Daniel Radcliffe Talks ‘Imperium’ and the Horrors of White Supremacist Message Boards

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Daniel Radcliffe stars as Nate Foster, an FBI agent posing as a skinhead, in "Imperium." Lionsgate Premiere

If the Ghostbusters reboot ruined your childhood, you’re going to love seeing Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe shave his head and shout racial slurs.

It’s not what you think. In the heady new thriller Imperium, Radcliffe convincingly plays an FBI agent sent undercover to take down a white supremacist group from within. It’s a strange casting, but along with desert island indie Swiss Army Man and Beat Generation chronicle Kill Your Darlings, it’s part of a string of roles that manage to test the 27-year-old actor’s range and wipe The Boy Who Lived from memory.

On a scorching summer afternoon, we met up with Radcliffe at a tony hotel in Manhattan and chatted about everything from Brexit and BoJack Horseman to how he got inside the mind of white supremacist extremists. (Potter questions were off-limits.) Imperium’s first-time director, Daniel Ragussis, was also on hand to give some insight into the making of the thriller.

And no, we didn’t ask about the farting corpse.

Did you do a lot of research into the world of white supremacists before filming Imperium?
Radcliffe: Yeah, quite a bit. I watched a few documentaries. Spent some time reading message boards of some white supremacy groups.

Did you post on those message boards?
I did not! No, absolutely not. I didn’t want to get into that. But it was more about getting a sense of how the non-intellectual elite of the movement talk to each other and talk about things. The biggest insight it gave me was the extent to which everything is [believed to be] a fucking part of this global conspiracy.

What surprised you about that world?
How diverse—diverse is a strange word to use—but how diverse the beliefs were. Like, the fact that there are some people who believe the Bible is the word of God. And there are some people who believe the Bible is just another extension of Jewish propaganda and was invented by Jews to subjugate non-Jewish people.

What made you want to play this role?
There was something about the script that I loved. It does something that a lot of scripts don’t do, which is that it sets up a character as being smart and he uses his intelligence to overcome the challenges he faces during the first two-thirds of the script. A lot of films in the last third think, Fuck it, give him a gun, that’s how he’s going to solve everything. This script had the balls to actually keep its character unarmed.

Dan, why did you choose Daniel for the part?
Ragussis: A lot of the inspiration came from [undercover FBI agent] Mike German himself. When I first met Mike, he was not at all what I would imagine a stereotypical FBI agent to be. He was a very cultured, literate, soft-spoken guy. He was a philosophy major in college. So once I realized that the role was about that—that it wasn’t about physical dominance; in fact, quite the opposite—then Dan just became the perfect person for the part. I felt like he had those characteristics naturally.

Some of these white supremacist types have been in the news lately because of Donald Trump. Do you think the characters in the movie would be galvanized by Trump’s campaign?
Radcliffe: I don’t know…. I think the people in our movie are already much more extreme than Trump is even. I mean, that’s obviously xenophobic and extremist. But I don’t know.

Ragussis: I don’t think you need to speculate. It’s very clear to see the actual reactions of people in the white supremacist community to this campaign. They feel like a light is being shone on the true and most gripping problems of our society. Maybe not to the extent that they want. But the idea that someone is willing to talk about immigration in a more forceful way—yes, that is something that they have responded to, if you go on their message sites and you look at them.

Radcliffe: Yeah, I’m not doing that anymore.

Daniel Radcliffe Radcliffe poses at a press line for "Victor Frankenstein," in which he stars, during the 2015 Comic-Con International Convention in San Diego on July 11, 2015. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

What do you think about Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric?
Radcliffe: It’s a very old song. It happens all over the world. It’s happened in Britain just now as well. It’s people being convinced that foreigners are going to come and take everything. The truth is, in the Brexit vote, the places where immigrants actually live all voted to stay.

Were you disturbed by the Brexit result?
Yes. Yes. More disturbing than anything else was how out of touch it made me feel with my own country. And how much of a bubble [I’m in]: “OK, I live in London.” I didn’t think there was as much of a difference between London and some other parts of the country as there is between New York and LA and other parts of the country. But I now think that probably is the case. We’re as much of a bubble.

You’ve acted in much darker films recently, between this and Horns and the Frankenstein movie. Are you determined to separate yourself from the world of family-oriented movies?
I dunno, Harry Potter was really fucking dark. I don’t think that every part that I do is a comment on what I used to do. That’s not how I pick parts. It would be fucking exhausting if I did. I think it’s more that I go with what I’m interested in. I’m in a position to be really choosy. I’ve also learned over the last couple of years that I’m going to do a much better job on stuff that I’m happier on and stuff I believe in fully.

