Daniel Radcliffe on Hollywood’s Bad Actors and the Rise of White Supremacy Under Trump
The acclaimed star of stage and screen discusses his new film, ‘Beast of Burden,’ the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, and the Divided States of America.
The post-Potter career of Daniel Radcliffe, one of Hollywood’s humblest, has been punctuated by risks that few actors, let alone a global superstar whose films have grossed in the billions, are willing to take.
There was his turn as a young, libidinous Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings; an accused murderer who grows mythical horns in the aptly named Horns; an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a white-supremacy group in Imperium; and, last but certainly not least, his turn as a bloated, fart-flying corpse in the surreal drama Swiss Army Man. Though Radcliffe has, it seems, always pursued creativity over commerce since his magical discovery. Who can forget his nude stage turn in Equus, about a boy sexually attracted to a horse, at the height of Potter hysteria?
Radcliffe, now 28, will next be seen in the claustrophobic thriller Beast of Burden, helmed by Swedish filmmaker Jesper Ganslandt (The Ape). In it, he plays Sean Haggerty, a pilot who has only an hour to transport a cache of illegal drugs in a rickety prop plane across the U.S. border into Mexico. When a cartel hitman abducts his wife, played by Grace Gummer, things get even more complicated for our hero, who’s juggling calls from the cartel, the hitman, his wife, and the DEA—all while operating some pretty heavy machinery. With much of the film set in the plane’s cockpit, Radcliffe delivers a nervy, magnetic turn that holds your attention.
The Daily Beast caught up with the charming Radcliffe, who’s called New York City his home for the last decade or so, to discuss his new role and much more.
Did you view Beast of Burden as an acting challenge, in a sense? It’s mostly you trapped in the cockpit of a plane juggling multiple conversations, sort of like an airborne Locke.
Yeah, definitely. We shot it in 16 days, and before we started, Jesper sent me a text like, “Are you good with learning lines?” and I said, “I think so! But now that you’ve sent me this question I’m doubting that I’m good enough for whatever you’re planning!” But it was great. It was the closest thing to doing a play I’d done on film, in a weird way. Because I’m on the phones for so much of the film, and because we had so little time to shoot, we’d do 20 pages [of script] in one go and half-hour-long takes. We’d do that three or four times during the morning, then we’d change the camera position and run another section three or four times in the same way and block-shoot parts of it. All of the stuff in the plane was the first eight days of the shoot and the rest was outside.
Was it tough to act—to keep your composure—in that rattling cockpit for eight days?
[Laughs] It very quickly became my home. I was spending so much time in there and quite kind of came to enjoy it. I took two flying lessons before I did the film so I had a vague sense of how to do things or how to move things, but at the same time it was a limited amount. There was a certain amount of me pressing buttons inside the cockpit so it was like, OK, I’m going to find an internal logic in these eight days to where, when Jesper would tell me to do this, I’d go to push that button. It made sense to me, but I’m just hoping no pilots are watching and going, “What the fuck is he doing?!”
Oh, I thought it looked pretty convincing. There’s a combat drone trailing you—and really, haunting you—throughout much of the film. Did you view that as a subtle commentary on the horrors of drone warfare?
I don’t know that he’s making any kind of overarching political point with it. It wasn’t like Eye in the Sky. It’s more of a case of, OK, we’ve got this guy in the air, how much shit can we throw at him? It’s a film about going from A to B, and how much awfulness can we put this guy through along the way.
I found it to be a commentary on drone warfare, given how the drone is being controlled by a governmental agency—the DEA—and redirecting the sense of paranoia that people in other parts of the world must feel with combat drones flying over them onto an American.
It’s something that we associate with not being directed at white people normally. That’s true. That’s interesting. Another thing is, with all the stuff that’s going on about “The Wall” at the moment, we made the film about a guy who’s literally flying [drugs] over the border. We loosely based it on an article, and in it, with people who are flying drugs over the border, the plane I fly in the film is basically a jetliner compared to some of these things, which are like hang-gliders with engines on them and crazy dangerous. It’s a one-time-use thing, and they just fly them over and dump the drugs. We were making this before any of this [wall] stuff kicked into high gear, but it was definitely something that occurred to us when we were doing it.
Your character, Sean Haggerty, sees himself as a failure. It’s almost like this one (last?) crazy mission, he feels, is penance for his sins.
With all the choices he’s made in his life, he sees himself as a complete failure and someone who’s actively screwed up situations in his life. He’s trying to make everything right by doing the only thing he thinks he can do—and the only thing he knows how to do—but it’s something that has never brought the best result for him. It’s an addict’s mentality: to do something over and over again and think something different will come of it when you’re really just grinding yourself down. He’s trying to do this for a good reason, but his lack of being able to be honest with himself—and then be honest with his wife—about what he’s actually doing means that he’s endangered everybody he loves, as well as himself, and dragged them to a much darker place than they would be otherwise.
I enjoyed your performance as an FBI agent who infiltrates a gang of white supremacists in Imperium. It must seem pretty surreal to you to see these white supremacists in America coming out of the woodwork. You filmed it in rural Virginia in September 2015, well before the neo-Nazi march on Charlottesville.
