Daniel Radcliffe Turned Out Okay—Now He Wants to Be Weird
You may know him best as a certain boy wizard, but it's long past time to update your read on Daniel Radcliffe. Over the last decade, the former child superstar has emerged as one of the most daring actors in his peer group, taking unexpected roles in even more unexpected films. Take 2016's Swiss Army Man for example, where he plays a farting zombie named Manny. Or his number of ambitious plays—he's currently opposite Alan Cumming in Samuel Beckett's Endgame at the Old Vic theatre in London.
This week, he takes another twist with Escape From Pretoria. The film tackles the real-life story of Tim Jenkin, a white South African activist imprisoned for his work with the anti-apartheid African National Congress. Below, Esquire catches up with Radcliffe about being bold, playing a hero, and why, at 30, he just wants to have fun.
Esquire: Escape From Pretoria is so interesting in that it feels very much like a political movie, about a real group of activists in South Africa, but also, at the same time, a good old-fashioned escape-from-prison thriller.
Daniel Radcliffe: They escaped from a prison by making keys to a prison! It’s brilliant. The question I had [after reading the script] was how can we make this clear and how can we make this cinematic? So much of the action is happening in such incredibly small spaces and details—the chiseling of a key or the scraping of the key out of the lock is a huge moment.
You play Tim Jenkin, a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and a political prisoner, who, along with two others, escapes from Pretoria Central Prison in 1979. The movie is based on his book, recalling this story, and I have to imagine one of the hardest parts of prep was getting the accent down.
That was a huge concern. It was tricky. I did grow up around the accent; we had lots of South African accents on the Harry Potter set. But I have a great accent coach in New York, and we had an accent coach on set who was just phenomenal—because, you have me, an English person doing South African, you have Dan Webber, an Australian doing South African, and you have Mark [Leonard Winter], an Australian doing French. And then we were all surrounded by Australian accents [where we filmed], which is quite close to South African in some of the vowels, so it was very easy to get dragged one way or the other.
It’s good to make films where you cast very moral, principled people as heroes.
The film is set during apartheid South Africa; your and Webber’s character, Stephen Lee, were two white locals charged and imprisoned for conspiring with banned groups—the ANC in particular, who was working to end the apartheid. It’s an interesting time for researching the rise of past fascist regimes, I’d think.
Yes, the thing is, it’s never not a good idea to release a film like this. The thing that I think is very valuable in telling these guys’ stories is that these are people who used their whiteness to—enhance isn’t the right word—but to further a cause of which they were not the central beneficiaries. It’s good to make films where you cast very moral, principled people as heroes. And all of these guys are heroes, because of the way they escaped from prison, but also because of what they were willing to sacrifice for this cause. It was something that they believed in strongly enough that they would, like in [activist] Dennis Goldberg’s case, go to prison for decades for.
We all like to think that if we were in the situation of growing up in Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, that we would have the moral sense and courage to realize that it is wrong. But actually, very few people do. There were a lot of white people in South Africa, and very few of them were in the ANC. And pretty much all of them were in the prison in the film.
You met Tim Jenkin during your prep, and he was actually an extra in a scene with you on set. What was it like to be able to take your questions directly to the source?
He’s exactly the kind of person you would expect to be able to pull something like this off. He’s expressive, but he’s very methodical and calm. So it was sort of a case of how little can we do and still tell the story?
But Tim is very open. He says, “I don’t particularly know what it was—why it was us, and not others who were able to see the system that we had grown up in, despite having grown up in it, and were able to gain an outside perspective for what it was.”
You entered your young adult career in a pretty rare spot, which is that you were totally financially independent and could truly just take projects that interested you, for the sheer fact that they interested you. Has that always felt like a blessing? Or was there also a hurdle, you felt, in escaping Harry Potter?
There was a bit of that, but I think that hurdle nearly fit in with wanting to show people that [I’m] not just Harry Potter. It fit in nicely with the ambition of wanting to do a great variety of roles, which has always been something I’ve admired in other people’s careers who’ve hopped from genre to genre and done what they like. So I don’t think I’ve ever felt it as anything but a blessing—but I don’t think I always used it correctly. There was definitely a point in my early or mid-twenties that I felt that if I wasn’t actively working on something I was failing somehow.
In the last few years, I’ve gotten really strict with myself, of just being like, just do things that make you happy and that you want to do and that you are excited to be a part of. As you say, so few actors are in that position. And I may not always be in that position, we’ll see. I hope I am but it could very well crumble.
I think you would have to pick up a few extremely expensive habits to not be in this position.
[Laughs] I suppose that’s true. But you never know! I could get into, like … horse racing? I don’t know…I’m never going to get into horse racing. But no, I’m very, very lucky.
You’ve played a farting corpse (Swiss Army Man), a dickish tech tycoon (Now You See Me 2), and an online troll who becomes active in a real-life video game (Guns Akimbo). What’s the through-line, for you? Or is the through-line that you like that there isn’t one at all?
In the case of Pretoria, the story was phenomenal and interesting and felt like it should be more widely known. But Francis [Annan, the director] was also a huge draw. His energy for the project is very infectious. Generally speaking, it’s the sense of, how fun will this be to do? I don’t mean the film, that the end product, has to be a fun thing to watch. It can be really bleak, but I want to have fun filming it.
I’m working with Alan Cumming at the moment on [the play] Endgame. And we’ve done a couple of interviews and I feel like he has a similar approach. Somebody was asking him why he did Spice World, the movie, and he was like, “It was going to be awesome!” There’s so much to be said for just doing things that you enjoy if you’re in a position to do that.
It seems like, in reading profiles and interviews of and with you, there is often a touch of surprise at how well-adjusted you are.
I always say, I benefit greatly from an incredibly low bar. [Laughs] Somebody who grew up as an actor or famous is really—people do not have a good image of child stars. I was asked about that in interviews from the age of 11 or 12, so I’ve always known that there was that perception of us.
I’m glad I’m not that. I had good parents. There was a great crew on Harry Potter who kept us all really grounded in a really lovely way. But it is something where I feel like I get a really crazy amount of credit for just being fair, normal, and decent. But, I guess I won’t complain about that.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.