Harry Potter grows up

Millions have watched Daniel Radcliffe grow up during the eight film instalments of Harry Potter and to see him now, in his first post-Potter production, is like running into a young person who you last saw as a child. It’s jarring, leaving you simultaneously excited and wistful.

The boy who lived has become a man. A man who plays a sombre, haunted father with mini-mutton chops no less in The Woman in Black, a horror movie based on another beloved British book.

“I figured it would be hard for people having seen me in a schoolboy outfit for 10 years to suddenly buy me as a father,” the 22-year-old actor says during a press stop in Toronto this past week. “So one of the things I was very keen on was I said to James [Watkins, the director], ‘Would you audition my godson?’ There is just no substitute for a real relationship and real chemistry. That really helps in a film.”

Misha Handley did get the role playing Radcliffe’s four-year-old son. “Now I might have to have kids before I play a father again. I can’t just keep … Oh no, I have to acquire some new godchildren. That’s what I’ll have to do,” Radcliffe says with a chuckle.

There is less dissonance when meeting the actor in person. “I’m Dan,” he says after walking into a Toronto hotel room dressed in a black sweater, jeans and sneakers. He has elfin qualities; he is slim and stands at about 5-foot-5. His face is expressive, his mouth grinning, his eyebrows furrowing and rising. He’s been awake since 5 a.m., but he is genial and talkative.

“I don’t know if it’s short-man syndrome but I’ve always had this – where I have to prove I’m tough enough somehow,” Radcliffe says about his experience filming a scene where he is flailing in a pit of mud.

He made his acting debut at the age of 10 and was cast in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when he was 11.

“I was under no illusions that I would do this film and suddenly everyone would go, ‘Oh, wow. It’s transformative.’ But it’s the beginning of that process. I think it’s a good first film to do after Potter. The story is fantastic,” he says. “If people are going in looking for flashes of Harry, I don’t think they will be thinking that way after the first 10 minutes.”

He received the script a few days before wrapping up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the final chapter of the franchise. His father, a successful literary agent, gave it to him to read while he was on a plane to New York, where he was presenting at the Tony Awards.

“It was a page-turner,” he says. “What I liked about it was that it was a horror film but it was unusual for a horror film to be so character driven, to have such deep and affecting themes – themes of loss and what happens when we fail to move on from the loss.”

In The Woman in Black, which is adapted from Susan Hill’s 1983 book, Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who is aggrieved by the death of his wife. Kipps travels to a remote English village to sort out a recently deceased woman’s affairs where he discovers that a vengeful ghost is terrorizing the locals, preying upon their children.

“I have a naturally excitable kind of nature and I’m quite hyperactive as you may have picked up on. Arthur is someone who is stricken by grief and in a state of emotional paralysis,” he pauses and turns to a publicity associate in the room. “How many times have you heard me say that phrase today?”

He continues: “I spoke to a couple of friends of mine who suffered from depression. One of the things one of them said was how physically exhausted you are all the time. As soon as you see him, he’s physically and mentally depleted. He’s not an active member of his own life.”

The Woman in Black was filming in the period between Harry Potter and his appearance in the Tony-nominated Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, so the timing was right. Plus, Radcliffe was eager to be busy, to find stimulating work, to challenge anyone who would dismiss the young Hogwarts gang as future has-beens.

“We like tearing down our own in England. If you look at what happened to Ken Branagh in the 1990s, all of the newspapers built him up, the new Olivier, and then destroyed him and his personal life. Not that I have been treated that badly but I think a lot of people would like to write that story.”

Radcliffe is set to next shoot Kill Your Darlings, a murder mystery involving three Beat Generation writers: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Radcliffe plays Ginsberg.

“There is an awareness that we all have a few years to get it right and show people what we’re capable of,” he says. “I think, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can look back in 40 years time and say, ‘Wow, seven or eight great actors came out of that series.’ That will also be the best way of honouring the series.”

This article originally appeared in the National Post on Feb. 2 2011

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