It’s in the dilapidated splendor of a dressing room in the Noël Coward Theatre in London that I will meet Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from a celebrated performance as a young man struggling to fight his way out of mediocrity in The Cripple of Inishmaan, by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. I wait for him to leave the stage, tempted to roll myself a cigarette from the pack of tobacco that sits beside his sofa, when my journalistic quarry bounds into the room like an out-of-control puppy on methamphetamine, the adrenaline pumping out of him infectiously.
“Holy fuck! You are like the coolest journalist I’ve ever seen, hands down!” he says wild-eyed, thrusting his hand out for me to shake.
Radcliffe’s in a new film called Kill Your Darlings with some of Hollywood’s hottest young glitterati, who portray the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Lucien Carr. His energy and the real Kerouac’s infatuation with “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live” are clearly congruous, and I immediately take a liking to the guy, finding his post-matinee-performance fervor nothing short of incandescent. I begin to tell him about my teenage meeting with the real Ginsberg.
“So I was, like, nineteen years old at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Ginsberg stopped dead in front of me and stared into my eyes! It was long enough to be awkward, and my measured response was to look like I couldn’t give a fuck who he was, so I tossed my cigarette on the floor and walked away. You know, the kind of thing you do when you think you’re cool.”
“Oh yeah, man…I can imagine. It’s great to get over that stuff, isn’t it?” he says in response. “The need to appear to be cool.”
“Yeah, I certainly should have taken the opportunity to speak to the fucker.” We both laugh, a little maniacally.
Kill Your Darlings, from director John Krokidas, focuses on a cabal of talented young men of varying sexual persuasions who come together and find camaraderie around the central pillar of a man who might just be a cold-blooded psychopath. The talented young men are, of course, Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe), William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston)—those eminent City Lights word-whores who got under the skin of the United States and changed the way a generation perceived the fabric of reality. But when we meet Ginsberg in the film, all the things we now know about the poet are yet to come. He’s seventeen, a mystic seeker/queer activist poet at Columbia University, long before his talk of angel-headed hipsters, and his visions of Albion’s muse William Blake, whose “voice”—when he heard it in his head—he claimed to be the voice of God.
“I guess that mysticism was nascent in him,” says Radcliffe when I ask whether he shares any of Ginsberg’s libertarian or mystical viewpoints on life. “I’m not really sure it was particularly inherent though, all that mysticism. Obviously, at the time of his life that he discovered all that stuff, it struck a chord deep within him.” Arguably, Ginsberg shared Blake’s vision of a world in which all tribes come together as one, and he certainly galvanized the disenfranchised voices of his era more than any of his peers, particularly in the much-loved Howl. But what Kill Your Darlings alludes to is that this soldier of peace may never have written a word were it not for the über-violent murder of the professor David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) by the hand of his peer—and the apple of Ginsberg’s then-virginal eye—Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).
The provocative boy-rebel, Carr, inspired the milieu that would go on to become the most notorious literary circle of all time, and yet he barely wrote a word of fiction in his life, a life as a copywriter who was famous for one thing—an extreme and shadowy murder. It’s a paradigm that begs the question: What makes a writer? What Krokidas considers is who the legendary poet Ginsberg was before his induction into the environment that would shape his writing, and why he became who he did. “I think it speaks to the idea that writers don’t have to be these cerebral people who lock themselves away in rooms, and that creativity sparks creativity. The more connected you are to the world around you, the more likely you are to be creative and inspired by it,” says Radcliffe. “In terms of the identity Allen finds in the movie, it’s interesting because, yes, it definitely speaks to the fact that his—or anyone’s—identity is in flux; your identity isn’t a fixed idea as you go through life…It’s almost that famous thing of ‘painting what you see, not what you think you see.’ Everyone at that time was still trying to compose sonnets because that was the way the world was expressed poetically. But Allen, Carr, and Kerouac were actually getting in touch with the world around them artistically, and culturally, and going ‘No way—actually, we don’t have to do that, we can make a new poetry for the 20th century,’ and in that way they found their voices.”
This new poetry was shaped in large part by the aforementioned murder that forms the crux of the film—a killing that inspired Burroughs and Kerouac, who were initially arrested as accessories, to co-write the semi-biographical novella And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, published posthumously. The emasculation of Lucien Carr, in a court of law, was used to justify an “honor killing.” Carr protested that he was fending off the molestation of an older homosexual man, which, in that era, meant any charge of murder was immediately reduced to manslaughter. The jury has, of course, forever been out on what actually happened the night that Carr repeatedly stabbed Kammerer before committing his still living body to the depths of the Hudson River. “It’s ambiguous, but it’s pretty certain that this film couldn’t have been made if Lucien Carr were still alive,” Radcliffe says. “He would not have wanted this story told. He did everything he could to suppress this story for the rest of his life.” That’s because he was a free man most of his life, wasn’t he? “Yeah, and that’s what John [Krokidas] talks about. It’s important to stay angry and remember that back in 1944, if you could prove that you were straight and the person you had murdered was a gay man, and that he had been some sort of sexual predator, your charge could be downgraded. I think Lucien Carr got eighteen months or so in a reformatory. There’s no easy answer as to what the relationship was between David and Lucien, but the facts are that David was a professor at a university, who left his profession behind to move halfway across the country and take a job as a janitor just to be close to Lucien. There was an element of obsession, and we have to remember that Lucien was a very young boy when they first met—I think Lucien was thirteen or fourteen and David was twenty-one.”
“Pretty fucked-up,” I offer.
“Yeah! It is pretty fucked up! But you know it’s really hard to say if the violence was innate in Lucien. He was a very masterful emotional manipulator, and he used how much people fell in love with him against them. Perhaps that violence was innate, or it was something that he grew up with as a consequence of David being constantly in his life at such a young age. But either way, there is no doubt that the killing was startling in its calmness. There wasn’t a way of showing it that immediately fitted our story for the film, but Lucien actually stabbed him several times before he tied him up and took him into the water with his pockets weighed down so he would drown. Lucien had the forethought, before taking him into the water, to take off all of his own clothes! He took him in naked, dumped him, and then got out, dried himself off, put his clothes back on and went out into town to meet Jack Kerouac and watch a movie. That’s the thing that [Krokidas] shows brilliantly in the film—Lucien’s cold ability to just stop connecting with somebody. I think that’s what torments Allen so much as a young man, because Allen’s desperate to get inside Lucien’s mind and help him, and he loves him, and in the end he is torn between telling the truth or protecting him.”
I ask what it means for Radcliffe to transform into a young gay man in love, a profoundly influential one at that. “I don’t think there’s any difference between how one falls in love. People express love differently, person to person, but it’s not gender or sexuality related. The only difference it made was obviously the actual sex scene, of course…”
Ahem. Daniel, do tell us more:
“I was talked through it by the director. He would be telling me what I would be feeling in each take. Basically, gay sex, especially for the first time, is really fucking painful. And [Krokidas] said that he had never seen that portrayed accurately on film before. He wanted it to look like an authentic loss of virginity.” There is something amusing about listening to the boy wizard discuss shooting an anal sex scene, but wry smiles aside, I suggest this particular scene was more than a loss of virginity; this was a physiological turning point in the life of a man who radically challenged the status quo with every fiber of his being. “The transformative thing about the role wasn’t playing such a famous character or playing a character that had such a huge influence on society. It was more of trying to find your voice, and finding out who you are. It’s usually an awful and very painful journey, and it has to be—it involves getting heartbroken or failing at something that you want to succeed at. Those are important things to go through, and that was the thing that attracted me to the part.”
And here is Radcliffe, a young man who spent all of his formative years on film sets trying to carve his niche as an artist and find his voice in a world that largely had him pigeonholed as a broomstick enthusiast. I suggest it must have been tough, growing up in the glare of publicity. “There is definitely something I related to in terms of artistically finding your own voice,” he says. “To be honest, that’s only something I think I’m really starting to do now. It’s taken a long time and it actually only started for me with Kill Your Darlings, and going back a little bit before that with the musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Doing a musical on Broadway for eleven months really changed something in me. I learned a lot from it, and then working on Kill Your Darlings with first-time director John Krokidas really was huge. He is absolutely one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.”
It’s clear the experience has been nothing short of liberating, and that Radcliffe is maturing into one of the great actors of our age, perhaps one of the purest, given that his whole life has been about the craft since he was removed from school at eleven years old. But what is more interesting is that this film has changed his worldview, giving him a vantage point to consider the political spectrum in the United States. “The thing I’ve learned from spending time in America is that the fatal mistake is to consider it to be one country, or to tar any particular region with one brush,” he says. “America has such a strong conformist character that the counter culture that arises from it is all the more vibrant—that goes all the way from Ginsberg to Nirvana…actually, ever since the 1920s onwards.”
Given that America remains the birthplace of radical free expression, it seems timely to ask what Radcliffe thinks of a contemporary paradigm in which lesbian and gay people are being persecuted in Russia—and perhaps more pertinently, what Ginsberg might have thought of such ugly contemporaneous events. “Well, I remember when we had The European Championship and people were going over to Ukraine and Poland for the games,” he says, a football-loving, good North London Jewish boy at heart. “There was all that anti-Semitism at the matches, and all that racism—it was just staggering how alive that still was,” he says. “I suppose it’s only going to change when governments start educating people about it, but yes, it’s a very sad thing to see how far a country has progressed technologically and scientifically without progressing in a moral sense. It’s staggering, but you have to hope that this is the kind of process that every country goes through, and that at some point it will change, just like it did in America. You have to hope.”
Stylist: Steven Westgarth
Hair: Dan Gregory
Makeup: Mira Husseini
Producer: Seona Taylor-Bell.
Junior Producer: Violet Elliot.
Photography Assistants: Pedro Koechlin and Sam Henry
Styling Assistants: Ashlee Hill and Safiya Yekwai.
Location: Apiary Studios at ApiaryStudios.org.
Grooming Notes: Hydra-calm global protection day cream by REN Skincare.