How Daniel Radcliffe Killed Harry Potter and Found ‘What If’

daniel radcliffe Moves Beyond Harry Potter
Ioulex for Variety

'Oh man, I'm going to get tired of the Hugh Grant thing.'

Growing up, Daniel Radcliffe always thought Harry Potter would die at the end of J.K. Rowling’s books. “Because of the prophecy with Lord Voldemort,” Radcliffe says on a recent afternoon in New York, between cigarette puffs. “I thought, ‘How is she going to get out of that one?’ ” He finally worked up the courage to ask the bestselling author when she came to see him in the London production of “Equus” in 2007. “I was happy to be proven wrong,” Radcliffe says. “For an actor, what more can you wish for? You get a death scene — and then you get more screen time.”

Even though Voldemort couldn’t finish off Potter, someone else has. The culprit is none other than Radcliffe himself, who was cast to play the boy wizard at the age of 11 in 2001’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Over the next 10 years, the eight “Potter” installments from Warner Bros. added up to the most successful movie franchise ever, with $7.7 billion in global ticket sales.

Since the series ended in 2011, Radcliffe has worked hard trying to distance himself from Hogwarts. With his latest movie, the romantic comedy “What If,” which CBS Films will platform release on Aug. 8, it appears the actor has finally laid Harry to rest. He plays a smitten medical student who bears no resemblance to his trademark role.

Overcoming typecasting wasn’t easy for Radcliffe. It’s hard enough in Hollywood to transition from child actor to adult star (think Macaulay Culkin or Haley Joel Osment). But it’s even more difficult to escape the indelible mark of a mega-franchise (just ask Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig about the challenges of playing any part other than James Bond). Radcliffe, who turned 25 this month, started to realize he’d need a post-“Potter” plan in the middle of the decade he spent with co-stars Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. “When I was 14 or 15,” Radcliffe says, “journalists would come and say, ‘What are you going to do after this?’ I became aware very quickly that the narrative that people wanted to write was that these three guys did ‘Harry Potter’ and faded away. From quite a young age, I was determined not to let that happen.”

Radcliffe, a workaholic who rarely vacations, says he loved acting too much to give it up. Despite a few personal demons (in 2012, he confessed a past problem with alcohol), he’s managed to patch together a formidable career that isn’t easy to characterize. He’s crisscrossed between plays, performing on Broadway three times, most recently in the title role in a revival of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan”; in independent films, such as last year’s “Kill Your Darlings” (as Allen Ginsberg); and in studio movies like 20th Century Fox’s upcoming “Frankenstein,” where he dons hair extensions to portray the hunchback Igor.

Radcliffe explains that each type of acting has its own appeal. “The stage keeps me sharp,” says the actor, whose mom, a casting director in England, used to take him to the theater regularly as a boy. “I feel like I learn and get better every time. Indie movies are honestly where the best scripts are, and I’ll always relish the chance to do big studio movies, because that’s what I grew up doing.” Radcliffe is also starring in “Horns,” a fall fantasy film he plugged last week at Comic-Con, and will make a cameo in the new Judd Apatow comedy “Trainwreck,” in which he plays himself in a movie-within-a-movie called “The Dog Walker.” Apatow pitched Radcliffe the idea in his Broadway dressing room, and he was game. “I’ve never done a movie without a script in my life,” he says.

Radcliffe wasn’t looking to star in a romantic comedy when he came across “What If” more than two years ago. The film’s director, Michael Dowse, wrote him a letter, explaining why the role would be a departure for him. “He’s very hungry to do different things and prove himself in different ways,” says Dowse, who adds that Radcliffe’s casting helped finance the $11 million pic. “It’s his first contemporary role where he’s not in a fantasy land.” Radcliffe plays Wallace, a Toronto med student who falls in love with an animator (Zoe Kazan) already in a relationship. Radcliffe studied old classics such as “It Happened One Night” and “Love Story,” and calls 1981’s “Arthur” starring Dudley Moore his favorite romantic comedy. He regaled Kazan with tales of his past relationships as a trust-building exercise to build onscreen chemistry.

