The thing about telling people you’re going to interview Daniel Radcliffe is that everyone, from journalists who have interviewed him to producers who have worked with him to fans who have accosted him for a selfie on the street, says that he is the nicest celebrity you will ever meet.
He did nothing to refute that open secret—how lovely for Hollywood to finally have a positive one—when we met in New York City to discuss his next project, the high-concept TBS comedy series Miracle Workers.
There’s a prodigious amount of energy coiled into the actor’s small frame as he barrels—always thoughtfully!—through questions about his religious beliefs, the Trump administration, his controversial comments about Tom Brady, and his eclectic résumé, all without batting an eye. In hindsight, that latter point is remarkable considering the absurd number of times, I realized when going back through our transcript, that I called him weird to his face.
In fact, his only small request through it all is that I kindly refrain from publishing just how many Splendas he puts in his coffee. (It is a lot of Splenda. But I will not say how much!)
As we sit huddled in the not-yet-open rooftop bar of the Freehand Hotel in matching black puffy ski jackets, hands buried in our pockets to stifle the shivers, he does not even complain about the fact that, on the coldest day New York City has suffered in nearly three years, he is doing interviews in a space without its heat on. Instead he laughs self-effacingly about it.
Days before, he was in Park City, doing press for Miracle Workers in the comparatively balmy mountains of Utah. “Can you believe it’s colder here?” he asks, his blue eyes dancing beneath a black snow hat he keeps on to stay warm.
His days of magic are long over, but it would still be nice if someone could conjure up some heat for Daniel Radcliffe. Or maybe, keeping in theme with Miracle Workers, an angel could hear my prayer for a fireplace. But it soon becomes clear I won’t need it. The charm and honesty radiating from one former Harry Potter is all the warmth I’d need. (It can’t be corny if it’s true!)
“Maybe I have strange taste…”
Miracle Workers, which premieres on TBS Tuesday, is based on the 2012 novel from Simon Rich (Saturday Night Live, FXX’s Man Seeking Woman), What in God’s Name. The novel and the series imagines the afterlife as a poorly run corporation called Heaven, Inc., lorded over (literally) by God, in this case a petulant and incompetent man-child with no business acumen played by Steve Buscemi.
Radcliffe plays Craig, a low-level worker drone who happens to be an angel, relegated to the drab Department of Answered Prayers. Forget any wonderment you’d imagine an angel could attain from making people’s wildest dreams come true. Those are branded with a red stamp that says, “IMPOSSIBLE,” and filed away to the oblivion of paperwork. No, the prayers Craig actually can answer are comically pathetic. A lot of helping people find their keys. It gives him great joy.
“Our show is superficially very nihilistic,” Rich tells me when we connect on the phone. “Given that the universe is a random nightmare place where terrible things happen all the time, should you give up or keep trying? That’s the question our show asks.”
It’s actually Radcliffe who sought out Rich about taking part in some sort of adaptation of What In God’s Name, now serving as an executive producer of Miracle Workers, his first American TV project.
“If you saw a vision of heaven and it was run perfectly smoothly and everything was going well, you’d be left wondering, well what’s happening between that and earth to make everything go so wrong,” he says. “Simon wanted a heaven that was congruent with the way we experience the world.”
It’s an unusual project for one of the most successful movie stars of all time to participate in. Which is to say that, for Daniel Radcliffe, it is completely ordinary. Normal, in fact, as far as things go for him.
In 2007, when he was 18 and in the prime of Boy Wizard hoopla and hysteria, he took to the stage to prove his legit acting cred. It’s a well-traveled path for actors in his position, though Radcliffe’s run in Equus was atypical in that regard for requiring that the most famous person in the world go full-frontal nude each night.
When the Harry Potter franchise wrapped, he starred in an Edwardian horror film and then played beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, kindling an ultimately crass obsession over a gay sex scene. He did a version of Frankenstein…and played Igor. In the paranormal revenge thriller Horns, he, uh, has horns.
