Many child stars find themselves washed up by the time they reach adulthood, but Daniel Radcliffe's career is going strong — and that's no accident.
"There is never a moment's doubt in my mind that this is what I want to do," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "If I die on a film set when I'm 80, I'll be happy with that."
Since wrapping up the last Harry Potter film, Radcliffe has taken on roles you may not have expected from the former boy wizard: He starred onstage in Equus, in which he appeared nude; he sang and danced in a Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; he co-stars in the new TV series A Young Doctor's Notebook, in which Mad Men's Jon Hamm plays a morphine-addicted doctor and Radcliffe plays the doctor's younger self; and he stars as poet Allen Ginsberg in the new movie Kill Your Darlings, set in 1944, when Ginsberg was a freshman at Columbia University.
On why director John Krokidas chose him to play Ginsberg
He saw something in Allen's situation in life — which was that of somebody trying to figure out who they are creatively — and he saw, I think, a parallel of that in my life, as somebody who had come out of one thing, obviously Potter, which I'm very known for ... and trying to establish myself outside of that.
Also, John and I are aware that most people in any kind of creative industry generally, I think, have an operating system that runs between the extremes of self-doubt or anxiety, and ambition, and that's definitely something Allen has. And I think that's something I probably have in common with him.
On being tutored on the set of Harry Potter
I pretty much left full-time, formal education when I was 11, so that was when I was taken out of the school system. ... The longest stretch I would go back for was a term and a half when I was about 14. And then other than that I would really just go back for exams, and it wasn't something I looked forward to. I was so happy on set ... that I really didn't love going back to school.
I was not very academic as a child when I was at school — not bottom of the class, but not far off it either. [I] found concentrating very hard, all of that stuff you always hear. And being tutored one-to-one on set was just fantastic.
Also, I'm a very hyperactive person, so if you tell me to sit still and shut up and learn and take information, it's not going to happen. I take things in better when I'm allowed to talk, and respond, and engage and move around a bit.
On breaking into musical theater
Both of my parents have been actors; there were a lot of show tunes on in the car all of the time. I grew up with that. I honestly didn't think [singing] would be something for a lot longer in my career, but when the opportunity came up to do it [in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying] I thought, "Oh, well, why not?" It seemed like such a mad challenge to take on.
The singing was something I had more confidence in because I've always loved singing, and I've always done it around the house. Actually, [in] the first scene of Equus, my character comes on ... and he only sings advertising jingles. ... And when I first started doing Equus, I constantly was screwing up the tune. ... So they sent me to a singing teacher just so I could learn the tune. And then I really got on with my singing teacher ... and I've been going to him ever since.
On his parents' hesitance at letting him play Harry Potter
Both my mom and my dad had not had very great experiences as actors, and when I was initially asked to audition for Harry, they both said no. And I didn't have any knowledge of this at this point — obviously they kept me pretty out of it, rightly so. But they said no, because at that time the deal was that we'd have to sign on for seven films, and they'd all be made in America, and they just said, "No, that will be too big of a shift to his life. That's not going to happen."
And so months later, when the deal had changed, and ... we only had to sign on for two, and they'd both be filmed in the U.K. — I think [with that], coupled with the fact that I was really not having a great time at school, they thought, "Maybe we should let him audition." And then everything went from there.
On what he learned from the veterans on the Potter set
The most important thing I learned during Potter from a lot of those actors was just how to be on set. ... Because there were some people that handle themselves so brilliantly that they make everybody's day better by the way they conduct themselves. Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis — they can lift a set with what they bring to it. And I think watching that really made an impression at a young age and gave [me] a sense of the responsibility you have if you're a lead actor on a film. Because I don't think a lot of actors take that responsibility very seriously.
As a lead actor on a film, you have the opportunity to dramatically affect the course of the day, because if you come on set with a terrible attitude then everyone else immediately sees that, and if you don't want to be there, why should they want to be there? I think if you walk on with a good attitude, enthusiastic and happy to be doing what you're doing, hopefully that helps engender a better atmosphere.
