We chat with Daniel Radcliffe about his new psychological thriller and life beyond the Harry Potter franchise.
Since Swiss Army Man, Daniel Radcliffe has been charging from one physically torturous role to the next. He disappeared into the deep cover neo-nazi infiltrator of Imperium, got lost in the Bolivian nightmare of Jungle, and has trapped himself in a tiny Cessna cockpit for his latest thriller, Beast of Burden. For the majority of the film, Radcliffe performs to a radio and an empty nighttime horizon. The whole film rests on his shoulders. If you don’t buy into his terror, then you will instantly check out from the experience. No pressure.
Beast of Burden finds the ex-Air Force pilot Sean Haggerty (Radcliffe) flying drugs over the skies of Mexico and playing phone tag with cartel hitmen, Pablo Schreiber’s DEA grunt, and Grace Gummer’s ailing wife. Filmed over the matter of weeks, half the thrill of the film is seeing just how director Jesper Ganslandt pulls it off. Radcliffe is obviously proud of the achievement made on screen by the cast and crew, and he’s looking to keep his experimental streak going.
I recently spoke to Radcliffe over the phone. We dug into his obsessive search for the next fun gig, the challenges of connecting to cast members who are not there, and where he pulls his creative energy from. Here’s a hint: lots and lots of podcasts. And don’t worry, we talk a little Harry Potter before all is said and done. Here’s our conversation in full:
You spend 90% of this movie in this tiny Cessna cockpit set.
I imagine that’s the appeal of the film, but it also has to be a little terrifying, jumping into that experience.
Yeah, totally. It’s a lot of … I was reading this script, going, “God, this would be a lot of me, similar to when I read Woman in Black. I went, “Wow! This is a lot of just me in the middle of this movie, just walking around on my own.” It was part of the appeal because I was … I think, from a film-making standpoint, it’s a really interesting thing to … it’s a hard thing to do, particularly from a directorial and editing standpoint. How you make something visually compelling when you’re in the same location for so much time is really … and from a writing standpoint, finding all of the obstacles you need to keep that … keep some tension throughout.
It just seemed like a really interesting challenge, and I … and having seen one of Jesper’s [Ganslandt] previous movies, I was sort of hopeful and thought that he might be intent on making this film in a similar way, which … On his previous movie The Ape, he kind of just live-directed his actor through the film. The actor was on a blue-tooth headset as part of the story, and so Jesper was just talking to him constantly and telling him what to do. He didn’t really have a script. He’s just telling him what was happening, and so I sort of thought maybe he’s going to do something kind of like that with this movie because I’ll be on the phone so much.
And that was what we did. It was the most like a play of any film I’ve ever shot ’cause we’d do 25-minute or half-hour takes that accounted for 20 or 25 pages of script, and we … being able to do that much in one go, and being able to take that much time while you’re filming, kind of does allow everything else to melt away after a few minutes. And after about ten minutes you sort of forget that the camera and the lights are there. You really do start to just be a guy pressing buttons in a plane.
But that’s why I think Jesper also took some delight in it ’cause Jesper also liked control, or could cue the hydraulic rig that the plane was on to judder and do stuff. So, I think he took delight in making me start long, complicated portions of dialogue and then, just making the plane shake or making the lights go or shouting stuff in my ear, which was really like … I don’t know what, at that point. It was very, very difficult.
Yeah, I watched it with my wife, and she made the comment that it felt like a radio play in a lot of ways because of all those phone calls.
Yeah. I know. I’m sure. But that was one of the things that I really liked about the story was that it was just kind of a … It’s a simple sort of “We are gonna take this guy from A to B and see how much shit we can throw at him in the middle, and what can we put him through?”
And so from the mechanics’ standpoint of the performance, Grace [Gummer] and Pablo [Schreiber], they’re not on set with you, are they? They’re not reading the lines to you.
