By Evan Romano
Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t even take off his jacket when he gets back inside.
New York City is in the midst of a "polar vortex," and I’m meeting the man best known for a decade of playing a certain boy wizard in a not-yet-open hotel bar in Downtown Manhattan. He doesn’t drink anymore — and hasn’t for several years — so it’s no surprise to find his coffee waiting for him at a corner table. When he returns from the frozen tundra outside, he's dressed casually in jeans, with a beard masking a face instantly recognizable from years of fantasy fiction. Before long, we’re talking about something we have in common: a deep knowledge of film, but with certain unforgivable blind spots.
“Paul Dano’s knowledge of film is maybe better than any director I’ve ever worked with, like it's extraordinary,” he says, referring to his co-star on 2016’s Swiss Army Man, a career highlight of his from the past few years. “And I just don't have it at all. Like, sometimes people will direct you by referencing another moment in another film, and the amount of times that I have to be like oh, I'm so sorry, I’ve never seen Terminator.”
To be fair, Radcliffe's been a little busy. He recently finished a run on Broadway in The Lifespan of a Fact, alongside Bobby Cannavale. And between binging podcasts (his favorites include Case File, How Did This Get Made?, and anything from Crooked Media) and reading Japanese author Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X, he hasn’t had much time to catch up on awards season chatter. Though, his favorite film of the year is Adam McKay's Vice, starring Christian Bale — “He can play his body like a musical instrument at this point,” he says — an actor who, like Radcliffe, had to navigate the oft-tumultuous path from child actor to leading man.
To state the obvious: Yes, Radcliffe played Harry Potter, he of the eponymous series of book-based movies that took the world by storm and grossed nearly eight billion dollars. But Radcliffe’s post-Potter days have seen him become a unique fixture in today’s Hollywood landscape — with the aid of a massive, successful franchise to start his career, he’s settled his twenties into a period of experimental, quirky roles. A villainous tech trust-fund kid in a big-budget sequel? Why not. A heartbroken boyfriend who suddenly sprouts satanic horns from his forehead? Let’s do it. A farting, magical corpse that gets ridden like a jetski? Sure.
The latest in this eccentric series is Miracle Workers, a new TBS limited series from writer and creator Simon Rich, a contributor to both Saturday Night Live and The New Yorker. As the de facto ensemble lead, Radcliffe plays Craig, an angel who’s long been churning away on menial tasks in the Department of Answered Prayers for Heaven Inc., a forgotten job in the big corporation in the sky led by a kooky and unstable CEO, better known as God (Steve Buscemi).
It’s an inspired choice, playing an angel — one that his 96-year-old grandmother still doesn't quite understand. "She just laughed at me and said, ‘That's very miscast.’”
But Craig is a welcome challenge for Radcliffe, who’s been taking on unexpected on-screen roles since he graduated from Hogwarts. Where Harry Potter saw him evolve from a shy kid into a confident leading man, 2013’s What If saw him as a romantic comedy everyman, and Swiss Army Man saw him… well, play dead, Miracle Workers finds him channeling the most neurotic version of himself. As has become a theme, this is a very different Daniel.
Indie movies are where he's felt the most comfortable these past few years. While smaller films prove much more difficult to fund, they're also where an actor goes to take risks — something he very much wants to do. Last year, he found his way into a movie called Guns Akimbo (an absolutely insane-looking film), which, he says, “I'm sure came out of somebody going, ‘Dan Radcliffe doesn't mind crazy shit, let's send him this.’”
If the reputation that he’s cultivated is that he’s interested in different, outlandish stuff, then that’s one he’s happy to own. But he also won’t rule out the chance to star in another blockbuster, should the right one come along, mentioning that it would just be about “waiting for that script to come in where there's something different about it and there's something challenging.” He says that he’s open to any kind of part in that sort of movie. “As long as I don't feel like I'm having to rein myself in to do it,” he adds.
As 2018 saw some of Hollywood's biggest names taking on more nuanced, compelling work in television — Michael Douglas, Amy Adams, and Jim Carrey, among others — it’s no surprise to see Radcliffe land at TBS. But what was it, exactly, that drew him in? The security sure doesn’t hurt. While he’s been attracted to the unique roles that exist in the indie film world, there’s never absolute certainty that those are going to happen. “Until the day before I fly out to start doing an indie movie, I'm kinda thinking this might not happen,” he says. “Because I've had that happen before. I’ve had it been a few days out before a shooting, and suddenly the whole thing is scrapped.” The safety that comes along with American television — knowing, say, a year out that you’re going to be doing this series, on this date, for this period of time — is certainly an attractive quality to an in-demand performer.
The half-hour workplace dramedy finds Radcliffe appearing alongside Karan Soni of Deadpool, Blockers breakout Geraldine Viswanathan, and, of course, Buscemi. Should it continue beyond its initial run, the same cast will appear in entirely new roles in an entirely new story each season — much in the style of American Horror Story, or, as Rich says over the phone, what Buscemi occasionally does with The Coen Brothers.
(Left to right) Geraldine Viswanathan, Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Buscemi, and Karan Soni of 'Miracle Workers.'
For Rich, it was Radcliffe's willingness to fully commit to the ridiculousness in films like Swiss Army Man that made him so appealing to work with. (After you play a farting corpse that slowly but surely comes back to life, it’s hard to imagine much being off-limits after that.) “When you’re setting something in an absurd world, it’s really important to have at your center an actor who can ground it emotionally,” the showrunner says. “I think that’s why so many writers and directors gravitate toward Dan — you need him to ground your world. It’s like a ballast to the absurdity.”
This is most apparent during the scene in which Craig shares the story of his hapless time on earth. While his counterparts were gladiators and royalty, Craig was confined to a cave for his entire life, stuck in a crouch, eating mud. “I knew that’s the kind of scene that somebody like Dan would happily submit to,” Rich says.
Radcliffe takes a moment to mention a phrase that James McAvoy, his co-star on 2015’s Victor Frankenstein, likes to use: “character lead.” This comes after I ask if he might, perhaps, see his own career following down the path of character actor. His answer is an enthusiastic why not. “There's no reason you can't be a leading man but also be a character or weird,” he says. “Ultimately, very few people are leads for their whole career, you know? Ultimately, you turn into [a] character actor somewhere along the line, and so I'm very excited and looking forward to that happening.”
When considering a foray down that road, who better to look to than Buscemi? “He's somebody that has become a bonafide A-list star actor whilst never doing anything but really fucking weird, interesting roles,” Radcliffe says of his "fucking awesome" co-star.
It might sound strange, but Radcliffe, now 29, has been acting for two decades. And in that time, he's learned a few valuable lessons. “I am never going to sit down and watch a DVD of a film I'm in 20 years from now,” he says. “So ultimately I think the realization that that's the most important thing and that if you don't have a good time making it, then what's the point? You could make the best film in the world and it goes off and does amazing things, but if your memory of it was that it was a really unhappy time, then I think it's to be avoided.”
With the success of Potter in his rearview mirror, a growing reputation in the field, and a varied, eccentric resume over the past several years, he’s got no need to work just for the sake of working. “I can do what I want,” he says. “So I should.”