The Long Education of Daniel Radcliffe


By Aaron Hicklin

The young actor puts his decade-long stint as the world’s most famous schoolboy behind him with a career-defining turn as Allen Ginsberg.

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.