It’s been disturbing. When we were filming the KKK rally scenes in that film, we did have some people think we were a real rally. There were some rightly pissed off African-American people, and we’d all rush over to them and be like, “No, no! It’s only a film!” and were the most apologetic group of fake skinheads in the world at that moment. But we also had people drive by in trucks and honk their horns thinking we were a real rally, and it was appalling.
It was a really weird thing to experience because we were making a film about white supremacy so we didn’t think it had all gone away, but when it was that sort of casual, that was the thing that has been shocking. When we were making the film, we thought, “This is way more prevalent than people think but it’s still on the fringes,” and then to watch it become treated as a “legitimate” political point of view in some quarters because of how elevated some of its voices have become, it’s crazy.
It is indeed crazy. And it’s not just happening in America.
Yeah, a version of this is happening in a lot of places around the world. We all obviously focus on what’s going on in America because what’s going on in America affects everyone everywhere, but some version of it is happening everywhere. I, like most people, am particularly spellbound by what’s going on in the U.S. It’s sad, and it makes me worried. This level of division is not just going to go away when Trump goes. It’s something frighteningly, deeply ingrained. I hope it can just dissipate, but I don’t know. Any exposure to Twitter and YouTube comments and you go, “Oh my God!” It’s so hard to see these people feel less strongly about these things than they feel right now.
It’s not a good time to have a Jewish last name on Twitter. I know from experience.
Oh God. Best of luck to you with that.
I wanted to talk to you about your LGBTQ advocacy work. One of the things I’ve admired about you is that you spoke out against homophobia at a young age, and have been a strong supporter of The Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youths. I’m curious how you feel Hollywood is doing as far as providing a platform for LGBTQ actors goes, as well as its overall acceptance of those who identify as LGBTQ?
It is definitely getting better. I think there’s a lot more effort being made to tell stories about different people—and about different groups of people. That’s something that can always improve, but it is something that is happening, though not as quickly as people would like. I think people are starting to think differently, when you’re writing a TV show or a film, about the perspectives that you’re choosing to right from, who you’re choosing to include in that, and handling that with care, versus just being like, “Oh, I’m a middle-aged white guy, I can easily capture the voices of these young, diverse people.” I’m explaining this badly, but I do feel like it’s getting better and we’re a good industry for that.
The thing that made me want to get involved [in LGBTQ advocacy] was less specific to the film industry and more the amount of young kids that are killing themselves around the country, and having my attention drawn to that. I’m from a family of actors and I grew up around a lot of gay people and it was never even explained to me, I don’t think—or if it was, it was in passing. It was never explained to me as being something different. It was just, “Oh, this is my parent’s friend Mark, and Mark has a boyfriend.” When you’re a kid, you’re not going to question that unless somebody tells you to question it, so I didn’t. And then I got to school, and that’s where you hear homophobic slurs being thrown around as kids experiment with swearing when they’re nine or ten, and then you get a sense of homophobia, and how prevalent it is.
Right. All too prevalent.
Very. I’m from a fairly secular upbringing and am totally in support of anybody being religious or having religion in their life, and that’s great, but if your religion tramples on the feet and the lives of the people around you, that was something that I felt is an issue. It’s an issue in the middle of this country—in super-religious areas in the middle of America, it’s very, very hard to be young and gay. If I as Harry Potter or somebody they have watched or whatever saying “don’t worry about who you are” made any difference to anybody, then that seems like a very small thing to do on my part. The thing about The Trevor Project is that the people that man the phones and do all that on a daily basis at The Trevor Project are the people who are on the frontlines of actually saving lives. It’s something that people do mention to me occasionally as having been important to them, and whenever they do I feel incredibly honored to have been able to help in some tiny way.
Speaking of Harry Potter, you recently addressed Johnny Depp’s involvement in the Potter spinoff franchise Fantastic Beasts. What do you feel the level of responsibility should be for particularly men in Hollywood with power when it comes to casting people who have been credibly accused of things like abusive behavior toward women? It seems men, as allies, can do a lot better when it comes to standing up for the women in the industry.
There’s something happening which I think is really, really good, where people and audiences are caring about the people who make these things, and what ethical or moral code they live by. I don’t know if it’s happening because of social media, or because we know so much more about everyone now, but I do think people are going to have to start thinking about that, and hopefully it will make people think about their behavior. The meaty thing is about sexual harassment, as it should be, and that should be stamped out and wiped out of our industry—from the awful Harvey Weinstein stuff to the low-key, on-set weirdness—all of that is just crazy, and needs to go, and there’s no place for it. But there’s no place for a lot of the behavior of people in my industry.
I can only speak for my industry, but particularly with actors, actors operate with a kind of freedom on set because it’s very hard to replace them during a production if you’ve already started filming—it’s just very hard to shoot them out. If half the crewmembers acted in the way some actors act, they would be kicked off and replaced immediately. The only reason that doesn’t happen is because you’ve already shot half the movie and you’re gonna have to finish. There’s not enough incentive to stop people from behaving badly, so hopefully the general knowledge that you can’t be a shit and get away with it will make people act differently.