As his new Harry Potter film hits the multiplex, Daniel Radcliffe talks to EW.com about growing up on screen, why he lacks ''cool,'' and getting naked on stage
When he first got cast as Harry Potter seven years ago, at age 11, Daniel Radcliffe was about the same height as his costars. Not any more. ”They’re all taller than me now, which is annoying,” he says with a grin on the set of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — the fifth film in the series. So does he have to stand on boxes or something? ”Well, I could. But I’m going to have a very complex series of trenches dug. That way all my castmates can walk in them when they’re doing a scene with me.”
He’s joking, of course — part of his surprisingly impish sense of humor. (To see it in full flower, check out Radcliffe in the guest spot he did on Ricky Gervais’ Extras). When it comes to acting, however, Radcliffe is a very serious, ambitious young man. In the course of two separate extended chats — one in September 2006 and another in May 2007 during his ballyhooed run in a stage revival of the drama Equus — EW got Radcliffe’s takes on all sorts of life and career issues, from his own schooling to the challenges of appearing nude onstage to why he thinks Harry Potter is a little bit like Jesus.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re five-sevenths of the way toward journeying from childhood to adulthood onscreen. It’s like the whole world gets to see your home movies.
DANIEL RADCLIFFE: I saw a bunch of continuity photos from the first film recently. I looked at all of us, and it was quite incredible. We’ve changed so much, it’s unreal.
Is it hard to watch yourself in the Potter films?
I was 11 [when I started]. And I’m not going to look back on it and say I’m not proud of it, ’cause I am. But it’s like seeing baby photos of yourself. It’s always a bit embarrassing.
In all of movie history, the only other comparable arc that comes to mind is Jean-Pierre Léaud. He played an adolescent named Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s autobiographical film The 400 Blows, and then starred in several more movies as a grown-up Doinel over the next 20 years. Have you seen those?
The only one I’ve seen is The 400 Blows. Funny enough, I was asked to see that by Alfonso Cuarón, when he directed the third Harry Potter film. As a reference for Harry and his angst.
You’ll probably be 19 or 20 by the time you finish playing Harry as a 17-year-old in the seventh and final movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Do you think that age difference matters?
What was the thing Luke Perry was in?
Oh — you mean Beverly Hills 90210.
Wasn’t he in his late 20s playing a 19-year-old? And people come up to me and say, ‘Do you not think you’re getting too old for the part?’ It’s lunacy. It always makes me crazy. Most actors don’t play their exact age. The perfect example was Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. At the beginning of the film, he’s too old to play that young. Well, not too old, but he’s older than his character. At the end of the film, he’s younger than his character. And he plays it the whole way. He doesn’t get asked these questions!
You’ve played an orphan in the Potter series and the upcoming film December Boys, and now a troubled only child in Equus.
And an orphan in David Copperfield [a British TV production] as well.
Yes, of course. Do you think being an only child yourself helps you play these isolated characters?
I have thought about it. I’ve got a good and very accurate imagination, so I find it easy to put myself in someone else’s shoes. Also I’m very, very sensitive to things around me. If I listen to a piece of music and it really strikes me, it will send me these images. I can then use them when it comes to playing a scene. When you begin acting quite young, you’re having to make up a lot of experiences you haven’t actually had yet. And so you find ways of doing that. Also, a couple of the people I’ve worked with have said I’ve got a sort of haunted look about me. Which I think is just to do with my eyes, ’cause they’re sort of quite big.
Who said you look haunted?
[Director] Chris Columbus, actually. On the first [Potter] film he said it. He said, I know Dan is only 10 or 11, and he’s obviously had a very happy life. But there is something very haunted about him, about the way he looks. [Laughs] Which I took rather as a compliment.
NEXT PAGE: ”Harry Potter’s like Jesus…[Pauses] Oh, God! No, okay, no, um…. [Laughs nervously] God, that’s a real Beatles moment, isn’t it?”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you ever think, early on, that you’d ride out the entire seven-movie cycle?
DANIEL RADCLIFFE: I was never sure I was going to do any of the [later] films, other than signing on for the first and second. After that, it was always going to be: We’ll take it one film at a time.
Now you’re indelibly connected to the character of Harry. What’s it been like becoming so famous, and being the object of so much attention from fans around the world?
It is a very odd thing. People assume that a modern celebrity is always gonna be very cool. And I’m just not. I’m not a particularly cool person. I don’t have any urge to be cool, because I find people who are cool in that sort of posey way incredibly dull. I don’t want to be like that. So, I always get very worried when I meet people. I’m scared I’m going to disillusion them. They’re probably expecting some person in shades with a huge car.
It amazes me how you’ve been embraced in so many different movie markets around the world, and of course you always look the same. In the books, illustrators in different countries have all had different ideas of how Harry looks, don’t they?
