It’s a brilliant June day in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. Small white clouds dot the wide arc of visible midtown sky. Children’s voices mingle with music from a gilded carousel. And sitting on a green folding chair, as moms push strollers and idlers sip iced tea, the world’s most famous English schoolboy is talking dirty.
“Stepping out the motherfucking carr, they in awe,” says Daniel Radcliffe. “I’m looking like a starrr, bitch.” He looks up. “How was that?”
Bright-eyed and bushy-browed, the British actor is gamely reciting some phrases we’ve compiled to test his American accent, in preparation for becoming a full-time New Yorker when he moves here this fall to star in the Peter Shaffer play Equus. We started with some conversational basics: softened t’s (“Can I get a boddle of water?”), smashed syllables (“Look at the size of that squirl“) and have entered the extra-credit section of Lil Wayne lyrics. Radcliffe tries again.
“Stepping out the motherfucking carrr, they in awe, I’m looking like a starr, bitch, when you see me, make a wish.”
Well said—and good advice too. Britain’s richest teenager, who turns 19 in a few weeks, does indeed looks like a star: knockabout-natty with a choppy brown coif, olive designer tee, navy blazer, and dark skinny jeans by a line whose name runs down the button fly: Absolut Joy. “And I would like to say that’s what lurks beneath,” adds Radcliffe.
Ah, yes, this would be virile Dan Radcliffe, he of the bare-torso cover shots and professions of girl-craziness, the young man who appeared at last night’s Tony Awards trailing tabloid buzz over his harrowing, occasionally naked performance in Equus, which was originally staged in London. Radcliffe plays Alan Strang, a self-flagellating, stable-boy mental case, a role that fans of him as a certain bespectacled boy wizard whose presence looms over us even now in a sunny New York City park might find unsettling.
“Whenever I can, I want to leave Harry there on the screen,” says Radcliffe. “I don’t want to bring him into my normal life.”
But even without the signature glasses and inky hair, Radcliffe retains an otherworldly aura, as if he just wandered our of an early-’70s Disney musical costarring Angela Lansbury. A slight five-foot five, he has fine features and large blue eyes that seem designed to widen with amazement.
He’s also a dazzlingly bright and not a little manic. Radcliffe leans forward as he talks, arms tightly folded, eyes darting about, speaking quickly through a clenched jaw that’s lightly dusted with stubble. It’s likely that Radcliffe is a bit jumpy about being in public since we left his Manhattan hotel against his handlers’ wishes, a bodyguard trailing by a discreet half-block, our stroll attaining the frisson of a Compton roll with Snoop Dogg.
“Not particularly,” Radcliffe says when asked if he’s nervous. “No, no, no, not at all! The reason I’m looking around is ’cause I always like to clock where everybody is in terms of who’s recognized me. ‘Cause they try to be subtle and they never are.”
What’s the latest count?
“Well, there were those two Japanese girls, and that couple over there, and those other two girls, and that mother and daughter . . . ”
Like any maturing child star, Daniel Radcliffe is carefully plotting his career after he leaves the role that made his name. Two things make his case unusual: (1) He may be the most eerily adult actor to do this since the post-Taxi Driver Jodie Foster, and (2) the character he’s leaving happens to be the most popular literary hero since the invention of the printing press.
The seven Harry Potter books have sold more than 400 million copies. They have been translated into 67 languages. They’ve made their author, J.K. Rowling, the highest-earning novelist in history. And they’ve spawned the top-grossing film series of all time, which has earned Harry Potter’s cinematic representative a fortune the London Times this year estimated to be $39.7 million. Having just signed a contract for $50 million to see Harry Potter through to graduation, Radcliffe is tied with the ubiquitous Miley Cyrus on Forbes’ “Hollywood’s Top-Paid Tweens” list. Today he occupies a sphere of fame, wealth, and public imagining that approaches the supernatural. Escaping Harry Potter may be his biggest magic trick of all.
