Culture

No Schooling Required: Daniel Radcliffe Takes on Allen Ginsberg

Daniel Radcliffe in ‘Kill Your Darlings’/Photo © Jessica Miglio, Sony Pictures Classics

“People really want me to say that it was weird,” Daniel Radcliffe laughs. “That's very obvious. They’d like me to say it was freaky and I didn't want to do it, but it was just another scene.” The actor best known for originating the role of Harry Potter is referring to a vivid sex scene centerpiecing his latest film, “Kill Your Darlings,” in which the twenty-four-year-old Brit portrays American teenager Allen Ginsberg losing his virginity to a sailor.

Director John Krokidas’ script didn’t give much indication of what was required. “It’s three lines,” Radcliffe remembers. “We see the sailor's trousers drop to the floor and Allen moves over to the bed.” After sussing out what his director wanted from the scene, Radcliffe says the rest came down to choreography. Krokidas enlisted his female director of photography, Reed Morano, to help block the scene. “Reed got onto the bed,” Radcliffe says. “I think she played the man and they sort of showed me the position we were going to be in initially. That's the thing, it's a sex scene in the film, but the filming of it is very perfunctory: you do this, then you do this, and then you do this.”

But were those leaps from step to step, position to position, opportunity for Radcliffe’s airborne feet to get cold? “No, man,” Radcliffe replies, “not at all. I never had any doubt in my mind that it was important to the film and I knew where it was going to fit in this very intense montage so I never thought I was going to feel silly or that it was unnecessary.”

That montage revolves around the real-life Riverside Park murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, The Beats’ Kevin Bacon who introduces Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, but for Radcliffe, the trick was focusing not on who these characters would become, but who they were when they roamed the halls of Columbia University in 1944. “It’s always a good test to make sure the story is good enough so that even if the characters weren't famous, people would still want to know the story,” Radcliffe says. “And this story is so fascinating that even if they hadn't become the Beat Generation, you'd still want to know their story.”

“The whole point of this was not to do a traditional biopic,” Krokidas agrees. “We didn’t want to put them on pedestals. I wanted to make them who they were at that age. We didn't wink and nod to the men they would become later because those tenets were somewhat present, but they were like any of us at eighteen: you're still insecure, trying on different looks, reading different things and trying to connect all that with who you really are. And they weren't there yet.”

Krokidas is able to trace the Beats’ counterculture from the hippie movement through punk to his own teenage years watching Kurt Cobain perform with Burroughs, but the best advice he had for Radcliffe was “you're not playing Allen Ginsberg with a beard. You don't have beads around your neck. You are a closeted kid from a working-class town in New Jersey. And now you've just had your dreams come true. You got into an Ivy League college in New York City where you know those bohemian types you're aching for are living and playing.”

And that might have been the biggest reach for Radcliffe, who readily admits, “I fucking hated school. I love literature and I love books, but unfortunately, in the British public school system -- and when I say public, I mean private because England’s weird like that -- if you are not very athletic or intellectual, you are made to feel pretty mediocre. I mean intellectual in the academic sense: you can take in information and regurgitate it. I was never any good at that. As a consequence, I struggled at school and was very slow at reading and writing, but if I could talk and have the information told to me, then I'd take it in entirely differently.”

“When I was taken out of school,” he continues, “and put on a set and tutored, I was so happy. I got the most amazing teacher and there's a lot you can do in one-to-one tuition that you just can't do in a class. That's the reality. If you've got a classroom full of people, you can spend a little time with all of them and you'll just about get through the lesson plan. On set, we had things to get through for the year, but if I found something really interesting, we'd just go off and learn about that. It's a much truer way of learning that encourages knowledge for its own sake, not an exam. Exams are why a lot of people stop learning when they leave school.”

Other than mentioning he’s not yet read J. K. Rowling’s new adult novel, Casual Vacancy, but intends to and thinks the Harry Potter ride at Universal Orlando is “pretty awesome,” his on-set tutor is as close as he’ll come to an in-depth discussion of the Potter franchise he signed on to as an eleven-year-old against his parents advice and to which he dedicated the next decade of his young life. Could the graphic sexuality his Ginsberg exhibits on screen following two “full monty” years in the West End and Broadway revivals of Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus” be a distancing technique from the Hogwarts alum?

“That theory doesn't bother me much,” Radcliffe admits. “I've been surprised by how many people have talked about this film more than that scene. I've been quite happy about that. In terms of that particular scene and also 'Equus,' I always knew people were going to be asking about it. It would be silly not to know that. And frankly, I take quite a practical attitude toward it, which is if they come to see a gay sex scene and end up seeing a one-and-a-half-hour drama about the Beats; I'm fine with that. They paid their money.”