His subsequent returns to the stage required magic tricks themselves: perfecting an Irish dialect for The Cripple of Inishmaan, and learning how to sing and dance to play one of American musical theater’s most beloved roles in the Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Then there’s Swiss Army Man, in which his character is a sentient corpse who at one point is transformed into a motorboat propelled by the force of his cadaverous farts.
I mention to him that Simon Rich has a notoriously bizarre sense of humor, which is certainly on display in Miracle Workers.
“I never think of it as bizarre,” Radcliffe says. “I just think the guy is amazingly funny. It was the same with Swiss Army Man. There comes a point when you spend so long with something that you forget that other people are going to think it’s crazy. Then when it comes out and people have that reaction, you’re like, oh right, yes, maybe I have a strange taste.”
He considers the phenomenon for a quick beat—everything Radcliffe does and says happens at a supercharged, kinetic pace—and surfaces quite pragmatic about it all. Most actors are in the position of having to take a job because of money. He’s in one that affords him the luxury of seeking only things that spark joy. “I’m getting a weird amount of credit for something that is ultimately selfish.”
Plus, he supposes, weird begets weird. Do films like Horns or Swiss Army Man, and suddenly producers and casting directors will send him more “out there” projects because he’s proven open to that. “I also think that because people have seen me play one character for so long, I maybe get an undue amount of credit for trying to be versatile. But I think most actors, if they had the opportunity and the position, they would be doing what I’m doing.”
To that end, Rich, who graduated from Harry Potter appreciator to major Dan Radcliffe Fan after seeing him in How to Succeed six years ago, is practically effusive. “Obviously he played one role extremely well for many, many years and that’s how people know him, but he’s got so many other moves as an actor and performer. I’m excited for people to see how versatile he is.”
All of this makes Radcliffe a fascinating study of what it means to be a Great Big Movie Star in 2019, a time when blockbusters and franchises may be dominating the multiplexes but it is the curios and delightful whims of the most famous among them that are actually celebrated.
It’s certainly notable that Radcliffe is done with magic. It’s endlessly intriguing that now he’s moved on to miracles. Weird-ass miracles.
“We needed God to kill somebody…”
In order for the stakes of Miracle Workers to really click, Simon Rich says, “we needed God to kill somebody.”
In the show’s pilot, God proclaims himself bored with Earth and announces that he is going to destroy it unless angels like Radcliffe’s Craig convince him otherwise. God had to kill in order for the doomsday threat to be real.
That the End of the World As We Know It is treated as just another day at Heaven, Inc. speaks volumes about the world that Miracle Workers sets up.
“I wanted to make sure that we fulfilled the promise of Heaven, Inc. as a grossly mismanaged, inefficient corporation,” Rich says. “I didn’t want it to look like Google. Or even H&R Block. I wanted it to look like an extremely dilapidated, corroded, leaky mess.”
Crucial assistance in the endeavor came from the semi-abandoned fiber optics factory they found to shoot in in Norcross, Georgia, where there were signs hanging throughout the building warning about acid leaks. Rich helped work out a deal in which the show was allowed to use any of the factory’s garbage that they wanted. “Occasionally, we weren’t sure what were props and what weren’t.”
That Heaven is nothing compared to the show’s assessment of God. Buscemi’s CEO, Lord, and Savior is never without an open beer. He’s a joke to the Heaven, Inc. workers. He decides to end earth to give him more headspace and concentrate on his next passion project: a Lazy Susan-themed restaurant. (You float in a lazy river around an island that houses chefs.)
When you meet God in the pilot, he is watching news reports on all the war and destruction happening on Earth. Exasperated, he changes the channel. “I think that’s something we can all relate to at the moment,” Radcliffe says.
