As I sit waiting for Daniel Radcliffe in the Jerwood Space café, anxious young men all around me are muttering to themselves. One by one, still mumbling lines under their breath, they are called into auditions that will decide their dramatic fate, at least for the day. Then my name too is announced and I’m whisked upstairs to a large room containing one of the very few 23-year-old actors in the world who no longer has to worry much about auditions. “It is a fantastic position to be in when you get one of Britain’s best theatre directors saying essentially, ‘Pick a play’. It’s wonderful,” says Radcliffe. And for him, about to star in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan at Michael Grandage’s request, it is also a reality.
Between his popularity, his time in indentured Harry Potter servitude to the British public (for the record, he mentions it first) and the fact that the latest rich lists put his worth at close to £60m, it’s hard to know quite what to expect. Certainly nothing so normal … or so energetic. During this break from rehearsals, Radcliffe is bouncing around the room in jeans and a jacket, fiddling with his laptop: “That hard drive is about to explode.” With nothing but a packet of tobacco in front of him (he’s clearly desperate for a cigarette but too polite to say so), the words flow and flow and flow: “My friend did once say that I talk like an auctioneer,” he apologises, as my scrawls get wilder. The waterfall is punctuated by the odd swear word and an occasional pause when he loses his train of thought: “F*** it, this happens a lot.”
If it does, it may be because he’s been busy juggling quite so many things. This new role marks a series of returns for Radcliffe: a return to London after an escape to New York, a return to the stage after shooting three films all due out soon, and a return to something more familiar – playing the orphan at the centre of the action. But this time around, the orphan is Billy, the cripple of the title and the general butt of jokes for the Aran islanders of the play. The role has all the bite, black humour and dashed hopes that you might expect in a play penned by McDonagh – and then some. “Martin’s such a wonderfully cruel, cruel writer,” Radcliffe says with relish. “It’s a brutal play.”
It’s also a tough call for someone who is neither Irish nor disabled. But after five minutes it becomes clear that Radcliffe is a man who likes to do his homework. “He’s a huge preparer,” says Grandage. “He’s not got a mass of theatre credits and yet he approaches the work as if he’s been acting for 20, 30 years.” In this case, Radcliffe has been working with a dialect coach since January. “I went up to all the Irish actors on the first day and said, ‘Just tell me’. You don’t want to go on stage with somebody sounding like shit and I certainly don’t want to go on stage sounding like shit,” he says.
Billy also suffers from an unspecified complaint that approximates cerebral palsy, and Radcliffe launches into the extensive research he has done on the condition: working with someone on physicality, ploughing through documentaries, talking to people in the know. “I don’t want it to come across like I’ve now got some weird fascination with it but I wanted to make sure that anything I do on stage is authentic and has a logic to it,” he says. He gestures under the table and I peer down to see him demonstrating the difficulties of keeping your knee joint locked in an awkward angle mid-emotional scene. The hard work seems to have paid off. “We haven’t had to spend three weeks working out the nature of a disability, we’ve actually been able to excavate the play,” says Grandage. “Having an actor in the title role leading from the front in such a grown-up, mature way and for somebody so young, it’s a thrilling dynamic for me.”
Radcliffe is similarly enthused. His talking gets even faster as he admits that when Grandage gave him a selection of plays to read, he had to put The Cripple of Inishmaan at the bottom of the pile, “because I knew that would probably be the one I would choose and, if I read that first, I might not bother reading the others”. He stops and adds: “Because I just know.” This unswerving faith in his instincts has been the compass to his post-Potter career. “I was very aware that I was talking to someone who has a very good knowledge of themselves,” says Grandage about an early meeting with Radcliffe. “That is quite rare – self-knowledge in actors – and it is a wonderful quality.”
So what is it that pulls Radcliffe to one part over another? He reads all the time but he prides himself on his ability to sort the good from the dross. “It’s stuff that’s original, stuff that raises my curiosity,” he says. “My dad’s got great instincts when it comes to scripts because he was a literary agent, so I like to think I’ve inherited some of those.” Certainly he’s largely shunned the big-budget, conventional choices. From stripping naked in Equus to trying out his musical patter on stage in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to embracing the young gay Beat poet lifestyle of Allen Ginsberg in the film Kill Your Darlings, his picks smack of someone doing as he wants rather than as the studio dictates. It’s fair to say that Radcliffe takes a certain satisfaction in being this unpredictable. “I should be the easiest person to pigeonhole in the world and the fact that I’m making it hard for people to do is definitely a good sign.” He grins.
Radcliffe, of course, lives in perennial danger of becoming one of our youngest ever national treasures. His role in the Harry Potter films remains a cultural touchstone for an entire demographic and something he will never quite escape. But it has its perks. He is rather touchingly able to analyse his fan base: “Young men prefer to come up and say they loved me in Extras, which is what they say when they don’t want to admit they’re a Harry Potter fan,” he says. For older couples, it’s often Equus. Radcliffe is intent on marshalling his supporters to follow his new, eager-young-man-with-a-mind-of-his-own choice of roles. “I think rather than going, ‘OK, now I have to work to maintain this fan base’, the best thing you can do is say, ‘I hope they’ll follow me’ and go and do what interests you and what excites you.” So far, he thinks, it seems to be working.
