin also had a life-changing experience in the jungle, so you worry about if he’s going to be happy with it.”
The film is dark, a realistic take on a worst-nightmare situation and is a hard watch at times. “We took stuff out that was too dark; we’ve pulled back on things if they are too gross.” Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t watched it: in one scene Radcliffe reenacts Yossi cutting out a bug that is buried inside of him, although even this was a diluted version of the harsh truth.
“In reality, there were about 20 of them that he had to get out of himself; he was literally crawling with bugs.” The telling of such an emotive story always has to be handled carefully, and Radcliffe and the whole team always kept this in mind.
“This is not a funny thing that I’m about to describe, what happened to Yossi is not funny at all,” he says sternly. “But he got a stick stuck up his butt — he fell onto it and it went inside him. We thought, ‘how can we show that without it being comical?’ If you have someone reaching back there trying to get it, it’s hard to portray the horror of that situation.”
Yossi was actually on set most of the time, which Radcliffe really valued. “He helped the whole process a lot, it’s his right to be pedantic about it, but he never said ‘do it like that’ or ‘that didn’t happen’, he would say ‘yeah that looks great’ — he was really supportive of what we were doing.” The actor also used Yossi’s presence to help create a more realistic scene, often asking for guidance on how things played out.
Aware of how filming such a desolate, desperate film while staying in luxurious hotels would go against everything he was trying to create with the character, he kept things pretty basic with regards to his lifestyle and diet while filming.
“The thing I don’t want to do is complain. I don’t want to be, like, ‘Oh, shooting that scene was really hard’, or ‘I had to do this, because he actually lived it’.” The actor continues “Nobody asked me to lose weight for the film, at all. I would feel like I’m making my job harder if I’m doing this role during the day and then going home and eating a massive meal at night and just living really comfortably in five-star hotels.”
Fake news reared its ugly head when a story broke of Radcliffe eating nothing but an egg a day to prepare his body for the role. He laughs at the suggestion with an eye roll. “I lived off one fillet of fish or a chicken breast and a protein bar, that’s what I had every day. Where they got an egg from, I have no idea.”
The touchy subject of food was something he did worry about while filming, thinking he would have to eat a live snail for one scene. “Greg, our director, kept me thinking that I was going to have to eat a snail, and whenever he said it to me I was like, yeah, okay, I’ve got to be a committed actor, I’ve got to do it… Then, a day or so before we were supposed to shoot the scene, I heard that they were SFX snails. Fake snails. I was like, ‘Oh, fantastic, I was ready to do it but I was also so ready to not do it’.”
Jokes aside, Radcliffe knew this role would test him, and he didn’t agree to it lightly. It was approached with his usual level of professionalism and focus.
“When I read the script, I thought ‘this needs to be a hard shoot, to do it right, it shouldn’t be comfortable’.” He recalls his mindset when filming such a role. “There is something quite bonding about filming like that — you’re all out there together and lugging around big backpacks and killing mosquitoes all day, and it was really good fun.”
He speaks with a fondness of the filming that contradicts the nature of the role and the conditions he worked in. A lot of this seems to be down to the crew, in particular his co-star Thomas Kretschmann, the German actor who plays the guide Karl in the movie.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with Thomas. I have rarely had so much fun on set with another actor, but he’s also slightly mad,” he says through a half smile, half frown. “Having someone like that on set is often really helpful because they keep the energy up and you never get to relax or have a boring day with Thomas around.”
From one intense story — a million miles from the role he built his name on — to another, even more eccentric, conceptual thriller, Beast of Burden, directed by Jesper Ganslandt and set for release later this year.
Radcliffe plays Sean Haggerty, who only has one hour to deliver his illegal cargo, while reassuring a drug cartel, a hitman, and the DEA that nothing is wrong and making sure his wife survives. And he must do it all from the cockpit of his Cessna plane.
“A lot of what attracted me to this role was the simplicity of the story. There was something really great about this guy trying to get from A to B and everything in between is trying to stop him from doing that.” Radcliffe tries to explain the unusual method the director employed.
