Hobnobs & Broomsticks
By Craig McLean for The Sunday Herald, 17th July 2007
FOR A boy at the epicentre of a worldwide, multi-media, across-the-ages, fever-pitch excitement, Daniel Radcliffe is remarkably calm. Yes, he knows that the fifth Harry Potter film, The Order Of The Phoenix, released this weekend, will be one of the biggest box-office successes of the year. He is fully aware that The Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in JK Rowling’s phenomenally successful series, is in shops this week. And while he may not be up to speed on the record-breaking advance orders for the book (1.6million at Amazon alone) or on the cumulative sales figures for the series so far (325million copies), he has an acute sense of the wide appeal of Potter. He certainly hasn’t visited all the 90 countries in which the book is being published, but he’s recently racked up the air miles, from Tokyo to London to New York, in his own globe-trotting promotional appearances in support of the new film. But is he frazzled or phased? Not a bit of it. Radcliffe’s had seven years to get used to it. Plus, being only 17, he has youth on his side. He’s even looking forward to beginning work on the sixth movie, The Half-Blood Prince, filming on which starts this autumn.
“It’s very exciting. We don’t know who’s directing it yet,” he says with the easy air of a young veteran, “but I’m sort of half-hoping that Phoenix director David Yates comes back and does it. I’ll completely understand if he doesn’t. I’ve no idea how Chris Columbus did two – because since then all the other directors, we’ve broken them!” he laughs.
“I remember when we started off with Alfonso Cuarón, director of The Prisoner of Azkaban, he looked really cool and handsome. By the end he hadn’t shaved in months, had massive hair – we destroyed him!” Radcliffe says this with some pride. (Subsequent to our interview, Yates is confirmed as directing Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince.) He says that making Phoenix was the best fun of all the movies. And no, he insists, he’s not just saying that because in it, a rapidly maturing Harry has his first screen kiss, with Scots actress Katie Leung. “It wasn’t because of that,” he grins, “although that was good! Um, it was because of three things I suppose. It was Imelda Staunton, who’s playing Ministry of Magic spy Dolores Umbrage, who was just to a joy to work with. It was Gary Oldman, playing Sirius Black – I got to spend more time with him than ever before, and that was just fantastic. And we became really good friends. And it was David Yates, who was just proof that you can be both an absolutely gifted director and a wonderful, lovely man. Which I suppose is quite a rare thing.”
Spoken like a true, precociously wise, multimillionaire teenager. But Radcliffe’s wisdom and experience, born of those seven whirlwind years playing Potter, isn’t the sole reason he’s not letting this climactic summer for the Potter franchise freak him out. Frankly, he’s been too busy to pay attention to the ever-more-thunderous rumble of Pottermania. For most of the past four months he’s been appearing nightly on the London stage, in the West End revival of Equus, playing Alan Strang, the disturbed stable lad who blinds six horses with a metal spike. I saw the production on its penultimate night, a few short days before Radcliffe embarked on a fresh round of Potter PR duties. There he was, the sometime speccy boy wizard, stripping off in front of 1000 people. Radcliffe crosses the stage of London’s Gielgud Theatre and tentatively embraces his equally nude female co-star. She lies down and parts her legs invitingly. Radcliffe is only five-foot-five but he’s unshaven and his torso is toned, almost rippling. More man than boy. But still, he can’t quite get into the moment or rise to the occasion. He attempts to mount the girl but something distracts him. Radcliffe jumps up, howling, naked and distraught. In the stalls around him, horses are whinnying. And in the Gielgud stalls, 1000 theatre-goers gulp. Blimey. That’s Harry Potter up there, starkers and bonkers. “That’s what’s so awful and heartbreaking about that moment,” Radcliffe had earlier said to me as we discussed the abortive lovemaking scene in the hayloft. “The idea of not actually being able to touch this girl because this horse is superimposed in your mind, on top of her. It’s really horrible.”
Equus, written by Peter Schaffer, is a hallowed production in the annals of modern British theatre. Sidney Lumet’s big-screen adaptation starred Peter Firth as Strang and Richard Burton played the psychiatrist who treats him. Firth, who had starred in the original stage production of the play at the National Theatre in 1973, was, like Burton, Oscar-nominated for his performance. Nonetheless, Radcliffe says firmly, in his preparations for the arduous role he “steered clear of anything to do with the film. Why? First of all, I know that some people who’ve watched the film have said you should just stick to reading the play because it’s a very different thing. The film uses real horses. And for me, Equus is such a theatrical thing. But also, I don’t wanna watch anyone else’s Alan Strang. From what I hear Peter Firth is absolutely fantastic.”