The next big tests include an offbeat romantic comedy – The F Word – and the Alexandre Aja-directed Horns, which he describes as “part revenge story, part romantic tragedy and part comedy”. Then there’s Radcliffe’s role in Kill Your Darlings, an independent movie made by first-time director John Krokidas on a shoestring. “I don’t have to do a job for the money, I can do it because I believe in it,” Radcliffe admits. The filming, done over 25 frantic days in New York, sounds like a dream for the hyper-energetic young actor. “It was kick bollocks scramble all the way,” he says, guerrilla film-making at its purest and a million miles from the big studio productions he grew up on. “At one point we got forcibly ejected from Columbia University at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Radcliffe recounts, his eyes lighting up. At another they had to run away from some of their own crew in order to get one last shot. “As someone who grew up on film sets, those are the moments you love because there’s so much urgency … It is those slightly chaotic mad-dash moments that I live for.”
Radcliffe is famously a poetry fan but the Beats were not really his scene (not enough structure apparently). Still, he began to appreciate their work during filming, although he’s firm when insisting that he doesn’t need to read “Howl” or “Kaddish” – the Ginsberg greats – again for a while. His tastes are somewhat more orthodox, gravitating towards the works of Keats, Byron, Frost and Auden. (Clearly even film stars don’t miss out on the markers of their generation: his love of poetry kicked off when someone gave him the Rattle Bag anthology when he was 16.) He reckons Tony Harrison “is the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century bar none”, and it was Harrison himself who got Radcliffe into Thomas Gray and Thomas Hardy.
And what about his own verse? Radcliffe published some of his teenage efforts under a pseudonym (this didn’t stop them showing up in the tabloids). Is he still writing? “To be honest with you,” he leans forward, “I have been writing poetry recently and I don’t think I’m as good as I was when I was 17. I think I’ve lost it.” He’s moved on to new things: namely a script that he hopes might become his first film one day. Dare we ask what it’s about? “Just the blackest comedy, incredibly dark comedy,” he says. “I’ve always said that if somebody could one day refer to me as a poor man’s Martin McDonagh, I’d be delighted.”
For large parts of the past two years, Radcliffe has been based in New York, where he owns a home and finds it “a little easier for me to get out and about”. The UK press attention alone after he admitted being drunk on occasion on the Potter set (who can forget the Harry Potter and the Half-Cut Prince jokes?) might have been enough to prompt an escape. But it’s easy to see why his eagerness and energy make him a ripe candidate for the charms of Manhattan. “If you’d said to me three years ago that I would be missing New York, I would not have believed you.” But missing it he is. “[Americans are] such a positive, enthusiastic, passionate group of people … In London there is a lot more effort put into trying to look like you don’t care about whatever you’re doing … which has never been me.” Still, he’s determined to try to build his life and career on both continents. “London is my home and it’s where I grew up, and I don’t think I could ever be without it at all.”
His parents, long credited by their only child as the great influence in his life, are also here and appear dotted throughout his conversation (his dad is a Breaking Bad fan much mocked by his son for his “hysterically bad” impressions). When asked who he looks up to in terms of role models, he doesn’t pause. “My dad’s obviously a huge part of my life, as is my mum … but in terms of decision making, it’s mainly me really.” Growing up with the great and the good of British acting as supporting members of the Potter cast means he’s never been short of advice. He talks of the late, great Richard Griffiths with particularly deep affection. “In terms of learning about stage from him – you really can’t get better than that … The thing that marked him out was the ease. He was just so relaxed all the time and I think that’s why audiences loved him, because he made it feel like a conversation.”
The majority of Radcliffe’s friends are in the business (although he carefully notes that they also include the “completely unconnected”). “It’s easiest,” he begins, and I assume he’s going to talk about the problems of fame and the man in the street. But no, Radcliffe is known for his scrupulous politeness and it’s his own manners that bother him. “I find that people outside the industry just get annoyed with you because you’ll say, ‘Let’s hang out tonight’ and then filming overruns and you go, ‘Oh I’m really sorry, I’m not going to make it’,” he says. “I think that after that happens two or three times most people just lose patience.”
In the past, he has gravitated towards the crew for his social circle but when he’s on stage he finds he becomes closest to the cast. “Because you are out there together and that camaraderie is important … When someone saves you on stage … you want to marry them.” For now that circle is the cast of The Cripple, which opens next weekend. “The remarkable thing about the first performance of any play that I’ve done is that I don’t remember it at all … it just goes by in a blur,” he says.
Then it’s straight on to his next set of roles. First up is a Fox production of Frankenstein. “It’s a Frankenstein of Frankenstein,” says Radcliffe. “[The writer’s] basically taken every previous version, from the original book to the ‘Monster Mash’ song, and tried to combine all the elements.” Radcliffe plays Igor, hunchbacked assistant, Victor’s conscience and one of two brilliant young men with the world of science at their fingertips and no limits to their imagination. Then there’s his recently announced role in Tokyo Vice, as a journalist entangled with the Japanese yakuza. Is this a chance for him to settle scores with the notebook-wielding pack? “I don’t think so, no … There are certain questions that do get a little dull after some time but they’re just doing their jobs.”
And what about a holiday? “No. Don’t want a holiday … I prefer not,” he shoots back. “I think it comes across as quite sad to a lot of people but I’m so happy on set. I can’t describe to you how happy it makes me to be on a film set or on a stage or rehearsal … I’d much prefer to be working than just staying at home doing nothing.” This, after all, is a man who is still doing dance, tap and singing lessons “just for the hell of it”.
Hard-working, energetic and, as the interview winds down and Radcliffe gets ready to dash out for that cigarette, a man who’s still got more to say. This time it’s a joke. “You’ve probably heard it before …” Go on then. “What’s long and pink and hard in the morning?” What? “The Financial Times crossword.” He pauses, grins, admits he stole it off an episode of QI. And then he’s gone. Normal, extraordinary and very definitely 23.
Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine. ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ runs from June 8 to August 31 at the Noël Coward Theatre