One afternoon in early March, Daniel Radcliffe walked into the makeup room backstage at the Old Vic theatre in London to get his hair done for that evening’s performance of Endgame, the Samuel Beckett play he’d been starring in with Alan Cumming. A hairdresser was there waiting to confront him with some rather shocking news. “You’ve got coronavirus,” the hairdresser declared.
This was news to Radcliffe, who felt healthy enough. So the hairdresser showed him the apparent source of the claim: a tweet, from an account calling itself “BBC Breaking News,” which read, “Daniel Radcliffe tests positive for coronavirus.” That was all it took for the rumour to go, uh, viral. His girlfriend, the actress Erin Darke, had to spend the afternoon reassuring friends that he was okay. “Every time I saw someone for the rest of the day, I didn’t know if they’d heard it,” Radcliffe told me. “I didn’t want to lead with ‘I don’t have it,’ but I didn’t want them thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s being so irresponsible, to have the virus and just be walking around here.’ ”
Of course, the tweet was yet another celebrity hoax. But just days later, Endgame was cancelled two weeks before the end of its scheduled run. Hours after the cancellation was announced, Radcliffe was on one of the final flights to New York before the border was closed to international travel. As for so-called “social distancing” measures, fans have evidently not been taking them under advisement. “I’ve felt very rude over the past 24 hours,” he laughs. “People at the airport were sticking their hands out, trying to get selfies, and I’m like, ‘No, sorry, I’m literally going to America and I don’t want to catch something and not be allowed to get in.’ ” He made it in the end, and I’ve caught up with him via FaceTime at the beginning of his two-week government-mandated self-isolation.
Radcliffe concedes he was an ideal candidate for the fake-news prank. He’s one of the most well-liked and widely recognizable film stars in the world, for the simple reason that almost everyone in the world has seen and likes Harry Potter. And he’s one of the few celebrities under the age of about 45 who doesn’t use social media, meaning he can’t dismiss gossip with a tweet. “I honestly don’t think I have the mental fortitude to be on Twitter. Besides, I’ve been shoved down people’s throats since I was 10 years old. If I were on Twitter, tweeting every day, I feel like people would get sick of me. I’d get sick of me. Ugh.” Other actors, he’s quick to point out, are “fucking amazing” on social media. “And good luck to them. But I’d get bored of myself. God knows how the rest of the world would cope.”
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A decade of Potter made Radcliffe ubiquitous. His face was inescapable, on t-shirts and action figures, on backpacks and coffee mugs. The amazing thing about Daniel Radcliffe now isn’t that he remains hugely famous. That was inevitable. (“The Potter films made something like five billion dollars worldwide, to put it crudely,” he says.) The amazing thing about Daniel Radcliffe now is that he’s managed to establish a career totally separate from the colossal franchise with which he’s synonymous. He has steadfastly refused to let Harry Potter define him — and so he has proceeded, over the decade that followed, to make everyone take him seriously as more than just the familiar kid wizard.
“I’m lucky,” he says. “Most actors live with this thing where the next thing they do could be the biggest thing they ever do. Whereas I’m like, no, I’ve done the biggest thing I’ll ever do,” he says. “I will never be in anything as massive as Harry Potter again. At a certain point, that becomes a hugely liberating realization: I’ve been freed from that definition of success.”
Radcliffe’s pursuit of creative freedom comes to a head this spring, when a wide swath of his interesting projects will be released. There’s the hyper-violent action movie Guns Akimbo, and Escape from Pretoria, a heady drama about political prisoners in South Africa. There’s his TV work, including the upcoming supernatural comedy series Miracle Workers, in which he stars alongside Steve Buscemi, and the new special of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And of course there was that Beckett play.
Radcliffe, now 30, laid the groundwork for change early, before Potter had even finished. In 2007, between Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, Radcliffe realized that he would “need to do something to achieve longevity” after the mega-franchise came to an eventual end. So he made the audacious choice to star in Equus, the famous (and famously difficult) Peter Shaffer play about a young man obsessed with horses. Even if you didn’t see Equus in London or on Broadway, you probably saw some of the promotional stills used to advertise the production, much-circulated in tabloids at the time. They showed Radcliffe, brooding and shirtless, six-pack abs flaring as he strokes a stallion’s mane. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” he groans when I mention it. “But doing that play sent a signal. It’s not a play you do unless you really want to be an actor — and not just because of the nudity.”