On his sense of belonging in the film business
The British school system ... if you're not good at certain things, basically it makes you feel very, very mediocre and very average. To suddenly be taken out of that and put into a world where A) I felt like I belonged and B) my insane energy levels that I had, particularly as a kid ... were actually viewed as useful and people enjoyed that about me ... it gave me a purpose and sense of belonging and confidence that I doubt I ever would've had, had I not gotten into it when I did. So I want to do it for the rest of my life.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Daniel Radcliffe, grew up onscreen during the course of his eight Harry Potter films. Many child stars find themselves washed up by the time they reach adulthood, but Radcliffe's career is going strong, and he's taken on roles you may not have predicted for the boy wizard.
He starred in a London and Broadway production of "Equus," in which he appeared nude; he sang and danced in the leading role of a Broadway revival of the musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"; he co-stars with Jon Hamm in a new series produced for British TV that's just premiered here on the Ovation Network called "A Young Doctor's Notebook," with Hamm has a morphine-addicted doctor and Radcliffe as his younger self.
And in the new movie "Kill Your Darlings," Radcliffe stars as poet Allen Ginsberg, who became an important figure in beat culture, the '60s counterculture and gay culture. "Kill Your Darlings" is set in 1944, when Ginsberg was a freshman at Columbia University. The movie is based on the story of his friendship with Jack Kerouac and Lucian Carr, a fellow Columbia student who was a literary provocateur, advocating for breaking with the literature of the past and starting a new movement he called the new vision.
At the center of the film is Carr's murder of an older man who was obsessed with him. Carr pled guilty to manslaughter. Here's a scene in which Daniel Radcliffe, as Allen Ginsberg, reads an early poem to Kerouac and Carr. They're in a rowboat they've stolen on the Hudson River.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "KILL YOUR DARLINGS")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DANIEL RADCLIFFE: (as Allen Ginsberg) Be careful, you are not in Wonderland. I've heard the strange madness long growing in your soul. But you are fortunate in your ignorance, in your isolation. You who have suffered find where love hides, give, share, lose, lest we die unbloomed.
GROSS: Daniel Radcliffe, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on the show.
RADCLIFFE: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: So let's start with you got cast in the part of Allen Ginsberg in "Kill Your Darlings." What made the director think of you?
RADCLIFFE: From what he's told me, he saw something in Allen's situation in life, which was that of a - of somebody trying to figure out who they are creatively, and he saw I think a parallel of that in my life as somebody who had, you know, come out of one thing, obviously parts of which I'm very known for, and...
RADCLIFFE: And trying to establish - yeah - and these small indie films I did, and, you know, and trying to establish myself outside of that. And I think he saw some parallels in just the - also I think, you know, John and I are aware that most people in any kind of creative industry generally, I think, have an operating system that runs between the extremes of, you know, of self-doubt and - or of anxiety and ambition.
And that's definitely something that Allen has, and I think that's something that I probably have in common with him.
GROSS: When I heard that you were cast to play Ginsberg, part of me was thinking, well, Ginsberg looks so Jewish, and certain, like, Hebraic intonations was such a part of his style of reading and sometimes his style of writing, like Kaddish. And I was thinking I don't know, Daniel Radcliffe, he doesn't - does he look Jewish? I don't know.
And then I'm like reading your biography and, like, your mother's Jewish.
GROSS: Not that you need to be Jewish to take the part. I'm just telling you what I was, you know, appropriately or inappropriately thinking.
RADCLIFFE: You know what, it's funny because I think - because John, you know, there is some weird thing, like when - I just played an Irish character in "The Cripple Of Inishmaan" over the summer, and the director of that show, Michael Grandage, was saying to everyone, you know, Dan's Irish and all this. And then the director of this movie, John, is saying to everyone, you know, Dan is Jewish, he is...
RADCLIFFE: So like both my - so I don't know if like that's a role or something, but, I mean, I'm very proud of my Irish and Jewish roots, but I wouldn't - you know, I certainly wouldn't say that my Judaism had in any way - had been a part of my life in nearly the same way it was Allen's.
But yeah, it's interesting that people, like, feel the need to, I don't know, sell me as, like, he is Jewish, he can play a Jew. Like it's OK, you guys. You don't need to worry. Like he has this - like the entire Jewish community is just going to freak out if a non-Jewish person plays a Jew.
GROSS: Well no, but really, you should say what the wizards were saying when you took the role of Harry Potter.
GROSS: It's like, well, he's not really a wizard. You cannot give him the role.
(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)
GROSS: You OK?
RADCLIFFE: Yes, sorry, I should really have used that cough button that's lit up in front of me.
GROSS: All right, too late now.
RADCLIFFE: It is. Sorry about that. I don't - yeah.
GROSS: So Ginsberg was also gay, which you're not, but you've given a lot of money to gay rights groups. And I've read that you've said that that's because you grew up with so many gay men that - and when you were exposed to homophobia for the first time, like you were shocked because it was so not part of the world that you were in, which I imagine was like the acting world.
RADCLIFFE: Yeah, I mean exactly. My mom was a costume director, and my dad was a literary agent. So - and they had both been actors when they were younger. So I grew up knowing loads of gay men, and it was just not - you know, it's not even something you question. You just go, like, you know, you don't think about it. And, yeah, somebody was asking me about this earlier, just saying, like, why is it that you give so much attention to, you know, the Trevor Projects and things involved in that cause.
GROSS: It's an anti-gay bullying project, yeah.
RADCLIFFE: Yes, sorry, thank you. And I really - it actually started from, like, an interview I was doing when I was 17, or 17, 18, in London, and I was being interviewed by Attitude, which is a gay magazine in England, in the U.K. And they were telling me lots about lots of gay rights issues that had come up recently in the U.K., and then they were asking me about stuff.
And as I started talking, I became aware of how passionate I was getting and how - and I suddenly was like I've never really spoken this strongly on any, like, political issue before. Like I've never - I don't mean to sound like a horrible person, but I've never had the same, you know, zeal for the environment that I know a lot of people do.
Like - not that I don't care, but it's, like, it's just that you, you know, you find what you're passionate about. And with this thing, I suddenly started talking about it, and I think it is a consequence of the fact that when I went to school and suddenly was seeing people be homophobic, and even though I was, you know, nine or 10, and there was, you know, nobody in my class - well, certainly nobody in my class had come out at that point, you know. And - but it was just, like, homophobic words and slang being thrown around as insults.
GROSS: So you were exposed to, like, homophobia and homophobic slurs when you were in school. When were you in school? Because I know there was a period when you were doing Harry Potter films when you were basically being tutored outside of school so you could make the movies.
RADCLIFFE: No absolutely. I mean, I was - I pretty much left full-time formal education when I was 11. So that was when I was taken out of the school system. But, you know, gay homophobic slang is being thrown around in playgrounds a lot younger than that. Like it's the reality.
GROSS: Did you go back to school afterwards?
RADCLIFFE: I would go back for - I think the longest stretch I went back for was a term and a half when I was about 14. So sorry, a semester and a half. And then I - other than that I would just really go back for exams. And it wasn't something I looked forward to. I was, you know, so - I was so happy on-set, and I loved it there. I really didn't - yeah, I didn't love going back to school.
And also even my education on-set, like, I was not very academic as a child when I was at school. I was really - not bottom of the class but not far off it, either, and found concentrating very hard and all that stuff that you always hear. And, you know, being tutored one-to-one on-set was just fantastic. And also, you know, I'm a very hyperactive person, so if you tell me to sit still and shut up and learn and just take in information, it's not going to happen.
You know, I'm - you know, I need to kind of - I take things in better when I'm allowed to respond and talk and engage and, you know, move around a bit.
GROSS: So I want to ask you a question that you've probably been asked a lot. You've probably been asked everything a lot, but...
GROSS: So, you know, in the new movie, "Kill Your Darlings," you're playing Allen Ginsberg when he's 17. And he's just kind of exploring his own sexuality. And did people ever resist you being sexualized at all, straight or gay, onscreen because they first knew you when you were 11 in the first Harry Potter film, and they couldn't really maybe accept you growing up?
RADCLIFFE: Maybe, but I think I just - I shocked them out of that with "Equus." I mean, like...
GROSS: Right because you were nude onstage in that.
RADCLIFFE: Yeah, "Equus" was - and, you know, and it's a highly - it's a very complicated, sexual character, Alan in "Equus." He's somebody who has a - at some point he's a seriously disturbed kid who has got his religion and sexuality mixed up with the idea of worshipping horses. Like he's - you know, so if anybody had any kind of, you know, qualms about seeing me in a slightly challenging or older or sexualized role, I mean, yeah, they probably didn't come an see it, is the truth.
