Daniel Radcliffe has evolved from teen wizard to teenage Beat Poet in a little over ten years and playing Allen Ginsberg is his biggest challenge yet, he tells Tony Earnshaw.
HE’s 24 now but Daniel Radcliffe still laughs when reminded that he once sat on the floor of the Berkeley Hotel, amidst a mammoth Harry Potter Press junket, and played Monopoly.
But that was a different life to the one he leads today. Back then – and for ten years – his personal and professional life was dominated by the behemoth of the Potter franchise.
Suddenly it was over and life would never be the same again. Yet for a kid who grew up on a sound stage, Radcliffe has emerged unscathed. Moreover he has carved an enviable career in film and in the theatre that has to be admired.
“On Potter you did one film a year and it was Potter,” says Radcliffe with a laugh. “For me, leaving Potter has been really exciting. It is like a safety net was taken away but that’s a good thing.
“It was never particularly in doubt in my mind that I would at least endeavour to break out of Potter and do things afterwards.”
He recalls a piece written by Jack Wild, who had played the Artful Dodger in Oliver! It did not make pleasant reading.
“Obviously he had a very tough time. He wrote an article condemning us all to the same thing the day after we’d been cast! When you hear that stuff when you’re 11, you do rail against it in some way. You say ‘I’m going to prove those people wrong’. I’m very proud of where I’ve got to.”
And with good reason. It was Radcliffe who came in for the most flak in the Potter series from critics who claimed he couldn’t act. Plaudits were reserved for co-stars Emma Watson and Rupert Grint.
Still, it is Radcliffe who has pursued a stage career, not least as tortured Alan Strang, who blinds several horses, in an acclaimed revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.
Another revival, this time of the Hammer horror brand in last year’s The Woman in Black, saw him strongly leading a remarkably effective gothic chiller. Then there is Frankenstein with James McAvoy as the monster and Radcliffe as Igor. But next is Kill Your Darlings, a portrait of the fledgling Beat poets in the 1940s with Radcliffe as a teenage Allen Ginsberg. Part murder story, part biopic, part celebration of sexual freedom, it is a quantum leap from Potter and offers Radcliffe his first real-life character.
Radcliffe was first invited to do the film and agreed when he was in New York with Equus in 2009. When filming got pushed back and he became mired in shooting Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince it was recast with Jesse Eisenberg, Chris Evans and Ben Whishaw.Then financing fell through. A year later the project once again crossed Radcliffe’s radar. This time he got it. “Even though it had been re-cast I never quite let go of the idea. When it came back round I was immediately very excited,” he recalls.
The draw was in telling the story of Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac. Wrapped around them is the killing of David Kammerer by Carr. Radcliffe calls it “an incredible, bizarre, interesting story, and no-one’s ever told it,” adding “it seemed like a great opportunity for me personally to show a different side to what I can do as an actor”.
A self-confessed poetry buff, Radcliffe admits he is not a fan of the Beats though he was given a copy of William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch to read aged 14. He also read Kerouac’s On the Road.
“I’m not massively obsessed with that book as everyone else seems to be. In fact, Ginsberg was the one I knew least well of the three. I think I’d read the first line of Howl in The Oxford Book of Quotations and hadn’t ever read the rest. The more you learn about Ginsberg’s life, the more accessible and emotional and powerful the poetry becomes. My appreciation of what they did has definitely increased through doing this film.”
Radcliffe’s research meant delving into Ginsberg’s diaries. The film’s director John Krokidas asked him not to research any aspect of their characters’ lives after the period in which the film takes place. “The diaries are a fantastic insight into who he was at that age. He says at one point, ‘I know I’m a genius. I just haven’t figured out what form my genius will take yet.’ He had a huge amount of self-confidence for a 14-year-old. He really knows in some way that he’s different and that he wants to be a great man.”
The film also lays bare Ginsberg’s sexual experimentation. One sequence sees him being pleasured by a woman in a library. In another near-the-knuckle scene Radcliffe as Ginsberg enjoys his first taste of gay love. Harry Potter it ain’t… Radcliffe is both mature enough and comfortable enough to deftly sidestep questions about the film’s sex scenes and Ginsberg’s later aggressive homosexuality. Is he constrained by how fans of his previous work expect him to behave on screen?
“Do you think I’ve been constrained so far? There are no pressures. Certainly a lot of my teenage years were spent in pursuit of being someone that I’m not. Part of the last few years of my life, and indeed this period of Allen’s life, is about working out who you are and being okay with it. [Allen is] by far the most conservative conformist of any of the Beats and ends up becoming probably the most liberated – not just in terms of doing wild things but in terms of feeling emotionally happy.
“It’s similar to what I was saying about growing up as a teenager: thinking that you have to be something that other people want you to be. That’s not a way of being. I don’t think you’ll achieve anything worth achieving with that attitude.
“I just have to pick the things that excite me and I get passionate about, which is movies like this. The people who like those films will go and see them. A lot of the fans of Potter came and saw Equus. Frankly, anything after that is not going to get much more extreme than simulating sex with a horse onstage.”
In search of the next challenge
Daniel Radcliffe spent a decade working almost exclusively on the Harry Potter series.
In the theatre he has starred in Equus and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
On TV he has provided cameos in Extras and The Simpsons.
Latterly he has earned a reputation for seeking breakout roles in films. New projects include Horns, The F Word, Frankenstein, and Tokyo Vice.
He is passionate about poetry and is rumoured to have published his own work under the pseudonym Jacob Gershon.
Kill Your Darlings (15) is on nationwide release.