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His performance in Equus was well-received by critics. (“Thank God,” Radcliffe jokes.) But he witnessed glimpses of how precarious the situation was — how perilously near he’d come to humiliation, his dream of being taken seriously dashed in an instant. “One of those supportive English papers like The Daily Mail ran a headline that said something like, ‘Crash — What’s That — The Sound of Dan Radcliffe’s Career Coming to a Grinding Halt.’ An unwieldy headline, I know, but when I saw that, I was suddenly like, ‘Oh, man, this has to be good. I have to be decent in this.’ ” So he worked on enunciation and projection with a vocal coach for 18 months. “I didn’t want them faulting me for that. Some of them probably did fault me for that, but not nearly as much as if I hadn’t done all that work.”
“From the moment you start acting as a kid, you’re confronted with the perception that child actors are dicks. Getting to show a little self-awareness was very valuable.”
Around the same time he made his serious stage debut, he was invited to appear as an exaggerated caricature of himself in an episode of Extras, Ricky Gervais’s BBC comedy. An avowed Gervais superfan (“I grew up watching The Office and could still quote whole episodes back to you,” he says), he was ecstatic about the cameo. Extras finds Radcliffe co-starring in a fantasy film with Warwick Davis. Between takes, he runs amok around the set, showing off that he smokes cigarettes and hitting on women twice his age. (“I’ve made it with a girl, intercourse-wise,” he brags at one point.) For Radcliffe, the jokes rang true. “From the moment you start acting as a kid, you’re confronted with the perception that child actors are dicks,” he explains. “Getting to show a little self-awareness, to convince people I have a sense of humour about myself, was very valuable.”
In 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival, you could have seen Radcliffe in three very different movies playing three very different roles: the charming leading man in an independent romantic comedy (The F Word), the devilish anti-hero of an idiosyncratic supernatural thriller (Horns), and the great beat poet Allen Ginsberg (Kill Your Darlings). The timing was unintentional, if convenient. “If you wanted to see my versatility as an actor after Potter,” he says, “that TIFF was the place for me to convince you I had some range.” Yet he maintains he never chooses films because they’re different or unusual. “If it seems like an eclectic mix, it’s because I don’t see them that way. I do it because I just happen to like the movie — and sometimes I just happen to play, like, a farting corpse that comes back to life.” (That one is real. It’s called Swiss Army Man. )
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In his downtime, Radcliffe isn’t much of a cinephile. (He sort-of liked Parasite; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood “felt a little bit long.”) Mostly, he watches documentaries on Netflix. “I don’t watch a huge amount of films, is my honest answer,” he confesses. “If the film is bad, I hate it immediately and want to stop but feel obligated to finish and just drag it out and don’t enjoy it. If it’s good, I get stressed out and sad because I’ll never get to be in it.” This hang-up, he knows, sounds “really stupid and narcissistic.” But he can’t help it. “As an actor, when you see something great, you’re like, ‘Oh, man, that’s already been made! I’ll never be in that now, and if they remade it, it would be shitty.’ ”
He likens his career now to that of Robert Pattinson. Both became famous on the strength of starring roles in tent-pole youth franchises. Both have avoided blockbusters ever since, instead favouring lower-budget projects and more eccentric work. “Rob and I were both lucky to be in something super huge when we were young, and that’s given us a lot of independence, and we both seem to be like, ‘Okay, let’s use that to do as much cool stuff as we can.’ ” Although he insists his name alone is “absolutely not enough to get a film financed,” he admits that putting the weight of his star power behind a project can sometimes get smaller projects made. “If having played Harry Potter helps people see these small movies I want to make, I’m very much okay with that,” he says.
But enjoying freedom in his career doesn’t mean he’s not ambitious. He still has goals and dreams, things he wants to do someday. Chief among them: writing and directing his own feature. “I’ve watched a lot of directors and I think it would be something I’d really enjoy,” he explains. “I don’t take it lightly. It’s a difficult job. But that’s something I want to start in the next few years.” Well, he will have at least the next few weeks on his hands, I point out — perhaps he should get writing. “I know, I know,” he groans. “Everyone’s sending this King Lear shit ’round. I know how unproductive Shakespeare is supposed to make the rest of us feel.” Still, you never know. “I have the next 14 days at least. I’ve started on a script. I might as well use this time to finish it.”