RADCLIFFE: But that's, you know, that's fine. It's - I'm sure there are some people that just go, oh, no, that's weird, I've looked at him since he was 11. But, you know, there are also some who don't, I'm happy about, because like I am a man now. So it doesn't seem to be - it certainly hasn't been an issue in terms of casting or in terms of any of the scenes I've been doing in the last year, and hopefully it's - hopefully, it won't be a problem for people going forward because I don't want to be creeping people out all the time.
GROSS: My guest is Daniel Radcliffe, who starred in all the Harry Potter movies and now stars as Allen Ginsberg in the new film "Kill Your Darlings." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Radcliffe, and he's starring in the new movie "Kill Your Darlings," and he plays the role of Allen Ginsberg.
Now at the same time you have this new movie, you also have a new TV series. Well, it's already run in England, but it's new to the United States.
GROSS: And the TV series is called "A Young Doctor's Notebook," and it's inspired by a collection of autobiographical stories written by the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, who was sent to the countryside to be a doctor when he was very young, around 1917. And I think because of war injuries he actually became a morphine addict but gave up the morphine pretty quickly.
But in the TV series, it's set in 1934, and Jon Hamm plays a doctor who is looking back on an early period of his life, around 1917, when he's sent to the countryside to be a doctor, before he became an addict. And so Jon Hamm plays the older character, and when he's looking back on his younger life, that's you. You're the younger version of that character.
RADCLIFFE: It is, yes, very flatteringly - it's very flattering to me that I might one day turn into Jon Hamm.
GROSS: Are you going to wait patiently for that to happen?
RADCLIFFE: I am waiting patiently. Yes, I absolutely...
GROSS: So what did you do to capture each other? Because he, I'm sure, wanted to look and sound a little bit more like you, and you wanted to look and sound a little bit more like him and meet somewheres in the middle.
RADCLIFFE: Absolutely. I mean, that's what we went for, really, and those things vocally - I mean, Jon, you know, Jon had worked on his accent anyway and had a very good English accent, but he did get me to record the entire script of the first series for him and just - all his lines so he could listen to me say - 'cause there are just odd words that don't come up in American very often, so you would want to hear an English person say them, just as there are words I have to ask people in American.
But yeah, I mean, and then we worked on things like little visual, sort of ticks. And, you know, there's a thing both - we worked out when we were - when the doctor's nervous or, you know, under stress he just has this little twitch where he'll kind of just, like, rub his earlobe slightly, just like play with a little bit.
So there's things like that that can act as quite good visual cues, and then there's a bunch of stuff that you can do, you know, visually not really so much in the performance but in the way you film it. So we - you know, the first cut of the series from the older doctor to the younger doctor is a match cut where basically he's lighting a cigarette, and on the third strike of the lighter it goes from 1934 to 1917.
But then there is stuff that we did during the show with, you know, hair and makeup just to, you know, give us a similar look. And it's weird because although, you know, when you think about both of us, we don't look similar. With, you know, a bit of clever lighting and a bit of hair and makeup, you can accentuate the right parts of the face that we do sort of have in common.
GROSS: So let me play a contrast, a little bit of Jon Hamm and a little bit of you from that new TV series.
(SOUNDBITE OF V SHOW, A "YOUNG DOCTOR'S NOTEBOOK")
JON HAMM: (as Older Doctor) I know it's unbearable to watch a patient walk out that door knowing he's going to die a slow, agonizing death, but you get used to it.
RADCLIFFE: (as Younger Doctor) How can you say that?
HAMM: (as Older Doctor) True, he's one of hundreds, and that's just syphilis.
RADCLIFFE: (as Younger Doctor) That's terrible. It's an epidemic.
HAMM: (as Older Doctor) I know, but what can you do?
RADCLIFFE: (as Younger Doctor) I'll open a ward. I'll write a compelling letter to the (unintelligible) asking for more staff. I have to fight this.
HAMM: (as Older Doctor) And save the world one peasant at a time?
RADCLIFFE: (as Younger Doctor) Yes.
HAMM: (As Older Doctor) I like your optimism. It's adorable.
RADCLIFFE: (as Younger Doctor) I'm a doctor. It is my duty to help these people.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
HAMM: (as Older Doctor) I believe duty calls.
