In an exclusive interview, The Daily Beast’s Kevin Sessums talks to Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe about being adored by gay men, the “stupidity” of Prince Harry, and why he wants to give Sasha and Malia Obama a personal tour of Hogwarts.
In two weeks, Daniel Radcliffe will end his critically acclaimed (and full-frontal) role in Broadway’s Equus and start filming his final installment as the boy wizard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This June, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince comes to theaters, and if the new trailer (below) is any indication, it will be Radcliffe’s darkest and most violent turn as young Harry yet. The Daily Beast’s Kevin Sessums caught up with Radcliffe last week for afternoon tea at the Algonquin Hotel in New York before the actor heads to the latest Hogwarts set.
Happy Martin Luther King Day.
Thank you. You too.
On Tuesday Barack Obama becomes our new president. We happen to be seeing each other in a very American week. Does it make you feel overly British to be here right now, or less so?
I feel privileged to be here for Obama’s inauguration. But I do tend to go doubly British when I am away from home. I have picked up certain phrases while here in America that I plan to eradicate as soon as I get back home.
“I know—right?” That phrase and its little rhythm there is very American and not really used in England. I’ve started saying that and people are picking up on it when they come over. But getting back to Mr. Obama. I am so proud and happy for this country. He is everything the rest of the world liked about America and now likes again. He is both Martin Luther King and JFK. He is a pioneer. He is a symbol of progress which is what we dig about this country. What you love about England is all the old buildings and such. The traditions. I love that, too. But this is what we want from you.
And may I? I’d like to take this opportunity to issue a public invitation to the Obamas that if their daughters would like a private tour of the Harry Potter set, I would be honored to be their personal tour guide.
That’s one thing Harry Potter has done if nothing else. It has restored the reputation of the English boarding school. It has made it something other than a hotbed of homosexuality.
Britain beat us at having a female leader. But could such a thing happen in England—a black man being elected as prime minister. Or how about a Pakistani?
I think that will be the next thing to happen. It will happen with an Asian guy before it happens with a black guy. I don’t know why that is, but English politics is just so overly white. It’s very much about the class structure. And particularly with the Labour Party being like it is. New Labour now. It’s so upper class, really.I mean you can’t criticize people for being born upper class, but that does seem to be the trend, and you just really feel you need somebody to go in and really shake things up. The thing is this is what my generation in England misses in politics and what America has just gained through this fantastic man, Barack Obama. We don’t have a figure we can all get behind. The parties in England are now so close together that people my age feel it doesn’t matter who they vote for because it’s going to be the same group of people basically in government.I mean, look at the last London mayorial election: The reason Boris Johnson got in is simply because he hosted Have I Got News for You a few times, which is an English satirical show. It was a vote for celebrity. But during that election, I was the only person I knew my age who voted.Not one of my friends even registered.
Going back to the possiblity of a Pakistani prime minister, what is your take on Prince Harry being caught using the term “Paki” on the old videotape that surfaced? Are you a royalist?
No. I am not a royalist. Not at all. I am definitely a republican in the British sense of the word. I just don’t see the use of the monarchy though I’m fierce patriot. I’m proud proud proud of being English, but I think the monarchy symbolizes a lot of what was wrong with the country. Not that they’re doing anything wrong—but that symbol of class division is not something I particularly like. And I am a very upper-middle-class kid. I have nothing against the royals as people. I’ve never met them. But in terms of that particular comment about Pakistanis, Prince Harry said a very stupid thing. He was probably very young at the time. I hope he has learned since not to say such a thing or at least learned not to be filmed saying it. The big deal to me was his wearing a Nazi uniform at that costume party.
Your mother is Jewish. Do you identify as Jewish yourself?
Absolutely. I really do. My dad is Northern Irish and my mum is Jewish. That’s working blood. Though I am not religious in the least, I am very proud to be Jewish.
That should help you fit in here in New York. Are you ready for the run of Equus to end?
I’m going to be very sad. The Harry Potter films brought me a reputation. And doing Equus in London and now in New York has consolidated that and brought me a certain amount of respect. It will always be my first experience on the stage.
What will be your second? Will it be a musical? I saw you do your satirical dance number at the Gypsy of the Year contest with your chorus line of horses from Equus. It was so charming, especially the Rockettes kickline ending you came up with.
I would like to do a musical. Very much. It’s just a matter of finding the right one.
What’s it been like working in the small bower world of the theatre? It’s a very different environment than film. Much more collegial and camp and...well, let’s face it...gay.
And for a lot of straight guys—and I know I’m guilty of it sometimes—when you know a gay guy has a crush on you it is the most flattering thing.
Forgive me, but to be politically incorrect here, I’ve seldom met a straight actor who is not a “fag hag.”Are you?
Oh, yeah. I know I definitely caught it. Absolutely. My mom was a casting director and my dad was a literary agent and I was surrounded by gay men from a very young age. And I was the only boy in my class at school who had that kind of relationship with gay men. Most of my friends had parents who had proper jobs in banks and law firms so none of them had been exposed to homosexuality in the way I had—as a normal course of things. So they had a rather different attitude toward it than I.
