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.’ ”