GROSS: So that's Jon Hamm and my guest Daniel Radcliffe from the new Ovation TV series "A Young Doctor's Notebook." So did you go back and read the Bulgakov stories that the series is based on?
RADCLIFFE: I did. I'm actually a massive fan of Bulgakov, and I have been for - since I was about 18 because I read "The Master and Margarita" when I was about that age, and - which is his sort of most famous novel and is a much - I mean, it's a much madder novel than "A Country Doctor's Notebook." It's really, it's magical realism, and it's the devil and Jesus and Pontius Pilate and all kinds is going on. But it's brilliant fun.
But yes, I did indeed read the originals of these stories and loved them, and I had read them before they ever said they were going to make a TV show out of it. So when they - when the idea came to me, I was - kind of couldn't believe it. I was just kind of saying are you joking? They're really making a series of that book that I love. You know, it was - I was just - I was just incredibly excited.
And when Jon Hamm and Alex Hardcastle, the director of the first series, came 'round to talk about it, I, you know, practically bit their hand off as soon as soon as they got through the door just to do the part. Or I just - I think they thought they were going to have to really convince me, and I was already sold.
GROSS: So moving along with your career, I want to play a song from "How to Succeed." You were the star of the show a couple of years ago when it was revived on Broadway, a terrific Frank Loesser show, Frank Loesser who's most famous for "Guys and Dolls." And the funny thing is, you know, we were talking about you and Jon Hamm.
Robert Morse, who plays Burt Cooper, one of the ad agency founders in "Mad Men," originated the part that you play in "How to Succeed." So...
RADCLIFFE: He did, and he came to see it, as well, and it was a complete delight.
GROSS: So is it a coincidence that you're connected to, you know, both Don Draper and Burt Cooper?
RADCLIFFE: I don't know, but I feel like I have an in at that company.
RADCLIFFE: I'm - I mean, it is a total coincidence. But he was amazing when he came to the show because he just still has an incredible amount of energy, and just - I mean, I don't know, he must be in - around his 80s now, I'm sure.
GROSS: Oh, he's got to be at least that, I'd think.
RADCLIFFE: Yeah, and he just - but he loved it, had a great time at the show and could not have been - because it's always intimidating when you know you have the guy who originated the role coming to see it that night, and he couldn't have been warmer in his response to it, which was really, really lovely. And he has as much hair on his head now as anyone I've ever met in my life.
Like I really - like we were just - whenever he came in, we were, like, that's amazing.
GROSS: So I had no idea that you sang, so I very much have enjoyed the cast recording. I missed you on Broadway, unfortunately, but I have enjoyed the cast recording. So let me play a track, and this is actually the title song. The premise is that you're a young man, and you want to rise in the ranks of the corporation in which you've just been hired.
And to help you, you have a self-help book, which is called "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." And this is the track that is related to the book. So here's my guest Daniel Radcliffe in the revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING")
RADCLIFFE: (as J. Pierrepont Finch) (Singing) How to apply for a job, how to advance from the mailroom, how to sit down at a desk, how to dictate memorandums, how to develop executive style, how to commute in a three-button suit with that weary executive smile.
(as J. Pierrepont Finch) This book is all that I need, how to, how to succeed...
GROSS: That was Daniel Radcliffe in the cast recording of the revival of "How to Succeed." So did you have to learn how to sing to do this, or did you already know how to sing? Had you been in musicals before?
RADCLIFFE: I'd never been in musicals before. I'd always wanted to be because I did - I grew up, you know, both - as I said, both my parents having been actors. There was a lot of show tunes on in the car all of the time. So I grew up with that. I honestly didn't think it would be something for a lot longer in my career, but then when the opportunity came up to do it, I just thought, well, you know, why not. You don't - you know, it seemed like such a mad challenge to take on.
The singing was something I had more confidence in because I've always loved singing, and I've always sort of done it around the house. But I definitely - and actually when I did "Equus," the first scene of "Equus," my character comes on, and he's, as I've mentioned earlier, a disturbed young man, and he only sings advertising jingles, is the only thing he'll do.
