Daniel Radcliffe on starring in afterlife comedy Miracle Workers and answering fans' prayers
God knows we can always use another quirky comedy in our (after)lives. TBS’ new series Miracle Workers (premiering Tuesday at 10:30 p.m.) stars Daniel Radcliffe as Craig, an earnest, grunt-level angel who is tasked with answering prayers — and ultimately with saving the Earth from annihilation by his boss, God, played by… Steve Buscemi. Here, the genre- and medium-hopping actor (and former Harry Potter) opens up about why he’s starring in a TV comedy (hint: it involves a Rich man), what you can expect from this Miracle, and the last prayer that he himself answered from a fan.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re deciding whether to take this role. What are the angel and devil on each shoulder saying?
DANIEL RADCLIFFE: The angel is saying, “Do it! Do it! You’d be crazy if you didn’t do it!” When I got the chance to meet Simon Rich, our show creator, I said, “If you ever do anything with that book [What in God’s Name, on which Miracle Workers is based], I would be involved in any capacity.” I’ve been a fan of Simon’s writing. And the devil was saying the usual mix of anxiety and self-doubt it’s always saying, but the devil was not able to mount any formidable argument on this one.
What surprised you about the afterlife?
It’s highly bureaucratic. Parts of the bureaucracy have been brilliantly, intricately thought-out, like some incredible Rube Goldberg machine, and other parts have just been left completely without any thought or care. Eliza [an angel played by Blockers’ Geraldine Viswanathan] starts off working in the department which receives and sorts all the prayers and sends them to the department of answering prayers. In one of her moments of disillusion in the early episodes, she’s been carefully sorting all these prayers and putting them into specific pneumatic tubes that take them elsewhere, only to find out they all come out in one huge pile at the other end. So it doesn’t matter where you sorted up, it’s all ending up in the same chaotic mess, anyway.
One of the things that I find really fun about the script — and I think that people will find would actually be very disconcerting if it was a reflection of a true afterlife — is how lightly they take everything. We expect that they are agonizing over every detail, but they’ve been sitting up there for tens of thousands of years, and have seen people like us come and go every day, and our problems aren’t even particularly individual or unique a lot of the times. So I suppose that we’re not as important to them as we think we are in this series, where God has decided to open a restaurant.
Right. Lazy Susan’s. How would you describe that establishment?
Here’s the thing. There’s a part that does not sound great. If that restaurant were made to work, to be made hygienically, then it sounds like a great idea. Lazy Susan’s is a theme restaurant that God wants to open that combines two of God’s favorite things, which is delicious food and lazy rivers. So that becomes the thing that God is really focused on, as we are trying to get him back to his original creation — the Earth.
How would you describe Craig’s relationship with the almighty?
I mean, he’s terrified of him first and foremost, because he is God — he is his boss — and despite appearances, there is always an aspect to him that seems kind of mysterious and hidden. Even though you think you’ve got him figured out, he seems to not be very focused and seems pretty carefree, there’s another part of you that’s thinking, “Well, is this all actually a kind of cover and he actually knows exactly what’s going on?” But then most of the time, it transpires that he really doesn’t know what’s going on. I think that’s one of the things that Craig becomes slightly disillusioned with at first. In his head, God has always been very kind of almighty, and initially, it’s a bit of a shock to the system to find that God has gone a little bit off the rails at the beginning of the series.
Craig seems interested in Eliza. Will they or won’t they? Or actually, can you in the afterlife?
I think you definitely can — fall in love — I don’t know what the implications are for anything sort of practical in that sense. I think Craig does have feelings for Eliza, but it is also in part because she’s one of the first people he’s met who’s been nice to him in a very long time. So there’s part of him that is uncertain where the line of this new friendship begins and ends. But the more important thing in this series is not whether they actually get together, it’s the question of whether Craig can get up the courage to see if they can get together. It doesn’t matter to me what her response would be to that, but we all agree that his thing to get over is just asking the question, more than actually being lonely. If I had to guess, I’m pretty sure Eliza is blissfully unaware that Craig has any of these feelings for her.
This afterlife comedy enters an orbit also occupied by The Good Place and Forever. What is it about the afterlife that holds such comedic appeal right now, or would you just describe it as eternal curiosity?
I think there is just something about us that is eternally curious about that. There is something inherently comforting about any story involving the afterlife in any way, because most of us would like there to be something else, even if we don’t believe there is. Also, everybody has an image of it, everybody has a set of expectations about what it will be like and what it involves, so there’s a lot of things that you can go in and upend and turn on their heads, because everybody’s got a pre-conceived idea of what heaven would be. There’s room to have a lot of fun.
Craig is in the business of answering prayers. When was the last time that you, in your own life, prayed for divine intervention?
Oooh! That would be a long, long, long time ago. This is a really sad answer, I’m sorry, but I think the last time I sort of very sincerely believed in God and also had cause to pray was probably when I was about 11 or 12, and one of my dogs had died, so I think I was praying that she would be okay. Sorry, it’s such a heavy answer to your light question. I think I prayed that she would be okay, or that if she had died by then, that she was going to heaven.
What was the last prayer that you answered yourself from a Harry Potter fan?
