Daniel Radcliffe Talks Going Undercover and Humanizing White Supremacists in 'Imperium' (Q&A)

Jacob Coppage/Lionsgate

The actor and writer-director Daniel Ragussis also discuss filming a racially-charged rally and question the media's fascination with Donald Trump.

Daniel Radcliffe shaved his own head onscreen for the first time in Imperium, in which he plays an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a radical right-wing terrorist group. From first-time writer-director Daniel Ragussis, the Lionsgate Premiere drama — released Friday in theaters and on demand — also stars Toni Collette, Tracy Letts and Sam Trammell.

Below is The Hollywood Reporter's edited chat with Radcliffe and Ragussis about realistically portraying an undercover gig, humanizing the white supremacy community and questioning the media's fascination with Donald Trump.

Why did you want to make this movie?

DANIEL RAGUSSIS I was researching the Nazis for another project and stumbled onto the American neo-Nazi community. There are hundreds and hundreds of comments on YouTube videos of Hitler's speeches, saying, basically, "Rest in peace, Adolf," and "This is the greatest leader of the 20th century." I was just stunned at the size, depth, breadth and diversity of this community. Then I found Mike German's story and I thought, "That's the perfect way into this world, to see it through the eyes of an undercover FBI agent." I tracked him down, and we agreed that a movie couldn't be based on his own cases due to privacy reasons, but we'd make a fictionalized story that nonetheless drew inspiration from his work.

DANIEL RADCLIFFE I immediately responded to the script. I like films that explore worlds authentically, and this did that on two levels. First, the undercover world: There are so many assumptions I've made about going undercover that turned out to be completely wrong. Like, the fact that it is actually really shit for your FBI career. You think, "You're doing something really freaking brave; surely, that gets you brownie points." No. If you want to advance quickly through the FBI, you just stay in the office. Also, the white supremacy stuff that's explored was so horrifyingly fascinating, or fascinatingly horrifying. The breadth of how many different kinds of beliefs there are — it's an umbrella term that we use, it actually describes a ton of different kinds of people.

The thing I loved most was that it did something that very few scripts have the guts — and frankly, the quality of writing and the brains — to do. So many scripts I've seen set up the character as smart, and that's his weapon and how he solves problems and overcomes adversity for the first two-thirds of the movie; and then in the final third, they go, "F— it, he's Jason Bourne now, he can do whatever," Out of nowhere, they put in a scene of him learning Judo and then he can just kill 10 people at a time. I've always found that a real cop-out. It doesn't work. To see a script where a character is smart until the end of the movie is really cool.

What research did you do?

RAGUSSIS Works written by ideological leaders of the movement, memoirs from people who had gotten out of the movement, and works by social scientists who had spent years living among people in the movement, interviewing them and letting them present themselves in their own world, [plus] memoirs written by FBI undercover agents.

And the internet, of course. There are online communities populated by millions of people who feel like they're in a world where they can't express their opinions or talk openly about what they believe. So it's very important for them to find a community, even if it's online, where they can be outspoken about not only their political and ideological beliefs, but also everything from "What's your favorite painting?" and "Who's your favorite composer?" to "This is a great recipe," and "I'm looking for love." When all they talk about is anti-Semitism and racial and ideological things, you get a certain picture. But then when the same person is curating paintings and talking about Beethoven and this amazing cake that they made, it forces you to realize that they're a whole person, just like everyone else.

Seth Numrich and Daniel Radcliffe in 'Imperium.' Photo credit: Lionsgate Premiere.

Did you spend time with real white supremacists?

RADCLIFFE No, but I know some really f—ing racist people, friends I vehemently disagree with. They're not white supremacists, they would never be that extreme, but they are anti-immigration and absolutely voted to leave in Brexit. And I'm still friends with them because I don't think that friendship should be drawn along those lines. That'd be a really sad way of viewing the world. But yeah, I definitely have got first-hand experience with this. And also, just get into a cab in London. Some of the most unbelievably racist shit I've ever heard came out of a cab driver's mouth in London, and you just go, "Dude, you're taking a chance. I know I'm white, but you can't just assume that I'm gonna agree with you." My girlfriend was in an Uber the other day in L.A., and the guy was like, "So, who are you voting for?" Why is that small talk in a 45-minute cab ride? At the beginning, she was like, "Hillary," and then she couldn't help herself and asked, "Are you voting for Trump?" And his actual response was, "Yeah, just to see what happens." Which is just the worst. It's the same people who say, "Well, I just love Trump because he says what he thinks." But isn't the problem that he thinks that in the first place?

How important was it to humanize these characters?

RAGUSSIS The highest priority. There are people you could probably sit with for a couple hours and have the time of your life, and all of the sudden, you find out their political beliefs and you're shocked because you still have these common human qualities. That's the complexity of the situation. You can't just take somebody with these political beliefs and say, "They're evil, they're a monster."

RADCLIFFE That's true. And I honestly really hope [people with these beliefs see this movie]. I think some might go to hate-watch it, and actually would be surprised by the very human portrayal of them that is given by all the actors and in Dan's writing. But also, if it makes one of them think critically about the things they're doing, it's entirely worth it. That's why I make films. We have to believe that minds can still be changed.

