How Daniel Radcliffe Survived the Child Actor Curse
In his review of the TBS comedy series Miracle Workers, which premiered earlier this month, Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter noted that ‘[Steve] Buscemi is wasted on subpar material. So is Radcliffe for that matter.’ You can almost hear the note of surprise in his voice over the latter part of that critique, and I don’t blame him. It’s not necessarily that Daniel Radcliffe has ever been considered a bad actor. Even in the early Harry Potter days, he was respectfully reviewed in a way a lot of child actors simply aren’t. However, the evolution of his career has thrown so many surprises our way, taken routes unexpected for a star of his calibre, that he’s now reached the level where we’re disappointed when the material lets him down.
This probably sounds condescending, but think about how we talk about so many actors of his age who started in the business as kids and had to go through that agonizing teething experience in the public eye. Emma Watson has found a more rewarding level for her career through feminist activism but you can’t really say critics or audiences are clamouring for her performances in film or television. Rupert Grint has chosen to take a backseat and work mostly in small T.V. projects so our expectations with his work are tempered. But Daniel Radcliffe? Things are very different, and I doubt many of us could have predicted what kind of actor he would become when he first donned those glasses and that scar.
It’s been said many times over the decades that cinema has existed that there is a child actors curse, an inevitable downturn that all kids who worked in the business will face as they mature into adulthood. Hollywood is littered with stories of children who experienced wild levels of fame, adoration and profit before hitting puberty, only to have their worlds come crashing down around them. Jackie Coogan, who starred in The Kid alongside Charlie Chaplin, was forced to sue his mother and stepfather after he discovered they’d blown millions of dollars of his earnings, an incident that led to changes in laws regarding child actors. The kids from Diff’rent Strokes faced problems as varied as drug addiction, assault charges, softcore porn and armed robbery. Multiple former child actors have dealt with addiction issues, bankruptcy, eating disorders, sexual assault, and much more. I remember watching this old VH1 special on the greatest child stars ever that I found on YouTube and being horrified but not at all surprised by how many of those ‘Where Are They Now’ stories ended with tragedy.
In a piece for Elle discussing Allison Mack and the NXIVM scandal, Mara Wilson notes how being a child actor leaves one vulnerable to structures and ideas they may not previously have embraced, in part as a way to satisfy that craving for ‘structure, validation, and to feel like she [Mack] was a part of something.’ You get used to that structure of a film set, that feeling you’re special and the endless routine of being treated as such. Take that away and what else is there? Or perhaps said structure was so intensely smothering for you that the only way to respond is to go wild. You fall out of nightclubs, you take every drug offered to you, you pose for Playboy or send as many unsolicited dick pics as your DMs can handle. Once you’ve stopped being the adorable moppet of the day, why not show the world just how adult you are?
It’s something of a minor miracle that neither Radcliffe, Grint or Watson had any major adolescent scandals. There were a couple photos of each teen having an underage drink, but they weren’t career ruining moments. Indeed, most people embraced them as typical teen behaviour. Radcliffe would later admit that he gave up drinking alcohol after becoming too reliant on it. He described himself as being ‘so enamoured with the idea of living some sort of famous person’s lifestyle that really isn’t suited to me’, and confessed that he was shocked the paparazzi had never caught him during one of those debauched nights of boozing. It’s something of a minor miracle that the British tabloids, notoriously some of the most exploitative vultures on the planet, didn’t pay off some of Radcliffe’s friends to talk or send a reporter undercover to these parties. You can already imagine the pun-laden headlines over Harry Potter getting wasted on cheap cider.
It seems reasonable to assume that part of Radcliffe, Grint and Watson’s peaceful adolescences, despite being in one of the biggest franchises of all time and one of the true pop culture phenomena of the past century, is because of their Britishness. The British press may be particularly cruel but the pressures of stardom are very different here compared to the shine of Hollywood. The trio also did not have to contend with the proliferation of social media in the way stars do today. MySpace wasn’t exactly the perfect platform for trolling and Twitter had not yet become the evil parasite that would destroy us all. Radcliffe has famously avoided using social media, which may be the smartest decision a star of his age range and fame level could make. I shudder to think of the abuse he’d receive if he were growing up now, like the Stranger Things kids.
