Saturday 18 November 2017

The trouble with Harry

As his latest movie is greeted with boos and walkouts, former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe is a reminder that child stardom can haunt some actors into adulthood

Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe
Hogwarts and all: Daniel and Paul Dano in new film Swiss Army Man.
Ed Power

Ed Power

The slight young man stood by an open door, surreptitiously puffing a cigarette. He was nattering to someone just out of eye-shot and though I couldn't catch their conversation they seemed to be chewing over the usual trivialities. The aura of a global mega-star was nowhere in evidence.

This was my introduction to Daniel Radcliffe, the man who will forever be the boy Potter. It was 2013 and he was installed in a Dublin hotel promoting his latest movie, a rom-com called What If (the person with whom he was shooting the breeze had been one of the staff). I'd drawn the short straw in so far as I was required to ask a series of essentially inane pre-written questions (what was his favourite day of the week? etc) and I worried how it might go. Had his people briefed him on the format? Would he lob a complimentary water-bottle at my head after I inquired as to the most embarrassing record he'd ever bought?

Rejoice Harry Potter fans - Radcliffe was a charm. He introduced himself as "Dan", maintained eye-contact, addressed me as an equal as opposed to yet another tawdry muckraker.

From our brief tête-à-tête it was also clear that he was not hugely ambitious in the sense of wanting to rack up hit movie after hit movie. With $67m in the bank post-Potter why would he? At 25 he had the unique privilege of being able to chase his muse rather than follow the next big payday.

The degree to which Radcliffe is prepared to forge his own path was underlined this week as controversy erupted over his new project, Swiss Army Man. In it, he plays a talking, flatulent corpse, washed up on a desert island with a survivor played by Paul Dano of There Will Be Blood fame. The première at Sundance Film Festival caused a ruckus and then some, with some critics damning Swiss Army Man as an indulgence too far and audience members reportedly walking out halfway through.

"Counted at least 30 walkouts within first 30 mins of the unwatchable SWISS ARMY MAN," tweeted one reviewer. "I bailed myself at 40-minute mark. DO NOT SEE IT."

Esquire magazine meanwhile labelled the feature the "longest fart joke in history", and Buzzfeed dismissed it as "annoying, puerile, frustrating - just no".

I don't think the response to Swiss Army Man will negatively impact his career in any way," counters Bryan Bishop, who reviewed the movie for The Verge. "It's a small, odd film made by quirky filmmakers, and never seemed destined to inform how people think of him as a bankable star. If anything, Swiss Army Man just demonstrates that he's an actor willing to take risks and make bold choices - something that he's been proving in one form or another since the stage production of Equus. 

"In a way, his post-Potter choices all seem very humble, like he's simply another actor trying to build an interesting body of work, piece by piece, rather than somebody that was part of a hugely successful global franchise.

It seems as if he's just making the choices he wants to make - although with movies like Frankenstein and Now You See Me 2 in the mix, they're clearly not all passion projects.

"I think Daniel Radcliffe is at an interesting point in his career," adds the equally supportive Ben Lester of entertainment site.

"He spent 10 years of his life as Harry Potter, accumulating more fame and success than most get their entire careers. So now is the time where he's able to experiment and dip into different genres. I don't think it'll harm his standing at all. When he decides to tackle another tent-pole, fans will be waiting. I'm looking forward to seeing him in Now You See Me 2 later this year.''

Though Radcliffe is merely a co-star of Swiss Army Man, most of the negativity has flowed his way. This is perfectly understandable as he's by far the biggest name involved. Furthermore, the film's apparently disastrous reception may be regarded as part of an ongoing tailspin which last year saw him appear in the panned Victor Frankenstein, a lumbering horror in which the scariest thing by far was the Radcliffe's free-flowing hair.

Indeed, an unkind reading of his post-Potter filmography might conclude it has been a story of flop piled upon flop. By focusing on smaller independent films and acclaimed plays such as Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, he has, it is true, ensured the stakes remain low. Yet his inability to parlay Potter power into an adult career that can stand on its own two feet is nonetheless a depressing reminder of the challenges confronting former kid actors seeking to make their way in the world.

Because if any child star was going to succeed once they'd outgrown their first flush of fame, it was surely the canny and talented Radcliffe (just 11 when he appeared in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone).

There was, it is true, that teenage dalliance with alcoholism - but Radcliffe had that out of his system by his early 20s and, ever since, has been a paragon of common sense. Alas, not even he has escaped the strait-jacket of early fame.

Granted, it might be worse. For an idea of how much worse one need only look to the career of Lindsay Lohan, adorable as a 10-year-old in The Parent Trap, talented beyond her years in Mean Girls and washed up and unemployable by age 30. Darker yet was the case of the late Brad Renfro - a spiky presence as a 13-year-old who had seen too much in The Client, dead of a heroin overdose at 25.

Even when child actors do go on to achieve great things, there's a sense that they never quite side-stepped the shadow of their unnatural upbringing. Michael Jackson grew from the precocious leader of Jackson Five into a King Of Pop - yet squint and you could always see vestiges of the frightened and emotionally isolated boy within. Ditto the tragic Judy Garland, required to take speed tablets to get through The Wizard Of Oz at age 16 and claimed by an overdose in midlife.

Closer to home, actor Hugh O'Connor, while in no way comparable to the car-crashes listed above, failed to build on his breakthrough as a 10-year-old alongside Liam Neeson in Lamb and was last seen in underwhelming flick, The Stag. His future stalled on the grid.

This isn't to suggest that the critical panning meted out to Swiss Army Man is likely to send Radcliffe rushing to the nearest vodka bottle. He knows where he's at and was no doubt aware of the reception the film would receive. Still, this week's swiss army strife serves as a reminder that fame is a life-changing force, to be bestowed on kids at their peril. So tenacious is the curse that follows recipients into adulthood it seems doubtful that it could be easily broken - even by a boy wizard on a broomstick.

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