Our countdown to “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” continues. Today, it’s our exclusive interview with the star of the magical franchise, Daniel Radcliffe, who is not quite ready to leave the halls of Hogwarts but does admit he is starting to look toward life beyond its familiar corridors.
Most movie sets are flimsy facades — the walls usually move when you lean against them — but not the airplane factory in Watford, England, that a decade ago was transformed into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and built to last. The floors and walls are real stone, and no one knows their cracks and echoes better than Daniel Radcliffe.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. “I still get turned around in here,” Radcliffe said as he wandered through an especially dim corridor. “I couldn’t tell you the name of this set, but I know my way to all the sets. Well, pretty much.”
Radcliffe was wearing a black suit with a shirt and tie the color of a dark red wine, his costume for a holiday party scene in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” He seems smaller in person than on the screen; he’s a compact 5-foot-5 but it’s the sinewy physique of a horse jockey thanks to years of training as an action hero. In person, he has a quick smile and the same chipper enthusiasm as his world-famous character, but the actor also possesses a sly wit and calculating eye that quickly sets him apart from the puppyish boy wizard he plays.
Radcliffe, who turns 20 this month, has been wearing the Hogwarts robes since summer 2000, when “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling signed off on his casting. It’s difficult to understate the impact on his life in England where the mania for the books and films is even more intense than it is stateside.
In the subsequent years, Radcliffe has been called the world’s richest working teen (he made $25 million just last year, according to Forbes, and also inked a $43 million deal for two more “Potter” films) and at age 16 he became the youngest non-royal to have an individual portrait put on display at Britain’s 153-year-old National Portrait Gallery.
“I started this when I was about 10 or 11; it’s quite mad if you think about it,” Radcliffe said with a serene expression that suggested he is accustomed to the bedlam. That eighth and last “Potter” film is scheduled to be released in 2011 and will close out one of the most massive undertakings in mainstream film history.
No one would begrudge Radcliffe for taking a long break afterward, but no one who knows him actually expects that to happen. The actor performed to strong reviews in London and New York in Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus,” and the harrowing spiritual and sexual themes (along with the nude scenes for the star) were an emphatic declaration that Radcliffe wants to be more than Rowling’s magical orphan.
“He’s an extremely focused young man and keen to learn as much as he can at all times,” “Half-Blood” director David Yates said. “He’s pursuing a career that will carry him far beyond this role and these films. I have seen very few people his age with such purpose in them.”
Of the sets in Watford, the Great Hall and Dumbledore’s office are the most impressive to visit. “I pity the poor blokes who have to take it all down,” Radcliffe said. “It will take them years.”
Radcliffe said the “Potter” soundstage has been a second home and a one-of-a-kind acting academy. Several generations of the best from British and Irish stage and cinema have passed through the franchise, such as Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson and the late Richard Harris, and Radcliffe tried to learn something from each of them.
Asked for an example, he points out that Richard Griffiths, who plays Harry’s sour uncle, was raised by deaf parents and, attuned to nonverbal expression, approaches his work with a more internal strategy than most actors. He first learns what his character is thinking in each scene as opposed to what he is saying.
Griffiths also once advised Radcliffe to never let the camera catch him when he wasn’t thinking because the void would be read in his eyes; the veteran prefaced that counsel by saying it was told to him by Lee Marvin, who heard it from Spencer Tracy.
“Just think,” Radcliffe said, “how many young people get access to that sort of advice and that sort of history?”
But it’s Gary Oldman and Imelda Staunton who have left the biggest impression on Radcliffe. “To me those are the two that are just in the firmament,” Radcliffe said as he relaxed between takes. “All of them, everyone, has been brilliant, but those are the two that mean something special to me.”
In “Half-Blood Prince,” Potter comes to grips with being “the chosen one” and he has some fun with it, especially when his closest friends take him to task for taking himself too seriously. The same seems to apply to the actor waving the wand.
Radcliffe loves going to movies and the theater but he does so with pals and only on nights when there’s no red carpet. “He won’t do premieres,” a longtime member of the “Potter” production team said. “He doesn’t court publicity. He puts on a baseball cap and goes to movies in London on a Friday night with friends.”
Radcliffe is an intense music fan and jumped at the chance to discuss some of his favorite bands, which on the day of the interview included the Arctic Monkeys and the Libertines. He even plays; Oldman (who once recorded a duet with David Bowie and famously portrayed Sid Vicious on screen) tutored his young friend on bass guitar. He clearly enjoys the music’s reckless energy and, perhaps, the idea of separating himself further from Harry Potter; he also likes using a bit of raw language and, with a wink, talking about the number of beautiful women in London.
Radcliffe’s parents were with him when fate picked him for the role of Harry. The family was attending a play, “Stones in His Pockets,” when they bumped into David Heyman, the “Potter” producer who urged the youngster, who had by then already starred in the BBC film “David Copperfield,” to audition.
Fame has not pulled Radcliffe, an only child, away from his family. His father, Alan Radcliffe, stood not 20 yards away from Radcliffe during the filming of the holiday party scene and afterward they took a short stroll; viewed from a distance, the pair have the same gait and profile. Radcliffe chuckled when asked about it. “It’s true, isn’t it? People say I look like my father; I don’t. I just have all the same mannerisms. If we walk down the road for 30 seconds, we will fall into step with each other.”
His mother, Marcia Jeannine Gresham, told her son that as the “Potter” novels went along, she saw more of her son in the character and vice versa.
“She read ‘Half-Blood Prince’ and she did say, ‘Harry has started to argue like you argue,’” Radcliffe said with a roll of his eyes. “He is very good in analogies, and I also use a lot of semantics, and it does really irritate people into submission really. Obviously, J.K. Rowling actually had cameras in my house and knows that is how I argue…”
Radcliffe laughed but then grew a bit serious.
“I would like to think I haven’t been influenced by him too much just by playing him for so long,” Radcliffe said. “I am thrilled to have this in my life, but it is separate from my life, you know? It’s nice to be called Dan. And actually I started correcting people now. You do feel like a bit of an idiot doing that, but at the same time, in the long run it is better for us. I know it’s better for me.”
— Geoff Boucher
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At top, Daniel Radcliffe in 2008 photographed by Junko KimuraI/Getty Images. All “Harry Potter” images courtesy of Warner Bros.