Portrait Of The Wizard As A Young Artist
By Matthew Gurewitsch for The Wall Street Journal, 17th July 2007
“Am I talking too fast?” It’s a kindness in Daniel Radcliffe to ask, and the answer is no — except in the sense that it’s hard to keep up with him if you’re scribbling your notes without benefit of a magic quill. But if the celluloid Harry Potter’s brain is racing, he has every excuse. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” fifth in the series of screen adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s seven-novel portrait of the artist as a young wizard, opened at midnight on a Tuesday. Hours later, the promotional juggernaut has him chugging nonstop from slightly past dawn till after dusk.
At what might be an awkward age — he turns 18 next Monday — Mr. Radcliffe is anything but. Luckily for the “Potter” franchise, his build is slight, and he hasn’t shot up tall. Still, the face is more angular than it used to be; the jaw, in particular, looks squarer, more determined. Early in the new film, before Harry returns to Hogwarts, Mr. Radcliffe’s aura is almost unnervingly grown-up, even suave.
“My ethic is to wrong-foot people,” the young prince of players says, recalling a recent interview with a reporter who must have expected someone not too bright. To wrong-foot people? To catch them off guard? “Yes,” he nods, “absolutely. People talk to me about all the child actors who went off the rails. Why don’t they talk about Christian Bale, or Tobey Maguire, or Elijah Wood, or Christina Ricci or Jodie Foster, who grew up and just keep doing fantastic work?”
In August, Mr. Radcliffe heads off to Ireland for the television film “My Boy Jack,” in which he plays Rudyard Kipling’s 17-year-old son, gone missing in the Great War. (It airs in November.) In September, he’ll be back on the big screen in “December Boys,” a tale of four orphans set in Australia. (It wrapped in January 2006.) These projects may bring some surprises. But last winter, Mr. Radcliffe wrong-footed the world in what was for all intents and purposes his debut as a stage actor. The play was Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” an international hit from the 1970s in its first London revival. Mr. Radcliffe played Alan Strang, a shy adolescent who one night runs amok and blinds six horses. Richard Griffiths, lately on Broadway in “The History Boys,” played the psychiatrist Martin Dysart, who unravels the traumatic back story, promising to heal the boy even as he envies him the pagan ecstasy of his inner life.
“Our generous tabloids!” Mr. Radcliffe says. One of the headlines greeting the announcement of the project read, “Crash! The Sound of a Career Coming to a Grinding Halt.” “The papers always make things up. But the thing I can’t stand is lazy journalism. They’d heard that I would be naked, that I would smoke and swear. But they made a pretty fast U-turn once the play opened.”
He smoked and swore, he stripped, he conquered. (A New York transfer of the production is under discussion.) Transparent, deep emotions chased across his features without a trace of false histrionics; the repertoire of hurt, glowering, resentful looks seemed inexhaustible, and there was reckless joy, too. His line readings — jittery, guileless, furious, hostile — mirrored unerringly Alan’s state of mind. In the mouth of the actress playing Alan’s mother, a biblical description of a horse in battle — “He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha” — was an embarrassment. (It’s the English of the King James Version.) In Mr. Radcliffe’s, it gave you shivers.
The stage is a good place for Mr. Radcliffe. While waiting for him to grow into Hamlet, a producer might think of offering him Sheridan’s Jack Absolute, in “The Rivals,” or Nicholas Nickleby in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s eight-hour adaptation of the Dickens novel. Staying power should be no problem. In “Equus,” apart from a few minutes at the top of the first act, Mr. Radcliffe was onstage throughout, for over two hours. Rather than exit, he would go and sit on one of several blocks strewn about a set metaphorically designed as an operating theater, a place for dissecting souls. Though momentarily absent from the action, Mr. Radcliffe’s Alan was never not there.
“Thea Sharrock, the director, wanted that as a gentle reminder that the play is about Dysart and Alan. We discussed how Alan loves his sessions with Dysart, even if they’re unfulfilling and make him angry. There’s nothing else in his life. Having him sit there shows the monotony. He just waits. That gives the viewer time to go into Alan’s world. And, as Alan, I have time to analyze what I’ve just done, the way you do when you feel you’ve screwed up.”
Two straight hours of scrutiny by a theater full of strangers is a trial by fire no screen actor has to endure. “If I can do that, I can certainly stay in the moment for a take,” Mr. Radcliffe says. “What I learn from one project, I take to the next one.”
Each of the directors of the “Harry Potter” series has contributed to Mr. Radcliffe’s growing mastery. “Chris Columbus, who did ‘Sorcerer’s Stone’ and ‘Chamber of Secrets,’ was amazing. He got three kids 10, 11 and 12 never to lose their enthusiasm. He had us raring to go every day. And that was on a long shoot: 11 months. Alfonso Cuarón, who did ‘Prisoner of Azkaban,’ was more — I hesitate to use the word ‘spiritual.’ But he took me deeper, beyond the story line. Mike Newell, in ‘Goblet of Fire,’ took that process further. David Yates, who did ‘Order of the Phoenix,’ produced the biggest progress in my acting. He’d never settle. He was always pushing for more. ‘That’s not real,’ he’d say. ‘You can do better.’ But at the same time, he backs his actors. He has confidence, and he gives you confidence.”
In “Order of the Phoenix,” Mr. Radcliffe displays much of the coiled, guarded charisma he went on to show the London audience in “Equus,” palpably seething without the crude signifiers of a knitted brow or a clenched jaw.
“I’ve worked hard on reining in emotion,” Mr. Radcliffe remarks. “I’ve always aimed for showing things more subtly.” He prizes the wisdom handed down to him by Mr. Griffiths at the actors’ hangout Joe Allen one night after “Equus.” “Richard said, ‘I’m going to tell you something Lee Marvin told me, which Spencer Tracy told him. Never let the camera find you not thinking!’ If the thoughts are there, and they’re genuine and truthful, the camera will find them.”
In “Order of the Phoenix,” Hogwarts students paying attention to the black magic imperiling a world in denial secretly band together as Dumbledore’s Army, and Harry instructs them in forbidden spells the good guys will need for their survival. Perhaps the most moving moment in the film, and one of the happiest, is Harry’s graduation speech, which Mr. Radcliffe can still quote verbatim.
Working hard is important. But there’s one thing that matters even more. Believing in yourself. Think of it this way. Every great wizard in history has started out as no more than we are now: students. If they can do it, why not us?
At the risk of alienating his fan base, Mr. Radcliffe has long been going out of his way to assert his identity as distinct from Harry Potter’s. Yet this speech, delivered at this moment in his career, with the particular sparkle in his eyes, feels like the actor’s personal pledge never to stop striving to perfect his craft.
Already, as Harry Potter, he has had to hold his own against some of Britain’s canniest wizards of stage and screen. A special favorite is Gary Oldman, who plays Harry’s maligned godfather, Sirius Black.
“Gary Oldman can do anything,” Mr. Radcliffe says. “I’m quietly ambitious to develop that kind of range.”