There are few actors who will ever be a part of something as big as the Harry Potter franchise, let alone be the face of that franchise. But Daniel Radcliffe is one of those actors, as he starred as the iconic wizard until 2011. In the years since, Radcliffe has stayed busy, but largely taking on smaller movies that are remarkably different from what he did in the Wizarding World. His latest movie, Escape from Pretoria, is no exception.
Escape From Pretoria, directed by Francis Annan, tells the true story of Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), who were white South Africans branded as terrorists and imprisoned in 1978 for working covert operations as part of Nelson Mandela’s ANC. Incarcerated in Pretoria Maximum Security Prison, they decide to send the apartheid regime a clear message and escape, which takes breath-taking ingenuity, meticulous surveillance, and, most interestingly, a set of wooden keys crafted for 10 steel doors.
I recently had the good fortune of speaking with Daniel Radcliffe in honor of the movie’s release. We discussed what it’s like playing a real-life person, how he’s made career choices in his post-Harry Potter life and whether or not he’d take on a comic book movie role.
We’re talking about Escape from Pretoria today, which I watched last night. This isn’t really a question, but I haven’t been this stressed out in… I don’t remember how long.
Daniel Radcliffe: Oh that’s fantastic! Thank you. And, I’m sorry.
The way I thought of it, it was sort of like a reverse heist movie, which was interesting.
Daniel Radcliffe: [laughs] That’s true.
There were all of these things that would be mundane had they not taken place in a prison. How did you keep that stress level up while you were filming?
Daniel Radcliffe: I think it was a sense of, I don’t know, really thinking, how much sound would you make? Feeling the weight of every movement. Knowing that basically any movement, I think just remember that any sort of sound could be the thing that will reveal you. Just playing with the constant state of tension that they all would be in. You do sort of move slightly slower, until you have to f****** move much faster. You’re right. It was really that. Also, we can’t take entirely all of the credit. The way that Francis and the editor edited those sequences and shot them were really fantastic.
Two big films we looked at early on, both were French prison break movies of the early 60s. One is called Le Trou, which is I think The Hole, which is a true masterpiece, and the other one is called A Man Escapes, which is fantastic as well. The use of long close ups and things to build tension is really effective, and I know Francis was very into those as sort of touchstones for how he wanted to shoot this.
You’re playing a real life person who really did this. What kind of pressure comes with playing a real person, versus a beloved fictional character, which is something you’re quite familiar with?
Daniel Radcliffe: That’s the interesting thing about the Potter thing. I was incapable of feeling pressure, so I didn’t really. I am very lucky that Chris Columbus and other people on those sets shielded us from the pressure, or feeling of that pressure. We were just on set having a great time. I think having now played real people a few times there is definitely a sense of… you feel it in different ways. I played a guy called Yossi Ghinsberg who was lost in the jungle of South America. Yossi is an incredibly brilliant, kind of vivacious character. I don’t know if he said these words, but he gave me a feeling, “You were destined to play me! This is fantastic!” That helps with that kind of pressure. He was also very lovely.
With Tim, Tim is much harder to read… I am very aware, whoever is there or not, that we are just actors in costumes playing out someone’s life, and that’s a very strange feeling. I think Tim was way less worried about it than even I was. I think he really enjoyed being on set. I was definitely quite nervous around him, especially at first. But I saw him after he had seen the film recently and he was really pleased. So I’m just doing a massive exhale, sigh of relief.
This is a more broad question, and correct me if I’m wrong. It might have been easy for you to just kind of keep making bigger movies once you were done with the Harry Potter stuff. But you keep making these fascinating choices in these relatively smaller movies. Is that just creatively more satisfying? Is there more planning that goes into that? I’m just curious.
Daniel Radcliffe: Zero planning. This is going to sound really simple and boring but I just do what I think is going to make me happy now. I do what I think is going to make me happy to do, and fun to watch, or interesting to watch. When I was in my early 20s and coming out of Potter, I think I thought I needed to be more strategic in things, and I have very much moved on from that belief in a lot of ways in the last few years. Now I just do the things I’m interested in and the sort of things I love. Maybe that means I have really weird tastes. Other people refer to my films as weird. I can see where they’re coming from, but I would also say I don’t just do weird movies.
Like Escape From Pretoria, not a weird movie. Very naturalistic. Sort of a prison film. Imperium was a very naturalistic thriller. What If is a very straightforward comedy. But because I am a person who is very, very up for playing a corpse coming back to life [in Swiss Army Man], or a guy with guns strapped to his hands [in Guns Akimbo]. I just get a really cool range of scripts and, at the moment at least, I’m able to jump between different things and have a lot of fun. Maybe the opportunities to do that will not always be there. So, for the time being, while they are, I’m just going to make the most of it.
Another thing that has come up for you a lot, speaking kind of against those smaller movies, I’ve seen people ask you about Wolverine. I’ve seen people ask you about superhero stuff. Is playing a superhero or a villain something that would even interest you, should the opportunity come up?
Daniel Radcliffe: Yeah! Totally. If it was good. There are some of those movies that feel very bland, and there are some of those movies that are fantastic and have unique voices, and are great fun. I would very much be up for doing something in another franchise if it was the right thing. But also, having done a franchise, and having been put in the position I am in by a franchise, I’m also not rushing to go back into one unless it is, as I said earlier, something that I think I’ll love.
The movie, it was about apartheid and about these things that happened decades ago, but it felt very, very relevant, with these themes of equality and fighting for what you think is right. Can you speak a little bit about what those themes meant to you and why you think this movie might be worth people taking the time to go see?
Daniel Radcliffe: The guys who escaped had been imprisoned worked for the ANC [African National Congress]… I think these guys are particularly remarkable because I think their story is worth reflecting on now. There weren’t lots and lots of white people in the ANC. There were some, but it’s a minority of white people in South Africa. These guys used their whiteness to fight for a cause, of which, they were not necessarily the main beneficiary. They were still a beneficiary of apartheid going away, of course. They were able to, despite having grown up in the system of apartheid, somehow see it from the outside. I think we all like to think that we would be that person in such a society, who would recognize tyranny for what it was, for being as immoral as it is. But the reality is very few people do. These guys and their story is one that I think is worth making sure that more people know.
Escape from Pretoria is available in select theaters, On Demand and Digital HD now from Momentum Films.