They’d just bugger each other.
Well, I didn’t go to a boarding school if that’s what you’re getting at. That’s one thing Harry Potter has done if nothing else. It has restored the reputation of the English boarding school.It has made it something other than a hotbed of homosexuality. Every time a new Harry Potter book comes out, the numbers at English boarding schools go up.
There is a whole genre of literature that centers on the orphaned. Your first role at nine was David Copperfield. There’s Oliver Twist. Jane Eyre. Faulkner’s Light in August. Almost every superhero. What’s your theory as to why the genre is so enduring since Harry is perhaps the most famous orphan in all of literature?
I suppose it’s because we love the underdog. I saw James Carville talking on television and he said a fantastic thing. It was during the last days of John McCain’s campaign. I got hooked on political coverage during the campaign. I love that Joe Scarborough chap. Do you watch Morning Joe? I quite like him. What is it he says? “American by luck. Southern by the grace of God.” That’s great phrase-making.
But back to Carville and orphans. He said that McCain should come out as the underdog. He said Americans love an underdog, but they hate a loser. And for an orphan, from the earliest, most basic, most primitive part of your life, things have gone against you. Everything we know about how people work and are successful, in the conventional sense, starts with family. So the notion is for that to be taken out of the picture one has to work doubly hard to achieve things. It is odd that almost every role I’ve played has been a kid who comes from a screwed-up family background because I have had such the opposite of that.
You are an only child who attained worldwide fame at a very early age. Fame itself has become a presence in your life. I’m sure you have a love/hate relationship with it. In that sense, did fame become your sibling?
It’s not so much the fame thing as it is the person you are when you are in front of an audience or, well, being interviewed.
So you have become your own sibling?
I guess in a way, yeah because you develop two personas. It’s not even a conscious thing. Something happens. Like when I did Inside the Actor’s Studio. Adrenalin hits you and your mind starts working very, very fast. People always say to me, “Oh, you’re so funny in interviews.” And I go, Well, I’m not really in real life particularly. That’s what fame does to you. You acquire another self.
Have you contacted your co-star in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix—Robert Pattinson—to give him any advice about his own sudden fame because of the Twilight films? He was once quoted as saying that if given a choice between himself and you, that girls would choose you every time.
I don’t have his number, so haven’t spoken to him. But I can safely say that his insisting that girls would choose me over him that they would not. That they do not. He is the much prettier and can be much more charming. And he can do that thing of being sultry and sexy.
You’re sexy, Daniel. Come on. Own it.
Yet in Equus you have a nude scene eight times a week. You’re flashing around your Elder Wand for all the world to see.
But I don’t know how to be sexy. Rob can just sort of stand there and look at something and start to smolder. And I just can’t do that. I’m a natural fidget.
You suffer from dysplaxia—which is a kind of physical dyslexia. Rote physicality is difficult for you to comprehend. How has that affected you as an actor?
I have a very mild form of it. I’ve gotten it mostly under control now. I played a lot of videogames as a kid which really helped it. It basically surfaces as bad coordination. Another example of it is how terrible my handwriting is because I can never quite tell when the pen is going to land on the page.
As for the emotional technique to acting, I read that you were a big fan of the poet John Keats.
Exactly. The biggest.
I was wondering if his theory of negative...
Yes. Do you use Keats’ theory of negative capability in your approach to acting? He came up with the theory after seeing Shakespeare—that the deepest truths are found in uncertainty and doubt and mystery and not in “the irritating reach for fact and reason.”
Absolutely. You’ve found me out. The truth is to be found in the things that are not certain and not solid and not easy and not simple. Keeping your childlike attitude is important too. Having a sense of wonder about everything in the world. Harnessing that wonder is what acting is about.
One of the main themes of the Harry Potter books is the loss of innocence. Has there been a parallel loss of innocence in your own life as the films made you such a star?
There hasn’t been such a loss of innocence in my own life. There’s nothing more fun than being a 13-year-old kid on a film set. It’s fantastic. But that’s the difference between star systems in America and England. Kids stars in America are treated like stars first and kids second. But in England you’re just treated like a kid. You’re always being told don’t get too big for your boots. That’s why I’ve been able to maintain a relatively level head through it all.
Who are you reading now? I know that you’re a big reader.
I’m being really indulgent at the moment and reading P.G. Wodehouse. Lots of Jeeves and Wooster.
That’s the saddest thing you’ve said all day. You really are homesick, aren’t you.
I am. Just this morning I was listening to Noel Coward singing, “I went to a MAAAAAAVELOUS party with Nunu and Nada and Nell...”
I thought you liked punk rock.
Yes. Well. That’s what being abroad has done to me.
One last question. Have you shagged Dame Diana Rigg yet?
Not yet. Though I long for it to happen, I still await the day.
It’s been nice meeting your sibling, Daniel.
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 has been a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. His work has also appeared in Playboy, Travel+Leisure, and Elle. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on the Mountain , will be published by St. Martin's Press next year.