Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.
Eleven years ago, the Harry Potter franchise came to an end. It was an incredible run — eight hit films over the span of a decade, grossing a combined $7.7 billion worldwide — and what was even more amazing, and rarely gets discussed, is that this string of blockbusters was put on the shoulders of children. You could argue that anybody could have been cast as Harry, Ron and Hermione and the films would have still done well. (After all, the books were sensations, right?) But that’s ridiculous: Recall for a moment how much Star Wars fans disliked Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace, which is all the proof you need that it’s incredibly hard to ask young actors to carry the dramatic and emotional burden of such an expensive, potentially lucrative enterprise.
Just look how young Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were at the premiere of the first installment, 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
Warner Bros. took an enormous gamble that these kids would have the chops to play these characters — and that, for instance, they wouldn’t decide halfway through the series that they wanted to quit acting. Radcliffe was 11 when he was chosen for Harry Potter — imagine having something so monumental put on you at that young an age. No matter what your feelings are about these movies — I think they’re astoundingly alright and nothing more — it’s impressive that these tweens developed into compelling performers and became the face of the franchise, earning the love of so many readers who accepted them as the big-screen representation of extraordinarily popular characters. That couldn’t have been easy, but Radcliffe and his co-stars pulled it off.
So now it’s been more than a decade since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 — 11 years since filmgoers wondered what these actors would do once they left Hogwarts. And if it was impressive that they comported themselves so well during Harry Potter mania, in some ways I respect even more what they’ve done subsequently. Grint and Watson have had solid careers, but Radcliffe was always going to be in a special, not entirely enviable position as the former Harry Potter. The world hadn’t really seen him before donning the glasses, so as far as we were concerned, this English kid was Harry Potter. Could he be anything else?
Turns out, he could — several different things, actually. And they’ve all been delightfully, willfully odd.
This Friday, Radcliffe stars in The Lost City, the action-comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum as Loretta and Alan, a romance-adventure novelist and her cover model. Radcliffe plays Abigail Fairfax, a quirky tycoon who’s a fan of Loretta’s books, taking her prisoner in the hopes that she can decode a hieroglyphic he’s found that he believes holds the secret to a jungle treasure. With his elegant suits, nicely trimmed beard and posh air, Abigail doesn’t look like a megalomaniac, but his crazed eyes give him away — the character is both The Lost City’s villain and comic relief, growing more exasperated that his grand plans keep going pear-shaped. If you haven’t seen Radcliffe in a while, this cheeky turn might seem like a change-of-pace role. But, really, it’s where he’s lived since saying goodbye to Harry.
Born in 1989 in London, Radcliffe had been interested in acting since he was little, getting cast in a 1999 television adaptation of David Copperfield as the young title character. It was there that he met Maggie Smith, the revered Oscar- and Tony-winning actress who would go on to be Professor McGonagall in the Potter films. “Maggie was the person that recommended me for Potter,” Radcliffe would say later. “So she’s the reason I ended up doing that. I met her when I was nine for the first time. I didn’t know who she was. My parents were like, ‘Oh my god, you’re working with Maggie Smith, that’s huge.’”
But when the audition process began for Harry Potter, his parents — dad a literary agent, mom a casting director — were reluctant to let him try out. “My mom and my dad had not had very great experiences as actors,” Radcliffe said in 2013, “and when I was initially asked to audition for Harry, they both said no. And I didn’t have any knowledge of this at this point — obviously they kept me pretty out of it, rightly so. But they said no, because at that time the deal was that we’d have to sign on for seven films, and they’d all be made in America, and they just said, ‘No, that will be too big of a shift to his life. That’s not going to happen.’”
Things changed, though, when the initial deal was amended — just two movies to start, both to be shot in the U.K. — and Radcliffe’s parents saw how much he was struggling in his classes. (“I was not very academic as a child when I was at school — not bottom of the class, but not far off it either,” he said in that same interview. “[I] found concentrating very hard, all of that stuff you always hear.”) And so his mom and dad acquiesced: Maybe letting him try out for Harry Potter would give him a boost of self-confidence.
When you see Radcliffe in that video, I don’t think it’s unkind or unfair to say that it’s not overwhelmingly apparent that he was born to be Harry Potter. To be sure, he has presence and charm, but put it this way: If you were a producer on the movie, would you know definitively that this child, more than any other you’d seen during the audition process, was the perfect Potter? This is the eternal mystery of casting, the leap of faith it takes to invest your franchise’s future on a relative unknown. And, admittedly, the early installments were unconvincing, with Radcliffe more adorable than fully commanding. (To be fair, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets were so-so films on the whole — you could hardly lay their failures at his feet.)
