Daniel Radcliffe Explains The Odd Link Between 'Victor Frankenstein' And 'Harry Potter' [On Set Interview]

Cobble together a composite image based on stereotype ideas about child stars and you'd end up with something that is exactly the opposite of Daniel Radcliffe. The man who grew up in public as Harry Potter has followed that film series with a set of eccentric, sometimes adventurous jobs, playing Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings and a suspect young man in Horns. A tendency towards genre is the only tentative unifying factor.

Radcliffe's latest film, Victor Frankenstein, is perhaps his most conventional post-Potter film yet, and even this one is hardly a typical studio picture. A revisionist vision of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein created almost explicitly as a meta-assembly of good ideas from other Frankenstein adaptations, the movie is really a two-hander that pairs Radcliffe with James McAvoy, who plays the egocentric Victor Frankenstein.

Speak to Radcliffe and you'll enjoy the thoughts of a young man who is as passionate about his craft as he is aware of its unusual aspects. I visited the set of Victor Frankenstein at Shepperton Studios outside London over a year ago. Now, finally, we can present the talk I and a few other writers conducted with Radcliffe, in which he spoke about being tossed around by McAvoy, the relationship between Victor and Igor, and the rare but terrifying potential of being attacked by a lion on set.

Note that there are some mild possible spoilers in this talk, but it's all first-act stuff, as Radcliffe is careful to avoid any talk of creations or the monster, or big plot turns.James McAvoy said there's a physicality to this role. Could you describe that for us?

Yeah, in my experience in doing various physical scenes with people, half of your energy that day is just spent in getting the other actor to engage physically with you. Most actors don't do it, don't want to hurt you, but James and I have enough confidence in each other that we're not going to hurt each other. It's amazing working with James on that level; he gives 100% every time. He just throws me around.

I'd like to think I've been the most willing victim he's ever had. Pretty much our first day actually was him repeatedly slamming me against a pillar; so yeah, that set the tone. I've enjoyed all aspects of working with him, but I think the physical side is what sets this apart.

Does that physical side take a toll on things, even on elements such as your costume?

Not so much on those things, but on the first day, that slamming against a post, I had a prosthetic on — not of the full hump, but of the hump when it's been drained, so it's actually messed up and not nice looking. So I had that on for three hours, then I put a costume on over it, so it started getting sweaty and covered in material, and then I'm landing on it every time when I go back, I'm hitting the prosthetic time after time after time. And then, at the end of the day, after doing that for seven hours, they were like, "OK, close up on the hump," and actually, it held up remarkably well. James has got the brilliant ability where he really looks like he's slamming you against the wall, while actually taking most of the impact himself. So it held up better than we thought.

Is acting with a prosthetic, and the physical movement that goes with it, more difficult than typical work?

I'm definitely grateful it's not in the whole film, but I really enjoy that side of it. Your legs get tired, but I've had no pain. When I knew I was playing the part, I experimented with a few different things you can do, and a couple of them couldn't have been sustained. I did a couple of them for a day, and had pain for a week. This is the thing I arrived at, it's the most contorted, and the most sustainable, but it's not long-term pain. Although I guess I'll need to wait a while to know about that.

This is a different role for you, and a very different look. Is this part of a plan to pick as different kind of stuff as possible?

Yeah, I think all actors do. Any actors I admire, and all the actors whose work is good do, i think. It's so varied, that's what I admire. I wasn't like "the next film I do, I'll have to have clown makeup and a wig."

But was that an attraction to this?

There's always an attraction to it, in the same way there was about playing Ginsberg [in Kill Your Darlings], about any kind of transformation – particularly a physical one as well – I really enjoy that. I enjoy working with hair and makeup a lot, I enjoy watching people being good at their jobs, and so hair and makeup and prosthetics and all that lot, I've always loved being involved in that, but this is definitely the most heavily made up look. I'm not sure if it's a deliberate thing, but I think most actors enjoy looking in a mirror and not seeing themselves.

Do you feel like you're playing two characters? At the start Igor is quite timid, but then he grows into more of a man.

Not really. It's more one character with a really huge journey across the script. He starts off being this abused, mistreated, really ugly creature, who's almost outside the caste system of the circus. He is the lowest of the low. And actually through — it's all about him and his empowerment, and Victor finding him and showing him a world where his intellectual gifts are valued rather than unappreciated, and where he is seen as a fully fledged and extraordinary person rather than a bit of dirt on someone's shoe. And then he also develops an insane loyalty to Victor as well, based, on what happens in this scene, and the fact that he rescues him from the circus. It's about that loyalty being tested, as well as a bunch of other stuff.

What differentiates this new iteration of Frankenstein?

