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In the spring of 2020, two films starring Daniel Radcliffe came out, almost back-to-back.
In Escape From Pretoria, he played Tim Jenkin, the real-life anti-apartheid activist and former political prisoner who in 1978 was part of a daring and successful breakout — using secretly made wooden keys — from a South African jail.
In Guns Akimbo, he played Miles, a computer programmer in a bonkers near-future who wakes up one morning to find that a criminal kingpin’s gang of henchmen — including a masked guy called Fuckface — had bloodily bolted guns onto each of his hands.
For those who had been keeping an eye on Radcliffe’s post-Harry Potter career, this quick-fire double of taut historical prison thriller and insane action-comedy sci-fi felt like the perfect summary as he neared almost a decade since leaving one of the world’s most successful movie franchises.
Roles such as a farting dead body (Swiss Army Man), beat poet Allen Ginsberg (Kill Your Darlings), a skinhead Nazi-infiltrating FBI agent (Imperium) and a man who after a drunken night finds magical horns growing out of his forehead (Horns) had underlined his status as an actor not simply unafraid to transform himself with each new project, but someone who appeared to actively seek out the wildest and most eclectic jobs going.
The weirdest was yet to come.
When news broke in 2021 that Radcliffe was to play “Weird Al” Yankovic in Roku’s comedy not-quite biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (which hits the platform on Nov. 4) — a casting that would have seemed preposterous 10 years earlier — the general reaction was one of absolute acceptance. Of course the former boy wizard was going to play the curly-haired, Hawaiian-shirted, accordion-playing music parody hero. Who else would you choose?
“That’s the wonderful thing about the reputation I now apparently have,” says Radcliffe, speaking from his home in New York (after a busy day rehearsing for an upcoming off-Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along). “It’s interesting, because there’s nothing really about me that would make you go, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s perfect [to play Weird Al].’ There’s absolutely nothing specific in my work or any skills that would transfer to this movie.”
But the fact that so many people who had seen what he’d done previously (a list of titles Radcliffe says he doesn’t find all that “weird”) and concluded that a “Weird Al” biopic was the next logical step, he takes as a “huge compliment.” And it’s something that almost perfectly encapsulates what he set out to achieve when his term at Hogwarts finally came to an end in 2011 with The Deathly Hallows – Part 2.
“When I finished Potter and was trying to figure out what my career was after that, I always said that I wanted to be the kind of actor that keeps his roles interesting enough that when you’ve got something coming out, people go, ‘Oh, he’s in that, he always makes interesting choices,’” he explains.
Being the central, most visible cog of such a global phenomenon — one that propelled him to fame at the age of just 11 — could have easily been “like a millstone around the neck,” he admits. “And I’m sure it was for some directors, who would be like, ‘Oh, I don’t really want him in my film, because everyone‘s just going to think of Harry Potter.’”
Thankfully, for every director that saw it as a problem, there was another, like Kill Your Darlings’ John Krokidas. “And he’d be like, ‘Can I get the chance to reinvent you and show you in a new way?’” Radcliffe recalls. “Some directors were really excited by that. Like, you’ll play a dead body!”
Straight out of the block after Potter was 2012’s Hammer Films horror The Woman in Black, adapted from the 1983 novel and already a major stage hit (the film kept the notoriously chilling rocking chair scene). Radcliffe — who was 22 at the time (he’s now 33) — says that there “wasn’t much calculation” in choosing that to be his first role away from the Wizarding World, other than loving the script, although he claims it turned out to be a “fairly good stepping stone.” It was also a huge hit, earning $127.7 million and becoming the highest-grossing British horror in 20 years.
The eclectic dial turned up a notch with Kill Your Darlings in 2013, and even further with Alexandre Aja’s supernatural black comedy Horns the following year. People were beginning to take notice of Radcliffe’s “interesting” selections. Joe Hill, who wrote the book Horns was based on, wrote at the time on his blog that the actor’s performance wasn’t “like anything he’s ever done on screen before.”
The real chin-stroking moment came in 2016. Radcliffe cites his incessantly flatulent corpse in Swiss Army Man, starring alongside Paul Dano in what The Hollywood Reporter’s review described as a “wacktacular curio,” as his favorite role to date. He also notes that, had Swiss Army Man come straight after Harry Potter, it might have been a bit too much of a gear change.
“Although I had already done Equus by that point, so I felt like that was a line there,” he notes. Equus, of course, was the West End and Broadway production he appeared in at the peak of his Potter popularity in 2007, a play that sparked headlines for a scene in which its then 17-year-old star went full-frontal for about 10 minutes. The British press went wild, and there was enough speculation about him having upset his studio paymasters that Warner Bros. had to issue a statement saying its team was fully supportive of him “in the artistic choices he makes as an actor.” Speaking at the time, Radcliffe said he wanted to “shake up people’s perceptions” of him and perhaps enable them to think, “Maybe he can do something other than Harry.”
Just a few years later, one of those people would be “Weird Al” Yankovic himself.