The transition to adult star is also reliant on an understanding of what said actor wants from their career. Do you want to continue being a mega-star or do you want to move into a more indie realm? Are you averse to genre films now that you’ve finished with the biggest fantasy series of our generation or are you willing to get on board the new franchise superhero bandwagon? Radcliffe’s transition smartly began while he was still in the Harry Potter series, as he made the jump to the stage in a production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. Much was made of the adolescent Radcliffe getting his kit off for a live audience but the choice of material was particularly savvy. Sure, that whole naked thing was a pretty direct way to shed the innocent child star image, but Equus is also a serious play by a respected writer who is part of theatre history. It’s a starring role, technically, but still part of an ensemble, showy but not a role of tangled complexity. Radcliffe’s reviews were strong enough to warrant further intrigue with his future career choices.
The really daring choices didn’t come until the Potter movies ended, with a slew of film roles that saw him refusing to settle on one genre or type. There was the ghost story The Woman in Black, the biographical drama Kill Your Darlings where he played poet Allen Ginsburg, the fantasy-horror Horns, the very sweet and underrated rom-com The F Word, and, of course, the movie where he plays a farting corpse. He even made fun of himself in a just-meta-enough role in Now You See Me 2. He wasn’t afraid to jump from film to T.V. either, starring in the mini-series A Young Doctor’s Notebook as a fictional stand-in for author Mikhail Bulgakov and the younger version of Jon Hamm (yes, there are jokes made about the obvious height difference). A Young Doctor’s Notebook is notable in its combination of agonizing misery and hysterical black comedy, with the latter giving Radcliffe further chances to show off his relaxed but very game comic timing.
Being funny has worked wonders for Radcliffe’s post-Potter career, from guest hosting British political comedy panel show Have I Got News For You to cameoing as himself in BoJack Horseman to appearing on an episode of How Did This Get Made to discuss a John Cusack movie called Dragon Blade. He’s always up for a laugh, often at his own expense, on the talk-show circuit. His wholehearted embrace of self-deprecation has proven especially interesting, showing how aware he is of the frenzied hype around him and the fruits yielded from a willingness to poke fun at it. Radcliffe’s not in danger of writing a book titled ‘I Am Not Harry Potter’ any time soon, although he has also kept a warm distance from that franchise in recent years.
Most importantly, Radcliffe has earned his post-Potter boost because he’s put in the work of being a real actor. He’s not coasting off the franchise goodwill or jumping into projects he’s unqualified for. He challenges himself but still knows his limits and is happy to be part of a wider ensemble, often in the less flashy parts. He saw his greatest successes on the Broadway stage in ensembles, both for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Cripple of Inishmaan. His most recent stage and screen roles have been far lower key and almost exclusively indie, the kind of works that don’t necessarily demand everyone’s attention.
Radcliffe was probably never going to be a traditional leading man, especially in the current Chris age, but he’s found a niche that’s proven fruitful for him in the decade since he retired his Harry Potter life. He didn’t reject stardom, but he’s certainly embraced the indie comfort of being a working actor. Granted, this particular working actor could easily never work another day in his life if he so desired, but people admire the hustle. And, as with many child stars, he remains so very easy to root for.
But there are other lessons to be learned here. Radcliffe had the privilege of a stable family life and not being the primary source of income for his parents. He didn’t grow up in the social media age. He never publicly crumbled in a way that would breed ill will from the public, as so often happens with former child stars who refuse to adhere to the rigid personas forced upon him. He’s also a cishet white dude and was never subjected to the leering gaze and ‘countdown to 16’ perversions Emma Watson was (something he even directly called out). Radcliffe played a smart game but he did so with a full deck, and that’s not something typically afforded to other child stars living under the pressures of financial responsibility, among other roadblocks. Yes, we’re happy and almost relieved that Radcliffe has made it to adult fame with security and good humour, but the systemic problems that smother so many others in his business at a tender age are a societal shame we have always been too embarrassed to deal with.
Header Image Source: Gage Skidmore @ Flickr
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