'The Woman in Black': Daniel Radcliffe talks about his new film role

'The Woman In Black' star Daniel Radcliffe discusses being inspired by classic horror films with Christopher Lee and the moment in the film that made him jump

Nick Wall/HONS/CBS Films/AP
'The Woman in Black' star Daniel Radcliffe says he himself was startled by a shot in the trailer where his character is startled by a spirit in his home.

The Woman in Black is the third major film to be produced under the Hammer banner in the past few years (the other two being The Resident, starring Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Christopher Lee, and Let Me In, the English language remake of Let the Right One In), and in a many ways it feels like the Hammer horror films of the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to talk with Daniel Radcliffe about starring in The Woman in Black — out this Friday — Hammer horror movies, being skeptical about ghosts and the supernatural, and playing Allen Ginsberg in the upcoming Kill Your Darlings.

On his favorite thing about stepping back in time and into the role of Arthur Kipps, Radcliffe said:

“On a completely superficial level? The costumes. If I could wear that stuff all the time, I really would. […] When you put [one of those costumes on], it makes you stand differently – it kind of ages you slightly, actually. It’s quite helpful in that effort.”

Indeed, one of the most jarring things about the opening moments of The Woman in Black is seeing Daniel Radcliffe – the boy who lived, Harry Potter – in the role of father and widower. Granted, this film takes place at a point in history when young men (Radcliffe is 22-years-old) were already well on their way toward grandfatherhood. Still, it’s initially difficult to break free from our preconceived notions of the actor as anything but a boy wizard, since we’ve known him almost exclusively as such for the past decade.

On the subject of the period of the film, Radcliffe continues:

“What’s kind of great about that period is that it came […] after five thousand years of [England] being a completely pagan nation. We fell out of love with any kind of spirituality as soon as Christianity came in. [Then], in the Victorian era, [England suddenly] started to come around to the idea of spirits and demons and the notion of there being [an] afterlife.”

On whether or not he was paying tribute to the  Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee Hammer horror films of yore – The Woman in Black is a Hammer film – Radcliffe said:

“Absolutely. Peter Cushing was the still center of all those films around which that chaos could develop. So yes. [And if I wasn’t] actually paying tribute, I was certainly aware that had this film been made in a different time, Peter Cushing would’ve got the part.”

Cushing was, of course, later known for his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, but his most prominent work was with Hammer Film Productions – as Baron Victor Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein, as Van Helsing in Dracula, as John Banning in The Mummy, and as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, amongst others.

On the topic of Hammer Film Productions, Radcliffe continued:

“The Hammer banner is wonderful, it’s a fantastic thing for […] me particularly because, having been in the British film industry all my life – if you’re not working with people who actually worked the [Hammer] films, you’re working with their kids. The person who did my makeup on all the Potter movies, her dad, Eddie Knight, did all the original Hammer makeup. So, growing up in the industry in the England, you’re always very aware of those films and the importance they had and what they did for the industry […] in England.

“[It’s also great] because we can push the horror a little more, because Hammer’s there. We can have go back to old standards of creepy toys and a haunted house and all those kind of things that recur. And because it’s Hammer, […] nobody questions it.”

Easily one of the best things about The Woman in Black is its reliance on practical cinematic trickery and effects as opposed to CGI or digital enhancement. The film, for the most part, is a truly old-fashioned haunted house film. There are times when it feels too much like something we’ve seen before – the ending, for example, will likely come across as predictable – but where the scares and cinematography are concerned, its aged style is ironically a breath of fresh air.

On whether or not Radcliffe drew from the Susan Hill novel on which The Woman in Black was loosely based, he said:

“Obviously, I did read the book and, you know, [our film and the book] are very different in terms of how the story is framed. This is a very different adaptation, but also, I find some comfort in the fact that every adaptation of this book has been very different. [The story] has had to be changed in some way to fit the medium in which it’s going into.”

The Woman in Black has now been adapted four times — once for television in 1989 on Britain’s ITV network, twice for BBC Radio in 1993 and 2004, and now by way of film. The story of the film is very, very different from the book, which utilized a much less conventional ending, and arguably a sadder one.

As for whether or not Radcliffe based his portrayal on the book version of Arthur Kipps, he said:

“It was the same when I played Harry – I go off the script. Here’s the thing, if I go home and I read the book and I say, ‘Oh, that’s great, that’s really, really good, I like that a lot,’ and then I come in [on the set] the next day and I say to James [Watkins, the director], ‘Can we try and put this in somewhere?’ Then it will mean James will have call Jane [Goldman], the writer, and Jane will have to speak with Susan and [et cetera, et cetera]. So […] rather than cloud issues, it’s best to just go off the script, on a day-to-day level.”

On the biggest scare, in his opinion, of The Woman in Black, Radcliffe said:

“I think it’s the hand going up to the window. When I touch the window and the face [of the Woman in Black] appears [in the reflection]. And that was one I knew was there, and it still got me. [...] Actually, when I was filming, I didn’t know – you know that shot in the trailer [where I’m looking out the window and she appears behind me]? That shot, which is brilliant — I had no idea that that’s what was eventually going to happen […], so when I saw the trailer for the first time, I did go [lurches backward, makes indescribable frightened noise].”

On the status of his own belief in ghosts, Radcliffe said:

“[It’s] nonexistent. I don’t have any belief in ghosts or the supernatural or anything like that, unfortunately.”

