Daniel Radcliffe on fame, Richard Griffiths, and playing The Cripple of Inishmaan
As Michael Grandage's revival of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan begins previews at the Noel Coward Theatre, its star talks to WhatsOnStage about getting to grips with cerebral palsy, learning to love Harry Potter and his memories of Richard Griffiths
How have rehearsals been going?
Well today is our first day of our fourth week. Which is ultimately a good sign because we just had a three day weekend which must mean we're doing something right. It's been a really nice day today because we ran the second act for the first time and it's all coming together. I think it's in a good place.
Is it true that you turned up on the first day having learnt your lines?
It is. That comes from when I did Equus and [director] Thea Sharrock told me to have learned it before I got into rehearsal. So that's what I‘ve done on every job since. Plus, Michael [Grandage] asked us all to be as off book as possible come the first day of rehearsal. I find it means that you don't worry about learning it over the next four weeks, which means you have much more time to be in the character rather than learning the script. But there was still a huge journey to go on to discover our characters, that and the fact that Martin's writing is very precise and pacey. I've just come from watching a scene with Pat Shortt, who's a fantastic comic actor, and it's just an absolute joy to watch, despite the dark subject matter.
Would you say the production generally is quite light in tone?
We had Martin in the first week of rehearsal and we were asking him about points in the script where you can play it one of two ways. We could make it warmer, almost sentimental, or play it flat and brutal; and that is generally how Martin likes us to do it. So I'd say we're actually focusing on the darker aspects but I think the humour comes out more strongly this way; a lot of it is pretty cruel humour. It will be interesting who the audience go away liking or disliking, because they are all very complicated characters.
Was the play familiar to you before you got involved?
Not at all, though I'd heard of it because my Dad was a literary agent in the 90s and knew the play very well. So I knew its reputation from him but I didn't know much else. Michael [Grandage] sent me three or four plays to read and said, "Read them, come back and tell me what you think." And the one that stood out was The Cripple of Inishmaan. It was so funny and smart; I don't think it's an overstatement to call it a modern masterpiece. As soon as I read it, I just knew I wanted to do it.
And, considering your Dad's Northern Irish heritage, was its setting an added appeal?
I don't know if it was an added appeal but it made the material feel less alien. All those conversations between [characters] Kate and Eileen - I've seen relatives talk to each other in that same, rhythmic way. There was something familiar about the characters that spoke to me. Even though it's a different vernacular and accent from where my Dad is from, my Irish connections made the idea of doing an Irish play less intimidating. My main concern was that Martin, when I came to the project, was all about the accents, and nobody is more paranoid about accents than me. But I do have a very good ear for them and I just kept thinking, ‘Well, even if you don't have it now, that accent is somewhere inside of you. It's going back a while but it's in there somewhere.'
Then there's the factor of your character's disability. How specific is the script regarding what it constitutes?
It's not very specific. I mean, it's specific about the fact that it's there but it's not particular about what it is. An early stage direction reads that [Billy] ‘comes in shuffling, with one arm and one leg.' So we know about his arm and leg and then other details are revealed in the play, such as that it was noticed at Billy's birth that something was wrong with him, so whatever he had it had to be something quite extreme. It was a case of piecing together the clues and finding a condition that could potentially be what Billy has.
So what did you decide?
After a lot of research I landed on cerebral palsy as being a viable option because there is a specific kind of cerebral palsy called Hemiplegia, which affects one side of the body and not the other. It's also a condition that can be apparent at birth. So then I had to learn about the mechanics of cerebral palsy and what that involves, why it affects the body the way that it does, and how people learn to live with it - they usually become incredibly skilful with their ‘good' side. I felt it was important to make his condition specific, rather than attempting some generalised ‘cripple' thing. To me, that is kind of offensive, to say, "oh well I'll just do something a bit weird", without looking into it at all. That's not doing justice to people who are disabled or to the character that Martin wrote.
What did Martin make of your research?
[laughs] He pretty much said "fine, you've done more work on it than me". Martin's very self-effacing about stuff like that. I don't think I'm speaking out of turn when I say that I have done more research into his potential disability than Martin has. But that's the thing, he doesn't need to, because he's written so much else and given me so much more information about Billy that I can go off and do a little bit of the work myself.