“Most of the film was set in the cockpit of a plane. It’s an interesting challenge, just to do something that is so intense and new in the way it’s filmed. When the script came to me, the director Jesper Ganslandt was already attached. I watched one of his movies and it was interesting, because what I had in front of me was a quite traditional thriller and then I watched Jesper’s movie, and thought ‘this guy likes to get dark and weird and disturbing and very intense’ and I was knew it would be an amazing film.”
It seems Jesper was a huge part of Radcliffe’s decision to take the role. His unusual approach — one of his biggest films to-date was created with the actor wearing an earpiece and being directed live while filming — made the actor excited to work with him.
“We recreated a raw element with this film — he would be able to just push a button and create turbulence on the plane. We shot the whole thing in 16 days and he said to me before we started, ‘How good are you at learning lines?’, and I thought, ‘I think I’m fine, but a director has never asked me that before. So how good do I have to be?’”
The unusual method and intense filming schedule kept Radcliffe engaged: setting up the camera in one position, shooting 20 pages of dialogue, repeating it three times, then moving camera and doing it all over again, was a strange way of shooting. “Jesper would come on the radio and interrupt me or screw with me while I was trying to do lines and I think it created something really interesting”, the actor continues. “I hope we’ve made a really interesting arthouse thriller. That was the pitch originally and I think that’s what we’ve done.”
The actor’s eclectic back-catalogue proves he likes a challenge, and he was happy to put his trust in this unique style of filming. “Sometimes, ultimately you have to take a leap with the director. But that can be really rewarding, some of the biggest, some of the best things I’ve done in my career were through taking that jump through the director and saying, ‘I believe you know how to make this movie’.”
The actor speaks very fondly of his co-stars, and he seems to have a real appreciation for their skill and commitment. “Grace Gummer is in this film with me and she’s amazing. Her character was on the phone a lot, so she had, like, six days of doing off-camera lines for me and then two insane days where they filmed all of her stuff in one go, and she was amazing.”
But is the star’s relationship with and admiration for his Potter alumni as strong? “It’s a tricky one. There is a common bond between me, Rupert [Grint] and Emma [Watson] that will never go away, and that’s lovely. We will always meet and be excited to see one another. But I would be lying to you if I said, ‘Yeah, we hang out all the time.”
He says this with a touch of weariness, almost not wanting to shatter the fan illusion they are all best friends. “I hate saying that; I feel like there is a want for us to be best friends, but we are all off and busy and in far-flung corners of the world… but as I said, if we see each other we would be friendly and excited to see each other, we just aren’t in each other’s orbit anymore.”
Nonetheless, Radcliffe seems to have a brotherly love for all of his past co-stars. “I’m rooting for everybody who was in Potter. The one that’s criminal is Alfie Enoch — he has done so brilliantly since Potter, yet I don’t think he had a line in 10 years on the entire franchise.”
His tone begins to sound exasperated. “He was this great actor who was there for 10 years, never complained, delightful to have around, and you look back and think, ‘Shouldn’t we have used him a bit more?’” Half smiling, half outraged, he continues. “Alfie, Matt Lewis, obviously Rupert, and Tom, all those guys, I get really excited about seeing all their new projects.”
Meanwhile, Radcliffe’s own professional thirst now seems to be for roles that are more challenging, more varied. From playing a corpse in the bonkers, but oddly uplifting, Swiss Army Man to infiltrating a radical white supremacist group in Imperium, these aren’t the cookie-cutter roles any great actor could just coast through.
So how do wannabe directors get their script under Radcliffe’s nose? His screening process is strict. It has to be. “It’s agent first. My agent and my dad first.” Dan’s dad used to be a literary agent, so it’s an opinion he can really trust.
“After that the process is really just instinct. I always ask, ‘Do I like the script? Do I like the part? Have I done something like this before?’ It’s the sense of doing something that’s totally different, that’s really exciting me at the moment. Ultimately, though, it comes down to, ‘Do I think this is going to be a good film? Or, do I think this could be a good film? And, do I think I’ll have fun doing it?’. Anything other than that is sort of irrelevant now. I used to think, ‘Do I think this film will be successful?’. That’s the question I stopped asking.”
