Interview: Daniel Radcliffe

Photos by Morgan White

Daniel Radcliffe at the Toronto premiere of The Woman in Black
Daniel Radcliffe at the Toronto premiere of The Woman in Black

Much to the dismay of tween girls and fake plastic glasses manufacturers everywhere, the Harry Potter film franchise is officially over. However, for the child stars we watched grow up on screen through a decade of witchcraft and wizardry, their career is really just beginning. Case in point would be Daniel Radcliffe, the then untrained 11 year-old when he landed the iconic role is now a 23-year-old international movie star trying to launch an acting career unburdened by his one-Potter-per-year schedule. Radcliffe popped up for a few interesting non-boy-wizard roles over the years like a filthy-minded condom-slinging version of himself on Ricky Gervais’ Extras and a horse-loving fool in a stage production of Equus.

However, it’s this week’s chilly British ghost story The Woman in Black that will be Radcliffe’s first major test as a solo star. He plays a suffering father (I know that’s weird, but he’s older now so we have to get used to the idea) who must travel to an isolated haunted mansion like so many unfortunate morons in horror movies before him. The Hammer Horror revival is a pleasingly dark romp packed with jump scares that presents a more mature and magical-free version of Radcliffe for a new audience. Dork Shelf got a chance to catch up with the actor during a press appearance in Toronto and found out all about the new movie, his future plans, and his recent experience hosting SNL.

After Harry Potter you must have been offered many roles, what drew you to this one?

The main thing about this film was the story. It was so compelling that I wanted to be a part of it. It was that simple. Obviously the part was really interesting and when I met James (Watkins, the director) that became an incentive as well. And also because of those little art house movies I made, people would be going in specifically to try and see bits of Harry in the performance. I thought with a film like this, which has an incredibly strong story, after the first ten minutes they would forget about what they came in there to try and see.

Did you find that doing Equus was your first way of breaking free from the baggage of Potter?

I think so, it’s interesting. Somebody said to me the other day, “Do you think your Harry Potter fans will stick with you in this film?” I was like, if they stuck with me through Equus, they won’t mind this. It’s nothing in comparison to that. So, I’m not worried about it. It’s a very good first step. I was under no illusions that people would see this and suddenly go, “Oh Christ, he’s not Harry Potter anymore. He’s completely transformed.” I didn’t ever think that was going to happen. But I think it’s a good first step in terms of, I look very different and I’m playing a man rather than a boy. It’s a different type of film to be in and I think all that stuff is very useful at this point for an audience to see that I’m going to try to do different stuff. We all are, Emma and Rupert and Tom and everybody, we want to do that. But also it’s interesting. People ask us those questions a lot. “Why are you searching so different? Are you intentionally trying to be diverse?” Yes, I am, but I don’t think that’s specific to someone coming out of a franchise. Any actor worth their salt wants to show as much versatility as they possibly can. So, over the next couple of years it’s going to be about doing as much work as possible and making it as varied as possible.

I read that you aren’t so enamoured with horror movies personally.

No, I mean I was terrified of them. A lot of modern horror can leave me cold. And also I’m not good with blood and gore and all that stuff. I’m really not. It’s not fun for me. There’s nothing entertaining about watching a film like that.

Was it strange to be in one?

A bit. During all those days where you just play terrified reactions for hours, I found it useful to take myself over to a corner of the set and just pace and mutter insanely to myself and work myself up into a frenzy. This is why I’m really desperate to have a process as an actor. You know, I used to joke and say I’m a point and click actor. My whole process has really been about trusting my instincts and hitting my mark. Which is why I love the stage, because the nature of filming is that it’s really broken up. So you can be innately something one minute and feel really in the moment, but then if you don’t have a solid process you’ll come back to it in the next take and be vaguer in what your intention is. Whereas on stage, you just have to go on and look and listen and it will all happen. There’s no room for self-consciousness to creep in like there is on film. So the next few years and I’ll keep looking for a process in lieu of training.

Because this is associated with the new Hammer Horror Films label, did you go back to look at some of the classic Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing movies?

Yeah, the first Dracula movie that they made is the one I know well. I think I’m probably the last generation in England to have sort of grown up with that. It was on TV a lot when I was a kid, but also I think the first time I watched it was when I was at school. It was an end of term sort of thing when teachers can’t be bothered to teach you anymore. One of our teachers brought that in and played it and everyone in my class wanted to be Christopher Lee, except for me who wanted to be Peter Cushing because I thought he was really cool and there’s no doubt that had The Woman in Black been made 30-40 years ago he would have beaten me to this part ten times out of ten.

Daniel Radcliffe buried in a sea of fans at the Toronto premiere of The Woman in Black
Daniel Radcliffe buried in a sea of fans at the Toronto premiere of The Woman in Black

I heard that you avoided seeing the play version of The Woman in Black, but you did track down the original book’s author. What did you learn from speaking with her?

