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The Long Education of Daniel Radcliffe

By Aaron Hicklin

Photography by Kai Z Feng / Styling by Grant Woolhead

Let’s be clear: It is perfectly possible to write about Daniel Radcliffe without resorting to Quidditch jokes or salty references to magic wands. It just doesn’t happen very often. We have, after all, watched him -- or a version of him -- grow up before our eyes at the very time when many of us needed cinema’s charms and potions most. It began with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in November 2001, when smoke still wafted over Ground Zero, with a hesitant, touchingly overwhelmed 10-year-old arriving at Hogwarts only to find himself in a fight with an invisible but omnipresent evil. It climaxed 10 years later, in July 2011, with a self-aware, determined young man finally vanquishing Ralph Fiennes’s Lord Voldemort, coincidentally a few months after Navy SEALS dispatched Osama bin Laden. Life is sometimes eerie that way.

But Daniel Radcliffe is not Harry Potter -- he just looks and sounds a lot like him. It can be a burden, and not just because of the security detail that accompanies him everywhere. When you’ve played one role for half your life, it casts a long shadow. Since his conquest over evil, Radcliffe has taken the lead in a demanding and athletic Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, exercised his scaredy face in the artful horror movie The Woman in Black, and channeled Russian satirist Mikhail Bulgakov in a British TV miniseries, A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which involved sharing a tin bathtub with Jon Hamm (it should air here later this year). Does he think his fans are beginning to tell him apart from his most famous role?

“I’ve always said that it’s a long process, and in a way it may be a lifelong one,” he concedes on a gloomy January afternoon in North London. “It’s about proving to people that I’m in this for the long haul, and that I wasn’t just looking to get as famous as I could for as long as I could and ride that out. I love almost every aspect of this industry and I want to be in it, and if I could drop dead on a film set at 80, that’s how I’d want to go.”

On the evidence of his recent projects, Radcliffe may get to fulfill his dream. Those who know him only from Potter will be astonished by what he brings to the screen in Kill Your Darlings, a movie by first-time director John Krokidas in which Radcliffe plays a young Allen Ginsberg at a formative moment in his life. Based on a long-hidden murder case that brought Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs together at Columbia University, Krokidas has compared it to Capote in the way it focuses on a single event -- in both cases a murder -- as a transformative experience in the lives of the people around it.

The film -- which also stars Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, and, as Ginsberg’s parents, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and David Cross -- has been widely viewed as a litmus test of Radcliffe’s ability to evolve beyond Potter. On the evidence of the generous reviews at Sundance, where it premiered on January 18, any speculation is now firmly laid to rest. London’s Independent praised him for a “defining performance.” Hollywood.com singled out the romantic relationship between Radcliffe and DeHaan as the motor of the entire movie, “eventually swelling to a burst of passion.” For many, the unflinching scenes of gay sex were further evidence, if it was needed, of the distance Radcliffe has travelled in a few short years. “The Boy Wizard never pinned his knees behind his ears,” snickered The Hollywood Reporter -- a harbinger, one suspects, of many such jokes to come. Radcliffe himself remains unfazed, saying only, “You never see a gay actor getting asked what it’s like to play straight -- to my knowledge, at least, there is no difference in how heterosexual and homosexual people fall in love.”

For Krokidas, the glowing reviews are a validation of his instinct to pick Radcliffe over the usual list of matinee boys. He recalls wrestling one night with the question of who might best unlock the particular complexities of Ginsberg’s character when Radcliffe flashed into his mind. “I thought to myself, this role is about a young man who has played the dutiful son his whole life, and who has only shown the world a certain aspect of his personality, and who, during the course of this movie, finds the strength to show the world so much more than they expect of him -- he becomes a young artist and a rebel.”

The more he thought about it, the more Krokidas was sure that Kill Your Darlings would appeal to Radcliffe. There was just one problem. “Before I sent out the script, I said, ‘Oh shit, Daniel’s not Jewish,’ and my boyfriend said, ‘Of course he’s Jewish -- everyone in the world knows that. Didn’t you see the shots from Equus? He’s only British from the waist up.’ ”

SLIDESHOW: DANIEL RADCLIFFE EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS

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For both Krokidas, a first-time director, and Radcliffe, busy establishing his post-Potter career, getting this movie right has been critical. On set, the two became close collaborators and friends, and continued to support one another after filming wrapped last April. Krokidas talks of Radcliffe as a mentor who became his rock through the production, and offers a telling anecdote of being together, along with DeHaan, this past New Year’s Eve. “I thanked them both for making my dream come true,” recalls Krokidas. “And then Dan turned to me and said, ‘Thank you for a beautiful collaboration and spending time with me to make such a beautiful performance. But more importantly, always remember this moment and remember all your friends who are just as talented but not yet as successful, and don’t let this go to your head.’ That is the credo that he lives by.”

For his part, Radcliffe considers Kill Your Darlings the high-water mark of his career to date, and the project of which he is proudest. “I can see why people are skeptical about me playing Allen Ginsberg,” he says. “I don’t look like him, and I’m English and middle-class and not from New Jersey. But that’s what I think is so exciting about it, because people have no idea.”