We first meet in the hotel lounge, a book-lined nook with Edwardian aspirations: Beaux Arts shelves, a carved-wood fireplace, tables for chess and backgammon. The vibe is somewhere between Kipling-era smoking room and Oxford-don study an effect that’s amplified when one of Hogwarts’ own bursts in and takes a seat at the cribbage table. When Radcliffe marvels at the surfeit of ice in his glass, I counsel him to order his booze neat when he’s of age.
Well, I am old enough to drink,” he says with mock indignation. “But not in this country, apparently.” Ever since Equus added a kinky twist to the end of one of the most well-attended puberties of the decade, Radcliffe’s passage into adulthood has been the stuff of feverish speculation. For the record, Master Radcliffe does drink in moderation and in private. Vodka and Diet Coke is his cocktail of choice, he says, “’cause I’m a pansy-ass civilian.” Also for the record, he celebrated reaching Britain’s age of consent, 16, almost three years ago, in the customary manner, with an older girlfriend. The age difference “wasn’t ridiculous,” he says. “But it would freak some people out.”
Maybe because he’s surrounded by people at least twice his age, Radcliffe tends to date older women. He’s currently single, although he explains that this is primarily due to time constraints. “Most of my friends have been girls, and I see how they are with their boyfriends and I think, I couldn’t do that,” he says. “I just don’t have the time.”
Some might reasonably assume that the Harry Potter kid is an impending train wreck of a former child star, a Ritalin-addled, Humvee-carousing little egomaniac the appearance of whose first mug shot is only a question of time. But aside from random street shots and headline puns about nude wizards, Radcliffe is notably absent from the tabloids. Instead, his image is that of an autodidact with a heavy-duty reading list (Nabokov, Joyce), hipster rock tastes (Arctic Monkeys, the Hold Steady), and modest spending habits.
“The only thing I’m likely to spend on is artwork, ’cause that’s the only thing I’m interested in that costs a lot of money,” Radcliffe says. His grandest vehicular ambition is, heartbreakingly, a Golf GTI, which he describes as “a good, small German car that zips around.” For the multimillionaire teen, wealth’s greatest luxury is not material but creative. This means roles in carefully selected films: He was in the Australian coming-of-age movie December Boys and the World War I drama My Boy Jack and has recently been attached to a film about the British photojournalist Dan Eldon, who was killed in Somalia in 1993.
I ask him about other dream parts: Super-villain? Terrorist? Sex fiend? “I think part of me would love to play a drag queen,” Radcliffe says, “just because it would be an excuse to wear loads of eye makeup.”
Since he’ll soon be playing psych patient Alan Strang eight times a week, it seems fair to ask if he’s spent time on the couch himself.
“No,” he says. “Please. No. Never. I’ve been pretty happy. I’ve got a great family. We’re a very tight-knit group we work very well as a team and as a tribe. I owe it to that.”
David Yates, who directed 2007’s The Order of the Phoenix as well as The Half-Blood Prince, due out in July (he’ll also oversee Deathly Hallows, which will be released as two films in 2009 and 2010), calls his star “one of the most grounded people you’ll ever meet.” “He’s under extraordinary pressure, with all this fame and the success,” he says. “But he is just a very down-to-earth, sensible lad.”
The son of a literary-agent father and casting-agent mom, Radcliffe made his acting debut at age 10 (in a BBC version of David Copperfield) and was cast as Potter a year later, entering what would become an ongoing alternate reality leaving a private school for on-set tutors and communing almost solely with film folk and fellow wizards.
But while they may have eaten his childhood, Radcliffe says the Potter films have provided significantly more joy than angst. “They’ve been a laugh,” he says. “They’ve been great. For the most part I’ve been happy every single day. And all the times I’ve been unhappy, it’s never been anything to do with Potter. It’s just been the normal, boring teenage crap. Insecurities, acne all the normal stuff.”
Whatever “boring teenage crap” means in the world of older girlfriends, A-list costars, and $25 million paychecks, the theme of adolescent turbulence will play an increasing role in Harry Potter’s life, at least, as the franchise enters its final chapters. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince promises to be darker and raunchier than its predecessors. As Potter’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort, marshals his forces for the series’ two-part Götterdämmerung, “the students,” according to the Warners Bros. plot summary, “are under attack from a very different adversary as teenage hormones rage across the ramparts.”
To wit: Harry falls for pal Ron Weasley’s sister, Ginny in a romance Radcliffe describes as “timid and shy and clumsy” while Ron and Lavender Brown have an amour fou Radcliffe calls “carnal.” Although he opted against college in favor of his career, Radcliffe seems to have absorbed a Ph.D.’s worth of cultural material on his own. A Radcliffe fan site includes three pages of Dan-approved books ranging from Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to Zola’s La Débâcle to nine different editions of Moby Dick while his music tastes suggest a 35-year-old critic for NME.
But for an admirer of Sid Vicious (whose onscreen portrayer, Gary Oldman, taught Radcliffe how to play bass, making Harry Potter, technically, a d Sex Pistol twice-removed), the poet, bookworm, and cricket fan does seem just a tad . . .er, well-behaved. No?
“I don’t pretend to do anything particularly wild,” Radcliffe says. “People talk about rebellion and they say, ‘Where is the teenage angst?’ But I say I try to do it simply by the choices I make in the work I do. I just like wrong-footing people. I write poetry and I love it. I like being different from most other people in my generation.”
Radcliffe isn’t just different from his peers, he’s simply not of their generation. As he walks along Fifth Avenue, he enthuses on Alan Strang’s scintillating vitality . “It’s because he’s absolutely living in the present,” he says. “He can only live in the moment, to use a horrible, clichéd, boring phrase.” He stops. “‘In the moment,'” he says with a snort. “It’s like ‘carpe diem.’ After Dead Poets Society, everyone was like, ‘Oh, carpe diem.’ Ugh. Shut up!”
I nod at the memory of everyone saying “carpe diem” until I realize something: Dead Poets Society came out in 1989—the year of Radcliffe’s birth. Exactly whose memory implants is he storing?
As we enter Bryant Park, I mention that its massive lawn often becomes a plein air cinema on summer nights, recently screening the ’68 action pic Bullitt. “Okay, who’s cooler?” Radcliffe says, “Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke?” I ponder this in silence as we approach a lavish merry-go-round. It hear its music is “The Band Played On.” Would young Dan care to know that this same song plays on a runaway carousel in the climactic scene of a 1951 Hitchcock thriller called Strangers on a Train? “Oh, fantastic,” Radcliffe says nodding vigorously. “Where the guy is crawling under to stop it? And it keeps on picking up speed?” Um, yeah, that one.
Conversation turns to the future—all the way to the end of Harry Potter. In February, shooting begins on the saga’s terminus, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That finale will be a bittersweet experience for more than the cast and crew. The film will close an era, one that began back in 2001 before the Olsen twins were legal, before Britney got knocked up, before a whole slew of Fannings came along to turn childhood itself into a performance. It will be the end of an eternal student, whose graduation will mark us all as a bit older.
Radcliffe faced it alone first, when he began reading Deathly Hallows on a plane trip. “It was very emotional, actually,” he says. “In the front of the book I wrote something Anton Chekhov wrote to the woman he ended up spending the rest of his life with: ‘Hello, the last page of my life.’ Which I thought was very appropriate.”
The fact is, Radcliffe’s life has been about as magic as a modern life can be. He became Harry Potter at 11; he’ll cease to be at 21. And when he puts down the wand and broom, he’ll set set aside one of the most enchanted childhoods of the decade. No longer England’s richest, most famous teenager, he’ll be just another twenty-something actor.
With the sun sunk behind skyscrapers, and Bryant Park’s lawn a darkling plain, I ask Radcliffe how he feels about this fast-approaching end. Staring across the dark-green lawn and into a not-so-distant future, he answers quickly and definitively, “I can’t wait.”