Wednesday, 25 June 2014

ESSAY: The Successful Coming of Age for Child Star Daniel Radcliffe

This essay was written as part of my MLitt Film & Television Studies.

Consider the narrative surrounding the press and audience reception of Daniel Radcliffe’s adult performances in the light of his reputation as a child star.

The narrative surrounding child stars in Hollywood has been incredibly rich, beginning in the 1920s and 30s with young actors such as Shirley Temple and Jackie Coogan. Often accompanied by a fascination with failure, the child star’s story plays out in the press for audiences as the stars grow up in the limelight. This narrative continues to this century with audiences having eagerly anticipated the rise and fall of young actors such as Macaulay Culkin, Drew Barrymore, Dakota Fanning and so on. With press focussing on the ‘curse’ of the child star, clearly acting from a young age can bring about many issues leading to frequent falls from grace for the young stars. However, this can be seen as a ‘myth’ with many young actors transitioning into adult roles without being involved in financial lawsuits, substance abuse, criminal records and family estrangement. A Google search for “child stars” yields a list of “Where are they now?” pieces, feeding this apparent curiosity in the tumultuous aging process from child to adult.

In recent years the young cast of the Harry Potter film franchise have found themselves under a great deal of scrutiny as the series ended and they moved on to pursue adult careers. The film series began in 2001 with Emma Watson aged 11, Daniel Radcliffe aged 12 and Rupert Grint aged 13 ending 10 years later in 2011 in their early twenties having spent their whole adolescences on the big screen. With Harry Potter as such a major, worldwide phenomenon their characters in the series will inevitably follow them wherever they go. Radcliffe and Watson, having both maintained success in acting roles, are surrounded by the same language in the press for every new role they take. References to Harry Potter, Hermione, magic, wizards and growing up always feature in reviews, interviews and promotion for their adult roles.

Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson have experienced a similar level of success and respect in their career choices with Watson making links in the fashion world, modelling and designing collections, whilst attending Brown University in America and continuing to impress in her acting roles. As the title character for the Harry Potter series I will focus my investigation on Radcliffe, whose stage performances and quirky film roles have all garnered respect and attention, whilst still enduring the “Harry Potter grows up” narrative. This narrative is shaped by a plethora of reviews, interviews and opinion pieces across press both in the UK and abroad, and further enforced in the discussion from audiences and fans on fan message boards and social networking sites. By finding a range of pieces from the time of Radcliffe’s first post-Potter film role in The Woman in Black (2012) I will investigate how the narrative surrounding this child star’s transition into adult acting roles is formed by the press and continued in the opinions of fans in their “intertextual” viewing of his work. The sources have all been found online and vary from newspapers to magazines and for audience reception from forums and comments on social media sites. This does not provide a conclusive survey of all comment on Radcliffe and his adult roles but instead aims to highlight evidence of the former-child-star narrative in the discourse surrounding this period of his career.

To begin with I will look at the origins of the established narrative norms in the media surrounding child stars and former child stars. Jane O’Connor has studied the phenomenon of child stars exploring in The Cultural Significance of the Child Star (2008) the way they are portrayed in the media relating this to social expectations of children and childhood. She explores the myth of the child star curse by examining their portrayal in the media, which she finds is mostly consistent from the ‘Hollywood Child Star Era’ of the 1920s through to modern day filmmaking.

O’Connor discusses the “detrimental effects of child stardom” and explores the “problems around fame, social identity, and personal fulfilment, which seem to characterise the experiences of many child actors and performers as they grow up” (O’Connor, 2011, p284). She identifies the press as the inventor of the cursed child star narrative finding that the “the link between early success in the entertainment world and future unhappiness as an adult had been well and truly established by the press by the 1970s.” Even if accounts from former child stars leading “’normal’ lives with ‘normal’ relationships’” showed evidence to the contrary (Ibid. p292).

So it seems that this narrative has been long established even if there is only a small minority of ‘cursed’ cases to back it up, with O’Connor finding the modern press following very much in the footsteps of the earlier press’s fabrication:

 “The reconstruction of the child star as an object of pity and ridicule by the media in the late twentieth century can be seen to have its antecedents both in this association of child stardom with misfortune and in the casting of adorable children actors as objects of poetic misery and suffering (who always somehow pull through due to their ability to melt adults’ hearts) in Hollywood movies of the Child Star Era” (Ibid.)