Success, he has seen countless times already, but roles that really take him out of his comfort zone seem to be the flavour of the moment. “When I first came out of Potter, I felt had to prove myself,” he admits. “I have that less now. I think I’ll always have that a bit, which isn’t a bad thing –it keeps you on your toes and keeps you motivated.” And it’s this motivation that has kept the actor in work.
The haters and critics that tried to pin the child-star tag on him have been silenced. “Proving the people who thought I would do nothing after Potter wrong is a motivating force. If I and my co-stars can come out of Potter, which was at the time the biggest franchise in the world, and go on to have careers, that child-star thing is now null and void.”
His famous role in Equus on Broadway, back in 2008, required a full-frontal naked scene, Beast of Burden required an intense two weeks’ filming schedule.
Is there anything that would get an instant ‘no’ from Radcliffe? Is anything off limits? “Every role and script is a possibility if it’s good enough, well-written enough. I don’t think there is anything that I would immediately dismiss.”
A smile creeps over his face as he remembers one occasion where an immediate ‘no’ was necessary. “I was once asked to do a remake of The Wizard of Oz, casting me and Rupert as the lion and scarecrow and Emma as Dorothy, and you think, ‘That’s a bit on the nose, isn’t it?”
His quest for these interesting, difficult roles has led him to question what he’s yet to tackle, what’s still on the list. “I’ve never played the role of a horrible, angry, violent psychopath who does terrible things to people, but I got offered something like that recently and it’s really good.”
Like many great movie actors before him, Radcliffe also boasts an impressive theatre resumé. Making his stage debut as the guest star in The Play What I Wrote, a celebration of legendary British comedy duo Morecambe and Wise, directed by his Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets co-star Kenneth Branagh.
“I will always remember on the second film when there was a scene where me and Rupert couldn’t stop laughing, and we were getting in trouble for it. Ken did not help at all, just kept setting us off. But really, Ken, almost single-handedly started my stage career,” he states in a matter-of-fact tone.
Radcliffe’s love affair with the stage shows little sign of waning, as he sees it as a challenge. “I feel at home when I’m on a film set, I feel incredibly comfortable there. I think theatre makes me a better actor and it makes me sharp, and there is no relaxing on stage. I hope that I will mix them for my entire career, but there will always be an emphasis on film and TV, I think.”
As you’d expect, he approaches his theatre work with the same tenacity as he does his films. “With theatre, like everything else, if you go in and you show that you’re serious about it, people will respect you.”
A London boy through and through, he still considers it his home, but is fortunate to spend a lot of time in New York, with his American actress girlfriend Erin Darke, whom he met on the set of Kill Your Darlings back in 2012.
“My girlfriend is in New York. I enjoy that city, I have a certain nomadic existence, the hotel aspect of work that most people hate, but I love it. I think there has a lot to do with when I was a kid, as it feels like a second home.”
The long-distance relationship does have its challenges but Radcliffe is aware he can’t complain about it — it’s rare they go more than a few weeks without seeing each other. “Thank goodness for FaceTime and Skype and all those things. I don’t want to be a long-distance relationships forever — you are always either missing them or can’t wait to see them. I have friends who have been in shorter relationships who say I need a break. We haven’t got that yet,” he grins.
The future looks bright for Daniel Radcliffe, the scripts and opportunities continue to keep on coming. “I want to keep working, I’m in amazing position: because of my past films, I can pick stuff I love, and stuff I want to do. I want to stick to that and do work that makes me happy and I enjoy making… down the road definitely direct and write.” It appears the next challenge and project is never too far away — sitting on his millions, leisurely talking about past film roles, is not really his style.
Daniel Radcliffe is all grown up. He has become a man that we not only want to see at the cinema, but one that we’d quite happily hang out with.
He’s managed to maintain a sense of grounded maturity through a childhood of limelight and fandom that would mess most men up for good. He seems so aware of fame, its fickle nature, and makes sure it in no way defines him. If he keeps up the level of film roles he has so far obtained, this child star, now just ‘star’, will soon be added to the hall of greats.
A well-deserved place indeed.