NEW YORK — Given that Daniel Radcliffe already performed “Equus” in London, you might think that his new gig doing the Broadway production would be a breeze. But the “Harry Potter” star has been hard at work getting ready for the role, as he revealed to a crowd during a New York Times TimesTalk appearance on Tuesday.
“It’s a whole new set of challenges,” said Radcliffe, who started rehearsals last week for the play that opens in limited engagement September 5. “The Harry Potter thing is useful because there will be a lot of people who’ve never been to the theater before. And if we can [bring them to the theater], that’s amazing.”
(Radcliffe also talked about the “different tone” of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” which you can read about on the MTV Movies blog, and he revealed some of his favorite bands in the Newsroom blog.)
In “Equus,” Radcliffe plays the disturbed Alan Strang, a seemingly normal 17-year-old who is fascinated by horses but inexplicably blinds six of them. The play tries to understand why.
American audiences expect more accuracy, though, so the actor spent time at a stable last week learning how to groom horses and saddle up. “They were show horses, and they were such beautiful creatures,” he said. “So powerful. I personally think blinding so many horses is impossible because if you blind one … it’ll kick you in the head, and you’re out.”
Radcliffe’s research didn’t extend to the psychological aspects of the play, which is based on a true story. “There are more people in therapy in this country [than England], so you get it,” he teased. “Whereas in England, we don’t talk about that. ‘You’re depressed? Walk it off!’ ”
Instead, if he had questions, he’d consult with either playwright Peter Shaffer or his co-star Richard Griffiths, who also plays Harry’s Uncle Vernon in the Potter films. “He has the most brilliant encyclopedic knowledge that anyone could ever possess, and he never imposes it on you,” Radcliffe said of Griffiths. “He only shares it.”
They’ve also modified the play somewhat, changing a few scenes regarding his character’s mother and father. “So instead of his dad [being] a communist and such, we leave it at ‘They had a great marriage,’ ” Radcliffe said, explaining that the omission makes it harder to blame Strang’s behavior on someone else. “The play asks a question: Why? And it’s a question for which no one has the answer.”
To get deeper into the character’s head, Radcliffe has been drawing from “A Clockwork Orange.” “His default setting is that he’s got this Malcolm McDowell rage, so when you show his human side, he’s more interesting. It’s about that stripping-away of who he is, of what makes his personality, the dehumanizing of him to make him acceptable in society, so he can be ‘normal.’ ”
“If you saw us in rehearsal, you might think it was a comedy,” Radcliffe joked.
Why the character might blind horses wasn’t the only difficult aspect of the play — Alan’s (and thereby Radcliffe’s) nudity while doing so caused quite a stir when he first performed the play in London. “Offended mothers were calling up and saying I shouldn’t be doing this, that they weren’t going to go see it,” he said. “OK, don’t see it. They’re treating it like it’s pornography, and it’s not. It’s only seven minutes at the end of the play when I’m naked, and I’m 19 now.”
About that scene — the Broadway production may have a few surprises in its new staging. Though the choreography was highly praised, “Don’t get too attached to that!” Radcliffe warned. “You’re in there, and there are these hooves flying around, and I’m naked by that point. It’s terrifying. That scene is one of the most shocking pieces of theater, and I deserve very little credit for that. Those ‘horses’ are amazing.”
Griffiths wasn’t Radcliffe’s only Potter co-star to give him advice about acting onstage. Before the young actor did his first show in London, he sought advice from Michael Gambon, who plays Dumbledore. “I asked him, ‘How do you memorize all those lines?’ ” he recalled. “And he told me to just learn them in rehearsal. So I did, about a month before. By the time opening night came, I knew everyone else’s lines too.”
Including — and especially — his co-star Griffiths’. “We built up a chemistry,” Radcliffe said. “And it would be really hard to do this without him. We’re both onstage the entire length of the play — we’re there for each other’s scenes as spectators. So we developed a kind of kinship.”
Something happens onstage, he said, that strengthens the bond between actors in a way film never can. “We’re never in situations in films where we have to save each other,” he said, “or to stop each other from making public embarrassments of ourselves. You know when an actor pauses whether it’s for dramatic effect or it’s a forgotten line. You can see the panic behind the eyes.”
Not to tempt fate, but Radcliffe kind of enjoys the screw-ups because he says the exhilaration of getting the play back on track is unlike anything he’s ever experienced.
“It only happened once, but my horseman Will Kemp had me on his shoulders, and he was supposed to run and jump off a block,” Radcliffe recalled. “But he missed his footing, and instead of hitting here, he hit there, and the blocks slid across the stage. The whole audience went, ‘Whoa!’ and I was just laughing out of pure terror. But he managed to keep me on his shoulders.”
Those moments, he said, are what make the theater experience so much more alive than film — there’s always the possibility of seeing something that’s never happened before. “It’s the same reason to go see live music — for those little moments,” he said. “But film — it’s the same every time.”
Not that “Equus” will be some “ramshackle” production with lots of mistakes, he assured the crowd. “It will be good,” he laughed. “And if I’m going to screw up, I couldn’t screw up in front of better people.”