If everything in life truly is a matter of perspective, as Marcus Aurelius once posited, then kudos to Hollywood filmmakers for applying the Roman Emperor’s dictum to works of classic literature, transforming Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde into 1996’s Julia Roberts’ vehicle, Mary Reilly, the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent and Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and the Huntsman, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet into Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and now Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into the giddy, rambunctious, revisionary adventure, Victor Frankenstein, starring James (X-Men) McAvoy as the titular doctor and Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe as the hunchbacked, forbearing Igor. The film, written by Max (Chronicle) Landis and directed by Paul (BBC’s Sherlock) McGuigan, is in theaters this week.
In addition to casting new light on a Gothic tale ubiquitous in Western culture, thrusting to center stage the timid, tortured laboratory assistant to one megalomaniacal, Victorian Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein invites cinephiles to engage anew with Radcliffe, who perfectly embodied J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard in eight feature films, the first of them released when he was but 10-years old. Today, Radcliffe is 26.
Though Radcliffe has made several diverse, post-Potter appearances on stage and screen – playing Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the 2013 thriller, Kill Your Darlings, and equine-obsessed Alan Strang in a 2008 Broadway revival of Equus – it is Victor Frankenstein that most completely revamps the young actor’s capital goods, his take on Igor bristling with anguish, desire, ambition, and a nascent violence. Radcliffe is spellbindingly good in the film, with not a single holly wood wand or pair of Windsor spectacles anywhere in sight.
Reviewing your filmography, you’ve appeared in filmed versions of David Copperfield, Harry Potter, Woman in Black, and now, Victor Frankenstein. All that’s left of classic European literature is Madame Bovary. Perhaps its time to get suited up to play Leon Dupuis.
(Laughs) Yes, you’re quite right. I guess I have been rather lucky in life. Certainly, it’s not been through any planning or grand strategy, that’s for sure. Somehow, I’ve been invited in to these projects that have amazing source material, which we in the movie business like to believe gives us a leg up toward making a good film. All I know is that I have been very, very lucky.
That said, Victor Frankenstein is decidedly not our grandfather’s Frankenstein. What screenwriter Max Landis does is something very much his own.
Absolutely! Not only is the film told from Igor's point of view, but Max has also taken these images of Frankenstein and his monster that we all carry in our heads and disrupts them, reinvents them, does brilliant, new things with them. He draws not only from Shelley’s novel, but from some of the other representations of the story in popular culture, which is how there’s a story at all about Igor. He’s not even in the original novel!
Most people probably have no idea about that!
That’s right – because we’ve all seen those films or photographs from those films or talked with someone who’s seen those films. When we think about Frankenstein, it’s the Boris Karloff monster, the hunchbacked assistant, the mad scientist shouting, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” All of that. What Max does is take every single variation of the Frankenstein myth and ties them into one new story.
The film shifts the attention from the relationship between the doctor and his monster to that between the doctor and Igor.
That’s right. Victor and the monster have had plenty of time to get acquainted in the movies! Now it’s time for Victor and Igor! (Laughs) Something I found very interesting is that Max says one of his big inspirations for writing this film was The Social Network (2010’s Oscar-winning film about the origins of Facebook) – this idea of two young guys on the tip of the spear of technology who are forging their ways forward and being told no and really overcoming it all with youthful rebellion and a complete lack of self-doubt. I find that rather exciting.
I don’t recall hair extensions or a prosthetic hump in The Social Network.
(Laughs) No, uh, that was… (Laughs) That was Max’s starting point!
In some ways, Victor Frankenstein almost feels like an allegory for celebrity itself. Just as readers have a bevy of preconceived notions about who these characters are and how they should behave, moviegoing audiences have fixed ideas about who Daniel Radcliffe is. The film upends all of that.
I've never thought of it that way myself. It would possibly be a little too self-conscious for me to approach the work like that, but I totally see what you’re saying. I think you’re right!
You tend to play characters who are desperately trying to figure out their identities, who they are and what they’re capable of. Why do you think that is?
That’s where most young men are in their 20s, I think. Most of the characters I play are people in that age group, right, and people in that age group are generally trying to find out who they are and establish themselves I suppose. Maybe it will be different when I’m old and grey!
So if there is no strict guiding philosophy to how you choose film roles, then what is it? Is it possible that you’re choosing work just so you can have a series of grand adventures?
Yeah! I think you’ve caught me now. That is, ultimately, how I pick roles, definitely. I just pick things based on what I think is going to be the most exciting or the most fun that I can have or that I will learn from and get to do something totally different than I've done before. Those are the things that excite me. Basically, I apply The Happiness Test to everything I do. For example, if I do this, will it make me happy? I'm in a very fortunate position now where I can choose my jobs like that. As long as I'm in that position, I will continue to enjoy it.
Is The Happiness Test something you employ regularly in your life?
Oh, yes. But it’s not so much a list of actual criteria as it is simply stopping for a moment to assess the options and choose the one that will make me happiest. I’ve also been very lucky, I should add, that I’ve usually been right. But really, I think the only really important question in life is: am I going to enjoy this?
Even though audiences have gotten to know you over more than half your life, it feels like we’ve only begun to see what Daniel Radcliffe can do. Does that sound about right to you?
I hope so, yeah. I would love to write and direct at some point. I think I’ve absorbed enough to do a good job, or maybe I’ve just absorbed enough to think I could do a good job. (Laughs) Hopefully, we’ll find out one day. I think I’d have to write the project myself so that if the film is a complete disaster, I’ll have much less guilt. I’ll have screwed up my script, not some other writer’s good work.
Besides being a really terrific adventure film, Victor Frankenstein also feels rather relevant these days. These are characters who want to do good, but come to this crossroads where they realize immorality and radical action are the only ways to get what they think they want. It seems like an awful lot of us live our lives like that today. Does that make sense?
Yes, absolutely. I think the thing that strikes me about the movie as being both very relevant to today’s world and also rather timeless is this dual state most of us live in, this combination of fear and gratitude towards science. We can clone or we can drop nuclear bombs. Science can do so much good, but it can wreak the most horrific havoc too. The works of very well intentioned, clever scientists can be horribly abused, or they can heal us, save our lives. These are aspects of tension in each of us since around the time someone made the first fire on Earth, probably.
One can only imagine the mischief you and McAvoy enjoyed on the set of this film. How much abuse did he lump upon you over the prosthetic hump and the hair extensions?
I actually think James had mainly sympathy about the hair extensions, as he had to wear them himself for another job at one point, so he knows how challenging they can be. But we’re both rather physical actors. We’re pretty full on. We, both of us, like to scrap and get in there and land our punches. We’re not much for faking. Once we realized we were on the same page there, it opened the door for a lot of physical abuse. (Laughs) Which was awesome! (Laughs) It just so happens that in my career, I've been on the receiving ends of many beatings and the losing end of fights. I’m very experienced at this sort of thing in films. I am expert at losing a fight on screen. Hopefully in real life, I wouldn’t fold and flop quite like that. I hope I could do better than that. But maybe I’m just very good at getting beaten up!