If you're gonna feel something for these people, feel sorry for them. There's something incredibly sad about a world where all the races are separate, and it's so depressing and bleak to me, the fact that that's what these people want. We should look at ourselves as trying to help them to come to an understanding. Absolutely, there are some people who will never have their minds changed, but we have to go forward with the belief that we can change at least some percentage of peoples' minds out there. Racism is learned; we don't come out of the wombs thinking this. I do think we human beings are essentially selfish, but good; we'd rather do a good, selfish thing than a bad one on the whole. In order to change something, to change someone's mind, you have to have a conversation, but people won't engage with you if they know that you've already written them off as stupid and evil. Why would they?

What was the toughest scene to shoot?

RADCLIFFE The rally. Saying [racial slurs] was much harder than wearing [them on clothes], you forget that you've got it on after a while. And we're out in a real city; this stuff doesn't exist in a vacuum. I really am in a car park, shouting those words at a Hispanic man. Everyone understands that it's acting, but it still feels horrible to do it, and I definitely did a lot of checking in with the people I was working with.

RAGUSSIS That was the biggest scene and it had the most moving parts. Of course, we had filmmaker's luck and there was a hurricane at the time. We would shoot for a half an hour and all of a sudden, the heavens would open and we'd herd everyone inside, stop, and then bring them out again. People's clothes were getting wet and we'd have to dry them for continuity.

Photo credit: Lionsgate Premiere

Did you want this movie to comment on today's political climate?

RAGUSSIS Not directly. These beliefs and ideologies and political convictions have always been out there, but they're now becoming more visible. I think that's good. Because even as I was shopping the script around, I can't tell you the number of times people would say, "Come on, people don't really think that way anymore, maybe this was 40 years ago." No, this has been happening, but it wasn't something that was making national TV, but now it is. And if we're ever gonna have a hope of dealing with these things and transcending them, the first step is to be aware that they're out there, and try to understand them: where they come from, what constitutes them and all the rest of it.

How do you see the presidential election playing out?

RADCLIFFE Well, I didn't think Brexit was gonna happen, so there goes what I f—ing know. I hope Hillary gets in. I want to think there's a ceiling to how much support Trump can get, and he hopefully will alienate more of his own voters by the time we get to the election. But it's not a sure thing; that's what's certain. It's not enough for him to lose [on his own], you need to really try and protect it.

RAGUSSIS The one thing you can count on that's happened all the way through this is that it's never going the way that you thought it was gonna go. A lot can happen in three months. We need to keep our eyes open.

What do you wish you could tell the media about covering Donald Trump?

RADCLIFFE Don't help him propagate things that are blatantly untrue. The things that always winds me up is when you hear Hillary Clinton say she wants to do background checks for gun control, and then you hear Trump say, "She wants to take away your guns!" No, she doesn't; she has at no point said that, so don't repeat what he's said. [The media] has actually started doing it: somebody sent me a screenshot the other day of their TV which read, "Donald Trump Says He Did Not Say This Thing. [He Did.]" He should be very much treated like a politician and not a reality TV star because otherwise, he'll be allowed to get away with a lot more.

RAGUSSIS [What Trump says] is incredibly compelling material, so I can't say I'm not interested in it; I'm fascinated by it. But there's also clearly a responsibility to get information out there, to hold politicians accountable, to communicate the reality of things. I feel like a lot of people in media are wrestling with these issues. What's the difference between the responsibility toward public service and to make things that are sellable, to get the most eyeballs and the most clicks?

RADCLIFFE Some journalists get paid by the f—ing click. They should not be in the position where that is what they have in mind.

Toni Collette and Tracy Letts in 'Imperium.' Photo credit: Lionsgate Premiere.

Tracy Letts plays a conservative radio host with millions of listeners. How much responsibility does someone in his position have for the actions of those who listen to him?

RADCLIFFE I think you do have responsibility if you've got that much sway over people. The fact that the idea of legalist resistance is something that was propagated and put forward by the intellectual elite of lots of different extremist movements. It allows the leaders of the movement to spout out all this stuff instead of actually getting their hands dirty in committing a crime.

RAGUSSIS Just because you can't be put in jail over it doesn't mean it's not something that you don't bear responsibility for, and that it doesn't have great impact or damage to our society. The whole legalist resistance philosophy is really convenient for that. If you're an ideological leader of one of these movements, you're probably enjoying living in a respected position, selling a bunch of books, having the adulation of your fans, making a lot of money. It's true of any organization that commits acts of terrorism. You don't see the leaders of Al Qaeda going out and blowing themselves up either.

RADCLIFFE The difference is when someone like [Charleston shooter] Dylann Roof does those things, they're much slower to be regarded as terrorists. "He's just a lone wolf, he's crazy, a psycho on his own." Actually, no, this is a terrorist tactic that has been carefully thought out.

RAGUSSIS It's violence intended to provoke political change.

RADCLIFFE What other definition could it be?