Daniel Radcliffe on Space Travel, Russian Literature, and Napoleon
Harry Potter might have worn the glasses, but the truth is it's Daniel Radcliffe who's a bit of a nerd. A self-professed history buff, lover (and sometimes writer) of poetry, collector of books, and trivia enthusiast who makes quizzes for fun, Radcliffe is our kind of guy. We sat down with the star—whose new film, Horns, is out on Halloween—to find out what language he's learning, the book he thinks everyone should read, and which historical figure he'd play on Drunk History. Plus, scroll down to see the awesome special edition cover that's going only to subscribers (click here to get it!).
You once said that school was hard for you but you learned to love learning on the Harry Potter set. What do you feed your mind these days?
I used to read a lot of fiction and now I read a lot of non-fiction. And I discovered a few blogs on Kinja that I like that just talk about interesting things—Deadspin is the one I got into it from, but [Kinja has] a blog for anything that you could possibly be interested in.
I also consume endless factual television programs. I have it in my head that if I go to bed watching something like [the Smithsonian Channel], I’ll retain it, and if I do it enough, then I’ll retain quite a lot, eventually. I was learning about Hittites last night. I remember thinking “That’s good that the Hittites have had a show,” because you don’t hear about them. All of the latest civilizations take their thunder away, but they were one of the first civilizations! They deserve a mention!
What do you consume, culture-wise?
I get a lot of my news off of Deadspin. I watch a lot of news on TV. I should read a newspaper, but I don’t, really. I think that’s mainly because it becomes clutter—I immediately I would forget to throw it out and I’d die under a pile of newspapers. But culturally I’m quite like low-brow in terms of the stuff I like to watch—faintly educational television where I’m getting something out of it, or it’s The Food Network, or just the worst kind of reality TV, like Millionaire Matchmaker. I watched an almost entire series of Top Chef the other day just because it was on. So I suppose culturally I’m not very cultured. [Laughs] That’s the thing—I’m mainly just interested in gathering information. I feel like half the stuff I learn doing quizzes and crosswords and remembering answers. Here’s a good question for you: Who was the first President of all 50 United States?
I’m going to flunk this. Hawaii wasn’t a state until the ‘50s. Who came after Truman? [Long pause] I give up.
Eisenhower! I like it because I feel like that’s a good pub quiz question. I also enjoy making quizzes for people—we started doing that a lot on Cripple of Inishmaan [on the West End] last summer. We would pair off into teams and we would have the team who won the quiz write the next quiz, and I just wrote a horrible quiz. They hated me! It was really good. It was based around the idea of things that you should know, but don’t. Like, what was the name of the third man that went to the moon? Michael Collins. I always feel like he gets forgotten, because he was in the command capsule. One of the most beautiful facts I've ever heard is that when he went around the dark side of the moon, he was the furthest away from any other human being than any human being has ever been. I always thought there was something strangely lovely about that. And I always thought that must have sucked to not get the recognition that [Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong] got. I was a big fan of Michael Collins.
Would you ever go to space? I wouldn’t—too much space junk.
Oh, really? Would you not go to space if you had the chance? I would let a few people go first—I would want commercial passenger space travel to become more common before I do it—but I would definitely go up there. I would like to do the vomit comet, actually, and the centrifuge and all that.
Today I learned that “fadoodling” was a 17th century slang term for having sex. What’s a really good fact you learned recently?
I learned the other day that prostitutes in England used to be called “Winchester Geese,” which is so weird to me. Winchester is a nice cathedral town in the south of England and that it was ever a byword for prurience is kind of amazing.
Where did you learn that?
My friend sent me a photo of just a plaque outside an old cemetery saying “This is where prostitutes, or ‘Winchester Geese,’ used to be buried.’” It was my birthday card, which made it weirder. I also learned not long ago that earwigs have two penises, one in case the other one breaks off—which it often does, apparently, during earwig sex.
Do you have a favorite British slang word that you think Americans should start using?
We’ve got loads! Bollocks is obviously a great word to dismiss something. We’re not a particularly hot country, but we have a lot of very colorful phrases for sweating. My favorite is one my friend used to say—“sweating like a glass blower’s asshole,” which is a delightful English phrase, very vivid. [Laughs] I know the phrase is good is when my girlfriend starts saying it, and one of those is “good shout.” If someone has a good idea or something, it’s “good shout”—I suppose it’s like saying “good call.”
I’d like to improve my British accent. What are some mistakes that people who are trying to do a British accent make?
People tend to pronounce everything very, very specifically. Like the word "little"—people in America say "li-tull." And nobody in England ever says it like that—we get lazy with the T sound. We don’t make it with the tip of the tongue behind the ridge of the teeth; it’s almost like a lateral S sound. The thing that’s hardest for Americans is they have an image of us all being sort of just very, very posh, and a lot of Americans can do a really posh British accent, but how people speak day-to-day is much harder to do.
I wish I could give more tips! I would just relax the sounds a bit more. And whatever you do, however good your accent gets, never think that a group of English people will want to hear it, because we never will. We find it more embarrassing than funny.
Speaking personally, my American accent I hope is good, but most English people cannot do an American accent to save their lives, if that makes you feel any better. Everyone goes kind of Southern. If you ask people to do an impression of an American, they go deep South immediately.
Did you work with someone to help you with your American accent?
I did—I worked with an accent coach. But I had also done an American accent for a long time, just because when I was playing as a kid, I would give my action figures American accents. We’re just infused with American TV shows in England, and that’s mostly what I watched. I guess I learned my accent from The Simpsons, because that was my first interaction with America.
If you could pick any time to go back and visit, which would it be?
I would like to see the moment when Neanderthals and Homo erectus interacted—that far back. That’s the kind of history that I find most fascinating, because those are the moments when you see things developing that are recognizably and uniquely human. If you go back to any other time, sure, the clothes are nice, but there’s typhoid and cholera! A brutal, short Neanderthal life to the age of 35 was probably what we were designed for.
Let’s say ghosts are real. Which historical figure would you want to haunt you?
Napoleon, or some other historical figure with a huge ego. Because you don’t want a mopey ghost. I’d quite like to meet John Keats, but I get the idea that his ghost would probably be very sad. Whereas, I imagine Napoleon’s would just be still raging and angry.
If you could buy any piece of art—no limits—what would you pick?
There’s a painting by Jackson Pollock called The Deep, which is not particularly like his other things. It’s almost like you’re looking through into a gap between two clouds into this sort of abyss, but it’s strangely beautiful.
Are you a wander-through-the-bookstore kind of guy or a buy-books-online kind of guy?
A wander-through-the-bookstore kind of guy, definitely. I went to the bookshop to buy my dad some stuff for his birthday the other day, and he got his books, but I got a lot more. I have this stupid rule that’s really an excuse to burn money, which is: if I ever see a book which I think that I might never see again, or if I’m suddenly interested in it, and I think “Oh well, I might never ever see this book again and be interested in it at the same time,” I just have to buy it then and there in the hope that one day I will get around to it or find something useful about it. I have bought a lot of books that I will never read that way.
Is there a book you think that everyone should read?
The Master and Margarita, definitely, by Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s imaginative, and hilarious, and magical in equal turns.
What are you reading right now?
Right now, I’m reading—I can’t believe I never read it before now—Slaughterhouse Five. Any kind of story where the author thinks, “Well, I can do whatever I like because I’m writing a book; I don’t have to be totally realistic; I can deal with this in as crazy a way as possible”—I enjoy that.
What’s the weirdest book on your bookshelf?
I had a book bought for me called The Cows, because my character in [The Cripple of Inishmaan], Billy, people talked about him staring at cows a lot. And there was this book written by a MacArthur Fellow [Lydia Davis]—obviously a serious writer, a really amazing writer. But she just wrote this very long prose poem about three cows outside her window. I won’t lie, I probably won’t read it cover to cover.
Do you have any rare books?
I’ve got a couple of first editions of poetry. I got a book of Rupert Brooke poems—he wrote the famous, “If I should die think only this of me; That there's some corner of a foreign field but it’s forever England.” I’ve got an old collection of Yeats as well. It’s not a first edition, but it’s just old and nice looking. There is something about—I know everyone talks about it, but that would be one of my most pleasant smells in the world, the smell of old books.
That was my next question! Old book smell: Awesome or gross?
Awesome, absolutely awesome. Do you know what causes that smell?
It’s volatile organic compounds—I think there are 15 or so of them that combine to make old book smell. I can’t pronounce any of them.
Because it is, it’s delightful.
It’s the greatest. What character from literature are you dying to play?
I would like to do the voice or motion capture of Behemoth the cat from The Master and Margarita.
What about a historical figure?
I joked about Napoleon’s ghost earlier, but I am vertically ideal for Napoleon, so ... I would like to do the Drunk History of Napoleon. I was watching Drunk History again the other night and I was like, that’s the context in which I would like to play him.
One historical figure that I’m desperate to play is Lee Atwater—it’s modern history—in a film called College Republicans, which I hope will happen at some point.
We're pizza-obsessed at mental_floss, so I've got to ask. What’s your perfect pizza?
Probably, like, pepperoni and chicken with a little bit of gorgonzola.
Celery: yes or no?
No. Absolutely not. Although you will find that answer with almost every vegetable with me. I did a cooking show not long ago—they were cooking around me, and I was just talking about the movie—but at one point I had to admit that to a room full of kids. I was like, “I know I’m maybe a role model for you at this stage, which is not something I ever set out to be, and you should totally all eat your vegetables, but I do not.”
What’s a childhood game you love, or game you’re just really good at?
Table tennis I love, and am good at. And it’s the only kind of hand-eye-coordination-involving thing that I am actually good at, so I will say it unashamedly. But a childhood game? Jenga was good. Scrabble was really big in my house—my grandmother was always amazing at it. She beat us for years and years and years, and I remember the first time I actually started to do well in a game with my family, that was the first time I was like, “OK, I must be getting smarter. I must be growing up.” There was also another game called Mouse Trap, which I loved as a kid. I can’t remember any of the rules of it, but I remember there were like obstacles around the course and it was moving, and I enjoyed that as a child.
Are there any skills you haven’t mastered that you would like to?
I’d love to be able to play an instrument; I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get to a point where I can. I’d also love to speak another language. Language has been a thing that I’ve been fascinated by because it tells you so much about a people and a culture. The stories of words and word meanings and pronunciations is generally the story of society. I’m learning a bit at the moment.
I’m trying to learn Japanese. Just to speak. There’s a film I hope to do called Tokyo Vice that has Japanese lines that my character speaks, and he’s supposed to be fairly fluent. I could just learn it totally phonetically, but I do want to have some idea of what I’m saying.
Japanese is very onomatopoeic. The word for wind is pyu pyu and if you want to upgrade that to a storm, you use gyu gyu. Hop is pyon pyon, and my favorite Japanese word is tokidoki, which means “sometimes” but it sounds like “hokey dokey.” There’s a thing you have to do in Japanese a lot which is quite fun—sometimes they'll take a modern Western word and just make it sound Japanese because they haven’t got a word for it for themselves. The word for granola bar is gar-a-nola bar, and McDonald’s is Mac-uh-Donna-roo-doh. I’ve got an amazing teacher, this guy called Shinsuke, and he’s great. I don’t know when I’ll get to use any of it, but I am enjoying it.
You’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of animals—cats, dogs, owls, and now a snake on Horns. Are you a cat guy, a dog guy, a snake guy?
I'm a dog guy, and I'm actually kind of a snake guy now. I ended up loving that snake on Horns. They’re really sweet after a while, especially because when they get cold, they just love your warm body—the colder they get, the more they kind of hang on to you. Princess Leia was the name of the snake in Horns— she got carried around in a Star Wars pillowcase—and she would do amazing things on camera that you couldn’t train a snake to do, like wrap around one of my horns [in the movie]. At that point I went “OK, Alex, I think she’s going to break the horn off.” The snake’s just trying to move, and you feel that power suddenly—like “OK, you can kill me if you wanted to.” I really enjoyed the snakes on Horns. They were almost like the ultimate prop. You don’t have to act menacing—you have a python around your neck.
You just look badass. The movie comes out on Halloween, so I have to ask: What was your best costume ever?
Halloween I would say is only just getting big in England, over the last 5 to 10 years. I’ve never been trick or treating in my life! I actually had a few good costumes, though. I was the King of fancy dress—that’s what we call it. "Fancy dress” is another good English phrase. When I was 7 years old, I ripped up an old Spider-man costume I had, found some fake nose piercings, sprayed my hair red, and went as Keith Flint, the drummer of Prodigy. When I was 14, I went to a Grease-themed party as David Bowie—I didn’t like the movie Grease at the time, so I was like, “I’ll be Bowie.” My friend was able to get me a lot of costumes that Jonathan Rhys Meyers wore in Velvet Goldmine. It was pretty awesome.
