Daniel Radcliffe Talks ‘Escape From Pretoria’ and the One Thing He Kept From the ‘Harry Potter’ Set

Escape From Pretoria Photo Call, London, United Kingdom - 16 Feb 2020 Daniel Radcliffe poses for photographers on arrival at a screening of the film 'Escape From Pretoria' in London 16 Feb 2020 Image ID: 10558248c Featured in: Escape From Pretoria Photo Call, London, United Kingdom - 16 Feb 2020 Photo Credit: Grant Pollard/Invision/AP/Shutterstock
Grant Pollard/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Daniel Radcliffe is one of the most recognizable actors in the world. Starring in the Harry Potter series for over a decade will do that for a person. But since finishing off the adaptations of the worldwide blockbusters, Radcliffe has mostly avoided big-budget films and carved out a unique path for his career, taking on a wide range of eclectic roles along the way.

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Radcliffe has shown his versatility through roles on Broadway (Lifespan of a Fact), in independent films (Swiss Army Man, Kill Your Darlings), horror films (The Woman in Black), dark fantasy (Horns), action movies (Guns Akimbo), TV comedies (Miracle Workers), and even a cameo in the Judd Apatow-directed comedy Trainwreck, playing the titular “Dog Walker” in a movie-within-a-movie joke for the film.

His latest one of those versatile roles is in the film Escape From Pretoria, an adaptation of the real-life story of political prisoner Tim Jenkin, who helped lead an escape out of Pretoria Central Prison in South Africa in 1979. Based on Jenkin’s autobiography, the thrilling true-life thriller follows Jenkin (Radcliffe) and fellow prisoners Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) and Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart) as they plan the escape, using their own creativity to trick guards and create wooden keys to open their steel cell doors.

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“The more you learn about the story, the crazier it is that it even actually happened,” Radcliffe tells Men’s Journal. “These guys risked their lives for what they thought was right and it gives me hope that guys like Tim, Steven, and Denis and all the other characters that were based on real people even existed. Because it isn’t like one day you just wake up and realize you’re going to fight back as they did. It gives me hope that people can do that.”

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Radcliffe spoke with Men’s Journal about how he researched his role in Escape From Pretoria, how he trained for the part, and what he kept from the Harry Potter series.

Escape From Pretoria is now available On Demand and on Digital.

Men’s Journal: With it being based on a true story, what types of research did you do for this role to prepare? 

Radcliffe: I dug into as much of the real-life story I could. The first starting point was Tim’s book [Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison] and there are quite a few interviews with Tim online, so I watched a lot of those as well. I knew a decent amount about South Africa and the history of it all, I’ve spent some time there and grew up knowing about apartheid, the basics of it all. But it was fascinating just to read Tim’s book and sort of find out what the day-to-day existence of somebody who was trying to resist that and how someone went about doing that during that period of time. That was very interesting for me.

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What was the biggest challenge for you during the shoot?

In terms of being on set, my biggest challenge physically was doing the scene where the guys used a broom handle and manage to unlock their cell from the inside. So for the scene, you get the broom handle and you have to unlock the cell lock that’s on the outside of the door while you’re inside the cell using a mirror to see it. It’s just incredibly difficult and for me, it was just this one thing where I was like: ‘I have to be able to actually do that. We have to have at least one shot where I actually did it.’ I did manage to get it eventually. I think I was the only actor that did it [laughs].

Daniel Radcliffe in Escape from Pretoria / Signature Entertainment
Daniel Radcliffe as Tim Jenkin in the film ‘Escape from Pretoria’. Daniel Radcliffe in Escape from Pretoria / Signature Entertainment

What was the physical preparation like for you for the film?

I go to the gym a good amount to try and stay in shape and it’s funny because I’m not somebody that a lot of people expect that goes to the gym. So anytime anyone sees me there, they’re like ‘Is this for a part?’ And I kindly respond, ‘No, I do it all the time,’ with a laugh. So for this role, there wasn’t a huge amount of physical preparation, but for this movie it was more preparing for the physical space you’re in. The stresses for this shoot were more mundane and time-based. We have a huge amount of story to tell and not a lot of time to do it, and the construct of the story is very detailed with the escape. So physically, it was more about coming in every day and knowing you have to be absolutely on point with your lines and your movements and being ready to go very, very fast. Francis [Annan], the director, was phenomenal under that pressure.

What was it like working with this director and cast?

Working with Ian Hart, Dan Weber and Mark Winter, they’re just fantastic actors and great teammates to work with. I think everybody understood the rate we were going to be going. It’s always a strange thing when you come in and know you have a 24-day shoot and six days to rehearse before that, and then you have to develop a lifelong friendship with someone in that time. It’s only hard if you have someone who is resistant to that, and in this film, there was nothing like that. Everyone was on the same page and ready to work hard and it made it really easy and fun. Ian and Dan and Mark Winter’s performances were fantastic and I was very lucky to be working with them and this director as well.

You also got to work again with Ian Hart, who you starred with in the first Harry Potter film. What’s it like connecting again after all these years?

It was really cool. I’m starting to have these experiences more and more, which is both exciting and terrifying because it means it’s a yardstick meaning I’m getting older. But it’s also lovely because I’ve worked with people now that I’ve worked with 20 years ago on Harry Potter, like Ian who was in the first one with me, and it’s exciting to connect again. In the play that I was most recently doing, I worked with an actor Carl Johnson, who I was on set with maybe my first or second day ever on an acting set back when I did David Copperfield on the BBC before Potter. I was maybe nine or 10, and now I’m 30 and it’s 21 years later and I’m working with him again. It’s a really nice thing.

Harry Potter series / Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Actors Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Maggie Smith in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Harry Potter series / Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Did you keep anything from the Harry Potter set while filming the series?

Working on those seven movies was such a great experience for me, I made lifelong friends. I actually have got two sets of the glasses, those iconic Harry Potter specs. I’ve got a set from the first film and a set from the last film, because they are sort of a visual of how much I grew [laughs]. I’ve got them, but they are not in my house, they are in a locked box somewhere.

Did you learn anything during making this film that surprised you about what Tim and the characters really went through?

One thing that I found super interesting was that Tim said one of the reasons the escape was made possible was that the guards were really stupid [laughs]. It wasn’t just that, I mean Tim is a genius, but having the guards kind of mess things up a little helps too. But along with that, the thing that I found the most profound and surprising is that the event even happened at all. It gives me hope that guys like Tim and Steven Lee and Dennis Goldberg and all the other characters that were based on real people even existed. Because it isn’t like one day you just wake up and realize you’re going to fight back as they did. What I mean is, we all like to think that if we were raised in a society that was oppressive that we would have the moral compass that would tell us it’s oppressive and we wouldn’t tolerate it. But the sad reality is that most people do—but these guys didn’t. And even they will say that they can’t tell you particularly tell you why they didn’t and not others. But they were able to see the situation from the outside, see it as immoral and inhumane as it was. And it gives me hope that people can do that.

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