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Jewish Journal

Daniel Radcliffe turns from magic to murder and mayhem

by Naomi Pfefferman

October 8, 2013 | 2:53 pm

Daniel Radcliffe stars as a young Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings,” opening Oct. 16. Photo by Jessica Miglio, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The actor who played Harry Potter may be the richest and most famous human of his generation on the planet, but during an interview at the Four Seasons hotel, Daniel Radcliffe, now just 24, exuded none of the cockiness one might expect of a celebrity best known for demolishing Horcruxes and slaying an evil dark lord in the Potter films.

Radcliffe’s signature expressive, preternaturally blue eyes, as well as his pale, translucent skin and delicate features, suggest the aura of an iconic medieval saint (minus the Potter spectacles, of course). But his manner comes across as sincere, amusing and kinetic — he speaks a mile a minute and exudes a restless energy. And, as he is known to do, he humbly made a self-deprecating remark or two.  

Radcliffe described how projects need to scare him a bit to prove challenging, and joked about his slight stature — 5-foot-5.  Since he plays Allen Ginsberg, the gay, Jewish Beat poet in John Krokidas’ new film, “Kill Your Darlings,” opening Oct. 16, Radcliffe also described his own scribbling of as many as 100 poems while on the Potter set, an endeavor he now regards “with a mixture of slight embarrassment and the occasional pride. They were lots of romantic poems, not that I showed them to any of my girlfriends; I wouldn’t have dared,” he said with a laugh.

He did, however, publish several of those poems under the pen name Jacob Gershon, which he cobbled together from his middle name and the Anglicized version of his Jewish mother’s maiden name, Gresham (his father is a Protestant from Northern Ireland). He said he likes the similarity of “Gershon” to the biblical Gershom, Moses’ firstborn son, whose name in Hebrew means “foreigner.” 

“In our home, there was no religion,” Radcliffe said, “but as a young child I was quite inherently religious, though it was mainly feelings of guilt that caused my fervor. It was while studying world religions around age 14 that I became an atheist. The word God doesn’t mean anything to me, and I’ve never had anyone explain it in a way that made any sense to me.”

Radcliffe said, however, that he is “proud to be Jewish,” that he has a Jewish humor book at home and that he loves Jewish jokes — when prompted, he told one about two elderly women who encounter a flasher and remark, of his coat, that the lining is terrible. “That’s an old joke from the rag trade that my grandmother used to tell,” he said, explaining that his Polish and Russian Jewish forebears practiced that trade and that his great-great-grandfather made his fortune by producing greatcoats for British soldiers during World War I.

To prepare to play the teenage Ginsberg, circa World War II, Radcliffe avidly read the poet’s diaries and work, and he cites Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” in which the author laments the death of his mentally ill mother, as particularly inspiring. “I came to understand what Allen went through with his mum, and that he spent time with her in institutions,” he said. “It must’ve been quite frightening to see your mother like that, and that must’ve led to a sense of not wanting to see her, and then to a huge amount of guilt about those feelings.

“The mother relationship is always such a very important one for men, and particularly, it must be said, for Jewish men,” he continued. “The mother was such a strong figurehead in Jewish homes at the time and presumably must’ve been in the homes of Ginsberg’s friends. And for him not to have had that was one of the aspects that made him feel different from everyone else around him.”

Radcliffe said as a Jewish-Irish student in his thoroughly Anglican grammar school, he also felt uncomfortably “different,” which was one reason he was eager to escape to the Potter film sets.  

Playing Ginsberg is a departure for the actor, his first major Jewish role, set during World War II and spotlighting the young Ginsberg as he leaves his childhood home in Paterson, N.J., for Columbia University, where he comes of age both artistically and sexually. The transformation comes courtesy of his seductive classmate, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who introduces the awkward student to the downtown New York hipster life, to the future Beats William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), as well as prodding him to buck authority in his poetry. Everything changes when Carr is accused of murdering David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older writer who had a stalkerish infatuation with Carr, and the fallout thrusts Ginsberg into a moral dilemma that, as shown in the film, is the most difficult of his young life. 

