Daniel Radcliffe stands to greet me and I'm admittedly startled that I need to suddenly lower my hand to shake his. This hugely popular actor, this major icon of the world, is not a big guy by any means, and the shear breadth of his clout makes this all the more surprising.
Radcliffe's modest physicality certainly isn't lost on him, and he delightedly plays off of it in his new film, What If, a sort of millennial upgrade of When Harry Met Sally, co-starring Zoe Kazan and the conversely jacked Adam Driver.
In a rare, contemporary comedic role for the actor, Radcliffe plays Wallace, the guy who loves the girl (Kazan) who might just want to be friends. As he and I discuss the film, his odd coupling with Driver, and fashionable duds from the Potterverse, Radcliffe's titanic personality starts to pour out. You can forget any stereotypes that may exist about the little guy—Radcliffe is living large, and his adamant views on issues like Michael Sam's draft support the idea that he's not only a giant talent, but a vital public figure.
Out: Compared to what we’ve seen before, What If shows a slightly different side of you. What’s something you loved, and you hope viewers will love, about this shake-up?
Daniel Radcliffe: I’m just very excited to be in a modern film where I’m playing a 21st-century person. I think it’s sort of an occupational hazard of growing up as an actor in Britain: you do a lot of period stuff because we have the sets. So, yeah, I'm definitely excited for [viewers] to see me in what I feel is a more natural, more modern, and more familiar setting.
Also, growing up, most of what I watched was comedy, so I’ve always wanted to get into that. Hopefully I make people laugh.
Was there a favorite comedian you emulated or thought about while tackling this role?
A favorite comedian? I don't know. I mean, I think Wallace and my senses of humor are very similar. My own humor is kind of taken from a combination of a lot of different English or Irish stand-up comedians, like Jack Dee and Lee Evans. I watched a huge amount of stand-up comedy growing up and always loved that. And Jack Dee is very deadpan, so I think I’ve taken a lot from him. And also shows like The Office and Alan Partridge were huge things for me; although this film is not like either of those things.
It’s interesting that you say your humor and Wallace's are similar, because there’s a lot of modern irony in What If, which I associate with being very much an American thing.
I don’t know, I think that’s quite similar to British humor. There definitely was not a moment in reading it where I was like “Oh, I’m too Brit to laugh at this.” I think what’s funny is kind of funny everywhere. What’s really funny is that we, in Britain, kind of think of ourselves as being the more ironic of the two countries, so it’s interesting to hear you say that. It’s interesting that that’s the impression we both have of ourselves—that we are, like, kings of irony.
Speaking of irony, I loved the juxtaposition of you and Adam Driver, who plays Wallace's roommate and is one big, hulking dude.
He is so big. I’m a short dude, but he is a very, very tall dude.
Was that something that was heavily discussed—creating that juxtaposition as a visual gag?
I don’t think so. It's just part of it. It’s similar to when I worked with John Larroquette in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying [on Broadway]. There’s some kind of instant comedy from just having us standing next to each other. Also, one thing about Adam: He’s played such sort of loud, brash parts in things, that people expect him to be that way regularly. And though he's like a force of nature when it comes to improvising, he’s actually quite quiet, humble, and sweet. I don’t know if it was [director] Mike Dowse's aim to get such a physical difference between us, but I do think it works really well, particularly in the shot where we’re walking down the street together. It’s the shot where you really see the height difference, and they practically didn’t have a lens wide enough to be able to keep us both in frame at the same time. In general, that’s definitely something that I quite enjoy—using my height for comedy.
I loved how, at the What If screening I attended, you were engaging with the audience, and even sitting with people; however, you had to run off quickly for a performance of The Cripple of Inishmaan. Is that an accurate snapshot of your life? “Hi, I’m here, but I’ve got to go do this thing!”
Pretty much. It’s a lot of me going places and then saying, “I’m really sorry, guys! I have to go, right now.” It’s a weird part of my life, especially when a film is coming out. That’s when any free time is stopped to get geared towards promoting the film or doing something for it. One of the things I quite like about doing a play, actually, is it gives you kind of a regular life where you can do stuff during the day as well, and have more of a life. But I’m always busy. Which is fine. I like it. And you need to be busy as an actor—there are so many films coming out, why should people go and see yours? You have to find whatever you can to find separation from the rest of the pack.
When you do get a chance to have a little downtime, what’s your favorite thing to do?
Watch sports, basically. The great thing about football in this country is, when it starts, it’s on from like 1 p.m. in the afternoon until about 11 p.m. at night. And I can quite happily just sit there all day and watch that. But other than that, I do find that New York’s a great city to walk around in, particularly in the summer, and I’ll just kind of walk up by the West Side highway and people-watch—the normal boring stuff.
As a football fan, what do you think about Michael Sam, our August cover star?
I think it’s fucking awesome. It’s fantastic that he’s got a team. It’s horrendous that he slipped to 249 after being the SEC defensive player of the year. People can say whatever they like about his athleticism, or not fitting the bill for certain conditions or whatever, but the fact is no player in the last six years to win that award has been drafted lower than 16th overall, I think. So it’s sad that that was an issue. But I think he’s amazing, frankly. In interviews, at no point does he allow himself to be portrayed as a victim or someone who deserves extra sympathy. He’s brilliant at shutting that down. I think everybody else just hopes he does fucking brilliantly this year, and that there’s [going to be] a list of quarterbacks who got sacked by a gay defensive end.
My favorite comments online were the ones that said, “I don’t mind him being gay, but I don’t want to see him kiss his boyfriend.” Well, you kinda do mind, then. Also, I presume Michael Sam told the world he was gay so that when he was drafted he could do that without having to fucking think about it or hide it. And I think that’s a fantastic thing. Hopefully Michael Sam’s taking the plunge for everyone who will come after him.
Awesome to hear you say that, Daniel. In closing, I wanted to try to come up with one Harry Potter question that you maybe haven’t been asked before.
OK. If there's one actor or character from Harry Potter whose style you could steal, whose would it be?
Oh. Well, Sirius Black’s costume are awesome. He’s just got, like, a whole collection of slightly ragged but like floor-length frock coats and cool jackets and stuff like that. And David Thewlis has got a kind of shuffling-geography-teacher cool about him as Lupin, but I think it’s definitely Sirius. I’ve got to go for Gary Oldman as Sirius Black.
All right. Cool.
Oh, and I haven’t been asked that one, so well done.
Watch the What If trailer below: