Daniel Radcliffe: “It’s the acceptable face of homophobia”

Daniel Radcliffe on his extreme life, the distorting power of celebrity, and what keeps him awake at nights. By Sylvia Patterson

“Oh no, what’s Boris fucking said?!”

Daniel Radcliffe has his head literally in his hands. At 24, he’s spent the last three years, through punishingly hard work, distancing himself from the highest-grossing film franchise in history. And now bungling Boris Johnson is ruining it all, in China this week luring students to the city of his mayorship with the words: “Come to London, date Harry Potter!”

“That is bloody funny,” roars Radcliffe, slapping a gym-toned thigh before swearing even further, this time over a similar annoyance from the woman he pointedly refers to as “fucking Posh Spice”, in retaliation for her reference to him as “Harry Potter” at an awards show this year where Daniel Radcliffe won Man of the Year.

“But Boris Johnson can say anything and it comes off as charming,” he decides. “He is the unstoppable force. I didn’t vote for him – but if that’s what it takes to get Chinese people to study in a city that can only benefit us? Boris, you’re more than free to keep pimping me out.”

People say, ‘So how was your gay sex scene?’ And you think, y’know, just call it a sex scene

We’re in London’s grandly imposing, 19th century Corinthia Hotel, a solitary Radcliffe perched on a chair at one end of an enormous, chintzy, gloomily-lit empty event room. Small in stature anyway (5’5”), he seems tiny in here, somehow trapped. He’s been sitting on this chair for most of 48 hours and is glad of the Boris news – he needed a laugh, enduring the last of promotional duties which began “in January” for Kill Your Darlings (pictured below), the true story of the 1950s Beat Poets’ initial collision at Columbia University in the 1940s.

Radcliffe impressively plays the teenage Allen Ginsberg as a bookish, curious observer discovering both his sexuality and maverick literary powers, as murderous chaos erupts (while wearing Potter-thwarting brown contact lenses).

Young “Dan”, as he’s always known, is an enthusiastic smoker currently indoors without snouts, talking so fast he’s manic, as if the faster he talks, the faster this chore will be over. Not that promoting this film is a chore.

“It’s definitely much easier when you’re very proud of a film,” he hurtles on, “not that I haven’t been not proud of what I’ve done before!”

How annoying it must be, then, when his increasingly versatile talents remain overshadowed by his celebrity, the media fixated on an incidental sex scene featuring not much more than the contours of attractive buttocks. He was far more exposed in Equus, aged 17.

“To me it’s the acceptable face of homophobia,” he scoffs. “People say, ‘So how was your gay sex scene?’ And you think, y’know, just call it a sex scene, there’s only one, I won’t confuse it with another one.

“But I’m not surprised. I had the same with Equus. If people can write a headline with the words ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘naked’ or ‘gay sex’, they will. But hopefully people will want to see a film about the Beat Poets and not just a lurid sex scene which they’ve been led to believe there is, which there isn’t.”

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Against every conceivable showbiz odd – stratospheric childhood fame, preposterous wealth, a global avalanche of female attention – Daniel Radcliffe remains an exceptional, likeable young man: smart, funny, enthusiastic, a voraciously well-read “poetry geek” and celebrated indie kid who puts in 90-hour working weeks and rarely goes on holiday.

Since the last day of Potter-filming in December 2010, he’s made four films, is currently in pre-production for two more, made two TV series and starred in theatrical runs on both Broadway and the West End. He works this hard, he says simply: “Because I love what I do more than I can describe and I want to do it for the rest of my life.”

He never complains: like the young royals he’s long accepted his enforced position as ambassador for Britain, his public life an infinite red carpet of meet ‘n’ greets, smiles, handshakes, autographs and always doing your best. On the few occasions he refuses an autograph in public (usually in a hurry to work), he’s tormented.

“I think, ‘He probably thinks you’re a prick now’. It used to keep me up at night.” He’s rare for another reason: he not only has opinions but refuses to mute them behind dreary PR diplomacy. 

The day we meet we’re several weeks from Russell Brand igniting a nationwide discussion on the point, or otherwise, of voting, about whether The System itself is bust. Radcliffe, a vocal lefty liberal, is both the same and the opposite of Brand: he can’t wait to vote but there’s no one he can’t wait to vote for.

The first time he voted he was “so excited, I felt like I’d entered society as an adult”. Today, he’s “uninspired, I’m not a fan of Cameron, Ed Miliband, he’s [enormous shrug]… I’m not excited. We need rabble-rousers. Politics is so centralised and homogenous. Elections are a non-event…”.

We’re also weeks away from the phone-hacking trial, of the Rebekah Brooks/Andy Coulson affair and the passing of the royal charter. Radcliffe had watched Leveson with interest, his mum mentioned anonymously as “a woman” being followed by a journalist.

All that weird, dodgy stuff you hear about, that all goes on

“There are still journalists out there who I know personally tried to screw me over multiple times through my teenage years,” he notes, ruefully. With the royal charter still in the future, Radcliffe’s thoughts today are that a government-regulated press sounds dodgy.

“That can’t be right, you’d immediately get politicians exploiting the system the other way, where they’d be fining newspapers for saying things they just didn’t want them to.”

So the press should always remain self-regulated and free?

“Of course!” he splutters, incredulously. “Ab-so-lutely. Certain papers aren’t responsible, more could be done to make sure something printed is actually true, but a free press is ultimately the most important thing, it’s one of the things that makes this country fantastic.”

It’s testament to Radcliffe’s steadfast principles that he says all this despite personal tabloid traumas. Around 2009, they anointed him “Harry Blotto” – reports emerging of carousing nights out but no deafening headlines announcing the then-most famous teenager on the planet was anything more than an exuberantly carousing teenager.

In 2011, he announced he’d given up booze altogether back in August 2010, aged just-turned-21, after an eight-hour bender led to a blackout and the realisation he was “reliant” on alcohol (he gave up not through rehab but encouragement from friends).

Talking to him on the phone in early 2012, I found myself in the journalistically skewed position of trying to talk Daniel Radcliffe out of his assertion that he was, in fact, an alcoholic, which seemed a bewildering overreaction: what 18- to 21-year-old doesn’t drink too much, to blackout level? But no, he insisted, “that’s absolutely how I see myself”.

Nonetheless, he’s still universally assumed to be the lone child star who didn’t psychologically implode, who’s been constantly asked these last 48 hours how he managed to not become Justin Bieber. “Because I’ve not had a massive public meltdown, “ he muses, “people think me, Rupert and Emma are all authorities on how to be alright, which isn’t the case at all.”

I wonder if he finds it odd that no one associates him with those “Harry Blotto” years, that it’s almost unprecedented how unsensationalised they were.

“You didn’t see the half of it, though, that’s the thing,” he replies, ambiguously. “Well, the fact is… not every… [enormous sigh]. How do I say this without getting myself into trouble? Other battles had to be fought, for stuff that no one knows about. And… the drinking thing…

“Okay. Scrap everything I’ve just said and we’ll start from here. Basically, around that time, one newspaper was trying some very underhand stuff, to try and get more dirt on me, going to my friends, offering money, which they didn’t obviously take. All that weird, dodgy stuff you hear about, that all goes on. It’s one of the reasons I try not to talk about the drinking thing anymore because it provokes such a response of, ‘Wow, how can we dig that up more?’

“I was a teenager making my mistakes as I went along. And the fact some of those things were pounced on, or could’ve been by the press, is frightening. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. Y’know, I wish I could just talk to you about films and that’s it. I just need to be an actor. I don’t care about being a celebrity.”

You get the impression with Daniel Radcliffe that it’s not that much fun being this phenomenally famous. That he can live a low-key personal life, in both London and New York, is miraculous. “It’s been a very extreme, odd life,” he notes, “but I’m quite resilient!”

He’s now leaning back in his seat, almost relaxed, today’s duties almost over, before Kill Your Darlings has its seventh global premiere tonight. “I shouldn’t really say this,” he half-whispers, “but I’ve kind of always hated premieres. Premieres are terrifying. You get out of the car, there’s thousands of people, they’re screaming, and in your head you’re, ‘God, I can never live up to this. I’m just going to sign as much as I can and go inside’.

“I feel like I should sing a song or something! I don’t know what to do. The parties afterwards, I’m always, [nervously] ‘Nice to meet you’, a procession of meeting people, some you’re excited to meet, some breathe their vol-au-vent breath all over you. So at the moment I just keep thinking – in six weeks I’ll be back on a film set. And that’ll be my life simple again.”

The film set, then, where the lights are brightest and the cameras biggest, is his refuge. 

“Oh, totally,” he nods. “Imagine if every job slightly reminded you of your childhood home? I started off on film sets [aged 10], where there were lights, cameras, a grip, a dolly, whatever. I can go onto any film set in the world and those same things will be there. I understand how all that works.

“So it’s a place of complete comfort for me. And no one asks for my autograph.”

Psychologists would say it’s your only place of safety because it’s the only world you can control. “Absolutely!” And it’s out there (we eye the windows) where insanity lies. “That’s the thing! Walking down the street is the scarier exercise to me.”

Two hours later in Leicester Square, Daniel Radcliffe is bathed once again in the silver tsunami of the paparazzi flashlights. He’s dapper in a bow tie, smiling away, scribbling autographs, doing his best, wondering if he should sing a song, counting down the days till he’s back on a film set, away from the terrors of everyday reality.