Miracle Workers’: Daniel Radcliffe on Why a Show About Heaven Has Anthology Potential

February 20, 2019   |   Written by Liz Shannon Miller

The first time IndieWire spoke to Daniel Radcliffe and Simon Rich about the new TBS comedy “Miracle Workers,” it was January 2018, and they were early into production — and the early days of doing publicity for the show.

“This is all unspoiled territory,” the globally famous star of the “Harry Potter” series said.

“It’s like our first hour of press,” Rich added.

“You can’t describe your character differently every time,” Radcliffe continued. “I have to come up with something fairly quickly soon.”

The origins of the TBS comedy, which imagines a version of Heaven run like a too-recognizable corporate entity, came after Radcliffe read “What in God’s Name,” the novel which inspired the series. His girlfriend, a huge fan of Rich’s writing, had given him a copy — it was actually the second of Rich’s books that she had given Radcliffe.

“I reached out to Simon after I read the book and just said, I love this,” Radcliffe said. “And I was lucky enough to have a meeting with him and just say, you know, if anything should be made of this or come of this in any way, I would love to be involved, just ’cause I love it, and I haven’t read anything else like it.

While Rich at that point had also adapted another work of his own fiction for television (the FX comedy “Man Seeking Woman”), it wasn’t until Radcliffe reached out to Rich about the possibility of adapting “God’s Name” that Rich thought it was an actual possibility.

“I’d wanted to adapt it for years and years, but it really wasn’t until I started talking with Daniel that I started to think it might actually be possible. Just imagining Dan in the role of Craig really galvanized me and brought it to life in my head,” Rich said, which surprised Radcliffe in the moment. “I started thinking, well, if we have Dan as the hero of the story, we might actually have a way to pull it off. And that give me the kind of confidence boost to start to really think about how to truly adapt it.”

“Oh wow! Thank you. I don’t think I knew that, thank you very much,” Radcliffe said, touched.

What attracted Radcliffe to the concept, he said, was “just the overall sense of kindness and warmth that emanates from the story. There are some very dark jokes — there’s some very black humor in it. But the overall sense of just that warmth to humanity and human beings, despite all the chaos that we live in and create was so… I don’t know, it just made me really happy. And I wanted to be a part of that. So I just said please, use me in whatever way you feel fit.”

And thus both creator and star (who was also a producer) were quickly on the same page about the existential anthology series, which features Steve Buscemi as the burned-out God who’s sick of the Earth he created, and Radcliffe as Craig, the naive angel who tries to stop him from blowing the whole place up.

Craig is joined in his quest by a young ensemble of rising actors, including Geraldine Viswanathan, Jon Bass, Sasha Compère, and Lolly Adefope. Since Radcliffe was a producer, he was able to get involved in the casting process — the second time he and Rich spoke to IndieWire, they were joined by co-star Karan Soni (“Deadpool,” “Blunt Talk”), who plays Sanjay, the stuck-up angelic superior to Craig.

Radcliffe couldn’t say exactly what he was looking for while casting as a producer, because “it’s such an inevitable hard thing to define.”

However, when searching for someone to play Sanjay, he continued, “there were lots of amazing people that auditioned, and then Karan came in and just frankly blew them all out of the water in the nicest possible way. It was fascinating watching, because you know the scene, you’ve seen it a thousand times, and sometimes you’ll just hear it for the first time as if you haven’t been hearing many people do that take, and that’s always a pretty exciting one.”

Soni shouted out casting director Jeanne McCarthy for putting him up for the role. “She cast some of the best comedies, literally just look up her name and she’s cast amazing stuff all over the place,” he said. “She brought me in for just one audition for it, and then I went and read with Dan. I was very nervous for that, because I’m a big ‘Harry Potter’ fan. So that was weird to do that with him.”

After all, Soni noted, “My character in the show is not nice to him. So I just have to get over my fandom, and that’s a lot to ask of yourself — meet him for the first time, and also be like, ‘You can’t be nice to him!’ Be in character. It was a lot.”

It was important to find the right ensemble, both Radcliffe and Rich noted, because “Miracle Workers” is planned as an anthology series with a new story each season, but the same regularly returning cast, similar to how Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” franchise works.

The idea for an anthology approach began when Rich considered his original book, and the fact that “I only wanted to tell the story if we could do it in a high octane, super disciplined, visceral, intense way. I didn’t want to stretch it out into a hundred episodes. I wanted it to really be like a real time story with cliffhangers.”

While he thought that might be tough to sell to a network, “I was really floored and amazed that they gave us that creative option. Then the question was asked, well, what about other seasons? And I started thinking about Mel Brooks and Monty Python and the Coen brothers — a lot of my heroes have made multiple projects that share cast and share a tone but have brand new stories. Again, I didn’t think TBS would let us get away with that either but they did. It’s amazing.”

Radcliffe also liked the anthology approach, because while he felt that exciting things were happening in American television, “I, obviously, have a certain hesitancy about playing one character for a very, very long time again — having sort of done that once already. So the chance to work, firstly, with Simon and just find new stories and characters every year — that feels like an actor’s dream. That’s amazing.”

Rich added that “as a writer, it’s thrilling just to be able to start every year with a brand new story. It’s so exciting and to create a new world each time and you can only pull it off if you have extremely versatile actors. And so a lot of work went into casting to make sure that we had people like Daniel who can really pull off different roles.”

As Radcliffe said, “If potentially this does go into multiple years, and you have to factor in ‘Who do we want to spend time with for multiple years?’ We put together a group of people I think is really amazing. The ensemble nature of the show is kind of what makes it great. I feel like every time, me watching it, obviously I like the bits that I’m not in the most, but hopefully for other people watching it, every time a new character comes in it’s the sense, ‘Oh cool! What’s this guy gonna do now?’”

That question gets even more exciting when one considers the idea of what future seasons of “Miracle Workers,” should they happen, might look like. Rich couldn’t offer specific details about what was in store, but did say that “there will always be a, what I would say, an existential component, if that makes sense. It’ll always be about humanity’s place in the universe and the sort of precarious nature of our existence.”

Added Radcliffe, “I think miraculousness can have different contexts and different meanings. There are other ways of getting to that theme.”

“I would say there’s a sense of existential doom, absurdity, but ultimately, by the end, hope. It’s always going to be about characters who are really truly up against it,” Rich said. “And that’s kind of the comedic and emotional engine that runs the story this year, and we’ll run subsequent stories as well. Each one will definitely be a big, big swing, if we get to do another one. Even if we don’t, we feel so grateful that we got a chance to tell this story, and that we’ve got to finish it, because it’s so rare in television to get a chance to get to the end of a story.

In the long run, Rich added, “It’s a story about people, a story about young characters trying to do something positive in a system that is very screwed up at the very highest level. And that is a resonate story for us and hopefully it will be for our viewers.”

“I think it’s a really joyous show, despite the kind of endless swirling chaos and pessimism that is around it,” Radcliffe said. “There is this heart of just joy at being alive and the absurdity, craziness you can experience. So if people come away with a tiny semblance of that feeling, then I’ll be very happy.”

“Miracle Workers” airs Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. on TBS.

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