[Ponders for a few seconds] Oh! I don’t know that they actually prayed about this, but I did recently get to settle, or at least slightly remedy, the relationship between two sisters. I don’t think anything really bad had happened between them, but about 12 years ago, one of this girl’s friends had been backstage at Good Morning America, and I was on doing it that morning, and backstage she caught up with me and was like, “Hey, my friend’s a huge fan, would you speak to her on the phone?” And I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” And she called her friend whose phone was not working, so she called that friend’s sister instead, and that friend’s sister just went, “Oh, this is too early for this, call her, I’m not around,” not realizing that her sister’s phone was broken, and there was no other way of this girl contacting me. So this girl then came to the stage door the other day [at The Lifespan of a Fact], gave me an illustrated pop-up book called — hold on, I’ve got it here — “The Real Life Story of the Time Daniel Radcliffe Tried to Call Me and I Missed It.” And it’s just like this genuinely very charming, funny thing, and she did say at the end of it, “I can now fully forgive my sister for hanging up on you that day, now that I have spoken to you.” So that’s the closest thing I’ve done to doing a good thing for a Harry Potter fan recently. I was blissfully unaware that this big whole thing had transpired.
You healed a rift—
That’s probably overstating it slightly, but yes, I’ll give myself that.
Owen Wilson was originally attached to play God in Miracle Workers. Why the switch? And did the creative direction of the show change, too?
Not particularly, in terms of the creative direction. Obviously things had to be rewritten a little bit — we’re working with a very skilled room of writers who can write for the voice of an actor as well, so it was more about changing things from Owen’s to Steve’s voice. But in terms of the actual character or the story, nothing changed, nothing shifted. I don’t feel like I’m probably qualified to talk about exactly why the change happened, but I cannot put it in strong enough terms how unbelievably lucky we were to get Steve. Obviously, they’re very different actors, but having now done it with Steve, I can’t imagine anyone else. We really landed on our feet there.
Tell us one thing you’ve learned from working with Steve.
Okay, here’s one. You can pronounce his surname either “Boo-shemi” or “Boo-semi.”
He doesn’t mind? He’s fine either way?
I did not know that. I’m just like, “Wait, there must be a way to say it.” And he’s like, “No, either is basically fine.” I was like, “Oh, okay, cool.” One of those arguments in the world is how you pronounce that surname — and everybody’s right. You can just go through the world now, pronouncing it however you like.
Since Potter, you’ve fearlessly disappeared into an interesting variety of roles across all genres, playing Allen Ginsberg, Frankenstein’s assistant Igor, a sentient corpse, a drug-smuggling pilot, and an FBI agent on film, not to mention your theater work. What’s the pattern here — or is the point to subvert any pattern?
Yeah, I think I’m just spraying buckshot wildly. There isn’t really a pattern. [Laughs] It is to just try as much and do as much as I can, and the pattern, if there is one, is more based around doing what I like or will challenge me or working with people that I enjoy, and also just keeping busy. I don’t like to sit around for too long, doing nothing. I’ve been really lucky for years between getting a lot of jobs on film or TV, I’ve been able to keep busy in the theater, which is great. But I am an actor in the rarest of positions, which is, I get a say over what I do in my career, and I don’t have to do things right now for the money, so I can really just do things that I like. So I pretty much have always stuck to that, and it’s proven really fruitful.
Does it come with a little bit of apprehension? Or do you just have a fearlessness and a hunger to jump out of your comfort zone?
I honestly think I get a bit more credit than I may be due for this, but I think most actors try to do as varied a bunch of things as they can. Because we train one thing so hard, it maybe stands out a bit more when you see me playing a corpse [in Swiss Army Man], but that’s how I have the most fun doing my job, is by doing things that I’m like, “Wow, I’ve never done this before.” Swiss Army Man was simultaneously one of the most terrifying experiences in my life, because before we started, I was like, “I don’t know how to play a corpse coming magically back to life.” But discovering that on set with those people was so much fun. So sometimes it’s fun to not quite know what you’re doing, and just work really hard and figure it out as you’re going.
What does Hollywood get wrong about you? What’s the biggest misconception?
I’m not online like I used to when I was first coming out of Potter. I’m sure I can find so many interviews back then when I said, “Oh, I never read stuff online,” and I am lying at that time. I was very much in a dark place looking at internet comments sometimes. When Potter was coming to an end, around that point, I was reading internet comments and reading articles about myself and reviews and stuff all the time, which is a sort of form of weird mental self-harm, that I am not alone in having engaged in as an actor, but I have stopped that now, thank Christ. So I don’t really know what Hollywood says or thinks about me.
You’ve done broad musical comedy with How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and weirder comedy with Swiss Army Man. Miracle Workers, though, is your most significant comedy role to date. Maybe a possible misconception about you is how interested in comedy you are. Was a hit TV comedy ever a goal in the back of your mind?
I grew up watching comedy on TV constantly. This is such an amazing time in American television, it’s such a fragile time in so many ways for independent film, and it’s a very transitional time for all that stuff. So in a way it was lovely to do something with the security of the television network, being like, “No, no, no, they have this money, we’re definitely gonna make it.” Also, I’ve always said, it really doesn’t matter to me; if Simon had phoned me up and said we’re doing a radio play of this book, I’d have been like, “Yeah! I’m in.” The medium doesn’t so much matter. And I do think that may be a freedom that comes with having been in some really big films when I was younger, it’s the sort of potential of “I’ve done that, and it’s amazing, if I get to do it again one day, great, but I also know that it’s not the be-all and end-all of working in this industry.” It’s possible to create great work and have a lot of fun doing it in whatever medium that is. In terms of the comedy stuff, it’s a good point. I feel like I’m so drawn to comedy, and I feel like I’ve done lots of weird, little comedies, I have done a lot on stage, but most people haven’t seen that. Hopefully people get to see me being stupid and funny in this show.