You know what? Bless her. Grace was. Grace was … Yeah, Grace was … I wouldn’t … I was not expecting her to be there. I was not expecting her, and I would not have expected Pablo or anybody to be there to do all that, but Grace was there for a lot of time, anyway, ’cause she had to be there for fittings and stuff. She’s incredibly generous and a total pro, and so she, yeah, she did do a lot of that off-camera work for me, which was amazing.
That is impressive. How much time did you have to build a relationship with her? I doubt you had a lot of rehearsal. You have this real tragic backstory.
Yeah, I mean … No, there was not. There was not a lot of time at all, but it was … I think, when you’ve got two people of a similar mindset — and I think me and Grace were of very similar mindsets, as you say. We both got down there, recognizing that, yeah, we have to know what this relationship is, and we did actually have a little bit of rehearsal time in which to talk about the script and stuff. But I think it was mainly that when you get two people who get down there with the same mindset of being open to one another and open to … I think chemistry a lot of the time is just being serious about the other person and listening in the scenes and being really aware of them and sort of playful and just being alive to the whole situation. And I think Grace certainly came down ready to be all of those things, and I hope I did, too. It was not a challenge to find that chemistry quite quickly ’cause Grace is … She’s fantastic.
And not the spoil the film, but as it progresses, it’s slowly revealing details to your past, your character’s past. But it still holds back a lot of information. Do you fill in those gaps? Do you work on a backstory?
Yes. Definitely, and actually, there were … I think there’s a challenge with this type of film where you can start to fill in those gaps and all, but you … Suddenly, you realize that you filling in those gaps, all you’ve revealed is deeper gaps that are there.
So there was actually an issue. Probably some of the things I imagine you’re talking about were actually in there, like we explained them, but I think, in explaining them, they sort of just gave rise to more questions so we sort of pared down that stuff. We certainly had an idea of what was happening, but you have a choice of … We had a very firm idea of what was happening, but it’s choice of how much of that do you … it could be where all the people in the story know the details of what has happened and there would be no reason for them to be actually talking about it so that … It becomes very … There’s a choice between being slightly ambiguous or very expositional. I think in that … out of those two, I would always go with the ambiguous route.
Did you film it chronologically?
We filmed pretty much all the plane stuff chronologically, yeah, but we did the … when we got to the teams outside the plane, it was all jumping around a little bit more … but no, yeah, all the plane stuff we filmed chronologically in about … I think it was eight days we spent in the plane. It was very, very fast, but there was something about, yeah, getting it all done in one big hit that was like … that I think helps with the kind of mild claustrophobia that he was supposed to be feeling. By the end of that eight days, I feel like me and the entire crew were ready to get off that stage and stop filming that plane.
Well, you know, what I was struck by is you have to stay in such a state of panic for the majority of that film. How do you remain in that emotional state?
Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely something that we were … I was very conscious of, with … This is a film where you sort of, ten minutes in, you are at 100%, and then, you just stay there for the rest of the film so I did … I think I was trying to find ways of taking a moment of … What is the actual lowest moment in here? Where does he fall … and then, sort of building the rest up to that point. But yeah, it was frantic, but I think there was … again, the long takes really helped that because you could just had to do it … but you had enough time to really work yourself up into a bit of a frenzy by the end of it. Yeah, I think that was really … It was helpful to be able to build up that much momentum and … rather than stopping every few minutes, which obviously, that … works — and well, I’m fine with that — but on this particular one, it was really useful.
These types of confined spaces movies, they’re a little sub-genre unto themselves, and Beast of Burden is going to be compared to films like Locke and Phone Booth and the like. Do you ever think about your films standing next to other movies?
Not particularly. I feel like that’s not something that I judge or get to affect in any way, more than I already have by making the film, so I don’t think about those things particularly. I just think, “Okay, did I enjoy making it? Am I happy with the final product, the finished article?” That’s all that matters, really, and generally, most of it is about the experience I have making it. I will say I never go back … I really, generally speaking, never go back on watch stuff that I’ve been in so the thing that affects the making of these things is the experience I had doing it and the people I met and the places I got to go. I think about things like that, I guess, really, but I definitely don’t think it’s for me to impair myself. I haven’t seen Locke, actually, but I love Phone Booth.
