Everyone is ignoring Daniel Radcliffe.
He’s just stepped out of a black SUV and walked into a North Hollywood pie shop, a bodyguard, assistant, three publicists and groomer trailing behind. No one at the Republic of Pie is losing it — the screenwriters keep pecking at their keyboards, the waitresses keep slinging slices of apple and blueberry. But Radcliffe never knows how the world is going to react to him, so he’s always prepared.
It could be that this is L.A., and you’re not supposed to act like celebrity means anything here (even though it means everything). Perhaps “Harry Potter” is starting to fade in the rear-view mirror; it has, after all, been three years since the eighth and final film in the franchise hit theaters. Or maybe Radcliffe just got lucky on this sticky day in the Valley, where he’s spending the day promoting his new film, “What If.”
The movie, which opens Friday, marks his first time playing a romantic leading man — which is sort of bizarre, considering that the 25-year-old has long been a heartthrob to the millions of young women who loved him as J.K. Rowling’s famous boy wizard. But the fact is that, while he’s cute, he’s not what you might consider strapping — short, slight build, bushy eyebrows.
“I’m not your typical romantic lead — this nerdy, nebbishy guy who’s a bit nervous. I hope it’s not a stretch for people to see me as one,” he acknowledges gently, taking a sip of bottled water. It’s all he consumes during the interview. No pie. He smells like cigarette smoke.
His first post-Potter roles didn’t exactly cast him as a hip, modern character: He played a dark ghost hunter in the horror film “The Woman in Black” and then the poet Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings.” In the Broadway revival of the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” he starred as a 1960s-era office boy with big ambitions.
While he’s abandoned period garb and geeky hairstyles in “What If,” he’s not the guy the leading lady (Zoe Kazan) is initially interested in. He’s a kind-hearted med school dropout — the one she vents to about her more attractive boyfriend; the one she eats greasy diner food with. He’s always there, so she never sees him as an option. The movie, being released by CBS Films, has earned positive reviews, with some critics comparing it to the indie romance “(500) Days of Summer.”
Kazan, a Yale graduate and the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan, prides herself on her work ethic. She makes sure, she says, to be off-book before production begins and always shows up early to set. But on “What If,” Radcliffe always had her beat.
“Before filming began,” says the picture’s director, Michael Dowse, “he asked for a crew list so that he could memorize the names of all of the crew members. I’ve never heard of an actor doing that.”
Kazan understood this as not merely an indication of her costar’s drive but as a means of self-preservation.
“I think there’s a temptation to look at someone like him and say, ‘Oh, he got everything handed to him,’” the actress explains. “There’s an expectation that someone in that position might not behave 100% well. So he never wants anyone to be able to say that he was a diva — ever.”
‘That other thing’
Radcliffe spends a lot of time thinking about how others perceive him. As Kazan observes, he’s particularly sensitive about being considered an ingrate. While recalling how much fun he had secretly wearing a Spider-Man costume at this year’s Comic-Con, he pauses to emphasize that he doesn’t “want it to come across like ‘Oh, I’m just trying to be normal, or whatever.’”
“But,” he continues hesitantly, “there was something incredibly lovely about being able to interact with people without that other thing getting in the way.”
That other thing — his fame — often leaves him feeling marooned. A Brit who has spent no more than a month in Hollywood since he became world famous 14 years ago, Radcliffe spends most of the year in New York. There, he says, he keeps his eyes directly on the sidewalk, but people still approach him during meals to ask for photos. He’s used to it, and he doesn’t want to seem like a jerk, so he obliges.
“I don’t have a sense of which parts of my life are just for me,” he admits, “and which parts are kind of owned by everybody.”
In a way, it’s an attitude that probably makes things easier, says Dane DeHaan, who acted with Radcliffe in “Kill Your Darlings” and has since become one of his best friends. Sometimes the two of them go out to play pingpong — Radcliffe sporting a baseball cap to avoid recognition. And if “someone wants a picture or an autograph, he’ll do it and move on and keep playing pingpong,” DeHaan says. “It’s not an obstacle in his life. I’ve seen it the other way around, when people act like it’s this burden — but Dan just accepts it and doesn’t try to change it.”
Others close to Radcliffe, meanwhile, have had a harder time reconciling Radcliffe’s self-sacrificing nature. After a news conference at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the actor’s “What If” costar Adam Driver was so incensed by how reporters treated Radcliffe that he began to shake.
“Adam was like, ‘They were really rude to you. All they asked you were Harry Potter questions. How can you stand that?’” Radcliffe recalls. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t have any standard by which I think I should be treated.”
Sometimes, of course, flashes of anger show. At least in the U.S., he says, fans are usually excited to meet him. In his native England — where he spends a few months a year for tax purposes — he often feels like he’s the butt of a joke.
“If I meet someone in a bar there, it’s like, ‘Who is gonna make a joke first? Who wants to come up to me in front of all their mates and make some ... ‘Harry Potter’ joke to win points in front of all their mates? And then I look at them, like, ‘Do you actually think I’m going to laugh?’”
Make no mistake — as respectful as Radcliffe may be toward the Potter franchise and its fans, he’s trying to distance himself from it. He turned down a part playing himself in the spoof “This Is the End” because the jokes all had to do with his most famous role. (Emma Watson turned up in the film instead, poking fun at her image as Hermione.) He also declined to make appearances at Universal’s Potter theme park and has said he will not make a cameo in the film spinoff “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
“I had to have a conversation with Warner Brothers because I kept saying ‘no,’ and in America people think saying ‘no’ means ‘I want more money,’” he says. “And I was like, ‘No, really, you don’t understand. I just feel uncomfortable putting the robes on and pretending to be this character I played when I was a child.’”
Instead, he’s been working consistently to get fans to see him as someone else. His next two films involve intense physical transformation: In the dark fantasy “Horns,” his diabolical character spouts a pair of gnarly horns, and he walks with a hunched back as Igor in a new remake of “Frankenstein.”
“I have to be in this for the long game now,” Radcliffe says, “because I’m probably not going to be in something for some time — if ever — that is seen as widely as Harry Potter. I have to make enough movies that eventually, whether you like it or not, you’ll see me in a different role.”
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