So the story goes, the music parody king first eyeballed Radcliffe as his potential double after catching him on a 2010 episode of The Graham Norton Show. A huge fan of Tom Lehrer for many years thanks to his parents, Radcliffe, “in one of the most insane moments of my life,” sang the humorist and musician’s famed scientific song “The Elements” while sitting next to Colin Farrell and Rihanna. “And Al saw that performance and Al is also a massive Tom Lehrer fan, so that was apparently the first thing that made him think I might work,” he says. “So that sort of got me the job.”
Weird, wonderful and wide-ranging as they may be, Radcliffe’s career choices come backed up by an extremely sturdy and supportive foundation, one he freely acknowledges that very few actors get to enjoy. Quite simply, the many millions he made playing Harry Potter (toward the end of the franchise, he was one of Hollywood’s highest-earning stars) has put him in the luxurious position where work simply isn’t a financial necessity. That is, he can pick and choose whatever interests or amuses him, or not.
“I have a kind of autonomy and freedom that any actor would kill for, and I would feel so dumb if I didn’t use that,” he explains. Playing “Weird Al” in a film made for The Roku Channel might be a peculiar choice for most stars in their early 30s carefully considering their career trajectory. For Radcliffe, he just knew after reading the script that it would be “amazingly fun.”
There’s a delightful amount of self-awareness, modesty and just general, old-fashioned niceness about Radcliffe, one that perhaps feels especially admirable for someone who experienced an influx of fame and fortune at such a young age. Given he spent his teenage years in such a high-profile job and as a constant presence in the Sunday Times Rich List, across TV appearances and interviews (including this one, where he was hugely apologetic for it being so late in the day in London), he comes across as a thoroughly decent, thoughtful and polite individual, devoid of ego or arrogance. If anyone has had a bad word to say about him, they haven’t voiced it loudly enough for anyone to hear.
Radcliffe credits his “great parents and great people around me” for keeping him level-headed. He also recalls a conversation on the set of the first Harry Potter film with veteran AD Michael Stevenson about Michael Caine and his courteous nature with colleagues. “And then I remember a conversation with a few of my friends about a particular actor they had all just worked with, and how badly he had treated them and what they thought of him. So when you’re young, you see the difference, and it’s like, do you want to be somebody like Michael Caine who is beloved and respectful, or do you want to be like this other person?”
In a similar vein, despite being a household name for almost 20 years, Radcliffe has somehow managed to remain almost entirely out the public eye. As a globally recognizable teen, paparazzi photographers didn’t snap him falling out of nightclubs at 3 a.m. (he does admit a “huge amount of energy” at the time was spent avoid getting caught, and he was “for the most part, pretty lucky”). When in 2012 he opened up about alcoholism he developed toward the latter stages of Potter (something he partly blamed on the fear of not knowing what to do next), and his battles with sobriety, it was the first time most people heard there had been a drinking problem. And even now, it’s not exactly widely known that he spends his time between New York and London and lives with his actor girlfriend of a decade Erin Darke (they met on the set of Kill Your Darlings).
“I think in the years since I’ve been sober, I just don’t do anything interesting enough,” he says of his ability to avoid much media interest. “As an actor, I just want to live my life and see my friends and I just want the thing people talk about to be the work.” Radcliffe — perhaps obviously — is not on social media.
One of the very few occasions where he did spark headlines outside of his work is one that actually offers a sizable nod toward his personality.
Without wading too much into an ongoing and angry debate, when tweets from J.K. Rowling about gender identity in June 2020 were labeled by some as transphobic and sparked a huge online reaction, Radcliffe penned an essay for nonprofit The Trevor Project, which runs a suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth. “Transgender women are women,” he wrote. “Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I.”
Radcliffe says that in the years since Harry Potter, he’d come to appreciate just how many of his fans were “trans or nonbinary or gender non-conforming in some way, and Potter was a huge part of that identity.” It was this, plus a “growing awareness of the money I had and wanting to do something useful with that,” that led him to start working for The Trevor Project while doing Equus in New York. His decision to write the essay stemmed from the fans he met and that relationship. “There was a moment where I was like, I can’t look myself in the eye if I’ve been working with this organization for 10 years and I don’t say anything.”
But it’s the work Radcliffe wants the conversation to be about. And it’s the work that’s thankfully been getting wild enough to offer numerous talking points. Alongside Weird: The Al Yankovic Story and Merrily We Roll Along, which will run at the New York Theatre Workshop from Nov 21-Jan 21 (and in which he sings), also coming up is the fourth season of TBS’ anthology series Miracle Workers, a show he says can be filed under “Sweet But Really Fucking Odd.” An upcoming episode he says is “one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done.”
Fifteen years on from hoping that people could see him do anything other than Harry Potter, Radcliffe has made it abundantly — and colorfully (and flatulently) — clear. Although he’ll forever be world-famous for playing the boy with the lightning bolt scar on his forehead, he’s also — as he had very much hoped — now known as an actor who always makes interesting choices. And whatever his next choices are, they’ll be ones he’s made purely because they excite or fascinate him, or simply make him laugh. They’ll also — quite possibly — be pretty damn odd (although how he tops Weird remains to be seen).
“I’m very fortunate in that I’m mostly in a position now to pick jobs on the basis of what seems fun,” he says. “It’s like, what seems like it’ll be a really fun thing to do?”