I love that … I wonder if that holds up? I should watch that again. I loved it when it came out.
I literally just watched it a couple months ago. It still holds up. It’s good stuff.
Yeah? Okay, good. I remember really enjoying it. Yeah, okay, good.
You know, from my point of view, you seem like a very challenge-driven actor. I look at Swiss Army Man. I look at your recent films, Jungle and Horns, and these are … these seem like they are physical and torturous undertakings. What is driving you right now in choosing your roles?
Honestly, it’s more about “Do I think I’ll have a good time doing it?” and “Do I think it has something original to say or something interesting about it, or is it a director that I think will be really interesting to work with?” or … Yeah, it’s about all of those things, and if … or sometimes, it can be just one of those things, like I can just be … the script can be just incredibly original, or … I don’t wanna repeat myself. My job is more fun for me when I’m doing a greater variety of things. But yeah, in terms of … I think most roles should be challenging in some way or some scenes will be at least, and that … but I also have a job where the more challenging it becomes, the more fun it becomes, in theory, as well. Challenging doesn’t negate it from being something you would want to do. I think it’s … (Laughter) And it’s also because what you’re being offered at the time.
And you take the most interesting script that you have available at that moment, and often that is one that involves some … I did … When I was doing Jungle, I was like, “Yeah, I’m not gonna do something where I have to starve myself again for a while.” I had a moment on that, when I was crawling through the mud, and I was like, “I think this is the third time I’ve done this in my career and, maybe, try and avoid films with mud pits in them for a while.” That’s my M.O. in choosing scripts, at the moment, no mud pits.
Well, when you’re not on set, when you’re not in the middle of a project, where are you pulling your creative energy from? Are you a big film guy? Do you watch a lot of films? Do you read a lot of books?
I read quite a lot. I don’t actually watch a ton of films. I don’t find it particularly relaxing to watch films. I find that either I am … If it’s good, I’m jealous that I’m not in it, and if it’s bad, I just … I immediately want to stop watching it. I have no interest. I listen to a ton of podcasts, and I read quite a lot. Somebody got me the Jane Mayer “Dark Money” book for Christmas.
And it is fantastic. If you haven’t read it already, it is … I thought it was gonna be like, “Okay, it’s gonna be a kind of journalistic dry, very informational book,” and it is … It has got a ton of … It’s very informative, but it reads like … She’s just a great writer. I’ve never read any of her stuff, but she’s a great writer so it’s incredibly compelling. So I’m reading that, and I’m listening to lots of podcasts and watching … I’m honestly watching a lot of shit on TV and watching the Winter Olympics.
Which is obviously … I’m enjoying that, even though … Britain got our first medal the other day. We got our bronze.
Alright. Daniel, so last question, and this is the obligatory Harry Potter question. Now, in the post-Harry world of the Potterverse, with Fantastic Beasts and it’s sequels … How do you feel about the series moving beyond your character?
I think it’s great. I don’t think that Harry belongs to me. I don’t think that world belongs to me. I loved being a part of it, and I love that I’ll always be associated with it to some extent. But that whole universe belongs to Jo Rowling and belongs to the fans of it. I think there is such a clear love of that world. That’s, I think, a sign you’ve created a truly amazing series.
People love the characters, but it’s not even about characters, especially. It’s also about spending time in that world, and I think that the fans … There is still such a longing to be in that world and find out new things about it and play in it that I think it’s fantastic that there’s … they’re doing more, that she’s writing more films, and that they’re doing more. That desire that everyone has to see it will be sated, which is … not sated, but will be … They’re gonna … They can still enjoy that series. Yeah, I think it’s great. I’m very happy for everybody involved.
Beast of Burden will be in select theaters and On Demand/Digital HD on February 23, 2018.