The Weird and Wonderful Daniel Radcliffe

For some actors, an iconic role can be a prison. Then there’s Daniel Radcliffe, whose newest film finds him strapping on the accordion to play “Weird Al” Yankovic.

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As an elder millennial, I find it a little weird to sit down with Daniel Radcliffe. How could it not be? Sure, he’s no longer the actor who found stratospheric global fame as a preteen: the professional haircut, the piercing eyes, the surprisingly ropey musculature, the self-effacing introduction all prove as much. “Hi, I’m Dan,” he says when we meet one recent day in Manhattan, a tiny ritual of disarmament repeated with journalists and fans alike.

We’re ostensibly here to discuss his star turn in Weird, a faux-biopic of comedy legend “Weird Al” Yankovic for which he donned a curly wig, grew a real mustache, and learned how to play the accordion. But then there’s the obvious thing — what Radcliffe simply refers to as “Potter,” his leading role in the eight-part adaptation of the best-selling book series of all-time, the role that permanently canonized him in the hearts and minds of ‘90s and ‘00s kids. Before meeting, I’d assembled a list of potential venues where our interview might take place — casual slice joints, quiet dining rooms awaiting the downtown lunch rush. Eventually, common sense kicked in. New Yorkers may be cool about their celebrities, but Radcliffe’s association as The Boy Who Lived still inspires hysteric devotion in millions of fans worldwide, and for basic security concerns — to say nothing of the difficulties of establishing any kind of conversational rhythm while being interrupted for a photo every 27 seconds, which I suspect Radcliffe would be too polite to turn down — it’s agreed we’ll meet in a more private space. In fact, right now nobody else is in Gemma, the hotel restaurant we’ve decided on, besides the servers and a cadre of publicists hanging in the wings. And since we’ve convened at an hour both too early and too late to eat anything, it’s just water for both of us.

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Weird, by my conservative estimate, is about 93% phony baloney. In that respect, it’s a bit like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the 2007 rockumentary about a fake country star played by John C. Reilly that took a flamethrower to every corn-assed cliche of the musical biopic. But it’s a little funnier — and stranger — to construct such a goofy narrative about a real person, since, in reality, Weird Al is a very friendly, very thoughtful person whose work is the product of hard work, ingenuity, and kindness. Weird, meanwhile, constructs an alternate timeline of Yankovic’s life in which he dates Madonna, feuds with Colombian cocaine magnate Pablo Escobar, and conjures hit song after hit song off the top of his head, as geniuses in flattering biopics often do. In this world, “Amish Paradise” is not a play on the Coolio classic, but a deeply personal song Yankovic writes in order to reconnect with his distant father. “The fact that someone was letting us make something so fucking crazy was just really exciting,” Radcliffe says. Weird Al is pop culture’s most famous parody artist, and while the breadth and success of his musical goofs is undeniably impressive, it’s impossible to be too serious about “I Love Rocky Road.”

And there’s a knowing pleasure in watching someone as recognizable as Radcliffe become unrecognizable in this role. As director Eric Appel explains, his leading man “gave us a great joke, which is that Daniel Radcliffe is going to play the most iconic character of his career,” says director Eric Appel. The joke, obviously, is that nothing Radcliffe does will ever supersede the prominence of Potter in our cultural firmament. It seems like it could be overwhelming, to be permanently defined by a role you took on before you’d hit puberty, and the difficulty in transitioning from childhood to adulthood is what’s animated every ominously narrated TMZ segment about a former kid star gone bad. But Radcliffe does not make it seem like this.

Mere numbers cannot capture the tonnage of attention dumped on Radcliffe from all sides over the last 20 years. Forget the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or even Tumblr: Harry Potter was the launching pad for the dynamics of modern fandom that now animate any successful cultural franchise, and by extension all of popular culture. In layman’s terms, somewhere between “a lot” and “a whole fucking lot” of people have wondered what Radcliffe is doing or thinking at any given moment of his life. But if it’s strange to be synonymous with the cross between Luke Skywalker and Jesus Christ, in person he demonstrates a studied conscientiousness. Radcliffe talks at a machine gun clip, and never, ever gets tripped up when answering a question. He has spent most of his life thinking about Potter — he was cast as Harry at 11, and is now 33 — and he is excessively familiar with what that means to people. “You just grow up with a sense of like, ‘Okay, people are aware of me, and I need to think about that,’” he says. “And eventually it becomes easier to adapt to.”

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This is a very normal way to think about an abnormal situation. It’s kind of mind-blowing, actually, how Radcliffe makes playing Harry Potter seem like something that… just happened, rather than the instigating and architecting event that both began and continues to structure his public life. It’s easy to assume he might be sick of the Potter-focused spotlight by now, but safeguarding the positive feelings and memories harbored by fans, especially as the series’ author has done plenty to jeopardize them, is a responsibility he takes seriously. One irritating (and blessedly rare) type of interaction, he says, is when people — usually young men — make some crack like, “Loved you in Extras, thought Harry Potter was shit.” “It’s said to me in a way like ‘We’re gonna be closer after I tell you the truth about how I feel,’” Radcliffe says. “You can feel that, but I’m not gonna be like, ‘Yeah, man!’ It was ten years of my life.”

One does not just move on from ten years of their life. But it helps that Radcliffe is a perky and chameleonic talent, possessed with the charisma required to seamlessly disappear into a role without making you think of his more famous one. His better known post-Potter roles tend to inspire a uniform response: “Wait, that’s Daniel Radcliffe?” Followed by: “Wow, Daniel Radcliffe!” Which is especially true of his latest surprise.

The benefit of modernity is learning from everyone who came before you, and having a road map of where to make a left turn instead. Again, he offers what seems like an excessively normal way of thinking about the lifelong permanence of his context. “Sometimes if you’re denying the reality of what’s going on, that can actually make your life harder to live,” he says, when I ask him when he really grasped that his world was never going to be the same. “It took a long time, is what I’m saying. But my late teens or early 20s was where I was like, ‘You have to accept life is gonna be different for you.’”


In some ways, this attitude translates to what Radcliffe is doing now: diving into an unusual situation, and behaving as though nothing is out of the ordinary. The Weird role came his way in the early days of the pandemic, when he video-chatted with Yankovic and Appel. Radcliffe did not grow up a Weird Al devotee, but he was inducted into the fandom through his long-time girlfriend, the actress Erin Darke. “The early part of our relationship was me being educated in Al by her and her whole family,” he says. After reading the script, it didn’t take much convincing to sign on. “When I want to do something, I’m not good at hiding it. My immediate reaction was, ‘I would be very honored to play you in this movie.’ But also: Why me?”

It’s not completely left-field. Over the last decade, Radcliffe has built a steady resume of eclectic comedic roles: a farting corpse in 2016’s Swiss Army Man, an unlikely murder suspect in 2013’s horror-comedy Horns, a series of parts in the madcap anthology show Miracle Workers (which returns in January). He has the burning intensity required for playing the bizarre, evident in the neck vein that bulges when he throws himself into Weird Al’s “My Bologna,” and the impeccably choreographed fight scenes where he takes down a gang of assassins. “It goes without saying that Al has not murdered a bunch of people,” Radcliffe says. “There’s an insane darkness to the character in the movie that freed me from the thing of, ‘Oh, you have to do an impersonation.’” Radcliffe is also very jacked in the movie, a holdover from real life, where he admits to being a fitness obsessive. “It wasn’t a decision so much as they found it funny that that’s how I looked,” he says of the filmmakers’ idea to highlight his muscles. This tidy coincidence makes for what seems like another finely tuned gag — like, why shouldn’t Weird Al be inappropriately veiny in the fake movie about his life?

Another blessing in disguise, sort of, is that the Weird shoot time was so short — just 18 days, what Radcliffe calls “the quickest thing I’ve ever done” — that he and his co-stars had to get in character very, very fast. Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Madonna, says Radcliffe “brought so much energy, every single take; he’s in practically every scene of the movie, and his schedule was grueling, but he always showed up with 110%. I always had a hard time not laughing because he would be giving the most heartfelt performance with tears in his eyes, playing it so straight and so serious, but he would have this wig on. I just couldn’t handle it.”

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Wood hit on something I’ve been thinking about since I saw the film, which is the surprising weight of Radcliffe’s work. To be clear, Weird is completely ridiculous, and aware of its ridiculousness. But Radcliffe’s performance elevates the film from a Funny or Die sketch you might smile at into an epic origin story, the type of swelling and vindicating tale that motivational speakers use as evidence to dream bigger. That he’s playing this absurd part with such straitlaced seriousness makes it even funnier, as he sings “Ooh, my little hungry one, hungry one / Open up a package of My Bologna” with totally dedicated wide-eyed awe like he’s James Joyce writing the first lines of Ulysses.

