Daniel Radcliffe on Space Travel, Russian Literature, and Napoleon

dale may
dale may

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 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.

Photograph by Dale May

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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.

Which language?
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!

James Monroe Iglehart on Hamilton, Karaoke, and His Favorite Books

Courtesy of Hamilton on Broadway.
Courtesy of Hamilton on Broadway.

James Monroe Iglehart is Mental Floss’s kind of person: He loves books, collects toys, enjoys classic cartoons, and is a fan of all things feline. The actor says his two cats, Hissy and Zoe, are queens of the apartment he shares with his wife Dawn. Zoe, for example, won’t drink tap water, because when she was young, Iglehart gave her cold bottled water every day. “Fast forward 14 years,” he says, “and this is how the cat owns us: I have to put water [from the Brita pitcher] into the bottle, put the cap on. Walk in front of the damn cat, open up the bottle of water so she can see it. And then she’ll be like ‘Oh, now I can drink it.’ Boss of the house. Total queen.” You can tell by the way he's laughing that he's totally fine with that fact.

Of course, cats weren’t all we talked about with Iglehart. After three years playing the Genie in Broadway's Aladdin, he took over the dual roles of Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton last month. Iglehart spoke to Mental Floss about researching the men behind the characters, his dream Broadway roles, and how karaoke changed his life.

How did you get involved in Hamilton?

I have known [creator] Lin-Manuel Miranda, [director] Tommy Kail, [music director] Alex Lacamoire, and [choreographer] Andy Blankenbuehler for many years. I’m part of a group called Freestyle Love Supreme with Lin, Chris Jackson [the original George Washington], and Daveed Diggs [the original Lafayette/Jefferson], and Tommy is the director.

When Lin and those guys were in In the Heights, I went over to the Richard Rodgers Theatre and said, “What you working on?” Lin said, “A mixtape about the life of Alexander Hamilton.” I was like, “Oh, cool … Why would you do that?” and he broke it down, like, he’s got all these beats for all these forefathers, and it would be really cool to make them like rap battles, like Biggie and Pac. And I was like, “Actually that sounds pretty cool. I’m always ready to get myself into something. If you need a brother let me know.” He said, “Yeah, I’ll let you know.”

A couple of years later we do this concert at Lincoln Center and I get a call, and he says, “I wrote this part Hercules Mulligan to be like Busta, and I want you to do it.” Half of the concert was showing Lin’s love of hip-hop and the other half was showing this new project, The Hamilton Mixtape. That same night [director and choreographer] Casey Nicholaw was in the audience and said, “Hey, we’re starting Aladdin again.” And I went off to do Aladdin because that was the job, and I had this dream, and I wanted to do it.

I watched Hamilton blow up to this juggernaut thing, and three years in they called and said, “Hey, you’ve been with Aladdin for a while. What do you think about stepping back into the Hamilton family?” and I was like, “That sounds like fun.”

I auditioned with “Guns and Ships,” “Washington On Your Side,” “Dear Theodosia,” and “Alexander Hamilton.” They gave me a stack of music to learn in a week, and I quickly learned it and walked in and did it. And that’s how it happened.

How did you prep for the role? Did you look into the lives of Jefferson and Lafayette at all?

I did a little bit of research. I Googled the Marquis de Lafayette, because he’s the one I really didn’t know about. He was 19, and he asked the French to send him to America. He was badass in France. For him to come over here and to have people go, “Yeah, whatever.” Franklin went, “No, this dude is someone you should look at.” And when he saw Franklin’s name on it, Washington was like, “You’re with me.”

I also did some studying on Thomas Jefferson. What I think is great about Thomas Jefferson is the fact that he just didn’t want to be involved in anything. He’s like, “If I can just stay here on my farm and kick it I will. Wait, you need me to come in? OK, fine.” You just assume that every one of our forefathers wanted to get this country going. Some of them were just like, “Come on, England ain’t bad. Do we really have to fight?”

It’s funny. Thomas Jefferson is known for this one written thing, and of course the Louisiana Purchase. But when it comes to writing, being prolific, Hamilton’s got him beat.

