In an exclusive interview, The Daily Beast’s Kevin Sessums talks to Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe about being adored by gay men, growing up on screen, and his rivalry with Twilight’s Robert Pattinson.
Xtra Insight: Read Kevin Sessums on Daniel Radcliffe in Equus
After going to see Sacha Baron Cohen in Brüno this past weekend, I felt as if I needed to cleanse my movie-going palate since there had been several moments in the shockumentary, as defiant in its indolence as it is in its vulgarity, that had made me throw up a little bit in my mouth. So I simply focused on another British movie star who has depended on his juvenile appeal and not his puerile one. The latest cinematic iteration of the Harry Potter series was about to come out and Daniel Radcliffe—as Brüno himself might put it—would be the perfect way to scrape Sacha Baron Cohen from the roof of my mouth.
Click to View Our Gallery of the Harry Potter Cast Through the Years
That is not to say Radcliffe can’t deal in a bit of vulgarity himself. Back when he was appearing in Equus on Broadway, I met him for tea at the Algonquin Hotel. He was starring in the play with Richard Griffiths—who plays Harry’s uncle in the Potter films—an actor so entombed in flesh that his stage appeal has ironically become based on a kind of elegiac carnality which worked in its way because Griffiths’ character, the psychiatrist, is trapped in a sexless marriage. “That’s what I think is sort of fantastic about Richard Griffiths as a piece of casting,” he told me during our discussion. “If you see someone like [Richard] Burton or [Anthony] Hopkins in that part—that if they weren’t fucking their wife, if they had gotten to that point in their marriage—you’d have a hard time believing that they wouldn’t leave to find somebody else to fuck like a secretary or a nurse or whomever.”
The aesthetic thrill of hearing Harry Potter utter a couple of “fuck”s inside a place where Dorothy Parker must have hoisted a few herself during those loquacious and liquid lunches she had with Benchley, Woollcott, Kaufman, et al., certainly trumps Brüno brandishing a dildo in a multiplex.
But mulitplexes have certainly played a big part in young Radcliffe’s life and he’s grateful for them. “Though Equus has now brought me a certain amount of respect I cannot lose sight of the fact that it is the Harry Potter films that brought me my reputation. I started doing the movies when I was eleven and when I finish the last one I’ll be twenty-one. The Half-Blood Prince is really, really good but I want the last one to be the best. It has to be. I know it can be. David Yates is going to direct it. He’s a lovely man. But I was just thinking about all this the other day. I started working when I was nine. I am now nineteen. Where have those ten years gone?”
I was just talking with Dakota Fanning and she said she was born in 1994 or something ridiculous and you think, No you weren’t. It’s not possible. No one was born after 1990.”
Was it true, I asked, that David Heyman, the producer of the Harry Potter movies, saw him several rows in front of him when they were both attending the theatre one night in London and knew on the spot that he had found Harry Potter? Or is that become part of show biz legend, like Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s drug store? “There’s some truth in that story,” Radcliffe told me. “I’d already done David Copperfield in England and Chris Columbus, the first director of the Harry Potter movies, had seen it and said that’s the boy I want or at least I want to audition. At the time my parents said no, that it would be too big an upheaval because the offer was to be for six films and they would all be filmed in Los Angeles. So my parents said no way. So at the time I went to the theatre and David saw me there—he happened to be with Steve Klovis the writer of the film - the deal had been changed. It was going to be signing on for two films to be filmed just outside London. So my parents said okay I could audition. But first I just had a meeting with David and we talked about wrestling which was my passion at the time. It all went from there. My parents were right to wait for the right moment. It’s odd that every role I have done to date has been a kid from a kind of screwed-up family background because I have had so the opposite of that.”
Radcliffe told me that he’d like to use the combination of respect he gained from Equus and his worldwide reputation from the Harry Potter films to do a new play perhaps after the last Harry Potter film wraps. “Because you are sort of writing it basically as you go along—at least that is what I’m told.” He’s also the utter professional. When I pressed him back then as to why Kenneth Branagh, who had originally been slated to direct the revival of Equus, dropped out of the production he carefully deflected the question. “The honest answer is that I just don’t know. He had directed me in the workshop. Richard wasn’t playing Dysart then either. It was Adrian Lester, the young black actor, which would have been really interesting as well. It’s that old euphemism—artistic differences—but I’m not sure what that actually meant in this case. I don’t think Kenneth ever even saw the production and I would have loved him too,” he said rather sadly. “But I am hopeful that I will work with him again.”
Click to View Our Gallery of Harry Potter in Love
The equation should be turned around for Radcliffe is a much bigger celebrity than Branagh is, so much so that even at such a young age he has a rather jaundiced take on what celebrity means in this celebrity-saturated world in which we all now live. “Take the London mayoral elections last year. The reason that Boris Johnson got in was that he hosted a few times, Have I Got News for You, which is an English satirical show. It was a vote for celebrity, nothing else. Now he may do brilliantly—and I hope he does for London—but it was a rather hollow victory. And yet I was the only person my age I knew who voted in that election. Not one of my friends had even registered.”
“Were you even alive when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister?” I asked him.
It was the one question that had seemed to stump him the whole afternoon. “Hmm ... maybe toward the end of her .... well, reign I almost said. I was born in 1989.”
“Even I am having those moments now when I meet other young actors. I was just talking with Dakota Fanning and she said she was born in 1994 or something ridiculous and you think, No you weren’t. It’s not possible. No one was born after 1990.”
“Look, Dan, I don’t want to start hearing you say you’re old. It doesn’t fit with your whole Harry Potter image. Be careful.”
“It’s a funny thing. But I do. I’ve always felt old. As an only child, I’ve always been around older people—either my parents or friends of my parents. And then as an actor I was suddenly mostly working with older people. I have always felt like an old man—at least mentally.”
How about physically? I had asked him back on that winter day while we were warming ourselves with tea at the Algonquin if he was in love. “Aahh … not really at the moment ... “ he had answered back then. “I find I’m still at the age where love happens a lot. I can walk into a room and I can fall in love twice.”
“That’s a nice way of calling yourself a slut,” I told him.
“Right. Yes. Probably.”
“So are you a slut?”
“Oh, no, certainly not. I was just kidding.”
“But you could be. I’m sure you are hit on all the time.”
“That’s a funny thing with me,” he confessed. “I’ve always gone in for long relationships. And ... and ... and ... faithful ones. I don’t know why that is.”
“Did you really lose your virginity at sixteen? That was a headline in the tabloids back home in England.”
“Oh, God. That was just a case of my being in a relationship for a couple of years when I was 18 and the reporter did some arithmetic.”
“You seem to have a sense of humor about all this.”
“I have a rather cruel and dark sense of humor, to be honest.”
“Well, you’re no prima donna.”
“I’m not particularly. I’m not. It’s all about the work. My parents did a good job. I’ve got a good work ethic. My dad is Northern Irish and my mum’s Jewish. I’m not religious in the slightest but I’m proud to be Jewish as a race. The combination of the two of them—that’s working blood, ” he said, revealing what a half-blood prince he really is.
Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain, will be published by St. Martin's Press.