O’Connor sees this as a major problem in the understanding of childhood, whereby expectations of childhood innocence and the realities of the growing up process clash severely. These stories play out in the press and have a genuine impact on the cultural understanding of childhood, becoming part of the “popular imagination” for the “morbid fascination of readers, listeners or viewers” (O’Connor, 2008, p.2). She questions why then we have “child stars in our culture at all” (O’Connor, 2009, p.137) but it is this “morbid fascination” that drives the narrative onwards and has sustained it for so long. In a piece on the obsession with celebrity failure and the human act enjoying the misfortune of others known as Schadenfreude, Steve Cross and Jo Lester observe:

“Whether mocking Michael Jackson’s fall from grace, breathlessly reporting Lindsay Lohan’s losses or eagerly observing Britney’s meltdowns, the act of gleefully watching or pushing celebrities from their pedestals has become a major cultural trope” (Cross & Littler, 2010, p396).

This obsession this celebrity failure permeates popular culture in the press and notably the three celebrity examples given are all former child stars who have all had a troubled transition into adult life, professionally and personally. The growing up story for the young stars of Harry Potter has not yet taken this turn, but that is not to say that readers would not be fascinated if things took a turn for the worst.

The intertextual nature of theatre, film and television is certainly at play in the audience and press reception surrounding Daniel Radcliffe’s adult performances. He carries with him not just the character of Harry Potter but also the extra or intertextual elements of his fame in the form of information gleaned from interviews, articles and so on. Mikhail Iampolski in The Memory of Tiresias discusses the way intertextuality brings new meaning into a text, “In essence the production of meaning is resolved in this "struggle" of memory and the way it is overcome. History is drawn into a text's structure as a semantically productive element”(Iampolski, 1998, p.9). All the extra knowledge an audience brings to the process creates innumerable new meanings, a process that is visible in a quite literal sense in the activities of fans. All the extra knowledge gained by fans creates a very particular viewing position, meaning a text such as a film becomes intertwined with the surrounding culture, as Iampolski comes to conclude, “The intertext, then, binds a text to a culture, with culture functioning here as an interpretive, explanatory, and logic-generating mechanism” (Ibid. p.246-7).

This sense of innumerable different meanings is described well by Douglas B. Holt, cited by Elizabeth C. Hirschman (2000), who observes:

“The meanings of a particular cultural object or action are always constructed through a cultural process known as intertextuality, by metaphoric, imagistic, and narrative association with other cultural objects and practices... Meanings [may be] conceived as endlessly referring symbolic chains [or as] meaning webs or systems” (Hirschman, 2000).

This ‘web’ of meaning adds many new strands to the viewing of a narrative and this is certainly something which comes into play in the reception of Daniel Radcliffe’s adult roles. In a piece on Radcliffe’s performance in musical theatre show How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Shari Perkins discusses how this intertextual reading process is very much a part of theatre viewing:

“An actor brings with him or her a collection of associations--either with his past roles or, in the case of a celebrity like Radcliffe, with himself--which cannot help but color the way he or she is perceived when performing. The audience's interest in the performer's past is not limited to the professional sphere: in "Celebrity and the Semiotics of Acting," Michael Quinn notes that spectators tend to seek information about the private life of celebrity performers, forming a body of knowledge which creates an intertext, or "an accretion, based on similar art/life connections in earlier roles, and also on the connections the celebrity provides between the roles themselves." This body of knowledge affects audience reception as well.” (Perkins, 2011)

This intertextual process combined with the ‘curse of the child star’ narrative come together to inform both the press and audience reception of Radcliffe’s adult roles. This is particularly apparent in the narrative surrounding The Woman in Black (2011), as this was Radcliffe’s first post-Potter film role. Throughout the reviews, interviews and articles on The Woman in Black patterns emerge in the topics covered. In interviews growing up and missing Harry Potter is frequently discussed. Radcliffe himself makes several references to the child star curse, actively striving to prove himself as an actor and disprove the myth of his inevitable failure.

In the reviews, his acting skills or lack thereof occupy a lot of the word count. In the Daily Mail he received this scathing report: “In his first post-Harry Potter role, he’s dull and inexpressive, and he’s worryingly dead behind the eyes” (Tookey, 2012). And similarly in the Guardian: “I remain undecided about Radcliffe, who endures each shuddering shock with a blank, stoic fortitude that suggests a teenager taking his driving test. He passes, but only just” (Brooks, 2012). For a young actor cast in a huge role at the age of 11 it seems many reviewers are interested to see whether he can hold his own as an actor before any credit can be given. The idea of the luckiness of his early career seems to leave Radcliffe under a great deal of scrutiny as he pursues his adult career. However, Time is kinder, “That tension — that expecting the worst but never knowing when it might reveal itself — plays naturally across Radcliffe’s features and helps him carry what is essentially a one-man show” (Corliss, 2012). As is Total Film “Radcliffe, meanwhile, is terrific, exhibiting the greasy pallor of a haunted man” (Glasby, 2012). Both these reviews taking the negatives of “dead behind the eyes” and “blank” of the previous reviews, as a good portrayal of a haunted, grieving character.