It’s literally like—this is going to get me killed—there’s a Michael Jackson album and then there’s that vault that Prince has. So Michael has Thriller, yes, wonderful. But Prince is like, “Yeah, but I got 15,000 albums in here, and you’ve only heard 100 of them. And each one of my albums may not be a number one hit, but each one is a damn classic. My musicianship has influenced rockers, not just R&B people.”

It’s very similar to Thomas Jefferson. Tom comes in with this attitude of like, “Yo, I wrote this paper. I’m the baddest man in the world,” and Hamilton is like, “Man, I’ve built a financial empire. Don’t start with me.”

It was fun studying these guys, and seeing the realness of it, and trying to bring a little bit of that swagger in a short amount of time. Because you could make a musical about Burr, about Lafayette, about Jefferson. But how do you bring that kind of swagger into this, especially after Daveed has created such a great moment—what do you do? So I said, OK, let me bring a little bit of my swagger with what I know, and see what happens. And so far, so good.

What has been like the hardest part of it to master? The French accent?

The French accent is not the hardest, it’s not the speed of the lyrics, it’s not the show—it is the stairs. There are stairs going up, and then there are stairs going down. And there’s stairs going down onstage, stairs going off. What you don’t see are the two sets of stairs behind. So my first act as Marquis de Lafayette, I walk up the steps, I walk down the back steps, I dip the jacket, walk back on, walk up the steps again, walk down the steps. There’s one song I walk up the steps four times. Between “Helpless” and “Satisfied” I walk up the steps six times, because we have to rewind. My calves were like, “What are you doing?”

I mean, I did a cartwheel eight times a week and tap danced in Aladdin. But on this show, I cussed—I was like, “What’s up with this Stairmaster show you guys built?” I said, “I understand why everybody looks the way they do in this show. It ain’t got nothing to do with the dancing, it’s the damn steps.”

Who do you like playing better?

I love the Marquis de Lafayette, but I love Thomas Jefferson. What’s funny is, it’s a history story so there aren’t any heroes and there aren’t any villains. But when you’re building a musical, you have to have a hero. Hamilton is the hero. And if he has an arch-nemesis, in my opinion it isn’t Burr—it’s Thomas Jefferson. Because Burr is kind of an afterthought to both Thomas Jefferson and to Hamilton, and that’s what pisses Burr off.

I get to play all the good guys all the time. It's fun to play a guy who’s, quote unquote, “the villain of the story.” I get to just come at Hamilton and needle him the whole second act, and it’s just so wonderful. I’ve gotten to do it with all the different Hamiltons, and I find different ways to get on their nerves. And I know I’m going to lose, and because I know I’m going to lose it’s that much more fun to just do sh** to them.

To get to do a song like “What’d I Miss?” every night—it’s a fantastic introduction. You don’t see Jefferson the whole first act. And the beginning of the second act is all about him. I’m the only one in this bright-ass color, I get to walk down the steps. And because they know I move well they gave my Jefferson a few dance steps that Daveed didn’t do. So I’m sliding, and turning, and doing a bunch of other stuff, which pisses Hamilton off even more. So when the guys playing Hamilton see me doing all this stuff, they’re all like, “Oh, now we have to attack.” And so I’m enjoying Thomas that much more.

Do you have a favorite song? For me, it’s “Wait for It.”

I love “Wait for It,” but my tune was—it wasn’t the whole tune. There’s one moment in “Washington on Your Side” that I could play on repeat over and over again. It’s where they say, “We won’t be invisible / We won’t be denied / Still…” That still, I could play that over and over and over again. I love singing that, because you’re in harmony, harmony, harmony, harmony … and all of a sudden, one note.

It is just—it’s terrible to use this cliché, but it’s just music to my ears. It feels so damned good in your earphones to hear, “... Still …” When I sat through the first time at the opening, I was like, “Lin, I hate you so much for that moment, it’s so cool.” Because there was no reason for them to do that. It was awesome.

Now we’ve come to the portion of the interview where I ask questions that have nothing to do with anything you’re promoting—they’re just fun. First: I hear you have quite the toy collection. Which toy is your favorite?

My favorite is going to be one that most people don’t think is going to be my favorite, because I’m a huge Batman fan. But my favorite toys are Tomax and Xamot, the brothers in GI Joe. And they are my favorite because—and this will be the last time I tell the story—when I was a kid I had them. We were on our way to Florida, and my father told me to share them with my little brother, and I said, “Dad, if I give him this he’s going to lose it.”

And sometimes parents just don’t want to argue. He said, “Stop being stingy, just play with your brother.” So I let him hold one of the action figures. We’re young kids on a plane, so of course we fell asleep. We get off the plane—my brother’s asleep—get in a cab, and go to the hotel, and I ask my brother, “Yo, where’s the other twin?” “I don’t know.” He’s got an attitude. I look at my dad: “Hey, where’s the twin?” “Son, I don’t know, your brother has it.” I search through my brother’s bag, and this fool has left the damn thing on the plane!

I’m 11 years old, and I look at my dad. I know you can’t look at a parent and go, “Hey, I told you so.” So it was either: Do I get smacked in the face for telling my father he was wrong, or do I just hold this grudge for 20 years? Guess which one I did. [laughs]

I told this story at every single cookout for 20 years. And my best friend finally found a reprint of the damn twins, and he told me, “Here’s the twins. Don’t ever tell that story again.” I put them up in my house, they are my favorite toy, and to this day my brother, who is almost 40, is not allowed to touch them.

XAMOT & TOMAX GI Joe action figures.
XAMOT & TOMAX GI Joe action figures.

Image courtesy of Ebay.

Is there one toy that you want that you don’t have that you’re on the hunt for?

I collect African American action figures, so whenever I see one I’m always trying to collect one. I’m currently looking for a certain Static Shock from DC. And I like to collect African American professional wrestlers, when new ones come out, so I’ve got many. There’s not a toy that I don’t have—all the ones I’ve always wanted, I’ve always found and got. So now it’s about finding new things.

There’s certain people who—and I always stay away from these people—they can’t wait to be an adult. You hear them talk about it as kids. “I can’t wait to be an adult.” I loved being a kid. And being an actor, having that childlike personality helps. I think in the world of entertainment, you have to keep that kid-like quality or you’re just going to choke somebody. You meet too many a**holes, so you have to keep that kid in you that goes, “It’s fun,” so you don’t blow somebody up. The toy thing kind of helps.

If you could only listen to one soundtrack of a musical for the rest of your life, which one would it be?

That is hard. It breaks down to these four: Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, Little Shop of Horrors, or The Music Man. … I don’t know every song on Music Man, so Music Man has to go. So it leaves Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney, and Dreamgirls.

[long pause]

One for the rest of my life, for the rest of my life ... Little Shop of Horrors, that has to go.

Dreamgirls or Sweeney Todd, for the rest of my life ... 


It’s probably going to be Sweeney Todd. I love Dreamgirls, I do. But Sweeney Todd is my favorite all-time musical. What I love about it is how it makes you root for a guy who’s doing something absolutely horrendous. He’s killing people. These people don’t know Sweeney. They went upstairs for a shave, and he’s killing them! And you’re like, “That’s great, he’s going to get the judge one day!” It doesn’t hit you that what he’s doing is wrong until he looks down and sees it’s Lucy. And then you go, “Holy crap, he killed his wife!” That’s where everything seems to snap. It’s one of the greatest moments, because it happens to everyone who sees it.

Trust me, if I could keep four soundtracks with me, those would be the four. But if I only could have one, Sweeney Todd would be the one.

Sweeney is so good. But you know what’s a very good karaoke song is “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop.

Karaoke is actually how I got my confidence up in college. When you got to college you realized how good you weren’t, because all of a sudden you weren’t the big fish in the high school choir anymore. You were there with some people who had skills and you were like, “Oh my God, I have to do something.” Then a friend of mine sent me to karaoke.

I thought it was the dumbest thing ever. All of a sudden, this little Latin dude gets up and starts singing Al Green, and he sounded just like Al Green. And I was like, “Who the hell are you, and how do you do that?” And he’s like, “I go to karaoke every week. You should come by, you sing really well.” So every Saturday for a year I would travel to wherever he was and do it.