One of the big differences in this film is when the monster is created, and that puts a very different perspective on everything. The monster isn't created until the end of... we have several attempts throughout the movie, but the main monster isn't created until nearer the end of the movie, whereas traditionally it's something that happens earlier. So it's less about what happens to the world after the monster is created, and the monster in general, it's more about the relationship between Frankenstein and Igor preceding it, which of course isn't a relationship that is in the book. It's something that has been entered into a global consciousness by loads and loads of movies.

Can you talk about your relationship with Jessica Brown Findlay's character?

At the beginning part of the film, she's really the only person who shows him kindness. He's grown up in the circus, she's come to the circus in the last few years, and she's really the only person here who gives him the time of day; she gives him compassion, and talks to him like a normal human being, and sees a little bit past the physical, the outside. And then as we get out of the circus, and are reunited, she, I think, has a huge amount of guilt about the fact that I am now showing myself to be a talented, interesting person who she never really appreciated before.

And also she provides a huge counterbalance to Victor. While Victor is just about progress for progress' sake, she actually is the voice — not of anything old-fashioned, or anything like that; it's not about being conservative, it's about having an appreciation for the mysteries of nature, and the human spirit, rather than constantly looking for answers, because I think she has a sense that through looking for those answers, you lose sight of yourself, and lose sight of, as she says in the script, "what makes us truly special."

Does Igor have the same drive to play God that Frankenstein does?

Not at all, he wants to... the battle for Igor is, once Victor has rescued him, and he develops this insane loyalty to him, then Victor starts going off the deep end ego-wise. It starts off being very well intentioned, 'I want to create life, and do something incredible to change the world', and as his ego takes over, it just becomes, 'how far can I push this? What crazy, insane thing can I do, just because I can?', and I think Igor – the chance to change the world for the better is something he never thought he would get, so entering into that, he's incredibly excited, he wants to be part of that, but then the battle for him in the film is trying to work up the courage to actually stand up to Victor and to tell him to stop.

Does Victor become the antagonist?

What I think is really interesting about the film is that it plays with the notion of good guys and bad guys. They do have an antagonistic relationship, Victor is one of our heroes, and he's charming and charismatic, fucked up, and dangerous, but I feel like the audience – because James is so charming as his character – they will be with him. He's very likable, but simultaneously he does a lot of really bad stuff, and is very immoral, and treats me like crap at times, and is incredibly rude to Jess, and is all around, quite unpleasant. On the flip side, Turpin, who's played by Andrew Scott, is deeply antagonistic to both me and Victor, and is pursuing us through most of the film, is actually a really sympathetic character as well, and is somebody you absolutely can't say he's bad for bad's sake. He has an incredible amount of sympathy for me, is motivated by the loss of his own wife. The two exceptions are Finnegan [played by Freddie Fox] and Detwiler [played by Mark Gatiss], who are just bad. They're the worst kind of bad, bad — and kind of Barnaby as well, Danny Mays's character.

[Director] Paul [McGuigan] and James both talked about Igor as Victor's first creation. Is there anything you could add to that?

Yeah, I think that the fact that Victor saves me, and then creates me, gives me this identity, and a new physical appearance, it engenders that loyalty. [Spoilers here redacted.] Actually it's the fact that Victor at the beginning was the only person who ever saw anything in me enough to try to save me. To try to make me achieve anything more with my life. They follow each other to extremes, so that creation of an identity is an important thing.

Are you interested in any other portrayals of Igor from the past?

Other than the ones I've already seen, and grew up loving, like Marty Feldman [in Young Frankenstein] is one I get referenced a lot, I think this treads a really wonderful line between Frankenstein and Young Frankenstein. There is humor in this film, it's not a comedy by any stretch, but there is humor in it. I've played a few parts where there have been other people who have played them — when I did Equus, there was a film of that — I'm always worried about being influenced too much, especially this where it is such a fresh take on Igor. I'm a terrible mimic, if I see something to hang on to, I'll probably do that, so it's just trying to create it myself, and trying not to do bits from Marty Feldman.

What's the appeal of the two-hander?

Well, there is an appeal to a two-hander anyway, because you know it's going to be about relationships. That's the thing that drives actors, gets actors excited, is when the film is driven by character relationships. It means you'll have the most fun as an actor. The appeal is even more with someone like James, who is such a generous and very bold actor, who makes bold, very definite choices. That, as a young actor, is wonderful to spend time round, because it gives you permission to let loose a bit as well. Also, getting to know somebody, getting to work with them as an actor and find out how they work is always an extremely exciting thing, provided they're also a nice person, which he is.

So how old is Igor supposed to be?

I think he's supposed to be early 20s. He's younger than Frankenstein. He's also supposed to have lived his life entirely in the circus, so he is — he's not naive, but he's terrified of the world around him.

