Daniel Radcliffe has come to terms with the fact that no matter what roles he takes, no matter what projects he works on, he’s still likely to be best known for the rest of his life as the guy who played Harry Potter. But knowing what his legacy will look like has given him plenty of freedom to experiment, and he’s taken full advantage of that. Since the fantasy series wrapped, he’s routinely taken unpredictable and outright bizarre roles — from a farting corpse in Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man to a panicked gamer troll with guns nailed to his hands in Guns Akimbo.
In his latest movie, the lively, irreverent biopic parody Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, he plays parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic — or at least an over-the-top, often shirtless, occasionally murder-y version of Weird Al, a role that relied on him committing to the bit 10,000 percent. Immediately after the Harry Potter movies wrapped, Radcliffe focused on deeply dramatic roles that let him stake his claim as an adult actor, like his turn as an emotionally disintegrating young man in Peter Shaffer’s Equus on Broadway. But he says his heart was always more in comedy.
“Comedy is what I was most interested in when I was growing up, on my own time. That was most of what I was watching,” Radcliffe told Polygon in an interview ahead of Weird’s release. “It was mostly what I was watching growing up: The Day Today, and Brass Eye, and obviously The Office, and all the Steve Coogan stuff, I’m Alan Partridge and all that. Those were the things I was watching all the time. I’m fine and happy in dramatic roles, but […] I wanted to do comedy.”
He got an early, rare chance to play a comedic role in 2006, on Ricky Gervais’ series Extras. In a show full of real celebrities playing horrendous, hilarious self-parody characters, he’s a highlight as a naive, sex-obsessed version of himself who spends most of his on-screen time awkwardly hitting on women and trying to convince everyone he isn’t a virgin. But he tells Polygon that the Extras cameo wasn’t enough of a resume to get him comedy roles: “I had given nobody any reason to think I could do that. And then I did the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. And that was a big starting point, in terms of getting to do comedy live on stage every night, in front of an audience.”
Radcliffe laughs out loud when he suggests that starring in a massive Broadway revival musical is a useful tool for a would-be comedian: “This is a lucky, very privileged thing to say, but if you can learn comedy that way, great!” he says. “You know, doing a big show in front of a lot of people, and getting to refine it again and again and again, to find out what works and what doesn’t, that was really exciting. There’s a quality-of-life issue as well. It’s just very nice when you work on comedies, generally speaking. So I’ve been doing a lot of it in the last few years.”
While he may never give up drama, he suggests that the lure of comedy is stronger, and that escaping it may take some willpower: “I may have to have a talk with myself soon about not just being able to do this for the rest of my life.”
“Getting into comedy has made me a better actor all round. I think that’s definitely true.”
Ironically, he feels his contribution to making Weird a hilarious movie is playing his role as straight-faced and uncomedically as possible. Part of that did involve studying Yankovic, but not with the kind of obsessive focus some actors bring to playing real-life figures. “I was obviously watching lots of videos and listening to his songs,” Radcliffe says, “but at a certain point — it was only really useful to study Real Al for the first third to half of the movie. After that, he really became less of a resource, like when I’m killing people.”
Radcliffe was a “Weird Al” fan before he was cast in the movie. He says he was familiar with the parodist through some of his bigger hits, like “White & Nerdy” and “Amish Paradise,” but that as he listened to more of Yankovic’s work, the song he most connected with was the Robin Thicke parody “Word Crimes.” “Which I loved, because I can be quite peevish about certain things in grammar. Particularly ‘I could care less.’ Which — [incoherent exasperation noise].”
Radcliffe says his girlfriend, actor Erin Darke, was the one who “truly brought me into the fold” of Yankovic fandom, and now he’d have a hard time picking out the songs he attaches to most. “It’s just all of it,” he says. “There’s a constantly rotating chorus of what my favorite song might be from one moment to another. And this film was a lovely excuse to just listen to ‘Weird Al’ all the time.”
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story debuts on the Roku Channel on Nov. 4.