It’s interesting. Harry Potter’s like Jesus in that way. [Pauses] Oh, God! No, okay, no, um…. [Laughs nervously] God, that’s a real Beatles moment, isn’t it? My point is that Jesus is different in different countries. Like when Christianity was trying to be spread in Africa, all the depictions of Jesus were as a black man. In England, he’s a white man, and that’s how everyone views him. Of course, he wasn’t. He was from the Middle East, he was from Israel, y’know, and would’ve looked Israeli. And so, it adjusts. The same does happen, I think the world over, for Harry Potter. He does change his appearance from country to country. Obviously he’s always going to have the black hair, the scar, the glasses. But each country makes that its own.
Well, you’re such a modest fellow, you immediately blanched at having compared Harry Potter to Jesus. But the comparison is apt. Harry is treated like a messianic figure in the books, and part of what the narrative’s about is Harry coping with the exalted way other people see him.
To me, the books are mainly about a loss of innocence. He is on a mission in some way, and he is striving to do good. But he feels his goodness being taken away from him, as he becomes more like Voldemort.
Harry also loses every guardian he gets, which is part of that classic journey toward casting off adult authority figures and becoming your own, self-sufficient person.
I think Harry realizes he’s [ultimately] going to be on his own from about the third film in.
You had a new director on Order of the Phoenix, David Yates. What’s he like?
He’s very quiet. You’ll have to move this [the tape recorder] a little closer to him, I think. And he’s very docile. But he’s got this incredibly filmic imagination. He knows exactly what he wants out of every scene.
I’ve heard from the Phoenix crew that you really loved hanging out with Gary Oldman, who’s back playing Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather.
Gary Oldman gave me a great piece of advice once about acting. Which was, ”Don’t be afraid to use your own emotions and your own sadnesses.” Because even if you’re using your own thoughts, you’ve got the glasses on. You’ve got the scar on. People will see Harry. They’ll see Harry being sad, rather than Dan acting Harry being sad. I think that’s a very, very good observation.
You quite admire Gary, don’t you?
I think he’s the finest actor of his generation, really. He’ll hate me saying that.
Get out! Why?
I know I certainly don’t feel completely comfortable when people are complimenting me. I don’t know if he does, I’m not sure. But I’d hate it if somebody said that about me. I’m just crap at taking compliments. I sort of stand there and look at the floor.
Evanna Lynch plays a new character in Phoenix, Luna Lovegood. She’s never acted before this, of course, and she talked to me about how weird it was meeting you in person having watched you so many times onscreen in the movies.
She’s a huge fan. But she got on set and knew her lines, and she was really focused. It was bizarre because I sort of had to watch my mouth around her. If I’d ever say something about Potter that was sort of incorrect, she would leap on it.
Oh, any sort of little detail about something, like, maybe if we were talking about family trees, who was in the Sirius Black family tree or something like that. If I said something wrong or I got a name wrong, she would hone in on it, because she knows it all.
A lot of people go a bit crazy when they see their favorite actors.
At the premieres it does get a bit mad and scary. I don’t think that’s cause of me particularly. It’s because of Harry Potter. The whole thing is so massive that people lose sight of things slightly, when they’re confronted by an actual person who is in one of the films.
NEXT PAGE: ”I’d be like, ‘Ready now? Is this where I take them off?”’
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Taking a stage role in Equus was a great step toward breaking away from the Potter movies. How did that come about?
DANIEL RADCLIFFE: Originally Ken Branagh had asked me. We sort of were very keen to get together and do something.
You met him through doing the second Potter film, Chamber of Secrets, right? Where he played Gilderoy Lockhart, the vain Defense Against the Dark Arts professor.
Yes. That was how that sort of evolved. He’s always looked out for me. What’s amazed me is that he’s never actually had a responsibility towards me, but he’s sort of always seemed to feel that he does have a responsibility towards me…I mean, he was always trying to work out these plays. At one point we were going to do The Browning Version, by Terence Rattigan. Ken also got me into his play, The Play What I Wrote, as a guest star. I think I did three performances of that, in London. So he was always very, very kind.
And then you were going to do Equus with him directing?
We got together, me and a number of other actors, and Ken Branagh as director, to do a two-day workshop, at the end of which time we would put on a sort of ramshackle little performance for [Equus author] Peter Shaffer, to see if he would sort of give the rights. Then it eventually happened that Ken was no longer going to direct it, and it became Thea Sharrock, who was artistic director at the Gate Theatre. She’s done just an obscene amount of work for a 29-year-old, it’s incredible.
What was it like acting onstage with live audiences of strangers, instead of just on a set with cast and crew that know you?
There are a lot of people coming to Equus who are coming to the theatre for the first time, which is great. But some people don’t know how to behave. One night a kid sat there in the front row, about 12 years old. Texting, whole way through the play. Put it away and watch! Slightly ironic, considering the play is about alienation.
Do some people come expecting a Potter-ish affair and wind up shocked by the play, which is quite serious and adult?
Some audiences react in inappropriate ways. We’ve had a couple of very odd laughs. After a certain point, there’s nothing funny about the action. And a couple of people have laughed. And I’ve thought, If you’re laughing now, you’re not seeing where this is going. Not to tar a whole audience with that brush, but when there are a couple of them laughing, you just think, Really?