The film has potential to do what Sherlock Holmes did and launch a franchise. Is that the plan?

I don't know. I have no idea. If this film's successful, maybe we can talk, but it hasn't come out yet, and I have no idea. Originally in the script, there was a real "we are making a sequel" ending, and I think both me and James both came in and were like, "Let's not do that. Let's concentrate on making one really good film first, and then we'll consider it." So I don't know. I've had a great experience, and I've had a fantastic time, so I would, but there are so many things that need to happen before that becomes a reality.

What about your relationship with the director? Do you know him, or his work on Sherlock?

I was a big fan of Sherlock, and actually there was a bizarre connection between myself and Paul anyway, because my dad was an agent, he was Paul's agent, so he knew him for ages. And I got the job on Potter because my dad was on Paul's film, Gangster No. 1, which Norma Heyman produced, and she was the connection to David Heyman and Potter. That's how that all got linked up originally. It's all very incestuous.

I never met Paul back then, but I got to know him very, very early on in this. Originally, I'd been attached to it before Paul was involved, because I really liked the script. Sometimes I find when Americans write English characters — particularly bad guy English characters — there's a tendency to want to make them very posh, to a point where they become a little less scary, because they're so English, they're just charming, even though they're being scary. And Paul's bought a real sense of real menace and danger to all of that. That's the thing, it felt like film danger, where you always knew they were going to be OK in the end, and actually you don't want that, it has to be all very real, from Turpin, and from the violence from Danny Mays' character in the beginning, it can't be funny, circus slapstick violence, it has to be nasty, and Paul's brought a real grounding I think. So this felt like a very real film. When you're doing a film that's so heightened, and when you're bringing stuff back to life, it can all slip into the realms of being "up there" all the time, but actually Paul really grounds us, and keeps the film in reality.

[Here some conversation about Victor's lab set is obliterated by the sound of a rigging crew fixing something behind us.]

The film will be PG-13, so how gross can you get in the lab?

We're pushing it as far as we can. How gross is it? Quite gross.

On a scale of one to ten?

Ten being... Saw? Then we're probably only at a five, but then it's still intense. It's hard to talk about it without giving too much away, but there are a couple of creations, and there's one specific creation — sort of the prototype of the thing we end up making, it's pretty gruesome.

Do you think it'll be scary?

It should be! I hope so. And the scene where — actually one of the most disturbing scenes in the film is the scene where I go from being a hunchback to not being a hunchback anymore, which involves — I don't want to say, because it's so gross, I don't want to ruin it. It's pus related. James gets rid of it himself, in a very visceral way, which I'm sure you all will enjoy, but it was one of those scenes where our producers were all outside going, "just do one where you do a less disgusting version." And it's "no, no, no, this is how we get to do it. We're doing it like this." You want it to be PG-13, but it's a film about science and bodies, and stitching stuff together. You have to be able to show that. I got to hold an ox heart. Ox hearts are huge, like that big. You've got to stuff it full of wires. It's one of those where you – you don't get to do that.

How's working with the animals?

Two lions! The lions wanted to eat me, because I'm scurrying around in that little posture, and they can perceive a small defenseless creature. Danny Mays saved me from zebras. In his effort to get himself out of the way, he also pushed me out of the way. Zebras, as it turns out? Skittish. Really difficult to work with, not fun. They were supposed to be standing there very placid, and a car alarm went off two miles away, and one of them just bolted.

And then one of the lions was working out how to open it's cage from the inside, so we were bricking it, slightly. There was a window on the inside, and there was a rope on the outside, that you pull, and the window would go up. But the rope had ended up going round and getting caught inside the bars, and the lion was grabbing it in his mouth and pulling it open. There were two in there, and if the other one had been turned round when he pulled it open, it would have been out. I said to the guy who handles them, "if these get out, who gets eaten first?" He said, "the one who runs first, and the smallest." So I was like, "Oh."

You've been attached to this for a while, and you were talking about Paul doing some work on the script. Is that something you participate in at all?

Paul's really inclusive in that way. He really wants James and I — we had a great week of rehearsal — we went to the script meeting, and he asked what we thought didn't work, and what went well. For me, a lot of it, was, Max Landis is a really strong voice that comes through on every page of the script, but one thing that for me was a problem with it, was it felt like Victor and Igor spoke in similar voices, both of which were Max's. And Max is very — I haven't met him, but I've heard he's very charming, and I assume, very talkative, and that works for Victor brilliantly, but Igor hasn't come from the same level of education, or background or anything, but he sounds the same. I think he can sound similar to him as the film goes on, because he is his only influence, but it seems like at the beginning, it seemed that Paul really made the distinction.


Victor Frankenstein opens on November 25.