The narrative is always the same: Daniel Radcliffe is doing something that’s not “Harry Potter”! Since his formative (both personally and professionally) “Harry Potter” days, the British actor has consistently mixed up his roles, jumping from ambitious turns on Broadway to offbeat offerings like this year’s “Swiss Army Man” and 2013’s “Horns,” to a handful of studio outings like “Now You See Me 2” to the occasional drama like “Kill Your Darlings.” He’s found time to do television (“A Young Doctor’s Notebook”) and animation (“Bojack Horseman”). He starred in a seriously successful horror film (“The Woman in Black”) and matched wits with Zoe Kazan in the charming rom-com “What If.”
And still, the story remains: Daniel Radcliffe is doing something that’s not “Harry Potter”! For his latest film, Daniel Ragussis’ crime drama “Imperium,” Radcliffe is again doing something different, playing an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a white supremacist group about to launch a major terrorist attack. What his character, Nate Foster, ultimately finds surprises both him and the audience, and the role offers Radcliffe yet another chance to expand his oeuvre. For Radcliffe, being different is his standard setting.
“It Does Sort of Happen Every Time”
When IndieWire recently asked Radcliffe if he ever gets sick of addressing that wrung-out narrative, the actor grimaced just a bit, but was quick to clarify his thoughts on the matter.
“No, that was the face of ‘Yes, you’re right, I do get that a lot,'” he laughed. “I’m not sick of people asking about new work or anything like that, but I suppose I do get slightly bored with the idea that people think that every role I pick is somehow a comment on my relationship to Potter.”
He’s also just sort of used to it at this point.
“It’s funny because it does sort of happen every time,” he said. “When I did ‘Equus,’ there were people saying, ‘Okay, he’s distanced himself from Potter now.’ On ‘Kill Your Darlings,’ it was the same thing, and then on ‘Horns’ and now on ‘Swiss Army Man’ this year and now with this film. I’m not waiting for the day when people stop asking about it. I think if my career was going in a way that I wasn’t happy with, I would probably be less pleased to talk about it, but I’m very happy with how things have gone.”
For Radcliffe, all that variety isn’t commentary on his signature role, it’s simply a mark of his dedication to his career as a whole.
“I feel like I get a really undeserved amount of credit for picking a diverse range of things because I play one part for so long,” he said. “I think every actor, or all the good ones at least, want to do as varied a range of things as possible.”
Radcliffe’s ever-morphing career has also benefitted from directors who are equally as disinterested in the “he’s breaking away from Potter” narrative foisted so often on the young actor. Or, in the case of Ragussis, directors who are willing to use Radcliffe’s established charms in a fresh way.
True to Life
When it came to casting Radcliffe in the film, Ragussis pointed to the part’s real-life inspiration – co-writer Mike German, a former FBI agent who based the film’s story on some of his own experiences in the field – as a way into what could be seen as offbeat casting.
“One of the things that was very interesting to me about Mike and about his story was just how different he was than what I thought a prototypical FBI agent would be,” Ragussis said. “He’s not this big guy that’s walking into a room and beating people up. He’s this very sort of soft-spoken, intelligent guy.”
For Ragussis, making sure that Nate had those characteristics became paramount, eventually allowing him to see Radcliffe as “the perfect person for the role.”
Radcliffe reacted strongly to those kinds of characters traits, too. He explained that he was excited to see “a script that had the guts to make a character smart and that’s how he solves problems and overcomes obstacles.” It’s not the sort of thing he’s used to seeing.
“Often you get scripts that do that in the beginning and then just resort to guns and action at the end which always feels a bit of a cop-out, especially with this type of film,” he continued. “If you’re an undercover agent and you fire a gun, you’re probably the worst undercover agent in the world. For once, I read a script that kept him smart.”
“You don’t want to repeat yourself and you want to tell stories that have relevance and are worthwhile and say something about the world that we’re in now,” Radcliffe said. “I think this film definitely does.”
“Terrible Ideas At the Wrong Time”
Although the circumstances that Nate finds himself in – and the company he starts to keep along the way – might seem shocking to some audiences, Ragussis and German’s script keeps “Imperium” grounded by tapping into the emotion of the experience. Namely, that Nate is such an outsider in his normal life that it’s understandable he’d eventually feel some camaraderie with the very people he’s investigating.
“It’s a way too broad generalization to say that anybody who gets into the white supremacist [movement] was depressed and vulnerable, but a lot of people are,” Radcliffe said. “A lot of people are vulnerable and then they’re exposed to certain terrible ideas at the wrong time and it just takes.”
Ragussis was meticulous about his research for the film, and often ran across stories that directly speak to Nate’s own complicated feelings in the film.
“One of the memoirs that I was reading was about a kid that got caught up in the skinhead lifestyle,” he said. “He’d come from a very difficult childhood and, for the first time, he had a group of people that were listening to him, they were taking his opinion seriously, they were saying, ‘You have a place in this world, you have something to say.'”
It was a concept that Radcliffe sparked to in a big way. Even months after filming the feature, Radcliffe still grew animated when talking about the complex emotions and motivations that feed people like the ones Nate is tasked with infiltrating.
“The idea that you can say to somebody, ‘Your wife didn’t leave you because she’s not in love with you, you didn’t lose your job because you’re crap at it, it’s a global conspiracy against you and none of this is your fault. In fact, you can become a soldier in this war,'” the actor said. “That’s very empowering to people who don’t feel like they have any power.”
Ragussis added, “You’re part of a larger ideological goal that’s, in their mind, fighting for freedom and justice and emancipation. In their worldview, that’s what they’re fighting for. You can be a soldier in a cause, you can devote your life to something larger than yourself. Certainly the history of humanity is filled with people doing that, both for good and for ill.”
An Unexpected Audience
That kind of even-handed understanding and attention to complicated – and controversial – worldviews make “Imperium” stand out from other films that are quick to demonize one side or the other. And it’s also something that both Radcliffe and Ragussis hope will appeal to a perhaps unexpected group of moviegoers: Actual white supremacists.
“Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Do you worry about people, white supremacists going to see this film?'” Radcliffe said. “I was like, ‘No, that’s exactly what they should be going to see.’ I think that because it is a film that tries to portray the gray areas in these people rather than purely demonizing them, it could be a film that white supremacists maybe go and see and to see how they’re being portrayed.”
He added: “I do believe that films can have an actual impact on the world. Even if that’s just one person, that’s fantastic. I’m sure that 99.999% of them will just go in and hate it and just hate both of us. But if that .1% gets something different out of it, then fucking amazing.”
“Imperium” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, August 19.