I got my propers in, because when you’re singing with a bunch of drunk people, no one’s judging you, so you just start experimenting. So I started riffing, hitting high notes, going low. And when I got back to the musical season I went in to audition, and they were like, “What happened to your voice?” I was like, “I’m not going to lie to you, I did karaoke.” They thought I was joking, but getting up and singing in front of different people every single night got me ready for this type of life.

Karaoke changed your life!

Karaoke changed my life, no joke. That’s the honest to God truth.

I love that. OK, here’s another tough one. If you could only read one comic for the rest of your life, which one is it?

Honestly, I can’t make a choice. But if I’m going to make a choice, it’s always the first one you can think of. There’s a comic book called Mad Love. It’s basically the behind-the-scenes story of Harley Quinn. I have it in my Hamilton dressing room—it travels with me. She is one of the coolest characters ever created in the Batman universe.

Here’s a controversial question that’s been in the news a lot lately. Pineapple on pizza: yes or no?

For my wife, yes. For me, every now and then, but not really. My wife's favorite pizza is—I probably shouldn’t say this—is a grilled chicken and cheese and pineapple pizza.

I always find it funny when people get upset about what people eat. You say, “I’ll have pineapple on my pizza,” and here’s some dude who goes, “That’s not pizza.” First of all, I don’t live with you. Two, why does your opinion about what I eat matter? Why can’t we both have a meal without you telling me that you don’t like that I’m eating? You don’t get to be the judge of pizza.

What’s your favorite book?

Wow, that’s hard, too. I love all the Harry Potter books. I am a huge, huge fan of Laurell K. Hamilton—she writes the Anita Blake novels. I love that woman.

But there’s a book that I’ve read over and over and over again. It’s inspirational, it’s a cautionary tale, and it’s an autobiography. It is Pryor Convictions by Richard Pryor. He’s my favorite comic, and he is absolutely fearless in this book. He tells it from two sides: Mudbone, this famous character he created, kind of narrates the beginning of each chapter, then [Pryor] tells the rest of the story. And he did some horrible, crazy, terrible, nutty things.

What ended up killing him had nothing to do with drugs, nothing to do with womanizing, nothing to do with drinking—he got MS. Here’s a man who was the fastest talker, fastest mind in comedy, and his body decides to go off on him, and that’s what did him in. And he writes about that in the book. There’s this voice, he thinks it’s Death, is chasing him the whole book. At the end, he goes: I’m a comedian, the biggest joke was on me.

Of all the books that I’ve read—and I have read the Harry Potter set at least 12, 14 times—I’ve read Pryor Convictions at least, I kid you not, 30 times.

My favorite Harry Potter is six. Which one is yours?

Prisoner of Azkaban. I love the fact that Voldemort wasn’t the villain, technically. And I also love the great twist of Peter Pettigrew, I love [Harry] finding out where the Marauder’s Map comes from, I love the character of Mooney. And I love that Sirius Black loves Harry so much. But also because of when he was caught and when he was put in Azkaban, he never fully grew up—so through the rest of the series you see this guy who’s still trying to relive the days of being in the Order of the Phoenix, being with James and the Marauders, and that’s not what life is right now. I fell in love with Sirius Black. I have a Sirius Black wand, I have a Snape wand, I have my own wand, and I have Lucius Malfoy’s wand complete with cane.

Last question! What’s your dream role?

There are two on Broadway: Harold Hill from The Music Man and Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas. I sang Oogie Boogie’s song to Danny Elfman at D23, and I had so much fun. It would also be the best gig on Broadway, because I would get the most applause for doing less work than anybody else! Watch that movie. Oogie Boogie is there three times, and he’s got the best song in the whole damn thing.

Harold Hill I have loved since I was a kid. It’s something about the way Robert Preston played that part. The arrogance to walk into a town that someone has told you doesn’t want you there. And you know you’re into the town with a lie to take these people’s money. I love it.