It’s no coincidence that one of the film’s posters features Radcliffe at a diner, with an image that resembles the restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” The movie is the most charming romantic comedy of the summer. Not that it has much competition. The genre has been on life support of late, replaced by bromances such as “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street,” which appeal to both female and male audiences. “I believe that genres are only dead until they are not,” says CBS Films head Terry Press, who acquired the film at last year’s Toronto Film Festival for $2.5 million. “When I went to the screening, I was completely skeptical about it. I was reluctant and suspicious, and sat there during the movie, and was completely won over by him.”

Press compares Radcliffe’s performance to those of other leading British heartthrobs. “He reminded me of Colin Firth in the ‘Bridget Jones’ movies,” she says. “And a lot of Hugh Grant.” Radcliffe has heard the comparison before, and he lets out a wince. “Oh man, I’m going to get tired of the Hugh Grant thing,” he says. “I guess it’s just that I view Hugh Grant as somebody who got into a rhythm of doing the same types of movies, and that’s everything I try not to do.”

Radcliffe is such a chameleon, he doesn’t like to live in just one city, splitting his time between London and New York. On the day of his Variety photo shoot, he raced up three flights of stairs at a private New York club, leaving his bodyguard in the dust because he’s worried about being late. It was only by three minutes, and he even had a good excuse. Radcliffe’s girlfriend, actress Erin Darke, and East Coast pals threw him a surprise birthday party at a Ping Pong bar, where he feasted on salted caramel cheesecake. Radcliffe became enamored with the sport on the fifth “Harry Potter” film, after Grint got a table in his dressing room. “One night, me and my hair dresser Will must have played 50 games, just because nothing else was going on,” Radcliffe says. “It was one of those things that starts off friendly, and then you’re fucking furious with each other.”

When he’s not wielding a paddle, Radcliffe has been moonlighting as a screenwriter. He’s already completed a script — a dark comedy about a kidnapping — and he’s mulling over a second story about the film industry. “I would also love to direct,” Radcliffe says, although he acknowledges that might be a few years off. “It’s something I feel like I could be good at, because I listen to people, and I love working with film crews. I’ve been able to watch a lot of directors, and cherry-pick what I think they do well. The mistake I see even really good directors make is that they assume they are the only creative person on set.” Radcliffe insists he’d be more democratic, and value everybody’s opinion.

In a way, Radcliffe’s life might have been easier if Harry Potter didn’t make it out of the final movie alive. On the rare occasions that Rowling even hints at bringing the character back, the pandemonium in the press gives Radcliffe a headache. This month, the questions rose to fever pitch after Rowling published a short story with a graying Potter. “Every time she writes something, I’m like, ‘Oh no!’ ” Radcliffe admits.

Though he’s kept a pair of Harry’s glasses from the first and last films, the odds that he will ever wear them in public are small. “I cannot envisage a set of circumstances where I would play him again,” says Radcliffe, who, at the end of a lengthy response about closing the door on Potter, offers a tiny opening: “Maybe there’s a chance that things go so well, I can go back.” For now, he’s rebuffed offers from Universal Studios to appear at “Harry Potter” events timed to their amusement park openings. “I felt like I had to draw a line,” Radcliffe says. “I’m always going to be incredibly proud of those films, but there comes a point where it feels odd to me to put on the robe.”

Yet unlike other actors who have tried to disassociate themselves from iconic roles, Radcliffe often volunteers stories about Potter. He was even intrigued by a fan letter that suggested he direct any “Potter” remakes. Yes, Daniel Radcliffe reads his own fan mail, especially from the Far East. “Something about the way Chinese translates to English means the letters fall somewhere between free verse and the last chapter of Ulysses,” he says. “They are very poetic.”

He’s grateful to the legions of “Potter” groupies, who follow him to his various projects and camp outside his stage door during runs of his plays. He’ll sign autographs, but not without at least one condition. He recently saw a girl who permanently inked his signature on her hand. “Now when I sign a person’s arm, I say, ‘Do me a favor and promise me you’ll never get this tattooed!’ You might like me now, but you might not be so into me in 10 years.’ ”

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  1. bromin says:

    kudos to you for admitting the mistake, Isaac. I must admit, short dark-haired actors are rare.

  2. Isaac says:

    For me, personally, I think he killed Harry Potter with Sin City. Seriously, watch him in that and you’ll never see Harry the same again.