Miracle Workers was filmed during the first year of the Trump administration, and he could sense a certain frustration in the cultural pulse being reflected in the series he was making. “I do feel like it’s kind of similar to what happens every time I turn on Rachel Maddow now. I watch her and she’s like, ‘I just threw out the whole show five minutes ago.’”
But Rich reminds me that he actually wrote What in God’s Name during the George W. Bush administration, so there’s no specific political allegory there in terms of our current situation. The message is depressingly evergreen. “Humans have a long history of being under the yoke of bosses and leaders and rulers who maybe shouldn’t be in charge,” he says. “On a more grounded level, I feel like most people have the experience of having a dumb boss.”
“I’m going to be fucked by it…”
Radcliffe, as we all know, has never been afraid to talk about You Know Who. (In this case, that’s the current U.S. president.) In fact, he’s the one who brings up Trump. Journalists have always asked him about politics, and he’s always answered. “I think there was always a hope that I might say something controversial as a teenager.”
He similarly has no qualms about answering questions about his own spiritual beliefs, given the subject matter of the show he’s starring in.
He hesitates to use the word “atheist” because it implies absolute certainty. But “agnostic” seems too vague. “When I was 16, I was an asshole about being atheist,” he laughs. “Watched loads of Richard Dawkins. Was just like, you know, really belligerent about it.” He’s met too many people since then whose faith helped them survive horrible moments in their lives to entirely dismiss religion now.
This candor is not to say that he doesn’t consider what kinds of questions will be asked of him when he’s considering a project. Recently, he was sent a script where the character he was meant to play had a name “that didn’t sound like a very white person’s name.” He looked up who the character was based on and learned that he was Hispanic. “Everyone can give their reasons for this piece of casting, but ultimately I would be the one sitting in an interview having to say this was why that happened.” (He also didn’t particularly like the script.)
Being an open book isn’t entirely freeing, however. He was slightly irked at himself when a joke he made during an interview at Sundance that Tom Brady should “take that MAGA hat out of his locker” went viral faster than a strain of Dragon Pox.
“It came out of my mouth and I was like, what are you doing?” he says. “It’s something I’m frustrated by because I gave people an easy headline there and feel a little silly myself. And it was like, I had a few coffees and was hyped up and on my fifth coffee of the day and getting a little flippant.”
“I used to Google myself all the time,” he says. “When I was first coming out of Potter, I was chronic for it, and it really fucked me up.” Now he resigns himself to the comforting reality that if he’s a person who’s going to do interviews and have opinions, occasionally he will give people fodder. And that’s OK.
On the topic of weird careers, that kind of Zen attitude with the press is unheard of for an actor of Radcliffe’s notoriety. It’s exactly why he was such great casting for Miracle Workers.
“This is the character who in the first five minutes of the first episode basically sentences a dying man to death,” Rich says. A prayer comes into Craig’s department from a man begging heaven to stop a pack of wolves from eating him. Craig takes his red stamp and stamps it “impossible.” Then he smiles, satisfied with a job well done. “We need to love this character and root for him to succeed. It’s a very short list of actors who can stamp that prayer ‘impossible’ and still get you to like him.”
At the end of a long conversation about all the wonderful and strange things he’s gotten to do since officially retiring his wand, the natural segue is into what Radcliffe wants to do next. The answer is an easy one: directing. He’s wanted to do it for a long time, but has had cold feet at the commitment to blocking out an entire chunk of time from acting gigs to focus on it.
He laughs, acknowledging that he’s been saying this since he was 21. “I think my goal was to have directed something by the time I was 30, so I might recalibrate that and make it by the time I’m 40.”
He turns 30 this July and can already tell “I’m going to be fucked by it.” But until then, and until the directing goal actually happens, there’s acting. Weird, batty acting.
“I just want to be an actor who just pops up in stuff and who people know from Harry Potter maybe,” he says. “If I could make it so that it doesn’t feel like an event every time I appear in something that’s not Harry Potter, then that’s the goal.”