On why his character stays in the house of the Woman in Black to do, essentially, paper work, despite the fact that there is a terrible and ghastly ghost woman in black tormenting him:

“One of the first questions I asked James was, ‘Why does [Arthur] stay there?’ The moment you read the first page [of the script], you know it’s going to end badly. Get out of there, idiot. I had that question, too. And there’s that great line where I say to somebody, ‘Oh, no, it’s fine, I’ll just work through the night.’ [Laughter.] So I said to James, ‘Why does he stay in the house, what’s that about?’ And James said, ‘Well, here’s a young man who has lost his wife and he goes to this house and he suddenly starts seeing the – what he thinks is – the ghost of a dead woman. To have any kind of confirmation that that is what he is seeing would mean that he would be able to confirm the fact that there is an afterlife which means he will perhaps one day see his wife again.’ So he’s staying there for some kind of sense of conciliation, I suppose.”

On Misha Handley, Daniel’s real-life godson, playing Arthur Kipps’ adorable young son, and whether or not he wants to be an actor as he gets older, Radcliffe said:

“I don’t think he [wants to be an actor] now. He’s four. He wants to be everything [and that’s] changing every day. You know, he has no ambition whatsoever in this area, to my knowledge. I think he had a really good time on the film [and] I think he’d do it again, but not for any other reason than ‘that got me out of school for a few days.’ I mean, yeah, it was fantastic having him there. I became totally protective of him. And, like, just worried, because he was four when we filmed it. And I was hoping, the first time he stepped on set, it would be like a really nice day and he’d have a fun time – no, it was a night-shoot, it was freezing cold, we were on a train platform somewhere. He had a nice time for like the first two hours and then he was like, ‘It’s cold, can I go to bed now.’ […] I was so obsessed with [him having a nice time] at the time that I didn’t really notice that he actually gave a really nice performance and he’s really sweet and good in the film.

“What was really great about it was, he didn’t really know what we were doing there. It would get to the point where he’d have to say a line and he’d just not say anything. I’d give his hand a little squeeze and he’d look up at me, like, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Say hello, Sam.’ [And he said], ‘Hello, Sam.’ And he’d look at me again, like, ‘Happy now?’ The way I kind of told it to him was, like, ‘I’m playing a dad in this, so I need you to help me.’ So he was just – helping Uncle Dan. And that was what he thought he was doing.’”

On the subtext of the film, Daniel Radcliffe said:

“That was one of the things I felt about it, was that [the subtext] felt unusual for the genre. [‘The Woman in Black’ is] unashamedly a horror film, but it’s character-driven and it does have some really strong themes. For me, the film was about what happens to us if we don’t move on from a loss. If we can’t move on. Arthur is somebody who has been devastated by his loss and has become devastated from the world, from his son, from his life. The Woman in Black has had a terrible wrong done to her during her life and has, of course, been unable to move on from that and [was] consumed by grief and rage and has carried that desire for revenge into the afterlife with her. Then there’s the fisher’s marriage, which has all gone wrong. [There’s] the fact that Ciaran [Hinds] is in denial [about his son’s death] and Janet [McTeer, who plays Ciaran’s wife], is having visions. Everybody is reacting to grief in a different way in this film.

“And if you like the kind – the ‘battle’ in the film, as it were, between Arthur and the Woman in Black, it’s kind of a fight for closure. A fight for who can move on first. […] They’re the two most extreme reactions to a death.”

On whether or not he’s a fan of horror films, Radcliffe said:

“I would [consider myself a fan], but I wouldn’t consider myself an aficionado in any way. I’m not one of those guys that will just see a trailer and [say], ‘Oh, I’m going to go see that.’ […] I’m like that about some [genres], but not about horror, I’ve never had that [obsession] about this particular genre. Which comes, in part, from the fact that I could never cope with gore or anything like that.”

On whether or not he’s more comfortable acting on stage or screen:

“The audience is really easy to forget about [on stage]. The camera is not. That’s what I find hard. I also find hard the broken up nature of filming, which is odd, because I’ve done it all my life, so it should be natural. And these, by the way, are conclusions I’ve come to very recently. […] On stage, I don’t have to think about [the intention of the scene] because the whole story’s being told in one go, and all I have to do is get on stage and listen, which is what I’m very good at. Listening, being engaged – I have no problems with. […] Whereas on film, because it’s so broken up, it can sometimes mean you come back to a scene [and be] slightly unsure of what exactly you should be doing.”

On what he’s looking most forward to with regard to playing Allen Ginsberg in the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings, a 2013 film about murder and the great poets and writers of the beat generation:

“What’s been wonderful so far is doing all the research. I’ve been looking into his childhood and his life and I’m reading the journals at the moment. I’m about to read the biography. It’s fantastic. He’s obviously an extremely interesting character. […] What’s interesting about him — the more I learn about him, in his life, he was more or less the most placatory person you could ever have met. He was all about trying to keep peace and trying to keep any situation calm. His mother had a deep personality disorder, so he was at home a lot of times as a kid just watching – just trying to make sure everything was okay. […] Which is why it’s intriguing that he was so confrontational in his poetry. It was like that side could never come out in any kind of actual social interaction. [I’m] mainly [looking forward to] working with the director. It’s his first film. He’s a young guy called John Krokidas. I think he’s going to make a fantastic, fantastic movie. He’s co-written it as well. He’s just really super-smart.”

On whether or not he has a dialect coach yet to get his non-British accent up to snuff, Radcliffe said:

“Oh, absolutely. I’m working on my New Jersey Jew at the moment.”

Ben Moore blogs at Screen Rant.

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