And he sings the Milky Bar Kid is what he sings a lot in the first scene, and I, the first time I did "Equus," was constantly screwing up the tune of the Milky Bar Kid. So they sent me to a singing teacher just so I could learn the tune. And then I really got on with my singing teacher, his name is Mark Malen(ph), and he's wonderful, and I've been going to him ever since.
And then I - the thing I had to do for "How to Succeed," which I've never done before, was learn to dance. And J. Pierrepont Finch, the director, sort of connected me with a guy called Spencer Solomon in England who had danced for Rob and worked with Rob many times. And so I took dance classes for just over a year, sort of every, you know, a lot of hours every week. And it was really, really hard work but some of the most rewarding, as well.
GROSS: Daniel Radcliffe will be back in the second half of the show. He stars as Allen Ginsberg" in the new film "Kill Your Darlings," I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Daniel Radcliffe. He starred in eight Harry Potter films, and is now carving out an interesting adult career in film, TV and theater. He stars with John Hamm in the British TV series "A Young Doctor's Notebook," which premiered in the U.S. last week on the Ovation Network. And in the new film "Kill Your Darlings," he stars as the 17-year-old Allen Ginsberg.
Here's Radcliffe in a scene from the 2001 film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first film in the series. Potter has been living in the non-magical world and doesn't yet know he's a wizard. On his 11th birthday, he's paid a visit by a giant from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The giant is played by Robbie Coltrane.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE")
RADCLIFFE: (as Harry Potter) Excuse me. Who are you?
ROBBIE COLTRANE: (as Hagrid) Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts. Of course, you know all about Hogwarts.
RADCLIFFE: (as Harry Potter) Sorry, no.
COLTRANE: (as Hagrid) No? Blimey Harry, didn't you ever wonder where your mum and dad learned it all?
RADCLIFFE: (as Harry Potter) Learned what?
COLTRANE: (as Hagrid) You're a wizard, Harry.
RADCLIFFE: (as Harry Potter) I'm a what?
COLTRANE: (as Hagrid) A wizard. And a thumpin' good one I'd wager - once you've trained up a bit.
RADCLIFFE: (as Harry Potter) No, you've made a mistake. I mean, I can't be a wizard. I mean I'm just Harry. Just Harry.
GROSS: So your mother is a casting director. When you first started working in movies, and particularly in the Harry Potter films, did your mother have a hand in that? Was she trying to...
RADCLIFFE: No, not at all.
GROSS: ...like persuade or...
RADCLIFFE: No. Not in the slightest.
GROSS: ...persuade you into or out of doing acting?
RADCLIFFE: Yeah. She was trying to persuade me out of it, I think. She - both my mom and my dad had not had great experiences as actors. And when I was initially asked to audition for Harry, they both said no. And I didn't have any knowledge of this at this point, obviously they kept me out of it, rightly so. But they said no because at that time the deal was that we'd have to sign on for seven films and that they'd all be made in America, and they just said no that would be too big a shift to his life, that's not going to happen. And so three months later when the deal had changed and then it was the fact, you know, that we were only having to sign on for two and they would both be filmed in the U.K., and I think coupled with the fact that I was really like not having a great time at school, I think she just thought - well, they thought OK, well, you know, maybe this is, well, you should let him audition and then everything sort of went from there.
GROSS: When you first got cast in "David Copperfield" for the BBC before Harry Potter, was your mother helpful in giving you an audition - since she is a casting director?
RADCLIFFE: No, my agent got me the audition. He was with the woman who was a friend of my mom and dad's. She was, oh, she is my agent now and, you know, so when I was having this crappy time at school, she just said to my mom, well, why don't you let him audition for "David Copperfield" because that's like an experience that none of the other kids in the class will have had, and so he'll at least have an experience that is all his own and his unique, and makes him feel, you know, makes him feel all right about himself. You know, I had never done a school play - or I had been in the background of one school play but I never said a line in a school play and so I don't think anybody expected me to get it up and then they, and then I did.
GROSS: That's actually hysterical, because this person intended it as a self-esteem building exercise. But really, I think like auditioning kind of kills actor's self-esteem because you get rejected 99 percent of the time.
RADCLIFFE: Yeah. No. I definitely got lucky on that one. But I also think there was nothing at stake for me. Like I didn't care whether or not I got that first audition. Like it was just something nice to do. It was something different. Now I was going to be able to go back to school and say to all the kids hey, guess what I did today. I didn't think I'd get it, but there was nothing riding on it for me because there was no pressure. Like my parents didn't care whether I got it or not, so...
