Daniel Radcliffe is wearing the standard rehearsal outfit of T-shirt, black jeans and trainers. ‘Ah, this is for The Spectator. I probably shouldn’t have worn my fake Che Guevara T-shirt.’ It’s the classic Guevara image with a cartoon smiley face substituted. ‘I bought it because I’m so sick of people using him as a fashion icon.’ Radcliffe is 5ft 5in and his head looks slightly big on his body. But it’s the big pale blue eyes that you notice. Under dark, chaotic eyebrows, they give him an air of innocent frankness before he’s said anything.
Being cast as Harry Potter aged 11 and spending his teenage years as the lead in the highest-grossing film franchise of all time could have turned his head, but Radcliffe is modest. He’s reported to be worth more than £50 million but he’s got a keen sense of self-mockery and he’s really good company. Occasionally he remembers he’s famous and stops himself saying too much about his political convictions or his romantic life. ‘I used to think it was better to be very open,’ he says. ‘Now I realise the more you put out there, the more people speculate.’
When I ask about his decision to give up alcohol at the age of 21, he looks pained, less by the memory of it, it seems, than because he has to be impolite. ‘I’m going to have to ask if we can move on,’ he pleads, then he can’t bear it: ‘No, ask me anyway.’ He answers shyly, as if worried his answer might sound boastful: ‘I think it’s just an awareness that I have a chance to have a really good career.’ He must have been asked about this dozens of times, but he really thinks hard, looking out of the window for inspiration, using his hands to grope towards the idea he wants to express. ‘It’s part of the growing-up process, about learning what’s important to you and learning to make your life angle towards those things.’ Drat: no orgies or self-defecation, then. He admitted at the time to having been drunk during filming for Harry Potter, which was when he realised things had ‘spiralled out of control’. The details he’s let slip so far are not the kind most 20-year-olds would worry about.
In any case, his approach seems to be working. Radcliffe, who’s nearly 24, is building up an impressive CV. He’s done horror (The Woman in Black) and he’s got forthcoming roles as the beat poet Allen Ginsberg as well as lead appearances in the comedy The F Word, in Horns (he grows horns) and as the American reporter Jake Adelstein in Tokyo Vice. Suddenly everyone’s taking him seriously. He’s determined not to take himself too seriously, though. The PR person is absent from the room throughout the interview at the Jerwood Space in London, where he’s rehearsing for his new play The Cripple of Inishmaan, and Radcliffe never tries to steer the conversation his way. After a moment of self-consciousness, he’s happy to leap up and do his limp and then to recite the Yeats poem he’s learnt to perfect his Irish accent. He’s grateful when I compliment him on it: ‘That makes me so happy. I’m going to go back in there full of -confidence.’
Radcliffe is so keen to avoid pretentiousness that he would hesitate to take on some accents. ‘I don’t want to say I’ll never play someone with a cockney accent,’ he says, ‘but I think I would be irritated by me doing it.’ He remembers people at school ‘trying to pretend to be rougher or readier than they were… It’s a lot more embarrassing to pretend to be something you’re not than to accept the slight idiosyncrasies of your class.’
Having left school at 17, Radcliffe ‘never wanted to stop learning’. He says he had an advantage in spending a lot of his education being taught one on one: ‘You can go off on tangents. It created a curiosity and a love of the process of learning.’ He treats every acting job as an opportunity to learn something — as well as Yeats and Irish pronunciation, he’s learnt a lot about cerebral palsy for the new play; he took up dancing for his Broadway appearance in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and he’s planning to learn Japanese in preparation for his turn as Adelstein. Off stage, Radcliffe ‘loses hours’ on the Ted talks website and reads deeply into subjects. ‘I am a frighteningly thorough person,’ he says. His latest craze has been A.J. Jacobs’s A Year of Living Biblically, and now he’s excited about a book about what happens to the body after death: ‘That’s the kind of weird stuff that appeals to me.’ But he’s also a news junkie and spends a surprising amount of time watching BBC Parliament. Having read Noam Chomsky’s Media Control (‘This will confirm me as a leftie, but I’d recommend it to everyone’), he worries a lot about what’s not reported, about gay marriage (‘We just need to get on the right side of history now and legalise it and move on’), about gun control in America and about the parties that followed Thatcher’s death (‘I saw people using a woman’s death as an excuse to have a party. That’s never OK’).
Radcliffe seems to revel in information. With every point he makes, he adds in an anecdote or a surprising fact or quote. On gun control, he quotes Eddie Izzard; on gay marriage, he points out that it’s legal in some American states. ‘Do we want to be less progressive than them? I have a perception of England as being pioneers of doing the right thing. One of the most fantastic stories I ever heard was when the American GIs were here during the second world war, they’d go into pubs and pick fights with black people and the English soldiers would stand up for the black people.’
Last year, Radcliffe publicly switched his allegiance from the Liberal Democrats to Labour. Remembering tabloid headlines about Dan and Red Ed, he becomes cautious when asked to be specific about politics. ‘They’re all quite uninspiring, the politicians at the heads of all the parties,’ he says. ‘My parents are left-wing, and I would describe myself as that. But also you know what? I wouldn’t describe myself as that. Because I don’t have to. Because I’m not a political party. Most people are a little bit of each and we change our mind on various issues.’ It’s a transparent dodge — charmingly transparent.