A version of this article originally appeared on the now defunct online magazine Cultural Transmogrifier in 2012—hence, the omission of more recent Radcliffe films.
Unlike many child stars who’ve become lost to obscurity, Radcliffe has only grown in popularity since his first major feature film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. And maybe his good fortune stems from the fact that by the time he finished the Harry Potter series, he was already an adult. Consuming his entire adolescence and ten years of his life, Harry Potter gave Radcliffe the opportunity and time to grow as an actor and come out the other end of child stardom alive and thriving.
Reflecting on Radcliffe’s subpar acting in the first few Harry Potter films, I’ve often felt that he caught a lucky break due largely to his physical resemblance to J.K. Rowling’s title character. In the first four Harry Potter films (and the first two, in particular), Radcliffe’s acting draws attention to itself. Ideally, when someone acts well, they make you forget the fact that they’re acting at all. You believe, for a moment at least, that the character is real – that the actor is the character. But Radcliffe often failed to make that transformation.
Throughout the early HP films, he gives the impression that he’s trying to mimic what a person feeling a particular emotion should look like, rather than making us believe that he genuinely feels that emotion. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, his surprise (which the character understandably experiences often, having only just learned that he’s a wizard) always seems feigned; on cue, his eyes go wide and his mouth forms a neat little “o.”
Radcliffe particularly struggled to convincingly convey stronger emotions such as fear, anger, and depression. At the end of The Goblet of Fire, after almost dying at the hands of the recently resurrected Lord Voldemort, Harry takes Cedric’s corpse back to Hogwarts via the Triwizard Cup portkey and clamps himself to Cedric’s body, crying hysterically. Radcliffe ruins this moment. I don’t believe for a second that he’s Harry Potter, distressed, disoriented, and traumatized. He contorts his face into something that resembles depression and terror, but again, feels feigned, along with his tears.
Even more irksome than Radcliffe’s overt acting was that he often seemed awkward and unnatural with his body. He put a lot of effort into his voice register and his facial expressions but seemed at a loss as to what he should be doing with his extremities—you could say, he overacted with his face and voice, and under-acted with his body. He seemed uncomfortable, or maybe even confused, as a physical being. At the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone, when Professor Quirrell slowly unravels his turban to reveal Lord Voldemort’s face fused to the back of his skull, Harry hardly seems terrified. He stands rigid—and no, the rigidity doesn’t reflect a fear rendering paralysis (although, maybe it does in Radcliffe’s case, but certainly not in Harry’s). Radcliffe’s tense, awkward demeanor makes it quite apparent that he simply doesn’t know what to do with his body.
Many friends have told me that I can hardly criticize Radcliffe’s acting from the early HP films because he was “just a kid.” But I can’t say that I agree. Radcliffe is the only child actor in the films who seems particularly uncomfortable as a physical actor. His co-stars Emma Watson and Rupert Grint never give me that impression. As for feigned emotion, while both Grint and Watson (especially Watson) may be guilty of overacting, they still often seem to embody the emotions that they try to convey—they simply, perhaps, feel these emotions a bit too strongly.
And many child actors I remember watching as a kid, namely from 80s’ and early-90s’ sitcoms, didn’t leave me as excessively aware of the fact that they were pretending to be a character as Radcliffe did. Recall the kids from The Cosby Show, particularly Keshia Knight Pulliam as Rudy Huxtable, Deon Richmond as Kenny, and Raven-Simoné as Olivia Kendall, who were all very young (younger than Radcliffe in The Sorcerer’s Stone) when they started on the show but who were, nonetheless, hilarious, sensational, and above all, believable.
Criticism aside, I definitely see a staggering progression in Radcliffe’s acting throughout the eight Harry Potter films. As the series continues, it becomes easier to believe he genuinely feels the emotion that he tries to convey and seems more comfortable and natural in his skin. He delivers probably his best performances in The Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2. In Part 1, when he and Ron get into their most serious fight, causing Ron to abandon Harry and Hermione, Radcliffe truly embodies the anger that Harry experiences. We see it not just in his contorted facial expressions but in his whole body, as he shoves Ron towards the tent door.
