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‘I really want to be known as more than Harry Potter’

The young star has been steadily putting creative distance between himself and his most famous character, says Julia Molony

Daring to be different: Actor Daniel Radcliffe
Daring to be different: Actor Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe starring in his new movie What If
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter

Daniel Radcliffe is being stalked by cameras everywhere he goes. This is not necessarily an unusual situation for a former boy-wizard, who is also one of the most recognisable faces in the world. Except in this instance, it's voluntary. Radcliffe is being followed by a production team from Melvyn Bragg's The South Bank Show.

It's some measure of what he's become — the fact that the producers of telly's most high-brow arts show, whose esteemed alumni include Francis Bacon and Sir Lawrence Olivier, consider him a perfect subject of study. It proves he possesses a magic balance of global celebrity and genuine artistic credibility as a grit-and-greasepaint theatre actor.

So he's being filmed as I walk into his hotel room to meet him. The camera swivels as he strides across the room, his gait forward-pitched, his hand outstretched — a compact dynamo of energy. But having shot our hellos (his baritone and confident in front of the cameras, mine a self-conscious squeak) the crew start to pack up and depart. “Let's just wait until they've gone,” he whispers before launching into chat. The door closes and we both relax. “They're really really nice guys ... but I'm not used to it,” he admits.

Radcliffe is small, with an acrobat's physique. In conversation his register glides smoothly between affable and intense. His hands are expressive and ink-stained, un-manicured. They are the hands of a jobbing actor rather than a pampered star.

This distinction is important to him. It drives him. It's why, despite being more than set-up for life financially speaking, thanks to the Harry Potter franchise, he's still motivated by burning ambition. “It's not part of my make-up to just lie around and rest,” he says. “It's not really a chip on my shoulder — or maybe it is. It might be a bit, but it's no bad thing. It's not like I'm a chippy person. It's a motivating force. I know that I fell into the best job in the world when I was 10 or 11, so I know there are always going to be a certain amount of people who say I don't deserve to be there. And so I want to prove them wrong in every aspect of what I do, from a costume fitting to how I am on set to doing an interview with you. And I like that.”

For his first post-Potter role he went straight into the most challenging one he could find — the lead in a Broadway production of Equus. He proved his nerve, appearing on horseback naked and winning rapturous reviews in the process. The critics raved again when he played the titular role in McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan last year.

So he's not exactly resting on his laurels, then. “I read a line in a William Goldman book when I was very young,” he explains. “It said, ‘Stars come and go, only actors last’, or something to that effect. So I always remember thinking that the only thing that can ensure longevity in a career is variety and hard work ... When I was 13, 14 I was very aware that I wanted to cultivate myself as an actor and not just as a personality or whatever.”

His approach since Potter has been to square up to risk. Instead of feeling cursed by child stardom, he sees what it's afforded him. “I'm in a position where I can just be on the sets of the things that I want to be on ... I've never been on the set of something where I've thought ‘Oh this is going to be s**t. And at the moment, touch wood, I don't have to.” It's what he calls the “Radiohead thing, or The Beatles thing ... when you reach a point when you deem that you're never going to be more commercially successful than you are, there's no point trying to do things that will make you commercially successful, so you might as well do things that make you fulfilled. And that's what The Beatles did ... concept albums.”

So he's been busily working on experimental and niche roles — earlier this year, he played the gay beat poet Alan Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings. His latest film, however, is a bit more commercial. He plays an unconventional romantic lead in What If, a smart, quirky, independent rom-com set in Toronto and Dublin.

Following two best friends as they try to untangle the complexity of their feelings for one another, What If is being hyped as When Harry Met Sally for the Twitter generation. “It's the only film I've done so far in which at no point do I cry or get covered in blood. Or have to drag somebody out of a swamp,” he says. “There was no great physical hardship in this film. Which was kind of nice. My job on set every day was just to come in and make Zoe (Kazan) laugh. Or entertain Adam (Driver).”

The film is witty, and sharp with plenty of great dialogue. It deals with an almost universal rite-of-passage, the friendship with potential to be something more. Most people have had some permutation of this experience at one point in life, and Radcliffe, despite growing up in the industry, is no exception. “I very much have, with one friend,” he says. “We got to a point where we were just, hanging out all the time and were best friends, and I think were for a moment very attracted to each other. But we're still good friends now and we always kind of say, “thank God we never did.' There was a moment where we could have got together and then didn't. It actually would have been a really dumb thing. We've since learned more about each other as people and realised, we would not have worked as a pairing. But friends is great.”

In any case, he's familiar with the exquisite dilemma that inevitably unfolds when you wonder if you're falling for your best friend.

“Yeah, it's lovely and it's exciting and it's so fraught with the tension that you might suddenly be about to f**k everything up and lose both your friend and the potential of a girlfriend.”

On the other hand, he reckons at some stage he's probably “also done the other thing and inappropriately flirted with friends who had no interest in me. I'm sure I've done that as well.”

He's such a nice, straight-up sort of boy it's hard to imagine him inappropriately flirting. In any case, he's recently gone public with a girlfriend for the first time, appearing at events with Erin Darke, which, considering how protective he has been about his romantic life, suggests that things must be getting serious.

For the record, he does “have a lot of female friends who I have not had sex with”, he says emphatically, when I ask whether he thinks men and woman can be friends. “And very attractive female friends. I can appreciate someone is beautiful and a very good person and stop myself from making a pass at them for enough time until I'm out of their company,” he scoffs. “I do believe it's possible. It's just one of those things. I think it's hard sometimes when there is real sexual chemistry between people, that's a different thing. And I'm sure trying to attempt a friendship under those circumstances might be tricky. But the idea that it's impossible for men and women to just be friends if they are also attracted to one another a little bit, I think that's kind of silly.”

Radcliffe spends much of his time in New York at the moment, where the Cripple of Inishmaan has just finished a revival run. He likes that “because I've done a couple of plays there, they know me as more than just Harry Potter.” And that right now, is the goal. “Some people come up to me and tell me they love me in The Woman in Black,” he says. “Which I always think is really, really sweet. Because it's just them wanting to let me know that they know me for something other than Potter. And they know that that must matter to me.”

What If opens in cinemas on August 20

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