It’s been three years since he shot Imperium, but Daniel Radcliffe still shudders when he thinks of his temporary transformation into a neo-Nazi white supremacist.
“I’m not religious, but my mum’s Jewish; I’m technically Jewish,” Radcliffe, 27, told The Jewish Week. “And I have to have a [expletive] swastika painted on me every day.”
The actor is almost unrecognizable in his latest role as Nate Foster, an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a white-power, neo-Nazi group. It’s not the buzzed haircut or even that swastika tattoo – although those are certainly unsettling. No, the hardest reconciliation is between the real-life Radcliffe—personable and polite—and the faux-bigotry of Foster, who spits out horrifying slurs as he attempts to convince the white supremacists he’s one of their own.
The Jewish Week sat down for an exclusive interview with Radcliffe at the TimesCenter in NYC just before his TimesTalks event, where he sat down to talk about the film with The New York Times’ Melena Ryzik alongside Imperium's writer-director, Daniel Ragussis.
In person, Radcliffe is as chatty and good-natured as his fans would hope. Although he's been on a big-name press tour throughout August, appearing on the likes of The Daily Show and The View to promote Imperium, he maintains the same energy and enthusiasm while squeezed intoa small, nondescript office space. Sporting a preppy collared shirt and dark facial hair—he jokes that he quite enjoyed his skinhead buzz cute for the film, cultural implications aside—the Harry Potter star looks like a far cry from the teen wizard role that made him famous.
Imperium, Ragussis' debut feature film, will be released on video on demand and in limited theaters on August 19.
It’s a film that will make viewers uncomfortable, angry, and even frightened. That, Radcliffe said, is a good thing – we need to experience that discomfort and figure out what to do with it.
“There seemed something to me of immense value in that [the film] reminds people that there are other types of terrorists,” Radcliffe told The Jewish Week. “It’s easier to deny their humanity. But the more aggressively dismissive we are of them, the more that plays into their worldview.”
The movie required Radcliffe to familiarize himself with some of the most twisted minds in America.
“The scary thing about it is they’re not all skinheads tattooed with swastikas,” Radcliffe told The Jewish Week. “There is a pseudo-scientific intellectual strain to it which is arguably much more dangerous and is how they justify their behavior.”
Daniel Radcliffe at the NY Times Hosted, TimesTalks in NYC this month. Courtesy of Nicola Bailey
Disturbingly enough, real-life sympathizers of the neo-Nazi movement reared their heads when Radcliffe confirmed his involvement with the film.
“One of the first articles when the film was announced, the first comment on it was from a guy named ‘Aryan Brotha,’” Radcliffe said. “It was all about me being Jewish, like, ‘Oh, what a surprise, another Jew in the entertainment industry…’”
Although there’s no cut-and-dry recipe for KKK recruitment, Radcliffe said there are key variables that make certain people more vulnerable to its allure. It’s not so different from what makes people susceptible to other extremist ideologies, like radical Islam.
“It’s a generalization to say that all people who end up in the white supremacist movement are unhappy or feel like their life has no meaning. But an awful lot of them are that way,” Radcliffe told The Jewish Week. “And it’s when people are unhappy and purposeless that you can appeal to their baser instincts and capitalize on them, which is what the sort of intellectual strata of white supremacy does.”
In other words, anti-Semitism and racism are learned – and can be unlearned.
“Here is an otherwise good person who has had his mind somehow poisoned,” Radcliffe told said. “No one comes out of the womb believing this stuff. You have to be taught it somewhere along the line. And if we lose our ability to believe in people’s power to change, then we might as well all just go home.”
The core of the film can clearly apply more broadly to worldwide extremism, a topic currently headlining the global news cycle.
“I did not anticipate how many of things we talked about in the film would have really bled into a much more mainstream political dialogue by now,” Radcliffe told Jewish Week.
At the TimesTalk discussion, Ryzik drew a connection between white supremacist rhetoric and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, to which Radcliffe responded, “That’s valid.”
“These things have more power the less we talk about them. So hopefully this does start a kind of conversation, which would be a tiny part of a much larger conversation that needs to happen,” the actor told The Jewish Week. “If one skinhead sees this movie and has his mind changed, or is even just made to question something, then it has been entirely worth it.”
Watch the full TimesTalks with Radcliffe and Ragussis here: