From Harry To Hunk
By Fiona Maddocks for This Is London, 5th February 2007
Daniel Radcliffe’s naked torso, splashed across the media in advance of the 17-year-old’s appearance in Equus, has been outright winner of macho cheesecake image of the week.
“When that boy takes his shirt off, Harry Potter has flown Hogwarts for good,” observed the play’s producer, David Pugh, adding, “We are not doing it as an excuse to show Harry Potter’s willy.”
That said, his director, Thea Sharrock, was honest enough to admit: “We all said ‘Wow’, ‘Oh my God’, when we saw him.”
Until now, Radcliffe has made no comment.
“I’m fine about it,” he tells me, grinning, still on a high from a long day’s rehearsal. “Equus is an iconic play. The nude scene is part of it. I can’t do it with my pants on. That would be rubbish.”
Does he admit to any embarrassment?
“We’ve done the scene a couple of times in rehearsal. I had no particular qualms. There’s nothing that would stop me getting my kit off if that’s what the work demands. The key to serious acting is to lose your inhibitions, to become free and fearless.”
This quest for abandon is clearly working. As we speak, Radcliffe lifts his baggy T-shirt to scratch his stomach, offering a private view of a large expanse of flesh and navel hair.
“I feel OK about my body. “Not totally, of course, no one my age does … but I’ve gone to the gym to make sure. And many of the actors I admire, like Gary Oldman, have gone naked.”
Apart from a few celebrity slots in the Morecambe and Wise comedy The Play What I Wrote – when he was fully clothed, if in a dress – this is Radcliffe’s first proper stage role. It marks a sharp upward gear-shift in his transition from child film star to serious adult actor.
JK Rowling’s wizard, which he first took on seven years ago, remains part of his life for a while yet: the fifth Harry Potter is out this summer, with two more to go.
But Equus, Peter Shaffer’s unsettling play about a boy’s erotic obsession with horses, is a challenge on another level.
He plays the central role of Alan Strang, a passionate but hopeless adolescent who wilfully blinds six horses with a metal spike. Martin Dysart, a middle-aged psychiatrist played by Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter), tries to help him but in the process is forced to re-examine his own mental stability. The play’s underlying questions concern the nature of ecstasy and passion in a soulless, consumer-dominated world.
After premiering amid huge controversy at the National Theatre in 1973, it ran for 1,200 performances in London and on Broadway with Peter Firth as Alan and Anthony Hopkins, then Anthony Perkins, as Dysart.
Richard Burton starred in the 1977 film. Equus retains its power to shock and to be misunderstood. Recently a drama teacher in Wales, accused of sexual abuse after staging the play at his school, committed suicide.
Radcliffe first knew about the part nearly two years ago.
“Doing Harry is hard, without question. But this is a massive leap for me. Working with Richard Griffiths is a fantastic privilege. This feeling of being in a small company is so different from film where there are thousands involved yet you hardly get to see them. It’s the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done.”
He praises the rest of the cast – which includes Jenny Agutter, who played Jill, a stable girl, in the original production – for their support. Agutter is Dysart’s friend, the magistrate Hesther Salomon, while his fellow teenager Joanna Christie plays Jill and is seen naked in a bungled love scene with Alan.
Radcliffe also has to enact sexual stimulation with a horse (played by a human wearing a wire headdress).
“Everyone is being supportive,” he says. “The techniques are so different from film, even just the basics about projecting your voice without sounding as if you’re yelling your head off – all that is new to me.”
For the past 18 months Radcliffe has had daily voice coaching. Having completed AS levels (in English, history, religion and philosophy), he has taken this year off from City of London School. He will re-evaluate in September.
“I’ve never been to stage school, nor really wanted to go to university. I didn’t like school much, talked too much, got easily distracted. I’m lucky to have had one-to-one tuition while doing Harry Potter.”
Despite his level-headedness, easy confidence and chin stubble, Radcliffe remains boyish and unexpectedly slight, physically.
He is still chaperoned by his father, who gave up his job as a literary agent when Harry Potter started.
An only child who grew up and still lives in Fulham with his parents – his mother is a casting director – he veers between the sociability and extroversion of acting and a solitude in which he writes poetry.
“When I’m not working I’m quite good at motivating myself. I read a lot. I write and hope to do more, but haven’t had anything published yet. My main expense is buying books. The stress of exams is another matter – I find that hard to deal with alongside acting.”
One pressure he will never face is the need to earn money. The Harry Potter films, according to the Sunday Times Rich List 2006, have earned him £14 million.
He says he doesn’t have expensive tastes and it’s hard not to believe him. He’s wearing old Diesel jeans and a pair of Dunlop trainers. His mobile phone is stuck together with Sellotape “because it still works”.
He has no dreams of Maseratis or private jets, though is interested to hear of a new kind of green taxi which runs on electricity. His website lists several charities to which he gives support in person and in kind.
“My closest friends – who tend to be people I’ve met through working, like my best mate Will Steggle, who was my dresser on Harry Potter – just say to me, ‘You’re blessed. You don’t need to worry.’ I know I’m lucky to be paid all this money to do what I love doing.”
Does he fear being prey to others’ greed?
“My dad is sharp. He’s rarely wrong about people. I hope I share some of those genes. It’s only when people say ‘You know, I’m not friends with you because you’re Harry Potter’ that I know they probably are.”
He is equally phlegmatic about dealing with fame.
“I can go to gigs and no one notices me.” Recently he saw Radiohead and went to the Reading Festival. Clubs are harder, where people are just chatting and drinking. I haven’t met any aggression but I suppose that might change when I reach 18.”
Maintaining school friendships has been hard. Working to his kind of schedule, with eight to 10 months a year on Harry Potter, and now 16 weeks in the West End, requires a discipline outside the experience of most teenagers.
He has also been filming December Boys, directed by Rod Hardy, and will soon start work on My Boy Jack by David Haig, an ITV drama set in the First World War in which he plays Rudyard Kipling’s son.
“I can’t drop everything and go out late if I’m filming or rehearsing next day. After a day like today, I just want to go home and go to bed.”
Radcliffe “is currently single”, which will please the hordes of 13- and 14-year-old girls who follow his every movement via his website.
He scotches the one-time rumour that he was seeing an “older woman” of 23, who was just a friend.
“I think people are shocked that I’ve had girlfriends, which I have, and tend to think I’m a Peter Pan figure – but I’m definitely not, I promise you!”
Does he hope his young fans will see Equus, or should they be stopped from seeing such a dark, adult play?
“I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t bring kids because of people taking their clothes off, or because of violence to horses. But – and I don’t want to insult the intelligence of children – really, a play about the nature of psychiatry? Do you think a five-year-old would be interested?”
Daniel Radcliffe throws on his jacket, pulls a cap down low over his famous bushy wizard-boy eyebrows, shakes hands cheerfully.
A lone paparazzo has been hanging around outside the rehearsal room all day.
“I have to admire his persistence. But does he imagine I’m going to come out naked? I can see why people want images of so-called celebrities falling out of clubs drunk. But a boy actor leaving rehearsal and being driven home to his parents? I don’t think so.”