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Screen Daily

Emmys spotlight: Daniel Radcliffe talks having fun with ‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story', new 'Harry Potter' series

June 12, 2023   |   Written by Mark Salisbury

If Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Harry Potter career has taught us anything, it is that when it comes to picking parts, the former teenage wizard likes it weird — the weirder the better. Be it playing a flatulent corpse in Swiss Army Man, having firearms bolted to his hands in Guns Akimbo, or waking up from a drunken one-night stand with horns sprouting from his head in Horns, Radcliffe gravitates to roles that could hardly be described as conventional.

“I am in a very rare position to be able to say no and do the things I want,” he explains over Zoom, looking remarkably relaxed given he and his partner, actress Erin Darke, welcomed their first child six weeks earlier. “I’m able to go with things I think are going to be fun, or stuff you read and go, ‘This is mad. How can I be a part of getting this made or making it?’ It really is just a feeling. Not everything has to be like that. I sometimes do normal films with normal people. But I feel I tried to deny the idea I had weird taste for a long time and, eventually, you end up doing a film literally called Weird.”

In Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, Radcliffe plays the eponymous Al, the multi-million-selling performer of parody pop songs — ‘My Bologna’ (riffing on The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’) and ‘Eat It’ (Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’) among them — who hit big in the late 1970s and is still packing them in at live shows more than 40 years later. But Weird is most definitely not your standard musical biopic. As befits its subject, it is a biographical parody, telling the madcap, satirical story of Radcliffe’s Al — a nerd with a flair for the accordion who becomes a pop sensation, embarks on a passionate affair with ‘Like A Virgin’-era Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood) and descends into a drug-fuelled, tantrum-­throwing meltdown, before being gunned down by a hitman in the employ of his old flame who has taken over Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel.

“There are a few weird kernels of truth that have been exploded into something insane,” says Radcliffe of Weird’s somewhat loose relationship with established facts. Yankovic, for instance, claims to have met Madonna for a mere 45 seconds at an awards show and is very much alive, having penned the script with director Eric Appel (Die Hart) and produced. “There is some truth to the idea Madonna suggested he do a cover called ‘Like A Surgeon’ and they did record the original ‘My Bologna’ in a bathroom. So there are enough to make the first half function like a normal biopic. Then, at a certain point, around the time of the Michael Jackson joke, is when the film takes a turn.”

One thing is true. Radcliffe was a Yankovic fan long before the script arrived in his inbox. “One of the people my parents instilled in me as a kid was Tom Lehrer, the comedian/­songwriter, and at some point, while downloading something of his, iTunes sent me a ‘You may also like…’ and Al was one of the other artists linked. So I knew a few songs from when I was a teenager.” But it was only after Radcliffe started dating Darke 10 years ago — the pair met during the making of 2013’s Kill Your Darlings — that he became fully invested. “Her dad’s been to see Al live five or six times; Erin and her brother grew up on all the albums. Al gets played a lot at Christmas in their house.”

Easy sell
For his part, Yankovic had seen Radcliffe perform Lehrer’s ‘The Elements’ song on The Graham Norton Show years earlier and recognised a kindred spirit. That said, when the offer to play Yankovic presented itself, Radcliffe was flattered but confused. “I’m not physically who I would go to first. Then I started reading the script and I was like, ‘Oh, I see what the joke is’. This is not about accuracy. And when you read a script like that, it’s hard not to imagine you will have a very good time making this film. It was a very easy sell.”

Although Radcliffe first read the script in 2020, it took a while before Yankovic and Appel secured funding, with Roku only coming in three-and-a-half months before they started shooting, giving their star little time to learn the accordion. “I set myself a task of learning a bit, hoping I could get good enough that Eric wouldn’t have to be constantly shooting around it. There was a moment when he said to me, ‘You don’t need to be really playing, if your hands can be vaguely in the right places, that’s enough.’ I remember thinking, if my hands could be vaguely in the right places, I could play it. That’s most of the battle.”

Radcliffe’s perm is also a piece of cinematic trickery, although his moustache is real. “I hate wearing fake facial hair, it drives me insane, so if I can grow my own, I will.” His Al also spends a lot of time topless, revealing a toned torso that is Radcliffe’s own work. “I’m a bit of a cliché of somebody who gave up drinking and became obsessed with the gym,” he says. “I was naked way more as Al than I have been since Equus [on stage in 2007], which was something I didn’t see coming.”

Shot in 18 days, with Radcliffe needed for 14 of them, Weird also features its star emerging from an oversized egg after tripping on LSD. “Any time you end up in some physical situation that is so bizarre, they are the moments where I’m often the most in love with my job, because it’s so fucking strange,” he laughs. “So, breaking out of an egg, covered in goo, naked, fake playing a guitar was right up there. I said to Al afterwards, there’s being ridden like a jet ski by Paul Dano at the beginning of Swiss Army Man. And then there’s the egg shot. They are one and two the weirdest stuff I’ve done.”

Passing the torch
While Radcliffe has done his best to distance himself from the Potter persona, Warner Bros recently announced a reboot of JK Rowling’s books with an entirely new cast for its streaming service Max. Which begs the question: does he have any advice for the next youngster to pick up the wand? Radcliffe does not. “The only thing that was weird for me about that announcement was I started thinking, there’s probably an eight-year-old kid somewhere whose life is going to change in a couple of years,” he admits. “That is an odd thought. I feel weirdly protective of that person who I don’t know and does not yet really exist. But I do think Potter is too big a literary phenomenon to be confined to one film series.”

For now, Radcliffe is enjoying an extended break, having finished an off-Broadway production of the musical Merrily We Roll Along in January and set to return when it moves to Broadway in the autumn. In the meantime, he has several scripts of his own in development that he would like to direct.

“At some point, I’m going to have to say I’m maybe not acting for a year so I can focus on that and make that happen,” he says. “I’m going to have to get my ass in gear.”

First up will be a comedy, which has a producer attached. “We are taking it out to leading actors,” reveals Radcliffe, who would like to be rolling in the next couple of years. And when he does, Radcliffe will remain firmly behind the camera. “Part of the pleasure of directing something for the first time would be not having to act in it,” he says. “I have a philosophy of, if I’m going to direct something to start with, it’s better if I fuck up my own material than somebody else’s.”

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