As star of the Harry Potter series, Daniel Radcliffe amassed tens of millions of dollars and established himself as one of the world’s most recognizable actors. His future success, though, will depend on how well he can make the boy wizard disappear.
Author Chris Wright Illustration Sandra Jawad
Harry Potter has been good to Daniel Radcliffe. At the age of 25, the London-born actor can claim to have headlined one of the most successful movie franchises ever—the eight Harry Potter films have generated about $10 billion to date. Beyond the financial rewards (a personal fortune estimated at around $110 million), Harry Potter has also made Radcliffe one of the world’s most recognizable actors—which is where things get a little sticky.
Radcliffe started playing Potter in 2001, when he was 11 years old, and didn’t stop until the series ended in 2011. His subsequent career has encompassed everything from rom-coms to arthouse dramas to supernatural thrillers—a variety of roles that, you feel, represents an effort to lay the boy wizard to rest. In his new film, Horns, he plays a tortured young man who, suspected of killing his girlfriend, suddenly (and possibly metaphorically) sprouts a set of horns.
In this, as in other post-Potter roles, Radcliffe engages in behavior that would have been off-limits at Hogwarts. And yet, watching him slug shots or enjoy the occasional amorous interlude, there’s a part of you that can’t help thinking of the wand, the broomstick, the nerdy specs. In large part, Radcliffe’s transition from child star to adult actor will depend on how successfully he can rid us of these associations.
Speaking to Hemispheres on the phone from London, Radcliffe admitted that he faces challenges in breaking out of the Potter role, but he also said that there is something liberating about his former life. “It takes the pressure off,” he said, “because I can honestly say that I will never be in anything that successful again.”
Hemispheres: Thanks for taking the time to do this. I know you’ve been busy.
Daniel Radcliffe: Yeah, we just got back from Paris yesterday, doing the premiere of Horns, which went well. It was a cool premiere, with smoke machines and Marilyn Manson.
Hemispheres: And the day before that you were in Amsterdam doing publicity for another movie, yes?
Radcliffe: That might not happen again for a while, doing two different films in two different countries on consecutive nights. It’s one of those things where you have to sit back and go, “This is crazy and cool.”
Hemispheres: There are worse problems to have. How was the French media?
Radcliffe: They were kind of amazing. They don’t want you to think they’re tabloidy, so they ask these incredibly intellectual questions. The MTV France guy was asking things like, “Do you think language is the root of all problems?”
Hemispheres: Ah, I was going to ask that. Do you enjoy this aspect of the job, having to sit here being interesting for journalists like me? That must get tiresome.
Radcliffe: Yeah. I do feel, at the end of every press tour, a little bit … Errgh!
Hemispheres: And if there’s a slip of the tongue, it’ll last forever.
Radcliffe: That’s the worst thing about press tours. I remember a reporter once asked me about texting [Harry Potter co-star] Rupert Grint. I said we don’t really text that much, and that got turned into: “They hate each other! They hated each other all along!”
Hemispheres: Journalists are evil.
Radcliffe: Journalists and actors have the same problem, which is that 90 percent are great and the 10 percent give us a terrible reputation. Actors have a reputation for being narcissistic, arrogant, rude. Most are not. But there are a few, and those are the ones that stand out.
Hemispheres: Speaking of evil, I watched Horns the other day, and there was a flashback scene that showed your character as a preteen. My immediate response was: “Hey, that’s not him!” This might point to a broader issue you’re facing.
Radcliffe: It’s interesting you say that, because I thought they did a remarkable job of finding a child who looked like the young me. He went back to the hotel one day and someone said, “You look like Harry Potter!” I don’t think they could have done a better job, unless they’d had access to the clone Warner Brothers made of me when I was young.
Hemispheres: Ha! The point is, you’re an actor who, for more than a decade, was associated not only with a single franchise, but one of the most successful movie franchises in history. Wrenching yourself away from that is going to be a Herculean task, isn’t it?
Radcliffe: Not really. I’m doing it. I’ve been cast in loads of movies where I’m not Harry Potter. I don’t know how the point could be made more clearly.
Hemispheres: Yes, but you have had to break out of the mold, establish yourself as an adult actor with range. Did you have a game plan when you set out to do this?
Radcliffe: You can’t really have a game plan, because you don’t know what scripts are going to come your way, let alone which are going to end up getting made.
Hemispheres: I don’t want to belabor the point, but I do want to talk a little more about the fact that you’re faced with building a career on top of these incredibly powerful associations. That’s an interesting place to be.
Radcliffe: It is. When I stopped on Potter, I definitely thought, “OK, now my career has to begin again.” I also knew that I wasn’t going to get anywhere by being in thrall to other people’s opinions about what I should and shouldn’t be doing. I had to go with my own tastes.