What were you not happy on?
I’m not gonna tell you that [laughs].

Save that for the memoir?
I don’t know if that’ll happen either. But I think I’ve learned that while I’m in the position to be this choosy, I should be. Because that might not be forever.

You turn a lot of movies down, is what you’re saying.
Yeah.

Do you regret anything that you’ve turned down?
No. There was one movie that came out afterwards that was really, really successful. I had a moment of going, “Oh man, did I miss out on that?” Then I saw the film and I was like, “No, I still don’t get it!”

Will you say what it is?
No, I can’t, I’m sorry. Well, I could tell you off the record, but—no, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t.

You recently spent some time in Colombia filming the movie Jungle. How was that?
It was good. It was mental. It was a tough shoot. A film shoot like that shouldn’t really be comfortable. There were days when all the camera and lighting equipment had to be carried on donkeys because it was such a treacherous part. There was one day I remember really well, where it was, like, a two-mile walk to set. I was wearing wetsuit bottom halves and a harness and my costume, and it was fucking boiling. The harder thing is that I was not eating very much for a lot of the film.

What was your diet like?
Three weeks before we did the scene where you see how much toll has been taken on [the character of Yossi Ghinsberg], I was eating either a chicken breast or a fillet of fish and a protein bar each day. Chicken for lunch, with some hot sauce, because there are no calories in hot sauce and there’s a lot of flavor. You become reliant on condiments.

What was the most punishing thing you did?
We were filming this one scene that takes place on a raft where the raft has been smashed against some rocks. So we were filming half in and out of the water for a day. It was a scene of just fucking screaming terror. That was a long day. Oh, I did a lot of wet work. I did a lot of work just soaking wet at various points, and under the heaviest rain machines I’ve ever been under in my life. I’d get up to the top of the thing and the director would be like, “Let’s just have another one.” I’d be like, “Oh great, you better need this.”

Swiss Army Man In "Swiss Army Man," Radcliffe plays a corpse who is reanimated from the dead. Swiss Army Man/A24

In Imperium you play an FBI agent. Is the American accent tough for you?
Umm. Did it sound tough for me?

No, I’m not saying that!
I’ve done it a few times. I did it in Horns and Kill Your Darlings. I stay in it the whole time when I’m on set.

What’s your favorite film that you’ve seen this year? Not one that you acted in.
Don’t worry, it wouldn’t have been one that I acted in [laughs]. To be honest, most of what I watch is documentaries. I watched one called Finders Keepers the other day that was a lot of fun. It was bizarre. The best film I’ve seen this year? Shit…. I’m trying to think of the last film I saw in the cinema, and I’m really, really struggling. Was it Inside Out? God, that was a while ago.

Were you a fan of Inside Out?
I loved Inside Out. Nothing will get me to the cinema faster than a Pixar movie, basically. Documentary-wise, what else have I been watching? I’m sure I’ve watched loads...

Did you see the Weiner documentary?
No, I haven’t! My girlfriend made me promise not to watch it until we watch it together.

It’s great.
It’s great? Given his new flirty scandal that’s just happened, does that impact your viewing of the film in any way?

I don’t think so.
OK, cool. Good.

You did do an appearance on BoJack Horseman recently.
I did, yes. I think it was one of those things where I just talked about liking the show a lot, and then they rang up and sent me the episode. I was, like, “This is some of the best jokes about me.” The Elijah Wood joke at the end is one of my favorite jokes. It’s so good.

Why do you think the show has hit such a nerve?
It’s a really, really brutally honest, amazing [show]. I think all the best comedy comes from fear of failure and fear of social embarrassment. That’s why The Office is so good, or Fawlty Towers. Because they’re just about watching people fuck up. To make a comedy that’s that good about depression—and about fame and alcoholism and all that—it’s just so good.

They must have caught you talking about it in interviews, because you keep a really low profile on social media.
Yes. I don’t have one.

Why is that?
I’m too liable to, like, get emotional and get into a fight with somebody on Twitter. Nobody ever wins in Twitter fights, in my opinion. Also, I’ve always thought that one day I will have kids and I’ll want to say to newspapers, like, “Fuck off, don’t take pictures of my kids, all that.” And the more of yourself you put out there, the less recourse you have to say, “I want a private life.”

And you do want that private life.
As much as I can. I also want to do this job. So I recognize that a certain amount of privacy is waived when you want that thing. But I definitely want that.