But by 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the dark third chapter, Radcliffe began to come into his own. In a 2013 interview with the Huffington Post, he credited that movie, and new-to-the-series director Alfonso Cuarón, with changing people’s perception of him. “That was the film where I was suddenly of an age for the first time where I was able to be directed by him — more than I had been capable of being in the past,” Radcliffe said. “And, also, I was suddenly working with Gary Oldman and David Thewlis, and whereas all the older actors in the first two movies had known me as a kid, they hadn’t. They only know me as a 14-year-old, so they treat me as a young man rather than a boy. And I think that whole film is a huge turning point — it’s really where I decided that I wanted to be and absolutely continue to be an actor.”
Azkaban is the first film in the franchise that really showed Harry’s emotional depth, and Radcliffe proved equal to the task. It’s a movie full of sadness and anger — not to mention the awkwardness and anxiety of adolescence — and seeing the teenage actor really embody the character felt like a revelation. Radcliffe no longer seemed like a cute moppet — he was Harry Potter.
Sequel after sequel came, each of them doing fantastic business, and while I confess I found Harry’s adventures a bit repetitive after a while, I always liked Radcliffe in the role. He brought heart and sincerity to a classic hero’s journey, convincingly squaring off with Ralph Fiennes’ monstrous Voldemort and piloting the franchise to a satisfying finale. Still, there was no guarantee that he’d have much success afterwards — after all, child actors often have difficult, sometimes tragic, transitions to adulthood.
And, to be sure, those initial post-Potter films weren’t especially promising. He starred in the gothic horror movie The Woman in Black and then played poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings. That latter was nervy casting, though, and an indication of the seriousness with which Radcliffe approached this new phase of his career. As he told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “[Director John Krokidas] saw something in Allen’s situation in life — which was that of somebody trying to figure out who they are creatively — and he saw, I think, a parallel of that in my life, as somebody who had come out of one thing, obviously Potter, which I’m very known for … and trying to establish myself outside of that.”
But even if the movies weren’t great, you sensed Radcliffe’s creative restlessness, his determination not to be pigeonholed. He continued to avoid playing it safe, signing up for Horns, a dark comedy/horror/mystery in which he played a young man accused of raping and killing his girlfriend (Juno Temple), waking up one morning to discover that he’s grown horns that, inexplicably, have magical powers that compel people to reveal their innermost secrets — a nifty superpower considering he’s trying to figure out who’s behind this gruesome crime. Horns underlined the seeming brazenness of Radcliffe’s career path — this was straight-up genre fare that would only appeal to niche audiences. Maybe he wasn’t being offered movie-star roles — maybe he wasn’t seeking them — but there appeared to be a conscious choice to gravitate toward the strange and the unexpected. Add to that his desire to do stage work — stripping nude for Equis, singing in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, teaming up with Oscar-winning playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh for The Cripple of Inishmaan — and you get a young actor hungry to explore and take risks.
“I can’t put it down to anything more than that I’ve got weird taste,” he told The Guardian. “There have been plenty of weird roles so far, and more to come, I hope. I pick films based on scripts and directors and parts. I think I’ve got good taste, but it’s slightly left of center. I’m not interested in making films I’ve seen before. There’s nothing more exciting to me when I read a script than originality. That’s all it’s governed by; there’s no master plan to distance myself from Potter with every role.”
I can’t make the case that the films and other projects he’s done since Deathly Hallows have been uniformly terrific. (Truth of the matter is, they’ve tended toward the just-okay.) But what has elevated them is Radcliffe’s giddy good spirit about throwing himself into whatever he’s doing. He’ll happily send up his celebrity: During the Potter years, he played an exaggerated version of himself on Extras, and then years later he appeared in the fictional arthouse rom-com The Dogwalker, alongside Marisa Tomei, inside Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck. (And, of course, there’s his great cameo as an oblivious Daniel Radcliffe on BoJack Horseman.) Repeatedly, Radcliffe has done a marvelous job of cultivating an every-dude likability, wearing his stardom (and the fact that we all still know him primarily as Harry Potter) so lightly that he seems approachable, utterly lacking in bitterness or cynicism. It’s foolish to think this way, but he’s so endearingly down-to-earth that you swear he’d be one of the few movie stars you might legitimately be able to have a beer with.
But what’s perhaps even more remarkable is that Radcliffe has managed to put distance between himself and Potter without coming across as defensive or dismissive about his most popular role. When he’s asked about that time in his life, his memories are warm, although he’s pointed out that, whenever he’s selecting a wardrobe for a new role, he has to make sure that that character’s glasses don’t look anything like Harry’s. (“They cannot be perfectly circular, basically,” he once said.) But he also doesn’t go in for a lot of self-deprecating humor, as if making fun of himself first would keep others from taking potshots at his child stardom. Radcliffe has managed that rare feat of actually pulling off a tired old actor cliché: He takes his work seriously without taking himself seriously. Because he doesn’t seem to be chasing the same level of celebrity he enjoyed as a young man, he’s successfully created a new metric for how to judge his career.