GROSS: Had you read Harry Potter books before auditioning for the part?
RADCLIFFE: I had read the first two, but that was it. I wasn't nearly the sort of fanatic that a lot of other people who were auditioning were, and which is why I think there were quite a few people that were pissed off when I got the part. And I said in my first press conference 'cause I was 10 or 11 or whatever, and I was just like oh, you know, I don't, I've only read the first two and, you know, and of course, there was some, you know, person writing in the newspaper the other day going, how dare they not pick a true fan for the thing? And you just go, oh Jesus.
GROSS: So you'd never studied acting but you got this incredible on set education. Did each of the actors and the directors kind of share with you the type of training that they got? Were you exposed to everybody's training?
RADCLIFFE: Not really. No. I mean there's, you don't have time like on a film set to, like, train a kid up at the same time as doing your own job. You know, there's no, so really, it's just about it was I think so it was on us to watch and learn. Alan Rickman is not suddenly going to, you know, take timeout of his day to talk to you about something, you know, when you've got a shot to get, or whatever. I mean Alan has actually incidentally, been an incredibly supportive person in my life and has come to see me in every theater endeavor I've done and, you know, has been amazing. Actually, he's since Potter has taught me huge amounts. But it's not always, you know, you're on a film set, everyone's there to do a job, so it's not always, you know, the first thing on everyone's mind would be to like oh, let's, you know, give these kids a theatrical education while we're here.
But I definitely think that, you know, you learn a lot just by watching those guys and by taking it in. And you learn, the most important thing I really think I learned during Potter from a lot of those actors was just how to be on set, and who I admired for how they handled themselves on set. Because there are some people that handle themselves so brilliantly that they make everybody's day better by the way they conduct themselves. Like Imelda Staunton is one of them, who plays Dolores Umbridge in the fifth film. You know, and Gary Oldman, David Thewlis - they're all guys that, you know, in the way they can lift a set because of what they bring to it. And I think watching that really made an impression at a young age and gave you a sense of the responsibility you have if you're a lead actor on a film. Because I don't think a lot of actors take that responsibility very seriously.
I think that - 'cause as a lead actor on a film, you have an opportunity to dramatically affect the course of the day. Because if you come on set with a terrible attitude then everyone else immediately sees that, and then if you don't want to be there, why should they want to be there? And, you know, I think if you walk on with a good attitude, enthusiastic and happy to be doing what you're doing then, you know, hopefully that creates, that helps engender a better atmosphere. And I don't think everyone on, I don't think all actors realize the power they have in that.
GROSS: So you were a child actor with a lot of young fans - and older fans as well. But, you know, I think particularly like film fans in general but I think, you know, children who were fans in particular, have trouble differentiating between the actor and the character. So...
RADCLIFFE: Yeah, younger fans. Absolutely.
GROSS: ...when you were young and in the early Harry Potter films, and a lot of your child fans were confusing you with the character, was that confusing for you since you were young yourself and so new to all of this? Like, you just stepped into stardom at such a young age.
RADCLIFFE: I think I just found it funny. I mean I didn't ever really get like panicked or confused by it. I think I just always found it kind of funny that I would provoke reactions from people, you know, whatever those reactions were. I think I just always found it kind of slightly amusing and unexpected. And yeah, it definitely didn't throw me too much as a kid. I think also when you start very young, you've more of a chance to like adapt. I always think it's much harder if you, if I'd got famous like in my late teens or early 20s to then have to deal with all that is I think a lot harder than if you kind of just grow up with it and you sort of adapt to it a lot better as you, if you grew up with it.
GROSS: What was the hardest part for you of proving that you could be things other than Harry Potter as an actor?
RADCLIFFE: You know, ultimately, the person that I'm proving that to most is myself. And ultimately, the stuff that is hardest about that is just moments of self-doubt and moments of worry. And, but you can't, you know, you can't let that worry or that self-doubt really take any kind of hold. I mean there's no point. I think there was a moment shortly after Potter where I did feel like, you know, what if I never go on to anything, you know, how would I feel? But you consider that question and then consider the answer and then use that as fuel to motivate yourself to not let it happen.