Well, it was mainly about just making sure I was on the right track. The script is an adaptation and it’s very different both in terms of the character of Arthur and the entire framing of the story. I was very keen just to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything that would piss her off, so I just ran a certain things by her. I spoke to a couple of friends about depression and the nature of depression and one of the things that I found kind of fascinating and in the kind of exploitative actor’s minds that we have useful, was the fact that they both said how physically exhausting true depression is. How it is a serious effort just to get out of bed in the morning physically and mentally. So that’s kind of where I started with Arthur, just that he is completely physically and mentally depleted and has been for five years. He’s just putting one foot in front of the other in the hope that something will change or maybe death will come. I wanted to just make sure that would line up with the vision of the character that she had. It did, so I was fine and I was told that I could carry on along those lines. I didn’t see the play because I’m a terrible mimic and I didn’t want to be influenced by all that. But, generally speaking I took my cues from James my director rather than Susan.

What other work did you do to prepare for this role?

Well, I spoke to a bereavement counsellor one day for a few hours and read a couple of books on grief and loss. I know I can never fully imagine myself into the head of someone who lost somebody, so I think it was important just to furnish myself with as much information as I possibly can. That way when I’m on set without having to think too much, that stuff just kind of naturally informs your choices. One of the things I concentrated on with Arthur was that I have this very excitable energy and Arthur should not and it would be completely wrong for the character. So, James was keen to, as he put it, “take the fizz out of the bottle and let it go flat.” It was about stripping away my natural zeal and showing somebody who has been devastated by a loss to the point where they’re in a state of emotional paralysis.

It seems that you enjoy the mechanics of acting nowadays as opposed to where you were as a child when you were kind of being rushed along into it. Do you feel like you’re starting to catch up to where you want to be as an actor?

Possibly, but there’s no blue print to where I should be. I see myself as a young good actor who still has a lot to learn. I think that’s where most actors who are my age are. There is nobody who at any point in their career is the finished article. So the next couple of years for me are really going to be about finding people to work with who really want to push me. I’ve never trained, so the only why I can get better is by taking risks and working with people who I think are going to improve me. So that’s what the next couple of years are going to be about.

Does that include playing Alan Ginsberg?

Yes, that’s the next project. It starts filming in March. It’s a first time director. I’m terrified, but very excited.

Through the Potter franchise you worked with some of the finest British actors alive, so who is still on your wish list in terms of English actors you’d like to work with?

Um, Judy Dench, never got her in. Seems amazing, but we never got her. There’s loads of young British actors that think are fantastic who I’d really like to work with. Ben Whittle. I’ve seen him on stage many times and he’s wonderful. Aaron Johnson. Helen Mirren. Russell Brand, actually. I’ve always thought he’d be fantastically entertaining and really great to work with. I don’t know who else. There’s so many.

Did you get any advice from the actors you worked with in the Harry Potter movies that you’ve tried to apply to your career?

Um…not particularly. They were all just very supportive and generous with their time. Alan Rickman particularly was amazing this year. He was in New York quite a lot, so he came to see the show twice and took me out for dinner. I don’t think any of them would really have wanted to give me advice, but they certainly were generous with their time. Actually, Alan has given me some advice, but you know some things sound amazing in Alan Rickman’s voice and if I said them to you they wouldn’t have nearly the same impact and wouldn’t seem quite as profound.

I’m wondering what role a director plays for you since you’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible international directors already. Have any had a particularly strong impact on your work as an actor?

Um, it’s interesting. I rely very heavily on the director, absolutely. When I get a lot of direction, I do better, I think. I like having a close relationship with the director. Alfonso Cuaron is a gifted filmmaker and I would love to work with him again now. Because now I feel ready and could really appreciate it. I do absolutely stick close to the directors and it’s interesting because the director who I’m about to work with has already shown me an entirely new way of working that I never knew existed before and it’s kind of amazing to me that nobody ever told me this stuff. So we’re working with action verbs and loads of different techniques and I’m very happy to be doing that. I feel that I’ve been very lucky in terms of having the right directors come along at the right times to take me where I needed to be. Alfonso was one, Thea Sharrock, who directed me in Equus, was one and I think John is going to be the next one. It’s funny because everyone is talking about The Woman in Black now and it’s a slightly horrible feeling in a way because we filmed this movie a year and a half ago and I think I’ve come a long way since then. It’s sort of like my current ability and potential is being based on my work from a year and a bit ago, which is a very strange thought. It’s quite hard to come to grips with that. But yeah, I think over the next couple of years I’m going to improve by leaps and bounds. I want to work with people who want to stretch me.

How did you find the Saturday Night Live experience a few weeks ago?

Fantastic. I just had the best time. I’m someone who thrives off of fear and panic and chaos, so for me that was perfect. I liked the fact that someone said, “ok there’s been a slight change, just look at the cards.” Love that. Those are the situations that I live for. In the reactions to it people didn’t feel like it was the strongest episode or whatever, but I had a blast. That’s the thing, the people who are a bit scathing about SNL and for me that’s very lazy. Because they have no concept of what is actually going on. They put on an hour and a half music and comedy show from scratch in a week and actually it’s two and half hours if you include what you do at the dress rehearsal. So I just loved it, the fact that you’ll do a sketch and someone will grab you and run you to another quick change. It was great. I said to them at the end, “Ask me back any time I will run across oceans I don’t care.” And also, the Casey Anthony Dog sketch was possibly one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I had a great time. They all were very kind. I have to see what’s impressive about that show is that there are people who have been there for 21 years who say, “There is nowhere I would rather be.” That’s speaks highly of the cast and the crew. It’s a really cool atmosphere.

The Woman in Black opens this Friday, February 3rd, in theatres everywhere.

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