And he’s been especially thoughtful when dealing with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments, publicly condemning her statements while addressing fans’ concerns about the writer tarnishing their fond associations with the series. In a 2020 Trevor Project blog post, he wrote, “I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you. I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you. If these books taught you that love is the strongest force in the universe, capable of overcoming anything; if they taught you that strength is found in diversity, and that dogmatic ideas of pureness lead to the oppression of vulnerable groups; if you believe that a particular character is trans, nonbinary or gender fluid, or that they are gay or bisexual; if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred.”
From a young age, Radcliffe has been asked to do the impossible, several times. First, he was expected to carry a highly-anticipated franchise — expected to live up to an entire world of devoted readers’ expectations of who Harry Potter is. Then he had to figure out how to gracefully move on to the next part of his career and life. And recently, he’s had to step in as a sort of ambassador between fans and the Harry Potter legacy, confronting Rowling’s insensitive comments and serving as a de-facto grief counselor for those who felt betrayed by what she’d said. Plus, he appeared in this year’s Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, the sort of shameless fan-service tactic that he (and his reunited co-stars) did their best to enliven. Some actors refuse to be the eternal spokesperson for their franchises. (Harrison Ford immediately springs to mind.) But Radcliffe has shown a real graciousness: He may not have fully understood what he signed up for when he became Harry Potter, especially after the final film was completed, but he’s handled that responsibility with class.
I think that’s what engenders such audience goodwill toward him. He doesn’t come off as entitled, and so, for instance, when he does a peculiar TBS anthology series like Miracle Workers — notably dancing in one episode in chaps and a boa to “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” — it just feels like our ol’ buddy Daniel Radcliffe doing his thing again. This is a man who’s played a talking, farting corpse (Swiss Army Man), a nerdy gamer who ends up getting guns bolted to his hands (Guns Akimbo) and a more refined Igor than we knew from the Mary Shelley novel (Victor Frankenstein). He resides in the bizarre and the marginal.
I can’t think of many mega-stars who have so gleefully followed their instincts with such abandon after tasting phenomenal success. Usually, actors in that situation tense up, seek out sure things. Radcliffe has let his freakiness fly.
I wish this story had a happier ending — it would be so great to say that Radcliffe has taken all his inspired weirdness and turned it into a great performance in The Lost City, adding a demented jolt to a mainstream studio film. Alas, he can’t overcome the script’s lame conception of the character. (One of the jokes involves his confusion over other people thinking it’s odd that he’s named Abigail: It’s a gender-neutral name, he insists, unconvincingly.) Radcliffe doesn’t always help his cause, overacting Abigail’s stereotypical-British-billionaire villainy. (He’s like a really dull James Bond bad guy, neither funny nor legitimately menacing, a variation of a similar character he played in Now You See Me 2.) The Lost City is so milquetoast that it smothers Radcliffe’s quirkiness. That said, if you haven’t seen any of his work since the end of the Harry Potter franchise — and his performance here piques your interest — there are far more intriguing turns worth catching up on.
And there may be ones on the horizon, too. Earlier this year, it was announced that he was going to star in a “Weird Al” Yankovic comedy biopic, with the parody artist picking Radcliffe personally to portray him. Shot in less than three weeks, the film seems to be, like so much of the actor’s post-Potter projects, both a stunt and a sincerely considered undertaking. “Wearing the Hawaiian shirt is a huge responsibility that I don’t take lightly,” Radcliffe said last month, “and I’m honored to finally share with the world the absolutely 100 percent unassailably true story of Weird Al’s depraved and scandalous life.”
Many of us no doubt fantasize about what it would be like to be someone like Daniel Radcliffe: world-famous, rich, good-looking, able to do whatever he wants. Lots of actors fall into that category, but how many of them have managed to deliver a second act as fun as Radcliffe? And that’s without actually making that many great movies in the process. Really, it’s the best of all worlds for a guy who’s only 32. He escaped child stardom relatively unscathed, opening up about the alcoholism he combatted during the height of the Harry Potter years, and has come out the other end in a good place, beloved by the public. If he manages to deliver a handful of truly terrific performances, dramatic or comedic — he’s capable of both — then it would be merely icing on the cake.
In a 2013 interview in The Guardian, he was asked to assess his work in the Harry Potter films. How was that younger man as an actor? “My tendency is to underplay stuff and sometimes I look at the films and I know I thought I was being subtle at the time, but actually I’m just doing bugger all,” Radcliffe replied. “That’s a learning curve. You can’t dwell on the things you’re not happy with, though; you’ve got to move forward and get better.”
That sounds like a healthy way to look back on one’s past accomplishments. And since that interview, he’s clearly achieved his objective: He’s moved forward and gotten better as an actor. Once he finds roles that match his daring, there may be no stopping him. He will probably always be known as Harry Potter. But his ability to not let that role define the rest of his life may be his greatest achievement to date.
Tim Grierson is a contributing editor at MEL. He writes about film and pop culture for Screen International, Rolling Stone and Vulture.