GROSS: Do you ever ask yourself, do I still really want this, do I still really want to act?
GROSS: Because - yeah, and I'm asking that because like you just grew in it. And a lot of people like fantasize about what it's going to be and they work so hard to get it. And they search for themselves and then they find themselves in their career. But like, you had it all along.
RADCLIFFE: Yeah. But that doesn't necessarily mean any of it was easy. Right.
GROSS: Right. Yeah.
RADCLIFFE: You know, it's not - just because like I think there does seem to be this idea that like if you work on a big franchise that's an easy version of acting...
RADCLIFFE: ...which like it isn't - like it's a different thing and it's a very different style, but it presents as its own very specific set of challenges. You know, there's...
GROSS: And I didn't mean that the acting was easy.
RADCLIFFE: No, no, no.
GROSS: I just meant that like...
RADCLIFFE: No. Not at all. Not at all. It's an easier run into it.
GROSS: ...once you were in you were in. You didn't have to like break in when you were 22 after college or something, you know.
RADCLIFFE: No. Of course. But I think also the, like I just, yeah. Honestly, the answer is no. There is never a moment's doubt in my mind that this is what I want to do. If I, you know, die on a film set when I'm 80 I'll be happy with that. I, I was, you know, in school when I was young and I hated it. And, you know, the British school system - as I said, if you're not good at certain things basically makes you feel very, very mediocre and very average. And to suddenly be taken out of that and put into a world where A) I felt like I belonged, and B) like my insane energy levels that I had, particularly when I was a kid were not just - but they were actually viewed as useful and people enjoyed that about me or rather than people just trying to tamp it down constantly because it was irritating or, you know, too loud for a classroom. It gave me a purpose and sense of belonging and confidence that I doubt I ever would've had, had I not gotten into it when I did. And so I, you know, I want to do it for the rest of my life.
GROSS: Celebrity can be very damaging. And that might be more true in America than in England, but there are so many people who become famous and then have problems. Or if they become famous when they're young and they don't stay famous there's, I think there's a lot of like resentments that can build up. And so did your parents do anything to protect you from the possibility of all that? Because you're one of the child actors who like not only made it out alive, but you've made it out e showing your, you know, the range that you're capable of and you keep doing more and more interesting things. So like to what do you attribute your ability to survive the problems of child stardom that so many actors who were child stars fall prey to?
RADCLIFFE: Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to my parents. My parents are great people and they've always looked after me. And I don't have it, like I'm not somebody who has a load of people around him all the time purely there to tell him, to make him feel better. You know, that's not really me. All the people that I'm surrounded by are very honest with me and upfront with me about things and that's how I like it. And also, the work has always remained the focus for me. The work has always been the thing I found the most fun of. You know, I love being on a film set. And, you know, I certainly, you know, maybe there are some people out there that love premiere parties, I'm not one of them. That is not my idea of fun. But my idea of fun is being on a film set for 12 hours a day. And I think as long as that remains the focus, then generally it can go well.
I mean the thing is there's - it is, you know, there are so many of a very high-profile cases of people who started young and then screwed up. But the truth is that the reason there aren't any high-profile cases of people who were young and then didn't screw up is because people forget that they were ever young and people sort of just, they just bleed into their adult careers seamlessly and then everyone sort of forgets. You know, I mean know what he thinks of Joseph Gordon Levitt as a child actor who survived. But like he is. He was on a huge show when he was a young kid. You know, Jodie Foster, Elijah Woods, Christian Bale all started very, very young. And, you know, particularly Jodie Foster is somebody who has handled both her professional and personal life with more grace than almost anybody. I'm hoping that I can join the ranks of the latter rather than the former.
GROSS: Well, Daniel Radcliffe, I wish we could talk more. You have a very busy schedule. Thank you for spending some of your time with us. I really appreciate it. It's been a pleasure.
RADCLIFFE: Thank you again. Thank you for having me on, please.
GROSS: Daniel Radcliffe stars as Allen Ginsberg in the new film "Kill Your Darlings."
Coming up, Ben Franklin was a founding father. His sister, Jane, spent her life caring for her 12 children, cooking and scrubbing. Maureen Corrigan reviews Jill LePore's new biography of Jane Franklin after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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