Also on the subject of Halloween: What kind of horror movies do you like watching?
I'm a fan of SyFy's movies and B-movie horror. Sharknado is Syfy’s most famous movie, but they've also got Megashark vs. Gatoroid. For proper horror films, The Shining is obviously a pretty great movie. But yeah, I'm much more into the beast movie thing, which is why I actually love [Horns director] Alexandre Aja's work. I was talking to him about Piranha 3D, and he was like, "I just wanted to make the bloodiest, sexiest version of a B-movie that I possibly could," and he did it. The number of ways that Alex had come up with for people to die in that movie? It's incredibly inventive. The death by motorboat propeller is my favorite—it's horrible. And what’s that other movie I haven't seen in awhile? ... Deep Blue Sea!
With the LL Cool J song!
[Rapping] "Deepest bluest my hat is like a shark fin." LL Cool J is actually really good in that movie. He's the best character in that movie—apart from like, Sam Jackson's best ever death scene.
In Harry Potter, you had a lightning scar on your forehead. For Frankenstein, which is out next year, you wore hair extensions, and for this movie, you wore horns. What’s more annoying to have applied?
One hundred percent hair extensions. The lightning scar, on the first two films, we essentially painted it on, and after that we used Pros-Aide, which was like a glue [to put it on]. It was very simple. The horns were basically on a wire cage, and we hid the metal under the hair and then blended in the front. But the hair extensions took 14 hours to put in across two days and were a nightmare to live with and wash for the five months I had them. They're supposed to take 4 to 5 hours to take out, but I think we did them in two because I was just ripping them out of my head.
You’re slated to play Washington Roebling in a movie about the Brooklyn Bridge, which must be pretty cool for a history buff. When you're preparing to play an actual person, do you research a lot?
Yeah, absolutely you have to—I would feel weird not doing that. One of the great things about playing someone who is real is that a lot of the work has generally been done for you. There are tons of Allen Ginsberg autobiographies that I could look at [to play the poet in Kill Your Darlings]; his diaries actually were the main thing I looked at. It's about reading as much about the man and the history and the period as you possibly can. It's also one of the fun parts of the job, learning about your character—particularly when it's a real person and you find out interesting bits of information and you think “Oh, maybe we can work that into the story.”
The story of the Roeblings and the Brooklyn Bridge—I really hope we to get to tell that story. It's an amazing American story, and a story about a marriage that was so different from what people expected of a marriage in that time. That's why I think it’s particularly an important story to tell: Emily [Roebling] for the first half of the script is very much the sort of doting wife in a period film, and then you see her build the bridge. The equality in their marriage and the way they needed each other, and were so open about needing each other, feels very rare—like a story we don't often hear about in that era. I have kind of fallen in love with New York and so to make something that feels like a love letter to America but also very specific to New York as well, and what New York is to America … I hope it happens. It'll be great. It's a fantastic script.
What’s your favorite karaoke song?
Anything by Eminem, genuinely. If everyone joins in on the chorus I’ll do “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” the Frankie Valli song, because the rest of the song is high, but the chorus is really high.
What songs would you include on the soundtrack to your life?
My favorite song ever, and I totally forgot how brilliant it is until I listened to it again the other day, is “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, and that would seamlessly obviously give way to “Can I Kick It” by A Tribe Called Quest because they sample it. And then there’s “Time For Heroes” by The Libertines, “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies, and “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” by Tom Lehrer. This could be such a long list I could keep going but I’ll stop there. Oh no, I won’t stop there: “EMI” by The Sex Pistols.
What, to you, is the most annoying sound in the world?
The sound of my own voice, specifically saying the words “you know.” It is my pause phrase, and instead of pausing—which I should just do—I say “you know,” even when I don’t know what I’m about to say! I’m sure there are more annoying sounds in the world, but that is the one that grates in my ear the most, and because I’m in a press tour at the moment, I’m hearing it a lot. I’m definitely at the point where I'm really starting to irritate myself.
Well they say that using phrases like that and "um" and "uh" actually helps people comprehend what you’re saying better. That is science.
[Laughs] That’s what I’m doing—I’m just making it easier for the rest of the people in the world to digest my massive thoughts!