Hemispheres: The roles you take early on will, to some extent, define your career. Look at Ryan Gosling: After a handful of films we’ve come to associate him with a certain kind of character. If you start taking on roles like the lovable, charming but slightly off guy in What If, you might go the way of Hugh Grant.
Radcliffe: That is something I worry about. I worry about getting typecast now more than I did when I was playing Harry Potter. It’s about not wanting to repeat myself, not wanting to become the charming Hugh Grant type. He did that well and he did a lot of it, but I want to keep things more varied.
Hemispheres: Let’s talk a little about Horns. You’ve said this was one of the more challenging roles you’ve had. Why is that?
Radcliffe: The premise of the film is so heightened. For most of the movie I have horns, and you have to do justice to the insanity of the situation, to acknowledge that what’s going on is crazy, but ground it in reality, because an hour and a half of people acting crazy is not watchable.
Hemispheres: Before I forget, my six-year-old daughter wanted me to tell you that you’re epic.
Radcliffe: Ah, tell her I think she’s epic, too.
Hemispheres: I suppose you’re looking at a different fanbase now. You’re not getting clawed in the street, are you?
Radcliffe: Not too much. You know, when I was a kid, fans used to scare me. I’d get out of a car and there would be a wall of noise, this screaming. Now, people my age or older will come up and say, “You were such a huge part of my childhood,” and that’s amazing. The idea that I occupy that space in someone’s life is kind of crazy, but it’s a lovely thing.
Hemispheres: Harry Potter again. You don’t get tired of it?
Radcliffe: No. I don’t get this whole idea that I would mind talking about Potter. I literally get interviewers saying “the thing I’m not supposed to mention” or “he who shall not be named.” I don’t know when I put across the idea that I don’t want to talk about it, because I love those films, I love what they did for me, and I love the 10 years of my life they represent.
Hemispheres: Was there ever a moment when you thought this might be it, that you might just disappear?
Radcliffe: Not really. I mean, no. I knew I wouldn’t because I was determined not to, and I knew I was good. But I know I’m never going to be in a film as successful as Harry Potter for the rest of my life. It made billions of dollars worldwide. I hope I make successful films, but nothing will touch that sort of crazy money. That’s not something I’m striving for.
Hemispheres: And, of course, that’s not the only measure of success.
Radcliffe: No, absolutely. I just want to make good films and show people the different sides of what I can do.
Hemispheres: You don’t seem to be battling the same demons that a lot of former child stars do. As far as I know, you haven’t slugged a photographer yet.
Radcliffe: My belief is that a jerk is a jerk. The industry doesn’t make you behave like that, but it does tolerate the behavior and even reward it.
Hemispheres: And there may be just too much power and prestige at too young an age, which can do funny things to a person—the King Joffrey thing.
Radcliffe: I was always treated like a kid first and an actor second. Also, the key thing for me is that I love what I do. I think, for a lot of child stars, you get all this money and become the breadwinner for the family, then you grow up and realize that you don’t really like the job, but you have all these people around you pressuring you to keep on. That can make you unhappy.
Hemispheres: You’ve said that your parents helped you stay grounded.
Radcliffe: I was thinking about this the other day. When you’re a kid, you don’t really know how you feel about things, not until you see how your parents feel. I remember landing at an airport in Japan, and there were about 5,000 people there, this huge crush. Mum and Dad, no matter how freaked out they must have been inside, made a joke out of it, and it didn’t seem so scary. They also didn’t want me to be arrogant about it—this was just this crazy, surreal and funny thing that was happening to you.
Hemispheres: I read this old quote recently, about how the bats on the Harry Potter set grossed you out, because bats pee when they fly. It’s easy to forget, but you were just a little kid.
Radcliffe: I still get people asking me about things like that. The other day, someone asked me what’s
my favorite magic spell, and I was like, “Dude!”
Hemispheres: It’s that Trekkie thing: people building an alternate reality.
Radcliffe: No, this guy wasn’t a fan—he was a journalist who wanted to get a funny question in. Most Potter fans I meet haven’t lost their perspective. The majority are smart, nice people, not rabid nerds.
Hemispheres: Looking back at your post-Potter career so far, are you happy? Are you the kind of person to give yourself the occasional pep talk?
Radcliffe: Well, I don’t do it out loud in front of the mirror. But I am pleased. It’s gone better than I thought it would. It’s not my job to say when I’ll become separated from Harry Potter, when people see me as an actor rather than a character. There’s not going to be one thing that does this. I just have to keep doing a variety of things with a variety of people, and maybe get to the point where people will see me and think, “Oh, him again.”
Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright is currently working on a series of fantasy novels about a grizzled hack. The first, titled Larry Trotter and the Split Infinitive, will be self-published on Amazon this spring.