“It was really surprising how much heart he actually injected into the movie — there were scenes where he has to be emotional, and you never know if that’s going to work or not in a movie like this,” says Appel. “As soon as we started screening the movies for people, that’s the response we got: ‘Wow, Dan is just the heart and soul of this movie. It’s maybe not as joke-forward in some moments as I thought it would be, and I actually care about this bizarre version of Weird Al in this universe.’ And so much of that comes from Dan.”

This new iconic character is, in some ways, inseparable from the other one. Playing Potter gave Radcliffe a powerful and unique type of creative privilege, one he became aware of about halfway through the series. His costar Gary Oldman, he recalls, pointed out that at a young age, Radcliffe had earned the type of freedom that “most actors work most of their career to get.” Yes, he would be permanently tied to this one role — but absent the need to build his name or pay his bills, he could be a bit pickier with his decisions. “I had this awareness that people expected we would do nothing after Potter — that we would fade away,” Radcliffe says. “I really wanted that not to be the case, because I knew that I loved it, and I wanted to do whatever I have to do to have a career with longevity.” One actor he’s cited as a model for his own path is Harrison Ford, known as Han Solo and Indiana Jones but also Dr. Richard Kimble and Rick Deckard.

“There’s always a strange understanding between adults who were child stars — when we met, I looked at him and said, ‘Oh yeah, somebody else who grew up with the circus,’” says Wood, who has been acting professionally since she was six. “But because he’s a real actor, he’s been able to make that transition because he’s not just going after more fame or more status; he can go off the beaten path.”

Despite being frozen in the collective imagination as a teenager, Radcliffe is indeed getting older. This aging process was formally acknowledged in Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, the HBO Max special released earlier this year celebrating the anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the franchise’s first installment. For the special, Radcliffe and his co-stars — Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, nearly all of the living actors (though not J.K. Rowling) — reconvened at the studio where Harry Potter was filmed, where they talked on camera about their memories and the passage of time. Radcliffe has always been open about the fact that though their original bond remains undiminished, he, Watson, and Grint don’t keep up as often as diehard fans might hope they do. When I mention that it seems weird to reconnect on camera for a public audience, he says the more surprising thing was how he was legitimately affected by the experience, regardless of its construction. “I didn’t fully realize how emotional it might be until we got there, and realized we’re doing the most visible high school reunion in the world,” he says. “There was something odd about it, but it was also genuinely much more sweet than I thought it was going to be.” Though he doesn’t say it outright, the way he phrases this makes it seem like he was dreading the filming. But he participated nonetheless, aware of what it would mean — to the fans, his friends, his co-stars, and (somewhere far down the list) the network — if he decided to pass.

In those 20 years, Radcliffe’s life changed, far beyond the way he might have anticipated as a teenager coming to terms with his newfound stature. As a resident of New York City for over a decade, he’s got a whole circle of friends who only know him as a grown man, not a child scampering around on set. Other friends are beginning to have children. As he talks about this, it’s like he could be any 33-year-old New Yorker: living with his girlfriend, seeing his friends when he isn’t slammed with work, catching up on TV shows like The Rehearsal and Only Murders in the Building, bingeing the NFL during football season. (One quirk of how he’s adopted America as a second home.) It becomes clear that talking fast is a default speed, not maybe a coping strategy for getting through an interview. “I’m very good at doing that for like a week,” he says when I ask if he has an easy time doing nothing. “And then I’ll start to feel like I need to be productive in some way.”

There are some fun projects on the horizon, including a comedy screenplay he’s written. I imagine that after spending ten years attached to eight films, he might be resistant to taking on another blockbuster role, but he won’t shoot down the possibility of taking on another franchise. Somewhat hilariously, he’s been pulled into ongoing and completely untrue rumors he might replace Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in the X-Men movies. “It’s purely a press tour rumor; I say something, and then occasionally I get bored of answering that way so I say something different, and that sets it off again. I should just never open my mouth,” he observes, wisely.

But he stresses that flexibility is paramount, above all. That’s what the Weird Al role was: a chance for Radcliffe to be fresh and singular and absolutely weird. It’s the sort of choice all the work he’s done until now has afforded him. “I just don’t ever want to get locked into something,” he says, “that I am not sure I will be able to love the same amount the whole time.”


Watch Now:

Daniel Radcliffe Breaks Down His Most Iconic Characters

PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Photographs by Cian Moore
Styled by Brandon Tan
Grooming by Melissa DeZarate using Aesop
Tailoring by Alberto Rivera at Lars Nord Studio

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