    • Alis says:

      Daniel Radcliffe is not in Sin City. You’re confusing him with Elijah Wood. Elijah, who WAS in Sin City, played Frodo in LOTR, not Harry Potter!

      • Isaac says:

        Yeah I realized that immediately after I said it and posted it and had a facepalm moment, but there’s no way to delete comments. Doh! v.v

  3. Daniel is a talented actor and I very much wish he would not fear being type cast as Harry. It is hurtful to his fans that he does not appear at any of the special occasions at Universal Park. He was the central character of the books and is missed. Going on with his career is good but ignoring his past is sad.

  4. Inara Sera says:

    Ooooh. I’mma be really jealous of whoever gets to be in a movie written by Radcliffe.
    On another note, loved the article. :) /thumbsup

  5. Pauline A. Harris says:

    The Harry Potter films bridged the generation gap so well. I stood in line for every film with my grandchildren. And I built Diagon Alley and Hogwarts and Hagrid’s Hut and Hogsmeade for the local primary school Harry Potter Reading and fun club, which I had a great time running for four years. We read riddles brought to us by the Weasley’s owl, ate biscuits baked by Mrs. Weasley, read sections from the book and generally entered into the magic of it all., It was a unique series of films which I still occasionally enjoy. Thank you Daniel for bringing Harry to life so well and I wish you a varied and highly successful career in the future. Pauline Harris.

  6. Radcliffe Please be the next Potter in the next movie

  7. LOl says:

    He seems a likable bloke, but he’s ineffably twee and bland. He has no edge–simply posh and English. He’s like a Keira Knightley in trousers.

  8. The best way to dis-associate oneself from type-casting seems to be to get a new franchise that is more identifiable than the first. Take Neil Patrick Harris. He was Doogie Howser, his Gestapo character on Starship Troopers was so far afield from Doogie as to almost clear Doogie from our minds, But ultimately it took Barney on How I Met Your Mother to finally kill Doogie. Barney the womanizing letch that you love to hate or hate to love.

    if Radcliffe can attach himself to a new, iconic role that he cements through 2-3 or more movies; he will have broken free; then he can go back and revisit Harry if he choses

  9. RickJM says:

    The press really want Radcliffe to make it. So much so that they completely ignore the fact that he really isn’t a very good actor.

    And Radcliffe is not Potter so he can’t finish him off. It would be nothing to just recast him but until that happens Radcliffe will be Potter. Nothing he says or does will change that. And Radcliffe pray to the heavens each day for that because playing Potter is the only reason he has a career.

    And Appatow wants Radcliffe for one reason and it not talent. Radcliffe will get people to come to the movie even if it stinks. Its called stunt casting.

    • Maysie says:

      Blah, blah, blah. Why don’t you actually watch one of his new movies or go see one of his plays before you make these pronouncements. There’s always someone on every board who writes something similar – turns out – all they’ve ever seen is Potter.

      • JT says:

        Why do you assume he hasn’t seen his new movies? I watched The Woman in Black and Kill Your Darlings, and I agree Radcliffe is not a very good actor still. He’s forced and inconsistent. Yet he gets a lot of ink despite his unremarkable acting and despite the fact these are small productions, so one is tempted to think the press just really wants to make him happen, or Radcliffe has aggressive PR.

    • David says:

      Radcliffe already had a career before the Harry Potter films, unlike most of the young actors of the franchise. Jamie Lee Curtis co-starred with him in The Tailor Of Panama, she encouraged his parents to make him doing the audition for the role. And he had another role in David Copperfield.

      Daniel’s post-Potter career had nothing but praises. SInging, acting and dancing in two plays on Broadway, a TV show with Jon Hamm, playing a famous poet in Kill Your Darlings. Also, you’re wrong about re-cast him. Daniel, Emma and Rupert were the foundations of the franchise, and the films wouldn’t had been as sucessful, because they became the faces which a new generation learn to watch growing up on screen. And above all, Daniel had the biggest difficulties, watch any videos of him talking about how he played Harry in the last four films. Or the video which Jason Isaacs praises him for a improvisation in HP2. Or the Resurrection Stone scene from HP8.

    • Roxana says:

      Yes, you’re right in some parts. But he’s working harder than any other young actor and he’s willing to improve. He’s humble and he’s not taking anything for granted, that’s why people wants to give him a chance and he deseves it

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