TORONTO – Daniel Radcliffe maintains a boundless youthful energy even as he slogs through monotonous press days, endless travel, and all-night movie shoots. And he says he owes it to one magic potion: diet cola.
The “Harry Potter” star admits he has a near-religious devotion to the stuff, but the key to stepping into the sombre lead role in his new horror film “The Woman in Black” was to dampen his kinetic soda-induced spirit.
“I run on a huge amount of Diet Coke,” the friendly 22-year-old said during an interview Friday in Toronto.
“I’m aware that I have this very excitable (personality) — somebody said ‘almost puppy-like energy’ about me the other day, and thank you very much for THAT, by the way. So part of the challenge was that (director) James (Watkins) said: ‘We’re going to take the fizz out of the bottle of Diet Coke.’ It’s about letting it go flat.
“(My character) is somebody who’s just been emotionally paralyzed, so you don’t want people to describe him as bubbly — or puppy-like, indeed. So that’s something I worked quite hard on, to kind of deaden my own natural energy.”
But the actor’s indefatigable verve was on full display during a whirlwind whisk through Toronto this week, his first-ever visit to Canada in general (“Everyone here has just been so unbelievably friendly and welcoming and great,” he gushed).
Clad in a black sweater, grey jeans and high-top sneakers, with a tall glass of, yes, Diet Coke positioned next to him, the British actor betrayed no ill effects of the exhaustive press tour he was undertaking.
His enthusiasm for “The Woman in Black,” opening on Feb. 3, was obvious as he discussed the first film project he’s taken on since wrapping the eight-movie wizardry saga with last year’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.”
He portrays Arthur Kipps, a widowed young father and lawyer who travels to a remote, fog-dusted village to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman who lived alone in seclusion. Ignoring the advice of spooked locals — not to mention the common logic possessed by any horror-movie buff — Kipps ventures into her foreboding house alone, and soon encounters a scornful ghost bent on avenging past injustices by claiming the lives of local children.
Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novella (which was later turned into a popular theatrical production), “The Woman in Black” is a haunted house of carefully tuned suspense, sinister imagery and make-you-jump red herrings. But the worst is only implied, and the dearth of gore appealed to Radcliffe, who admits he isn’t typically a fan of horror films.
“Of course, if you’re putting graphic, disturbing images onscreen, I’m going to be upset by them. But you know, to me there’s not a huge amount of artistry in that,” he said.
“It’s sort of like shooting fish in a barrel. Anyone can scare people that way.”
Radcliffe was drawn to the project because of the depth of its characterizations — a rare feature in horror films, he says. In the movie, a pall hangs over Kipps as he continues to struggle with the death of his wife, which occurs during the birth of their first child.
Before filming the role, Radcliffe says he spoke to friends who had endured bouts of depression, and tried to replicate the feeling of physical exhaustion that accompanied those dark periods.
“That was a lot of fun to play a character so different,” he said. “Playing Harry, a lot of it is shown and it’s very expressive … with Arthur, it’s really about the withheld, restrained (side).
“He’s unable to be a participant in his life.”
The film also demanded that the young Radcliffe locate a paternal instinct, as he portrayed a father for the first time. But the role was filled by a familiar face, little Misha Handley, who is Radcliffe’s real-life god son.
“I was very protective of him and I was very worried, because I put him up for the part, obviously,” said Radcliffe, who has noted that his long-time girlfriend Rosie Coker had to stand in for the titular woman in one scene.
“His first day of filming was a night shoot on a cold train platform…. We shot from 6:30 in the evening to 10:30 at night. Misha didn’t even know that 10:30 at night existed. So at a certain point, it doesn’t matter how many iPad games or sweets you offer him, he’s just shutting down and does not want to play anymore.
“But he actually did really well.”
Of course, Radcliffe had the benefit of his own experiences as a child actor to offer. He was only 11 when he filmed the inaugural Potter film, and has been a fixture in the industry since.
But in recent years, he’s worked hard to diversify his resume. He received enthusiastic praise for his lead performance in the Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and more recently took on the terrifying task of hosting “Saturday Night Live.”
And he says he’ll continue to try to push his boundaries as a performer post-“Potter.”
“I think I have an awareness that I’ve never trained, and maybe that speaks to a certain inferiority complex that I have … but I plan to make up for that in the years ahead just by diligence and hard work,” he said, noting that he’s still working with outside vocal coaches between roles.
“In the times between jobs, you refine yourself and learn how you can make improvements.”
That ambition is accompanied by his habit of persistent self-deprecation.
The actor has long been publicly critical of his own performances and weaknesses as an actor, and while one might think that would change as he’s become more seasoned through the years, Radcliffe says he’s as tough on himself as ever.
“It’s gotten much worse. In the last year or so, I’ve just been veering wildly between feelings of self-doubt and triumph. It changes daily,” he said.
“It’s also a bizarre thing at the moment because this film was made over a year ago, so I watch it and go: ‘God. I’ve come on a lot since then.’ I’ve been a year onstage and that really changed me, so it’s kind of weird to look back at it.
“I am always self-critical.”
But such self-doubt rarely seems to manifest itself in difficult personal behaviour from Radcliffe. As he enters the room, he provides warm greetings to every reporter or photographer within his sight and pokes fun at himself as an aide worries over his hair.
Yet he’s puzzled when asked why he doesn’t seem inclined to the diva behaviour that sometimes afflicts Hollywood types, especially former child stars.
“I shouldn’t be remarkable for not being a (jerk) — that’s what’s sort of sad about the state of affairs,” said Radcliffe, who credited the positive influence of his parents and former “Potter” director Chris Columbus for his disposition.
“The crew have always been my best friends on the ‘Potter’ films, and having hung around with them from a very young age and heard how they talk about actors they don’t like, I think I made a decision when I was about 12: I don’t want to be one of the actors that they talk about like that.
“It’s horrible! So yeah, I think when you’re friends with the crew, you get an insight into the bad behaviour of actors and directors that you’d be wise to follow.”
Plus, he realizes he has a pretty good gig as an actor.
“I love my job and I love working and I love the hours — I love everything about the industry that no one else likes,” he said.
“I have ambitions for myself, and I want to see them through.”