Daniel Radcliffe is leaving a certain boy wizard behind. By Lucy Foster.
The first thing that strikes you when meeting Daniel Radcliffe is just how small he is. And in some ways, this is very comforting. After all, he is Harry Potter – a growing lad, no less. He could wear a gorilla suit for the rest of his life and most people would still see a pair of glasses and a wand. But it’s quite confusing when you realise that this famous schoolboy, who when ShortList meets him is rather pale after a long-haul flight earlier that morning, is actually a man.
A real grown-up man – now 23 – who is interesting, eloquent, passionate about his work and good, unguarded company. This all sounds horribly patronising, but that’s not the intention. You just don’t expect child stars to turn into well-adjusted, sensible adults who make diverse acting choices.
“I don’t think there’s any reason that I should have to do any crap,” he says, frankly. “There was a period where, because I wasn’t doing anything controversial, the British papers were trying to screw me up by implying that I was going to be in a remake of All Creatures Great And Small.”
So, if crap work and tweedy veterinarians are off the menu, what’s on it? Well, there’s blood, bleak humour and the grim business of primitive amputation for starters.
Blood and addiction
We’re meeting Radcliffe to discuss A Young Doctor’s Notebook, a four-part Sky Arts series based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov (of The Master And Margarita fame). Radcliffe plays a young physician who’s gone from university into the ravages of revolutionary Russia. Jon Hamm plays an older version of Radcliffe, who visits his younger self to try to keep him from succumbing to drug addiction.
“It’s hard to explain this show,” says Radcliffe. “You start saying it’s about a Russian doctor in 1917 operating on people for the first time and then he eventually gets addicted to morphine. But I promise it’s a comedy. What’s unique about it is this combination of gruesome blood and a heart-breaking journey into addiction.”
That’s not the only unique thing: you’ve probably never seen Don Draper and Harry Potter sharing a bath before or two such eminent actors – of such different sizes – having a full-scale fight. “I’m surprisingly robust,” says Radcliffe. “I’ve been training with the stunt department since I was 12 – I love all that. And I’m pleased because I gave Jon a good punch. I came out of it quite well.”
Amputations, tracheostomies and tooth extractions also feature as Radcliffe’s graduate doctor struggles to deal with his lack of experience amid spraying blood. Viewers aren’t spared any of the more lurid aspects of early-20th-century medicine. There was a medical consultant on set, but the surgery in 1917 rural Russia was so rudimentary, an odd-job man with a hacksaw would have been as good an advisor as any.
There are no jitters from Radcliffe about how Hogwarts devotees will view the flying viscera and filthy humour. “It’s not about shocking people for shock’s sake, it’s about doing good work and things that interest and excite me,” he reasons.
“I mean, I played a guy who simulated sex on the back of a horse [in Equus] when I was 17, and [Harry Potter fans] were fine with that.”
Radcliffe clearly lapped up the darker elements of this latest job. And if nothing else, he came away from it with a new appreciation of the intricacies of sawing through someone’s leg: “You assume once you’re through the bone, the bulk
of your work is done, but actually there’s a huge chunk of muscle and fat as well,” he kindly shares. If you’re eating lunch, we can only apologise.
The London-born actor has always been a wise head on young shoulders and A Young Doctor’s Notebook is the latest shrewd attempt to ape the career of a fellow diminutive actor.
“The person I’ve been looking at is Dustin Hoffman,” he admits. “In fact, I passed him the other day and he is absolutely on the shorter side, as am I. But he was in all those great roles, from action thrillers to romantic stuff. So there is a way of doing it unconventionally if you don’t necessarily look like the 6ft romantic lead.”
Radcliffe’s first major dalliance with unconventionality was, of course, the aforementioned, um, horseplay in Equus. Then last year, he completed an 11-month stint on Broadway in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. He notched several awards – but not a Tony. “I wasn’t nominated and everyone kept asking if I was OK,” laughs Radcliffe. “It was like I’d lost a f*cking relative. In America, people are more openly [in pursuit of] awards. As lovely as awards are, I don’t get caught up in it.”
And why would he? A month after he wrapped up his run on Broadway, the Radcliffe-starring Edwardian chiller The Woman In Black became the most successful British horror film in 20 years. Inevitably, he’s been linked to a part in a similarly gothic reimagining of Frankenstein, this time as the doctor’s humpbacked assistant, a role he’s being frustratingly coy about. “It’s something I’d be interested in,” is the most he’ll give us, but it’s clear he has a work ethic you might not expect in an outrageously wealthy twenty-something.
“Doing Equus was important,” he explains. “It showed people that I wasn’t just here to capitalise on the Potter fame for as long as I could. I think ultimately, I’m ambitious because I want to prove everyone wrong who thinks that it’s impossible to emerge from Harry Potter and do well.”
For his next move, he’s dusted down his US accent for an indie ode to the Beatnik poets, called Kill Your Darlings, in which he plays Allen Ginsberg. So, to research the part, they obviously sat around in cafés doing speed, right? “We weren’t hopped-up all the time,” he laughs. “But what was great was that Dane (DeHaan – who plays Lucien Carr), Ben (Foster – William Burroughs) and Jack (Huston – Jack Kerouac) went for a gang mentality. We sat around, had a laugh, and got to know each other in 25 days.
“The script was one of the best I’ve read. There was a sense that if we could just film this, then we’d have to go a long way to f*ck it up. And we’ve improved it by virtue of the way it was filmed – in a guerrilla style.”
This brand of filmmaking provided an opportunity for a well-adjusted boy millionaire to engage in the sort of theatrics you’d expect from students rather than A-list stars. “We were kicked out of Columbia University at 4am in the morning,” Radcliffe laughs. “We were running through the campus trying to knock off one last shot before we got expelled from the premises. These drunk college kids were just like, ‘What the f*ck?’ And I was in Ginsberg gear with a perm.”
There’s hope for him yet.
A Young Doctor’s Notebook begins on Sky Arts on 6 December at 9pm