Costume Dramas

How Daniel Radcliffe Became Harry Potter And Other Masterpiece Theatre Tales

After almost three decades of introducing British actors to the U.S., Masterpiece PBS producer Rebecca Eaton reveals why they’re so much better than their American counterparts.

It happened in the blink of an eye. At the age of 9, Daniel Radcliffe was catapulted towards Harry Potter and Hollywood immortality by a single, instinctive wink.

The London schoolboy was auditioning for the title role in David Copperfield, a BBC adaptation of the Charles Dickens book, when a playful greeting grabbed the attention of the director Simon Curtis and separated Radcliffe from a host of boys vying for the job.

“A director friend of mine told me, ‘If you’re casting a kid, cast a kid you like,’” Curtis recalls. “As the casting director walked him across the room in preparation, he winked at me, which made me laugh. I think that was the hundred million dollar wink, considering where he went next.”

Curtis’s recollection appears in Making Masterpiece, a book published on Tuesday about the long-running PBS series written by its producer Rebecca Eaton. She also spoke to Radcliffe about securing that first role on David Copperfield, which was broadcast in the U.S. on Masterpiece.

“I wouldn’t have the confidence to wink at a director now, even one I know well,” he said. “I was just so full of youthful hopes that hadn’t quite been knocked out of me by puberty yet… It’s kind of wonderful that it all started with something like that.”

It was that role as David Copperfield that was the key to Radcliffe’s being selected for the Harry Potter movies. “Maggie Smith said to the director because of her experience on David Copperfield, you should look at this boy, she could tell. Maggie probably was mainly responsible for casting him on Harry Potter,” Eaton told the Daily Beast.

She recalls his first publicity tour to the U.S.: “There would be 250 people asking questions and there’s Daniel—his feet literally not touching the floor.”

More than a decade later, Eaton, now 65, saw Radcliffe on stage in Equus. “Here’s something I should take to Dr. Freud. I went with my daughter to see it and when the nude scene came on, I had a tremendous coughing fit and had to leave the theater,” she said.

Eaton has been working at Masterpiece for almost 28 years, overseeing the introduction of hundreds of British actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Helen Mirren, to American audiences in PBS’s famous Sunday night slot. She says British actors tend to be more accomplished than their American counterparts.

“These actors are trained in such a way that they can play lots of different things. Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis, Helen Mirren either trained officially, going to theatre school, or working in repertory in regional theatres, the breadth of parts that they play—they are not pegged as this or that so they really challenge themselves to be able to do a lot of different things—among them American accents.”

Kenneth Branagh explains in the book that the geography is also invaluable in ensuring actors gain a wide range of experience. “England is a small island, and different kinds of work are concentrated. We aren’t broadly divided, New York to L.A., theater to film across a much, much larger country,” he said.

Eaton said British television had been well-ahead of the U.S. for decades. “It was for a period of time. I don’t know about now—I think arguably they’ve both raised their games terrifically. Ten, 15, 20 years ago, there was just a tremendous amount of good television being made. The British value their writers and they would protect them and give them a lot of room, they are respected and understood. They support people who are doing it, don’t threaten and scare them.”

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She said the Masterpiece series had suffered low moments as well as highs. “Practically anywhere but PBS it would have been cancelled,” she said. “It bloomed again when we found Sherlock and Downton.”

It wasn’t just a question of finding, Downton Abbey, however, Eaton admits she didn’t think the smash-hit costume drama sounded like a good idea at first. It only ended up on Masterpiece once all the other networks had turned it down. “I think there are probably a lot of executives currently out of a job, that didn’t buy it,” she said.