That Radcliffe should receive impartial reviews is inevitably very difficult. As the New York Times review makes clear:

“Mr. Radcliffe makes a sturdy, sympathetic center for the tale, even if the ghost of Potter past hovers in his every gesture. Despite Mr. Radcliffe’s best efforts (including the choice to go period), the lingering Potter effect is only natural given that Hogwarts was the actor’s training ground. It will take time before many of us will be able to see the actor instead of his famous character, and time for him to shake that role off too, though it helps that Mr. Radcliffe is no longer encumbered by Harry’s mop and especially his glasses” (Dargis, 2012).

The metaphor of Potter as a ghost haunting Radcliffe’s career really serves this narrative well as it does continue to haunt every piece of press surrounding his adult acting career. The reference to his appearance having changed (different hair do and no glasses) as “helpful” shows just how strong the imagery of Harry Potter as a character is. It highlights that Potter is bigger than Radcliffe himself, so the simple act of making sure he looks different in his first post-Potter role is immensely important. This is something that Radcliffe does mention in several interviews, which illustrates just how focussed he is on actively moving on and differentiating between his earlier role and his adult career. In an interview with Den of Geek, he insists that he knows his connection to Potter won’t disappear over night but its clear he’s made a conscious decision to start that process, beginning with how he looks, “I think I look very different in this film, I think it’s a very different type of performance that I give” (Mellor, 2012). He mentions this again in his interview with Empire and this “looking different” coupled with playing a “slightly older” (O’Hara) character seem to be the baby steps to distancing himself from the schoolboy Potter image.

Radcliffe is very aware of the “child star curse”, and it seems he is actively trying to avoid validating the myth and failing himself. In an interview with Caroline Frost for Huffington Post he is asked how he has managed to achieve such “surprising self-awareness” and he responds by pointing out there are many actors who began working very young and have gone on to have very successful careers: “"The thing is, everyone talks about child stars like Macaulay Culkin. Nobody mentions Jodie Foster, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood..." he rattles off loads of well-rehearsed names of veterans like him” (Frost, 2012). Frost here almost mocking the way this line is delivered as “well-rehearsed” and “rattled off.” If it was delivered in this way it is clear that this is a topic Radcliffe has to speak on time and again and therefore has an answer ready. As well as the “ghost” of Potter following him, there is also the “child star curse”, which consistently drives the narrative of his story in the press. He repeats again and again that he is “about working hard” and “proving” himself in an effort to be taken seriously. In another interview for Huffington Post with Christina Patterson he talks of the “fear of not proving the people wrong” being a “driving force” (Patterson 2012). In this sense Radcliffe is being affected by the “child star curse” in that it becomes a motivation for him not to fail and to prove the myth wrong:

"I know I'm not a coal miner, but I do long hours and I never complain, and there is nowhere else I'd rather be. So, yeah, that's how I'd define myself. I want to do it right, and prove people wrong once and for all about the myth of child stars."(Frost, 2012)

So Radcliffe is very much aware of the narrative surrounding his adult roles and it seems he is playing just as calculated a game as the press is in creating a former child star story and image. As he says in an interview for the Daily Mail:

“The Woman In Black is very different from Harry Potter. But it's different enough without me having to go all extreme and play a drug- dealing rent boy, or something where people go: "Oh, OK, he's trying to shock us now." I was simply after a good role” (Bamigboye, 2010).

He, and his agent and press team, are not using shock tactics in order to shed the boy wizard image, but instead attempting to create the image of a young, well respected, polite and acclaimed adult actor. Dominant though the “child star curse” narrative is, in Radcliffe’s case it is used to draw attention to his exemplary behaviour and achievement in avoiding a public fall from grace:

“He’s an object lesson in how to survive the curse of being a child star: relationships conducted quietly out of the limelight; brief teenage flirtation with booze swiftly abandoned; rigorous focus on working with the very best people” (McGinn, 2013).

Radcliffe has also used comedy to show his versatility and to poke fun at the child star narrative by playing himself in an episode Extras, the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant comedy series, in 2006. This is a technique Emma Watson has used too with her cameo in American apocalypse comedy This is the End (2013) starring alongside the likes of Seth Rogan and James Franco. On Extras Radcliffe guest starred as a version of himself in costume as a boy scout attempting to impress all the women on set with condoms, swearing and cigarettes. In a piece on Extras’ “cringe worthy cameos” on Television without Pity, Aly Semigran describes Radcliffe’s role as going against the expectations of child stars:

“As a pop culture-consuming people, we've become all too familiar with young stars trying to shed their role model image and be taken "seriously" as sexual objects. Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe could put them all to shame, however, with his damn funny, but oh so humiliating appearance on Extras” (Semigran, 2013).

