For better and worse, Radcliffe has been in the public eye since he was 11. Before he turned 13, a Japanese game show channeled the ghost of Princess Diana to ask, "That Mr. Harry Potter from the film, has he done it proper yet with a lady?" The British tabloids were even more intrusive. "They're vile," Radcliffe sighs, "and they give all journalists a bad name, unfortunately."
But Radcliffe made the unusual choice to face tough questions head-on, defusing the gossip rags' power with honesty and a smile. Yes, the night he lost his virginity was really good. Yes, he's now sober after a heavy-drinking stint. Yes, he's an atheist, which he's aware is a more controversial stance in America than at home. (Teachers who already love Harry Potter for boosting literacy rates will love him more for being a public figure who dares to groan, "I obviously don't think creationism should be taught as part of science — that's fucking ridiculous.")
The toughest questions are about his career. Radcliffe is up-front about his determination to leave the wizarding world behind — and his awareness that rewriting his image will take work. Playing the character again is "not in the cards," he insists. Still, not only is Harry Potter embedded in the culture, but he's also embedded in Radcliffe himself. "I'm sure our personalities influenced each other, which sounds crazy because one of us is real and the other isn't," Radcliffe says. "Having spent so much time playing him, his instincts became my instincts, which is not such a bad thing. He's fiercely loyal and curious and brave — and I hope I am."
As the franchise wound down, Radcliffe set out to prove his range. He said no to a stack of action films, and yes to the best offers of everything else: Broadway musicals (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), horror flicks (Woman in Black), highbrow period pieces (Kill Your Darlings), Saturday Night Live, and even voicing a character on The Simpsons, which, he beams was, "an ambition since I was none."
Yet, ironically, it's the romantic comedy What If, his new, least-gimmicky experiment, that best showcases Radcliffe's promise. He plays a depressed, brokenhearted med school dropout who falls for his best friend's cousin (Zoe Kazan), a witty blond. The two cerebrally connect and plunge into one of those perpetual-motion conversations that the happiest couples continue for a lifetime. Problem is, she has a serious live-in boyfriend (Rafe Spall), who is pretty swell himself, which makes What If both a porno for intellectuals and a romance that delves into the ethics of loving someone who's already in love with someone else. "It's not going to be an easy decision," Radcliffe says, as opposed to the usual, make-it-easy movie scenarios where "the boyfriend is a douche, and you're, like, 'Well, of course she's not going to end up with him.' "
Directed by Michael Dowse (Goon), What If is a shameless homage to When Harry Met Sally..., but that's forgivable. For one, there's almost no better film to rip off. Radcliffe filters Billy Crystal's sarcasm through his own wide-eyed wistfulness. Hovering around Kazan, he nails that push-pull mix of excitement and self-protection, wresting the genre from the stilettos-and-shopping-sprees stinkers of the past decade and reminding us of when rom-coms used to feel emotionally real.
"There has been a weird slanting of romantic comedies toward women, which is bizarre because in some ways I think men are more romantic than women. On the whole, I find that when men fall in love, they fall harder and with more abandon," Radcliffe says. "Men are the ones that I've heard saying, 'I just can't live without her, my life's falling apart without her, I am nothing without her.' I have a lot of female friends and I've almost never heard that from a girl."
For another, When Harry Met Sally... is 11 days older than Radcliffe himself, meaning his entire generation has grown up without a smart, sweet romantic comedy that speaks to them — a vacuum made worse by the middle-aged media handwringers who speak for them, decrying twentysomethings as callous, immediate-gratification kids just looking for a casual hookup.
"The hookup generation has existed for a couple generations; it's just now you can plan it in advance," Radcliffe says. "It's not just getting drunk at a bar and going off with someone. You go online first and swipe right. The idea of technology is to make everything quicker and more efficient — and the same with love, intimacy happens quicker." What shocks people today, he notes, is settling down before 21, as his parents did — and as that fictional boy wizard did.
But could he ever put Potter far enough in the past that he could make a rom-com with his eight-time co-star Emma Watson? "Nah, it'd be too weird," Radcliffe laughs. "Because it would all be about Harry and Hermione. We could wait 60 years, and do it and that's still exactly what it would be about."