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Here’s the pitch: A bespectacled young man from a troubled home, destined for greatness, is admitted to a legendary school. There he’s challenged by intimidating professors, befriends a tight-knit gang of dark arts practitioners, experiments with transformative elixirs and, ultimately, faces down evil.
Oh, and it stars Daniel Radcliffe.
Much has been made of how Kill Your Darlings — an origins tale of the great Beat writers set at Columbia University — is the Harry Potter star’s attempt at breaking away from the boy wizard that made him a Hollywood icon. The truth is that the two projects, fundamentally different as they are, have more than a few plot points in common. For Radcliffe, 24, perhaps all this sprinting around movie campuses offers a taste of the academic life he sacrificed at age 10 for one of global superstardom.
“I’d be lying if I told you I had a college experience,” Radcliffe, 24, says during a recent sit-down with The Hollywood Reporter at a Beverly Hills hotel. “I mean, I’ve read books and I’ve also been to parties. But I’ve never actually had any experience of living on a campus or anything like that. For me, university seems to be about finding out what you want to do. I very much knew what I wanted to do when I was at university-attending age.”
And that, if it wasn’t obvious, is to act — something Kill Your Darlings, which opens in New York and L.A. on Oct. 16, lets him do in ways he never has before. A voracious reader — he’s currently making his way through Luigi Pirandello‘s 1926 novel One, No one and One Hundred Thousand (“It’s very existentialist and mad and actually quite, good fun”) — Radcliffe first encountered the project back in 2009, and was instantly taken with its sordid account of a murder within the ranks of young friends Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs in the final days of the Second World War.
“You can’t underestimate just how much better than most scripts this script was,” Radcliffe says. He was wrapping up a critically lauded run on Broadway in Equus at the time, and Darlings‘ dark exploration of America’s coolest literary cats — a high-minded potboiler brimming with jazz, drugs and unflinching sexuality — was precisely the kind of meaty project he wanted to tackle next. That its co-writer and director, Yale grad John Krokidas, had only two short films under his belt didn’t bother him in the least.
“Nothing about him said first-time director,” Radcliffe recalls of their first meetings. “He was very confident and knew exactly the film he wanted to make. That’s the thing: The vision is the most important thing. I’d rather work with a director who’s never made a movie before but has a vision than work with somebody who’s done 10 films and couldn’t give a shit.” Radcliffe had to reluctantly walk away from the project when it conflicted with filming on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2, but then Darlings‘ financiers pulled out, and the delay finally allowed Krokidas to nail down his first choice to play the genre-busting Howl poet.
“There was no having to talk anyone into anything,” Radcliffe says of signing on to the kid-unfriendly part. “My agents know what I want to do with my career and there’s no sense of a pressure from them to force me to do anything but that. I think my agents are sensible people and they recognize a brilliant script when they see one. And this was brilliant.”
Radcliffe has tirelessly promoted the film since its Sundance premiere in January, and that means fielding countless questions about, yes, that gay sex scene. In it, Ginsberg, thwarted by fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) — who later kills his obsessive older suitor (played by Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall) — seduces a stranger bearing a passing resemblance to Carr. Cut to the two men wordlessly undressing, and Ginsberg, legs thrown around his head, experiencing anal sex for the first time. Radcliffe, who is straight and an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights, shrugs off suggestions that the scene might mark a potentially historic moment as it relates to what Hollywood is ready to accept from its franchise-carrying male movie stars.
“I’m really glad the scene is good and I’m really glad we showed a vulnerable loss of virginity scene in that context,” Radcliffe offers. “But it was just a scene. It was just another scene and I didn’t freak out because I was having to do it with a man. I’m an actor and that’s my job. So, it really isn’t as much of a big deal as maybe everyone else thinks. I think it’s only getting the attention it gets because of my career and the fact that I’ve come from Potter to do this.”
Radcliffe has a busy year ahead, with two more movies scheduled for release (Horns, a horror fable from High Tension director Alexandre Aja, and indie comedy The F Word with Zoe Kazan) and production currently underway on a second season of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, a darkly comic British series based on the autobiographical short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov — one of Radcliffe’s favorites — that pairs him with Jon Hamm. (Season one is currently airing in the U.S. on Ovation.)
Ginsberg, Pirandello, Bulgakov — what other modern masters does Radcliffe hope to tackle next? How about … Rotten or Vicious? Radcliffe says the British punk movement of the 1970s is the counterculture revolution that excites him more than any other. “Because they just didn’t care. It was great. Yeah, it was a complete abandon.” Can Potter fans look forward, then, to the onetime boy wizard moshing at the Roundhouse in a ripped denim vest and electric green mohawk?
“I could think I could play one,” Radcliffe says with a smile. “I wouldn’t even need to learn how to play an instrument.”
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