NEW YORK - Daniel Radcliffe came of age playing “the boy who lived’’: Harry Potter, vanquisher of Voldemort. In his new movie, “The Woman in Black,’’ which opened Friday, he finds himself in the company of children who’ve died.
A ghost story set in a vaguely Edwardian era, it’s Radcliffe’s first film since the Potter series ended last year. For the actor, 22, playing a young widower opposite Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds is the latest in a series of grown-up career moves that have included Broadway turns in the drama “Equus’’ and the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.’’
Radcliffe, who lives in New York’s West Village, sat down last week to talk about the current phase in his career, and about “The Woman in Black.’’ The film is based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, which spawned a stage adaptation that’s a West End fixture.
Q. Americans don’t necessarily know this story.
Q. But the play has been running in London since six weeks before you were born.
A. Yeah [laughs]. My parents still have a program that they bought from the original run of the play, which says on the inside, “Limited run, 12 weeks only.’’ I believe it’s also been running in Japan for maybe six years, and I think Mexico. I never saw the play.
A. Yeah, as amazing as it is, and it is amazing, because if you ask anybody of my age [in London], they have all seen it. It is a standard school trip for everyone to go on, and I, for reasons I needn’t go into, wasn’t there. I read the book as soon as I’d read the script. Obviously we framed it quite differently. [He glances at a copy of the newly reissued paperback, his face on the cover beneath the words “Now a major motion picture starring Daniel Radcliffe.’’] It may as well not even have me on the cover [laughs]. “Now a major motion picture that’s vaguely like this book.’’
Q. In this movie and in the Harry Potter series, you’ve spent a lot of time with ghosts. What do you think so fascinates people about the supernatural?
A. I think it comes from the idea of the limitless possibilities: if you were able to transcend one life in the other, the possibilities that would engender. It’s interesting if you look at the places where [the play] has been running. If you look at Japan and Mexico, there’s a huge feeling of spirits and demons being a part of the world we live in - not in any metaphorical sense but in the literal sense.
Q. What about the UK? This story is quintessentially British.
A. It is quintessentially British. And my description of the UK doesn’t match up with the description I’ve given of either of those two countries. Like, we’re not a spiritual country at all - but we were once. And we were just a land of pagans for a wonderfully long time. But it’s much easier to define why it’s successful in many other countries than why it’s successful in its country of origin for some reason.
Q. With “Equus’’ and “How to Succeed,’’ it seems like you’re trying to do two things: get from being the child star to the adult working actor, and break out - which a lot of adult actors have to do - of being identified with one character.
A. Yeah. It’s a bit of everything, really. A lot of people say to me, “You’re picking really different stuff. Is that demonstrative of the fact that you want to break away from Harry?’’ And actually I don’t think it is. I think that’s just an actor’s instinct, because I think most actors want as varied a career as they can possibly have. But now, having a little bit of perspective on the last few years, I can see how I did some things absolutely right. Like, doing “Equus’’ when I did it [in 2007 in London and 2008 on Broadway] did more for me - both in myself, in my own personal growth, and also how I’m perceived in the industry - than I could ever have imagined.
A. I met with a director not long ago, and he said to me, “I run with a fairly highbrow group of directors, and we all talk all the time, and you should know that when you did that, everyone in the community went, ‘Wow, OK. He’s serious.’ ’’ For me to hear that four years down the line was amazing. And also, it was so important while the franchise was going on to start doing other stuff then. I think now how much harder my current position would seem if I had not done any of that work. It would be a real uphill struggle, I think.
Q. Because you’d be solely identified with one role.
A. And it starts the idea in people’s mind of me going off and doing other things. That’s really what this next couple of years is about: just kind of showing people that I want to still be around. You’ve seen me as Harry Potter for 10 years. Now I don’t need you to see me as anything, just another actor. That’s what I want to be now. The current plan is just about doing as many different things as I can, working with a huge range of people, and working with people who I think are going to make me better. There’s a quite shocking attitude, I think, among a lot of actors my age or a little older: that now we’re great actors and that we’re gonna be actors forever and that’s it.
Q. That you’ve learned what you need to know.
A. Yeah. I watch Alan Rickman still try and learn, still try and get better. You should never be satisfied and never feel that you’re done. One of the first things I say to any director when I go in, if there’s a part that I’m interested in, is, “I will read for this.’’ Like, “Let me read.’’ Because I know that they haven’t seen anything other than Harry Potter. Unless they’ve seen me in either stage show, there’s nothing to go on. So you know that you need to show them what you’re capable of.
Q. Is part of that also about saying, “If you want me just for my name and the star power, that’s not what I’m here for’’?
A. I think maybe that is a little bit of that instinct. I hadn’t put my finger on that, but that’s something I’m aware of. I want them to want me. And that’s one of the things that I’m being very careful of is that I don’t want to be somebody’s meal ticket. I want to get more out of the film than they get out of me [laughs]. The next thing I’m doing is I’m working with a young director called John Krokidas, who is doing “Kill Your Darlings.’’ I’m playing Allen Ginsberg.
Q. Please explain.
A. It’s not Allen Ginsberg at, like, 40 with a beard, obviously. It’s 19. I am Jewish, if that helps. So, yeah, I’m working on my New Jersey Jew accent at the moment. It’s an amazing script about a murder that formed the Beat generation. I did a makeup test not long ago, and we’re playing with a few ideas. In terms of the hair, we’ll be giving me a Jewfro. By the time they’re done with me, I will look much more Allen Ginsberg-esque. Although, I have to say, I look at pictures of him and I go, really, the only difference is the eye color. We’re not that different. I’ve got a stronger jaw or something. But hopefully there won’t be - I don’t think people are going to struggle with it when they see me.
Q. One more question. You grew up working with some of the greatest actors in the UK. What’s the best advice you got, and are you following it?
A. I don’t know if I got advice, per se. In terms of following somebody’s example, the thing that struck me most about him when I first worked with him was Gary Oldman’s fearlessness as an actor. Not through necessarily his work in the Potter films, although it’s fantastic, but his work through his career. And I think fearlessness is a kind of a key to any successful career. So I think so far, yes, I am following it, and I hope I will for the rest of my life. I hope I never take the safe route. If you find me in 20 years taking the safe route, you can tell me I told you that I wouldn’t.Interview has been condensed and edited. Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.