And then he says—and I used to say this when I was a kid—“I don’t want the girl who is the pure and innocent female.” I always wanted the girl who’s had a life, because she’s the one that’s going to be the most interesting. My wife is like that. My wife had a life, and she’s the most brilliant female I’ve ever met. And in Music Man, Harold Hill sings “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” and he’s like, “I want the girl who’s lived a little bit so we actually have something to talk about.” So when I saw the character in my teenage years—my teacher showed it to us in an English class for some reason—I was like, “That’s the part.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Sandra Lee, a.k.a. Dr. Pimple Popper, on the Appeal of Blackhead Videos

Dr. Sandra Lee
Dr. Sandra Lee

Confession: The editors of Mental Floss are popaholics. When we need a break from editing, you can often find us watching Dr. Sandra Lee’s videos on YouTube. Lee—otherwise known as Dr. Pimple Popper—has more than 2.5 million subscribers; her channel features everything from soft pops (blackheads) and hard pops (cysts) to Mohs surgery, rhinophyma treatment, and earlobe repairs. In other words, there’s something for everyone. Lee stopped by the Mental Floss offices in late April to talk about developing her new skincare line, choosing videos for her channel, and why people love watching blackheads being popped.

Your channel started with mostly blackheads, and now you post a wide variety of videos, showing many of the different things that dermatologists do. How do you decide what you put on YouTube?

I put up almost everything that I tape. Most days I [film] at least one video but some days I get five, so I probably have about 30 days of content backed up. I try to put one video up every day. Let’s see how long this lasts, because I see all these vlogs dropping off. There was the time when you saw all these other people [posting daily] and you’re like “OK, I can do that, too.” And they’re all dropping off and I’m like, “They’re all leaving. Can I still do this, too?”

It seems like a lot of work.

It is a lot of work, but that’s why we have a team working on it. I have a little bit of a problem letting go because I feel like it’s my responsibility. They're my patients, and I try to keep them private and anonymous. If [the team leaves] something in accidentally, then I’ll feel really bad. But it's harder and harder to [do every video].

Initially, [the stuff on YouTube was] such a small percentage of what I did as a dermatologist. I say did because now, all my surgeries are cysts and lipomas. Before, I would do lipomas once a year, I’d say. Now I’m doing it on the daily. I didn’t really know how to do them that well, and now I’m a freaking expert. Now I know, “OK, they’ve been pushing on this one. This one’s going to be a pain.” That kind of thing.

The [most] highly viewed things are blackheads, which I’m getting less of now because of the fact that all these cysts and lipomas are coming in. The blackheads are usually the older gentlemen and women who don’t even know they have that huge thing on their back, so I recruit my other providers. I’m like, “You better bring me those blackheads you have!”

I try to throw in some of the things that I really do because there’s a lot of people that watch the videos and want to do what I do, and [extracting blackheads and cysts is] not exactly what I do. I guess I’m a surgeon, but that’s not what all dermatologists do. People will go, “Why are you doing this? I go to see my doctor and they won’t do any of this.” Some dermatologists won’t take a mole off on the face because it’s considered more cosmetic, but that’s just my training. That’s my bend, and I do a lot of cosmetics, too: liposuction, laser resurfacing, eye lifts, skin cancer surgery, Botox, and fillers. But I don’t really show that. There are other people [on YouTube] that show that and so sometimes I consider doing that, too. It’s just a different kind of clientele, and they’re more self-conscious.

So, I watch your extraction videos before I go to sleep. Last night I was like, “I need to prepare for this interview, and I also need to relax.”

You were actually doing research.

Yes, I was! But a lot of people find these videos satisfying and relaxing. Why do you think people like these kinds of videos?

I think it’s a strong reaction either way. Usually, people are either really obsessed with it like you are. It captivates you. And then there’s the opposite, people who cannot even stand it.

I really think that people like this because, in general, it makes them happy, for multiple reasons. Either it relaxes you, decreases your anxiety as you feel a sense of completeness. It gets rid of your compulsions. It’s like something is not there anymore that isn’t supposed to be there. It’s this ASMRYou got me addicted to these videos, so now I watch you and several others. And some of these people use needles instead of a comedone extractor to extract blackheads. What’s up with that?

I don’t know for sure, but I do believe it’s because of the different rules [that vary by state]. Aestheticians in some states can’t use a comedone extractor. They can’t use a blade. They don’t have access to numbing. Things like that. So it has to do a lot with rules.

[Some people also believe] the comedone extractor is damaging to the skin. That is B.S., but I’m not even going to start the conversation. People have different techniques, though, [and] these people find those to be superior.

It just seems like using a needle to get out blackheads must be so painful! Speaking of, here’s a fun fact: Back in the day, like in the 1600s and 1700s, people thought that blackheads were little worms in the face.

There are bugs on the face that live with us, you know. The Demodex mite lives on our face. That’s what we believe promotes rosacea. And I don’t think that it’s completely convincing, but there have been multiple studies finding that people with rosacea have more of these mites that live on their face or they react more to them and that’s why they get red, but there’s a lot more people with Celtic descent, so …

That's going to give me nightmares! So, you just started a new skin care line, SLMD. What was the inspiration behind it?

This is something that I’ve always wanted to do, but lots of dermatologists do it. I had ideas on how to do it differently—but also, now that I have this channel, I have all these people asking me about how to take care of their own skin. I know that they trust me, and it’s important for me to maintain that trust, so I’m trying to create things that essentially bridge the gap. This is really for people who can’t see a dermatologist or don’t have the time. Their parents won’t take them. They don’t have insurance for it. These are products that I myself would give to my own patients. In a way, my videos work with this too because I want to teach people why some of these products work and what they work on specifically.

Retinol works specifically on blackheads and whiteheads. It can help to prevent them and help to soften them up to make them more easy to extract, a la the Masked Man. You hear me talking about that with that kind of thing in the videos—we cannot give Tretinoin [in these products] because it’s a prescription, but I have retinol in the Nighttime Clarifying Treatment. It’s good if you get acne hormonally. People can even use this half of the month when they feel like it gets active, but you can use it all the time. In fact, I would use the retinol all the time because it’s anti-aging.

So if you learn and you understand what the reason is [for using a product]—that Benzoyl peroxide works because it’s anti-bacterial, so that’s used if you have more active acne like the red bumps. Or that salicylic acid is great because it can help to prevent blackheads and whiteheads but also helps to lighten brown spots. If you know those things, maybe it motivates you to use it, and also you can even try to change the way you use it. If you feel like it’s too drying, it’s probably the Benzoyl peroxide, and so you’ll leave that off it and won't use that as often.

There are so many products in dermatology that are given for one purpose that can also be used for other skin conditions, and people just don’t know. So this is what we’re trying to bring to people, because I can’t give them a prescription, but if somebody doesn’t know what this rash is on them and they have to see a dermatologist, and they don’t have time and they don’t have the money, they’re fretting. If I can help them to figure out what this is and then actually tell them about something that is over-the-counter to use, then that’s amazing.

So how can people get their hands on this?

It’s all on SLMD Skin Care. And this is just the beginning. An acne line is the first thing that makes sense, but it’s going to hopefully be even bigger.

The basic kit is the SLMD Acne System. It has four products in it. It’s very simple, just three steps: treat, cleanse, and moisturize. There’s a cleanser, which is salicylic acid. It’s not really drying—people can even keep it on their skin. You can literally put it on and leave it on and do other things in your house and then go take a shower and wash it off. And then "treat" is two parts: It’s a Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Lotion, which is the one that can be potentially drying—though most people are oily when they have acne—and then the Nighttime Clarifying Treatment, which has retinol. And then there’s a facial moisturizer, which has some anti-aging vitamin C and antioxidants.

Our other products include daily moisturizer with SPF 15. I do get questions about why it’s not SPF 30, and that’s purposeful. It’s because the higher SPF, the thicker the product. It’s avobenzone, which is a great sunscreen, but it’s not going to give you that whitish look, because [when] we already have acne, we don’t want to blow it up with white powder over it. We also have a Benzoyl peroxide spot treatment and a Pimple Popper Spot Treatment that’s a roller ball, which I really like because it’s salicylic acid—you can roll it across areas that are brown from acne, and it can make those spots go away more quickly.

That’s what we’ve got right now. We’re adding some things to it, too—we have a couple acne products coming up. But there are things in here that you can use even if you don’t have acne. Like I said, the retinol. The salicylic acid—great for brown spots as well. And the sunscreen, certainly.

Yeah. I think any kind of product that has multiple things in it—that can be used for multiple purposes—is really nice.

Especially because 50 percent of people—even though women pay attention to this more, plenty of boys and men get acne, and to make it simple for them, too, is key.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.