Daniel Radcliffe continues to move far away from Hogwarts with “Escape From Pretoria,” a riveting, true-life prison drama that’s gritty, grounded and wholly different from the fantasy franchise that made him a star.
The indie release hits theaters on March 6 and finds Radcliffe playing Tim Jenkin, an anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned in South Africa for distributing political pamphlets that were critical of the racist government. Sentenced to 12 years behind bars, Jenkin cooks up an ingenious plan to break out of Pretoria Central Prison.
Radcliffe spoke to Variety about researching his role in the film, his love of the stage and why he won’t be reprising his role as Harry Potter anytime soon.
What interested you about “Escape From Pretoria”?
Just the f—ing incredible physical riddle of it all. How they were able to open the cell door of this terrible prison with these handmade keys and escape to freedom. Also there was something nice about the fact that these were people who were eminently supportable. You’re rooting for them to get out because they should not be in prison. They are victims of an oppressive, tyrannical regime, so it seemed like a wonderful story to be a part of telling.
Did you spend a lot of time with Tim Jenkin?
I did. He was in the movie in a small role. I won’t lie. I was very intimated having him on set because I was so aware that I was sort of playing at somebody’s life. We’re all walking around in costume, in prison outfits, and there’s this guy who lived through this. I kept thinking that it must be such a weird thing for him, and I worried he’d think we were trivializing it. But he seemed to like being there and he was so generous with his time. Despite having told this story a hundred thousand times, he was patient with all of my questions and just giving and generous with his time.
Do you feel a greater responsibility when you play a real person?
You do feel a real responsibility to do it justice. Not to sound pretentious and be everything I hate about actors, but it makes you want to suffer a bit more when you know there was actual real human pain involved in the story you are telling. You feel more of an obligation to try to understand what that was like.
When you say you feel a need to suffer more, what do you mean? Do you consider yourself to be a method actor?
I already hate that answer I just gave. Can I take it back? I’m not a method actor at all. I’m all about breaking down a script and figuring out what I’ll need to do. Occasionally I’ll listen to music to get in the mood for certain scenes, but generally my approach is to just know the lines well and give the director as many different options as we have time for. To try the scene in many different ways. That’s what works for me.
There are a number of articles that talk about your “weird” career choices since you finished the “Harry Potter” series. You’ve certainly made a lot of off-beat films like “Horns” and “Swiss Army Man,” but do you agree with that characterization?
I accept the label in that there’s nothing I’ve shied away from. But I wasn’t like, “find me the weirdest thing out there.” I wasn’t picking projects that were weird for weird’s sake. “Swiss Army Man” was weird in that it’s about a farting corpse coming back to life and that’s not for everybody. At the same time, it’s an incredibly smart film that has something beautiful to say about being human. I’ve done “Guns Akimbo,” where I’ve had guns bolted to my hands, but I’ve also done “Escape From Pretoria,” which is really grounded in reality. I think people saw me play one thing for so long that it seems more notable that I do loads of different stuff now.
Would you return as Harry Potter in the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” films?
I don’t think so. I don’t like say no to things, but it’s not something that I’m rushing to do. I feel like those films have moved on and they’re doing just fine without us. I’m happy to keep it that way. I like what my life is now. I’m not saying that I’ll never go back into any franchise, but I like the flexibility that I have with my career now. And I don’t want to get into a situation where I’m signed up for one series for years in advance.
You are performing opposite Alan Cumming in “Endgame” in the West End. Do you have any plans to bring that to Broadway?
I would love to come back to Broadway. I don’t know if it will be with “Endgame,” but I’ll definitely be back. Broadway and New York have been so kind to me and it’s such a fulfilling place to work. I’m going to find a way to get back as soon as I can.