But sometimes people laugh out of discomfort.
That is very true. And I’m sure we’ve had a bit of that in this play! [Laughs] We did have one night where [my costar] Richard Griffiths’ agent, Simon — he’s just a lovely man — he was sitting next to six or seven born-again Christians, who were there the whole time just absolutely terrified. Just didn’t know what to think, which I found very funny.
The publicity photos for the play were extremely provocative, and spread all over the Internet as soon as they were released. What was it like shooting them?
I remember being a little bit hyper that day. At that point, we’d just done the nude scene in rehearsals [for the first time]. And I was basically wanting to get my kit off as much as I possibly could, to try and get used to the idea, and in front of as many strangers as I could. I’d be like, ”Ready now? Is this where I take them off?” And they’d be like, ”Dan! Hold back! Wait! Just give us 10 minutes, please!”
Does seeing a live audience out there staring at you ever feel unnerving?
The actors can’t really see anybody in the audience at the theatre. When you’ve got very, very bright lights aimed at you, everything beyond them is dark. And the show is all cross-lit. Richard [Griffiths] would often say, ”Well, there might have been other people on stage tonight, but I wouldn’t know if I couldn’t hear them.” Almost all of his scenes are played across the stage, and so he just sits there not really being able to see the person he’s talking to. Richard is the best actor around in terms of listening…. He listens for any sort of sound, any bit of communication. He’s amazing. If you change the way you say a line, he will instantly pick up on that, and run with it. Having been on stage with him, I can do the same now, in that if he changes something, I can just change the way I do it, the next time. That’s the main thing I’ve learnt from Equus, I’d say, is how to listen onstage, and how to just wait, give yourself time, and think before you say the line.
NEXT PAGE: ”And I was like, Why, why? Why now? The one night that Jo is here!”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was it ever weird thinking about having all these people in the audience see you naked, your friends, your costars, your parents?
DANIEL RADCLIFFE: Having my parents see me [naked] was never a problem. They’ve always been completely supportive. They don’t really care that I’m naked onstage, I don’t think. But yeah, it was a lot.
How did you gauge if an audience was ”getting” the show?
Onstage, you hear everything coming from the audience. And the moment you know you’ve got their attention is when all the coughing stops. Even more so when they keep trying to save their coughs to the end of a scene. You think, Ah, right, well they’re obviously into it.
Some nights, especially when you’d done both a matinee and evening show the same day, I understand you weren’t able to come out the stage-door entrance to sign autographs for fans. And there were a lot of fans outside that door each night.
[Appears stricken] I know. The thing about that is, some of those people are real, genuine fans who I do feel a bit gutted I can’t go out and say hello to. [But if] I have done two shows that day, by that time I’m pretty exhausted. And the really annoying thing is the amount of autograph hunters out there who will instantly sell them. They make up a huge amount of the people that wait there. I can’t stand them, ’cause they’re so aggressive, and just foul-mouthed with everybody.
Is it hard to separate the fans from the signature-sellers when that stage door opens? What does that moment when you emerge feel like?
It is a bizarre thing. There’s always a bit of a moment of mini-panic. It’s like a premiere, but on a tiny scale. You go, All right. And suddenly everyone starts shouting and you have to get your pen out and start signing. [Laughs] You just sort of talk yourself through it to calm down a bit. I’m quite used to that sort of thing now, I suppose. But the autograph hunters are so rude to people that I actually try not to sign for them whenever I can. I did say to this one guy the other day, ”Look, I signed for you, it has to be, 20 times by now. I’m really sorry, I’m not doing it again. And they’re always blank pieces of paper. They just go and sell them. And you think, Why would I bother with you when I can sign for somebody else? They haven’t seen the show. They’re just hanging around the stage door! I just don’t think it’s right.
Have you spoken to Jo Rowling lately?
I went out to dinner with her when she came and saw Equus. She loved it. I knew she was coming, and I did get a little bit nervous, actually. She wants us all to do really, really well for ourselves, in whatever ways we want to, and so I wanted to prove that I was doing well. So I was very nervous when Jo came in. But she loved it. Except, it was the one night that someone at the end threw a stuffed owl at the stage, a little cuddly Harry Potter toy owl at the stage. And I was like, Why, why? Why now? The one night that Jo is here! But there was actually a very sweet message [attached to the owl].
Did you feel nervous going from film, where you only need to be ”on” for like a minute at a time, to stage, where a mood has to be sustained for a couple of hours, in real time?
There’s been a real spate recently of a lot of actors from film doing stage work and actually not — I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing people, but not putting the work in. Thinking that they can walk from film to stage and have it work. It is a completely different discipline. They come unstuck, because they haven’t done all the vocal stuff you really, really need, ’cause you can’t do it otherwise. You’ll either not be heard, or you will lose your voice.
You’ve got no plans to go on to university, at least not now. Why?
I think for a lot of people, university is about discovering what they want to do. I sort of know what I want to do. My two main goals now are to act and to keep writing. The whole time I was at university, I would be thinking, God, I could be working on something now.