Also at the Four Seasons, Krokidas explained why he had sought out Radcliffe for the role: “Ginsberg, at the time, was the dutiful son taking care of his emotionally ill mother, Naomi, and he was always the good boy. And yet in his journals and inside his own head, he believed he had so much more to offer the world than people assumed. I thought that Daniel Radcliffe the person might identify with that.”

Radcliffe, who first got the role of Harry Potter at age 10, readily agreed:  “I can relate to the idea that people know just a tiny part of you, or one aspect of your personality, and they think they know who you are,” he said with intense earnestness. “Basically, it’s a case of people being obsessed just by the icon. For example, I always get asked the question, ‘What did it feel like to have grown up on screen?’ But I didn’t grow up on screen; I grew up making films. The private moments of my growing up are all my own — none of them appeared on camera, thank God.”

Radcliffe has been anxious to prove that he can traverse the difficult terrain between child and adult star, a journey he began in earnest when he decided, at 14, while filming “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” that he wanted to make acting his lifelong profession. To that end, Radcliffe and his team of advisers realized that he needed to begin to take on new (and very different) roles even before the Potter series ended. And so, in 2007, the actor starred in the independent film “The December Boys,” as well as in a Broadway production of the stark psychological drama “Equus,” the latter requiring the boy wizard to perform grueling scenes in the nude.

He recalled, with a smile, that one headline in advance of the opening of that play read “something like, ‘Crash! What’s that? The sound of a career coming to a grinding halt’ ” — despite which Radcliffe’s performance earned glowing reviews. He then expanded his repertoire with the Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the 2012 horror film “The Woman in Black” and “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” a bitingly satiric British television series, now showing in the United States on the Ovation network, based on a short story by the Soviet Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov.  In the latter, Radcliffe plays a morphine-addicted young physician opposite Jon Hamm, who plays an older version of his character and with whom he appears bathing in a tub in one scene. 

The fiercely ambitious and prolific Radcliffe’s upcoming films include “The F Word,” a romantic comedy opposite Zoe Kazan, and the dark fantasy thriller “Horns,” in which his character literally sprouts horns.

“Kill Your Darlings” will further distance Radcliffe from Potter, as in it he appears in his first explicit gay sex sequence, which prompted The Hollywood Reporter to crow, “The boy wizard never pinned his knees behind his ears.”

“To be honest, that review did make me laugh,” Radcliffe said. But the scene was hardly gratuitous, he insisted. “John said he’d never really seen a very authentic loss-of-virginity scene for gay men on screen, and he wanted to get it right. So it’s not necessarily a steamy scene, as it’s being portrayed in some articles. It’s about vulnerability as much as anything else, and the fear and excitement that goes along with your first time.”

It’s true that Radcliffe has shed his trousers in a variety of recent projects: “If it’s called for, I don’t mind taking off my Keds,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It’s not something I seek out, but I’m not going to be one of those people who complain about not wanting to do what’s in the script.”

Krokidas, for his part, felt it was important to cast a Jewish actor as Ginsberg “because the film depicts one of Judaism’s greatest literary figures of the 20th century.”

But, he recalled, he wasn’t initially sure Radcliffe was a member of the tribe  and panicked when he realized, “There’s going to be sexuality in the film and how am I going to have him take his clothes off if he’s uncircumcised? And, this is so mortifying — I actually texted Dan, and he confirmed that he is indeed Jewish from the waist down.”

There are also several sequences in which Ginsberg encounters anti-Semitism, including one where his Southern roommate declares, “You Hymies are really all about work.”  

“John and I talked about the prejudice that Ginsberg would have faced on a very casual, day-to-day kind of basis,” Radcliffe said of those scenes.  “In my mind, Allen’s response to that would be to just internally go to that place of, ‘F--- you, I’m smarter than you.’ That’s his defense mechanism, and it’s probably mine as well.”

Does he believe viewers ever will be able to separate him from his most famous character? “I’m always going to be associated with Potter; it was the way I was introduced to multiple generations of people,” he said. “So it’s going to be a while before people don’t associate me with that.  

“But,” he added, “I’m very proud to be associated with it. As long as it doesn’t prevent me from getting other work, then it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Kill Your Darlings” hits theaters on Oct. 16.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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