The idea Radcliffe is referring to, of course, is that a child actor scorched into public consciousness as a generational touchstone can evolve into a good -- maybe even a great -- actor. On the one hand there’s Jodie Foster; on the other is Lindsay Lohan. When he was plucked from obscurity to play the most famous boy in the world, Radcliffe had no formal training at all, and was given none on set. In essence, millions of us watched him through 10 years of self-taught acting classes. OK, so he had extraordinary mentors like Gary Oldman, Fiennes, and Dame Maggie Smith to steer him, but he also had to learn to keep pace with them, especially when the franchise hit its stride. Radcliffe says he can barely bring himself to watch his early performances. “I certainly wouldn’t watch number three, I wouldn’t watch the first two, I wouldn’t watch four,” he says, ticking off each of the installments. “I might watch five.” He pauses. “I definitely wouldn’t watch six.”

All that time spent not watching himself has been put to good use in a diverse slate of demanding projects, any one of which could have brought his career tumbling around his ears. He remembers reading such a prophecy as he rehearsed for the part of Alan Strang in the 2007 stage revival of Peter Shaffer’s intense and difficult Equus, the role that did most to broadcast his post-Potter ambitions. “While we were in rehearsal, there was a headline along the lines of ‘Crash! What’s that? The sound of a career coming to a grinding halt,’ ” he recalls. “I remember reading that and looking around the rehearsal room at [co-star] Richard Griffiths and [director] Thea Sharrock, and David Hersey, our lighting designer, and [set designer] John Napier, and thinking, If this is me fucking up, there are a lot of good people that are fucking up, too.”

It’s an illuminating anecdote, both as an example of his willingness to make daring choices and of the way he views himself as part of a team, not simply the biggest name on the billboard. There’s modesty in that, which has made him popular on set, where stars can often expect to be cosseted and indulged. “He literally gets to know the names of every member of his crew on set and remembers them,” says Krokidas. “On our set, he was playing Words With Friends with some of the P.A.s -- he’s that guy.”

SLIDESHOW: DANIEL RADCLIFFE EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS

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For Radcliffe, this is simply instinctive -- “I’ve got great parents who would never have allowed me to become a cocky, obnoxious shit,” he says -- but it’s also how he learned to behave on the Warner Bros. lot in Leavesden, England, where he spent so much of his youth. “The thing I learned, much more than learning about acting, was learning about on-set etiquette,” he says. “As a lead actor on a film you have a tremendous opportunity to influence the entire process by virtue of the attitude you take toward it every day. If you come in raring to go, ready and energized, nobody else has any excuses.”

In this way, and however much he might want to put some distance behind him, Harry Potter has been the making of Daniel Radcliffe. In 2000, when he was selected from a field of thousands, he saw the offer largely as an opportunity to leave the private school he attended alongside kids from more privileged backgrounds. “My dad was a literary agent from a very working-class background in Northern Ireland, and my mom was Jewish and from Essex, so I think I always felt different from everyone else in my class,” he says, recalling reprimands for his excitable behavior that included charging around the floor with a co-conspirator and “pretending to be dogs and biting people.”

Radcliffe had put scant thought into acting until he scored the role of young David Copperfield in a 1999 BBC adaptation of the Dickens novel after being encouraged to audition by a family friend who thought he would benefit from the experience. It was Dame Maggie Smith, his fellow cast member in that miniseries, who recommended him to the producers of Harry Potter. His parents, initially reluctant to let him take the role, relented only when the producers agreed to relocate the set from Los Angeles to London. From the start, Radcliffe took it in stride, aware that the intense fuss and excitement was generated for the character, not for the person playing it. He recalls walking around the set on the first day, asking people, “If I get cocky, please tell me.”

Radcliffe’s on-set education brought him into contact with a more diverse range of kids, as well as the cream of British acting talent. It’s clear that many of his cultural reference points come from his relationships with people like David Thewlis and Gary Oldman, who introduced him to movies and books that might otherwise have passed beyond the sphere of his world. He talks with tremendous enthusiasm of movies such as Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death, and loves the work of Russian novelist Bulgakov so much that he undertook a pilgrimage to the writer’s former home in Kiev as a 21st birthday gift to himself (a fact unknown to the producers of A Young Doctor’s Notebook when they cast him). He also enjoys a close friendship with the writer, comedian, and polymath Stephen Fry, suggesting that his relationships are no more circumscribed by age than they are by sexuality. At the British Academy of Film and Television Awards last year, Fry introduced him, not without justification, as a child star who had “avoided brattishness, eating disorders, addiction, bankruptcy, and long-term incarceration to become a hugely successful and talented adult -- a first in cinema history.”

Audiences will get to see just how talented he is in Kill Your Darlings, as well as in Horns, directed by Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors), in which he stars alongside Juno Temple as a young man who sprouts horns. But he would be very happy if he could build a career along the same model as George Clooney, with his agile hopscotching between light-hearted crowd-pleasers such as Oceans 11, and small, independent movies like Syriana. Meeting Clooney recently, he was delighted when the actor spun around and gave him a bear hug, saying as he did so, “You are making all the right moves, doing all the right things, and they won’t all be successes.”

Radcliffe is prepared for that. He watched a TED talk recently, on reinventing feminism. “The speaker said that part of growing up is aiming to succeed but being fulfilled by failing really well,” he says. “That’s what I feel this year has been all about for me. I’m looking at my work for the first time and not cringing. I’m going, ‘Yes, this is closer to what I want it to be.’ ”

He gushes about how inspiring it was to work with Aja on Horns. “After we wrapped the film, we spent about 45 minutes by the camera truck -- me, our script supervisor, and some of the camera guys and some of the grips, just standing around talking about how much we had loved working with this director.” He pauses for breath, before concluding, “Now that doesn’t happen very often.”

Probably not, but in his typically modest way, Radcliffe fails to realize that this small anecdote speaks as loudly about him as it does his director.

SLIDESHOW: DANIEL RADCLIFFE EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS

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