Seeing such a marked improvement from the first Harry Potter film to the last makes me like and respect Radcliffe so much more as an actor. Because I’ve been watching this kid so closely for ten years, I feel (as I’m sure many people do) a closeness to him. I want to see him succeed, and so when he finally managed to make me believe he really was Harry Potter, he thrilled me. It’s like watching a little brother finally develop the skill and talent that he’s been trying to acquire for so long.
I attribute Radcliffe’s development in part to his turn on Broadway and ventures into theater. Although I’m not a theater connoisseur by any means, it seems to me that the physical aspect of acting becomes exponentially more important on stage. An actor essentially become stark naked in front the audience because there’s no medium (i.e. a camera) to capture close-ups or focus in on what the director wants to convey. Everything relies on the actor’s presence.
So Radcliffe had to embrace the physical side of acting in order to be moderately successful on stage. And he delivered. Critics such as Elysa Gardner praised his performance in the off-beat 2008 show Equus, in which he played seventeen-year-old Alan Strang, who “blinds six horses in a fit of sexual and spiritual agony.” Strang, apparently, both worships the horses and feels sexually attracted to them—certainly a compelling and disturbing concept, which of course would be difficult to pull off. And most of us know that the role of Strang required Radcliffe to appear naked on stage—something that required a lot of courage and must also have forced Radcliffe to become comfortable with his body.
Starring as J. Pierrepont Finch in Rob Ashford’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (2011), Radcliff had to learn to dance and therefore really embrace the physical side of acting. This translated to the later HP films, and the films that followed. In The Woman in Black, his first starring role following HP, I didn’t even think twice about his body—and this is a good thing.
I still would not classify Radcliffe as an exceptional actor, although he has significantly improved. He still needs to work on evolving his characters. His Harry Potter doesn’t feel markedly different from his Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black. Maybe in both cases, the fact that we watch Radcliffe is all too obvious. The actor takes precedence over the character. And maybe this is a matter of bringing a distinctive personality to his characters, to both distinguish the characters from one another and from Radcliffe. In the New York Times review of How to Succeed, Ben Brantley says that the main character, Ponty, inherently lacks “any defining traits beyond all-consuming ambition. It was left to whoever played him to provide the extras, like a personality,” but Radcliffe failed to do so, “purging Ponty of any individualizing quirks.” Brantley further describes Radcliffe’s Ponty as a “tabula rasa.”
While this “blank-slate aspect” may have worked well in the context of the play, it’s an interesting idea to reflect upon in relation to Radcliffe’s other work. He didn’t really make Potter his own, nor did he make Arthur Kipps his own. It seems that when he plays a character, he does exactly what the director tells him to do and what he feels that he’s supposed to do, but he lacks the courage to bring any personal flair to the character. As Brantley describes Radcliffe’s performance in How to Succeed, he “conscientiously hits his choreographic marks, speaks his lines quickly and distinctly (with a convincing American accent) and often sings on key. You can almost hear an unseen coach’s voice whispering to Mr. Radcliffe, telling him when to do what.” When Radcliffe acts, he adheres to very strict guidelines, whether they come from an acting coach, a director, or stage directions within a script.
But at least he’s trying. He commits himself to his craft and strives for continuous improvement. Clearly, self-awareness encapsulates his acting. While this self-awareness may have translated to self-consciousness during his early HP days and rendered his acting awkward and unnatural, it also prompted him to continue to grow as an actor. Perhaps because he played Harry Potter and has become one of the most recognizable actors in the world, it would be easy enough for Radcliffe to land acting jobs without much effort. But that’s just not Radcliffe. As Gary Oldman told Entertainment Weekly in 2011:
“What I admire most about him is that he doesn’t rest on his laurels. He doesn’t think the world owes him because he’s played Harry Potter. He took lessons and learned to dance and sing, because he knew that once Potter was over, he would be swimming in the stream with all the other salmon. I was sad to see Potter go, but happy, too. It was not goodbye. Dan is going to continue to work and mature and develop his skills. And I think, continue to dazzle.”
Without a doubt, Radcliffe works incredibly hard. And, honestly, that’s probably a significant reason why he landed the role of Harry Potter in 2001. He’s already shown incredible growth by evolving from an awkward child actor into a credible adult actor. From here, I hope to see Radcliffe push past good acting to the kind of great acting that actors such as his former co-star Gary Oldman are known for. You learned to move your body Mr. Radcliffe. Now find the courage to make your characters quirky.