Does the fact that Billy seeks escape through film resonate with you?
It does, in that Billy is ambitious. He refuses to accept that his life is going to be what it is now, and I think that is why I respond to the character so much. Though any parallels are superficial because mine and Billy's experience with the film industry is very different. He gets chewed up and spat out by it and I just love it. But in terms of finding an escape and doing something that people think you can't do, or people think you're unconventional for, I can certainly relate to that. I'm fully aware there are not an abundant number of five foot five leading men! And by the way I'm also the only celebrity of my height that I know of who gives his actual height when asked, and doesn't wear Cuban heels…
Do you ever think about what path you would've taken if it wasn't for Harry Potter?
If I hadn't played Harry Potter I find it hard to believe I would have become an actor. David Copperfield was my first job but I never really viewed it as something serious - it was more something to get me out of school. I think I would have ended up in the film industry in some aspect because of my parents both being in the industry and because I certainly wouldn't have achieved anything in the world of academia. We all accepted that. It is a big thing to ponder; in fact I was just thinking the other day about what would've happened had I not been in Harry Potter. In a way that's a theme in The Cripple of Inishmaan because it's about opportunities and missed opportunities. It's a game I play sometimes; imagining where I would be now. But I generally end up going ‘thank god I'm not there' [laughs].
There must be times when you crave anonymity
Yes there are times when anonymity would be nice but that is pretty much the only thing that I miss out on. It can be testing at times but generally speaking I would much rather have my life the way it is now.
Does being back in the West End prompt memories of working with Richard Griffiths on Equus?
It does. He was an extraordinary man, as everyone said when he passed. My experience of him was that he was encyclopedic in his knowledge of the world. And he was generous, both as an actor and a person. He delighted in passing his immense knowledge to you, but it was never done in a pretentious way, or to prove how much knowledge he had. It was always done in a way that was interesting. He wanted to share it with you. It's odd thinking of the world without Richard in it because I learned so much from him; sometimes I wonder what else I'm going to learn now that he is gone. It's very sad but one thing that stood out in his funeral when everyone spoke about him was just how happy he was. He could be "Eeyore-ish", but he was also one of the most contented people I have ever met. If I can have that said about me at my funeral I think I will have lived a very worthwhile life.
Equus [for which Radcliffe won a WhatsOnStage Award] took you to Broadway, where you subsequently starred in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. How was that experience?
Doing a musical on Broadway is an experience I recommend to anybody who gets the opportunity to do it. It's very hard to define what makes it so brilliant but I think it has to do with it being the spiritual home of the musical. And there is also something especially satisfying about succeeding in New York as we did. People may have said "They succeeded because they had Dan Radcliffe and John Larroquette," but there are shows opening and closing all the time with famous actors and a name is not enough to keep a show on. It has to be good. It was a hard show and a new experience. I had never done comedy particularly and I certainly had never done comedy that broad. I had never done anything where you were encouraged to break the fourth wall and smile at the audience occasionally, which is scripted in How to Succeed. And I think that brought something out of me, having to find an inner confidence that I didn't necessarily have before. It was really life changing because you learn so much about yourself, especially when you do a run of eleven months, eight shows a week. I know there will be people reading this thinking, ‘a year is not a long time, people do shows for years and years', but when you do eight shows a week on a show that physical it takes its toll – my body was in rough shape by the end.
Would you do a musical in the West End?
Absolutely, if it was the right one I would love to do it. There was talk about How to Succeed coming to the West End after Broadway but at that point I had done it a year and my heart wouldn't have been in it at the time. But also I felt it was a very American-oriented show that might not have worked quite as well over here.
And in terms of other theatre roles, what else in on your wish list? Would you play Hamlet for example?
Yes I would. It's something any actor would want to do and it's very intimidating thinking about all those who have done it before you and all those I have seen do it. It's hard to imagine at the moment but it is also one of the greatest parts in all of literature so yes, I would jump at the chance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is one of my favourite plays, and another Irish play that I absolutely love is Translations by Brian Friel. I'd also love to do Waiting for Godot, but I'll have to wait til I'm an old man.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is currently in previews at the Noel Coward Theatre, ahead of opening on 18 June 2013. Join the waiting list for our sold-out Outing on 24 June – including exclusive post-show Q&A with the director and cast – by clicking here