All of which goes some way to explaining why Daniel Radcliffe decided Equus would be his first serious, post-Harry Potter role. If he was going to break out of the all-encompassing world created by JK Rowling – reinvent himself – he needed to do it with some force. “The thing is,” the 17-year-old says when we meet over Coke, tea and biscuits in a hotel near the Fulham home he shares with his parents, “I didn’t want to do something in theatre. Not only is it like another world from film, it’s much, much harder work. And I also knew that if I just did some sort of like, a farce or something, it would be very easy for people to say, well, he’s not really challenging himself’.”
Gary Oldman, no stranger to intense roles himself, agrees. He plays Harry’s mentor Sirius Black in the Potter films, and has become close friends with Radcliffe. He tells me that he thinks “Dan” (as everyone calls him), on stage and on screen, is “fearless I don’t know if I could have have done what he’s done, and in particular what he’s done in Equus. At 17! To – no pun intended – expose himself. Not physically get naked, but be vulnerable like that, to all the guns that could have just shot him down. I think that alone is a great achievement. And he’s serious about it. He’s a bright lad isn’t he? I love Dan. Like one of my own.”
The Order Of Phoenix is the darkest, most gripping Potter film yet, with an embattled Harry forming a secret group of students named Dumbledore’s Army to combat both a Ministry of Magic spy within Hogwarts, and the Death Eaters allied with arch-enemy Voldemort. The story and the script were, nods Radcliffe, very “psychologically intense”, and “much more challenging than anything I’ve done before. So I like to think it did, in a way, help prepare me for acting in the play.” Filming on the movie was quicker than previous outings, mainly because Radcliffe was no longer juggling academia with shooting: he gave up his studies last year after four years, on and off, at the private City of London school. He’d never been that good academically – one of the reasons he went for his first audition, for a TV adaptation of David Copperfield aged nine, was that his parents thought it would be good for his confidence, and would give the only child something to focus on other than his studies. “My mum said, actually, that’ll be good because an audition will be something none of the other kids in class will ever have done’.” No one was more surprised than he was when he secured As in his final AS level exams (religion and philosophy, history, English literature) but education, he admits, was “tricky”.
“I was never at school long enough to build up good relationships with people. I had some good friends there, but I’d always go back and in the first two weeks I’d be, uh, I don’t really know what’s going on’ So I’ve sort of taken on many of the characteristics of an old man!” he says with a laugh. “Normally on the sets everyone I’m around is much, much older than me, so when I went back it was very weird for me.” Was it weird for his class mates too, having this superstar actor dropping in and out of lessons? “Possibly. I don’t think so. Well, I dunno, it might be,” he blusters, for a moment coming over like a normal, confused teenager. “They’ve got everyone else who they sort of know. It was just very odd going back. I’m quite glad that I won’t be going through that coming and going thing again.”
Radcliffe is a curious mixture of gauche young semi-posho and mature, worldly wise, millionaire celebrity. He’s turned up today fresh from walking the family dogs in the park and dressed in scruffy student chic. He’ll happily bang on about the bands he loves (mostly white indie guitar music like Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party and Arcade Fire) and how he hates celebrity nitespots – not least because he knows that the eyes of the paparazzi are everywhere, waiting for a picture of Harry Blotto’.
“Oh I’m sure!” he grins. “I was at the Reading Festival last year and my friend said to me, will you hold my drink for a sec?’ I said, I really can’t, I’m sorry’ – cause that would be the moment someone spun round with a camera phone and just snapped me. So you do have to watch yourself,” he shrugs, alert but relaxed about the trials of his fame. Accordingly he’s been fairly untouched by the seamier side of media fascination with this globally famous teenager’s life. He’s single at the moment, but neither of the two relationships he’s had have made it into the papers. The worst he’s had to deal with, it appears, was the gossip columns taking him to task for wearing a seemingly oversized baseball cap to Reading. “The thing was, it did fit me!” he says, more bewildered than outraged by the tabloids’ desperation for a story. “I just had it on the loosest setting.”
Over the course of our long conversation – which is discreetly monitored by the chaperone-cum-PR-handler who’s shadowed him for all of the last seven years – he veers from typical adolescent to luvvie speak-spouting pro. It’s a quixotic performance, one that speaks of the fact that this summer, Daniel Radcliffe’s life is at a curious crossroads. Next week, two days after the final book comes out, he turns 18. As he stretches into adulthood, he knows that the thing that “made him”, defined him, is finally coming to an end.
He admits to a mixture of relief and nervousness at the prospect of hanging up his wand. Even he hasn’t been privy to the content of the closing book, but he confesses that he “sort of hopes” that Harry dies. “Jo came down to the set at one point and I said, Oh hello, why are you here today?’ And she said, Oh I just needed a break from the book – Dumbledore’s giving me a lot of trouble.’ And I said, But isn’t he dead?’ And she said, Well, yeah, but it’s more complex …’ I was like, Okay, I’m not gonna ask anything else!’”
He’s known since the making of the third film that he definitely wanted to be an actor when he grew up. He’s now intent on building that career, moving firmly out of the Potter orbit with his hilarious and self-mocking turn in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, with Equus, and with his next project: a week after his birthday he begins shooting My Boy Jack. It’s an ITV drama in which he plays Rudyard Kipling’s son, who was killed in the First World War trenches. Another graphic, iconic role for a youngster, then, but with bullets, mud and despair replacing wizards, muggles and clever owls. This autumn also sees the release of another project, a low-budget Australian film called December Boys, which he filmed during one of his annual Christmas stays at his family’s holiday home near Melbourne.
David Heyman, producer of the Potter movies, first encountered Radcliffe when he was 11, as a member of a theatre audience – the youngster had gone to see Stones In His Pockets with his parents, both of whom were in the theatre/film business (dad a literary agent, mum a casting agent). “He remains the same boy I met in the theatre,” says Heyman, “and who I had tea with the next day – curious and warm and sensitive. He’s ambitious for his craft,” continues the custodian of the Potter franchise. “He’s still growing as an actor, and the experience of working with different directors has been great for him. And each time he’s bringing more of himself to the role of Potter because he has more experiences. One of the things I respect most about Dan is he’s determined to get the most out of every moment in his life.”
Next week, as he officially graduates from boyhood to manhood, Daniel Radcliffe gets access to his considerable fortune. No, this well-mannered, sober young man who loves “the romantic poets, Kets and Byron”, and who writes his own poetry in his spare time – Gary Oldman says it’s good enough to be published – won’t be splashing out on a huge party or a silly car. He might buy some modern art – he loves Jackson Pollock. He may move out of the family home and get his own place, but he’s worried he’s not organised or mature enough to look after himself properly. Where he is sufficiently organised is in terms of his career plan. He thinks there will be break of a few months “at least” between the filming of Harry Potter six and seven “because I would like to get something else done, I don’t know what yet” He thinks about this for a second. “I could be 20 before we’re finished with Potter. So that will have been nine years; I was 11 when I did the first one.” Those years – from adolescence to adulthood; of kiddie games on the set scaffolding to exchanging acting tips with Oldman and Branagh; from a reported fee of £60,000 on the first one to a personal fortune today of many, many millions – have flown by, “because I’ve been so busy. You don’t really stop to think about how much you’ve done and how much time has gone.”
There have been a couple of moments when the work and the Potter-mania’ have all got a bit much. But he doesn’t think he’s missed out on anything, whether it’s normal’ childhood or going to university (he’d rather educate himself by “reading endlessly”). “It’s been fun and I’ve had a laugh.” In Equus, and in The Order Of The Phoenix, Daniel Radcliffe proves that, hey, the kid really can act. A long seven years ago, Chris Columbus, director of the first Potter film, identified in Radcliffe a “haunted quality” that made him perfect for Potter. Does he have any idea where that came from? “Not really,” he grins, taking a final slurp of his Coke. “I’d had a really great childhood when Chris met me. But he obviously saw something. But I’ve got quite big eyes, which freak a lot of people out. I started looking at other people’s eyes and I thought, oh yeah, other people’s eye’s are slightly smaller than mine.’” Uh-oh, here comes Bug-Eyed Radcliffe. “Yeah exactly!” he laughs, happier to take the mickey out of himself than get bogged down in analysing his own acting merits. “In fact there was one boy at school who always used to think I’d taken opium or something – because my eyes were so massive and I looked wired all the time. But,” this polite, grounded, clean young chap adds hastily, “I never had.”