Radcliffe’s awareness of the child star curse and the expected behaviour it brings is very much evident here. By taking on a role such as this he makes quite a public statement about his intentions as an actor. Radcliffe reflects on the role:

“It's very important to show that you have a sense of humor about yourself. Particularly from me early on, to show that I had a sense of humor about the whole child star thing, and that I was aware of that stereotype. I am very grateful to Ricky [Gervais] and Stephen [Merchant] for giving me the chance to take the piss out of that. Particularly at that age when I did "Extras," the reason I jumped at the chance to do it was because I was so aware that that's the image people had of child stars. So the fact that I was being given a chance to hint at the fact that I wasn't like that -- though people could still watch the episode and think maybe he is like that...” (Suskind, 2013)

By poking fun and playing with audience expectations Radcliffe was taking control of the “child star curse” and gaining ownership over this narrative so that people could take him seriously as an adult performer but also see that he did not take himself too seriously.

Jane O’Connor mentions Radcliffe and his fellow young cast members in The Cultural Significance of the Child Star where she ruminates as to why they have “so far avoided, or at least been predicted to avoid” (O’Connor, 2008, p77) the curse. She finds that it is potentially due to their middle-class upbringings and supportive parents. She writes, “[Director John] Boorman’s description of Daniel as a ‘lovely kid’ with a ‘natural manner’ distances him from the stereotypical precocious child star,” which is usually characterised as working-class and succumbing to “the aspirational power of a life in show business” (Ibid.) The family friendly positivity surrounding the Harry Potter franchise may have actively stemmed the breakdowns of its child actors. This could have something to do with its British home. In conversation with Jo Rowling, Radcliffe discusses his very positive experience as a child actor on the set of Harry Potter in the UK, “In England it’s different than in America. In America they treat you first and foremost as a star and then as a child, whereas actually you should be treated as a kid first and then an actor second” (Ravenclawdavid, 2013).

It seems from this account, as with many childhoods, if a child star is raised in a supportive environment and “treated as a kid” it may be less likely they go off the rails in response to their experiences. Clearly Daniel Radcliffe has been aware of the “child star curse” as a narrative in the press for quite some time and so has the determination to avoid it at all costs and from his point of view it could have been worse if he had not been filming in England.

While under a great deal of scrutiny from the press as they grew up, the Harry Potter trio clearly greatly benefitted from having loving, supportive parents but also the love and support of a vast fanbase. The fandom surrounding Harry Potter is huge and has had a significant presence in the online evolution of fans and their creative activities. Fans of the series often talk about the process of “growing up with Harry” as a constant force for good throughout their childhoods and teenage years. Not only have fans watched Daniel, Rupert and Emma grow up on screen, but they grew up along with Harry, Ron and Hermione on the page too. There is an intense investment in the lives of the characters and so also with the actors who played them. Therefore support for the trio’s adult acting endeavours remains resolutely strong. For many fans it was the exciting next step in the journey along with Daniel Radcliffe that had begun in 2001.

The intertextual nature of an actor’s performance is heightened more so in the case of Radcliffe’s adult roles. The “ghost” of Harry Potter continues to follow him as can only be expected from such a colossal worldwide franchise success. He has referred to the experience as a “springboard” and not a “straightjacket” (Ibid.), but for audiences it can be very hard to get away from the image of the boy wizard. For invested fans further research into Radcliffe’s life widens this intertextual “web” creating new layers of meaning when viewing his work. For fans this is a positive and rewarding process, as pleasure is gained from time spent researching, sharing and discussing details with other fans.

Harry Potter fan sites such as MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron continue to post news of projects the Potter cast are now involved in, illustrating the continued interest and involvement in the lives and careers of the actors. Fans are therefore very supportive of these projects, which can be seen across various online spaces including in the Snitchseeker forums[1], in comments on The Woman in Black YouTube channel and on its Facebook.

On Snitchseeker the tone is mostly positive with fans expressing their concerns over the “weirdness” of watching Radcliffe and his fellow Potter cast member in new roles. In a thread posting pictures of both Radcliffe and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) on set in their first post-Potter roles PhoenixStar writes, “Cool! It still seems so weird to me to see them in other roles, but very happy for them all.” Hermione Granger27 writes, “its weird [sic] to see him in a role other than Harry.” Amandagayle writes, “So excited to see both of their projects! It won't be so weird seeing them in other things now that Potter is over” (Masterofmystery, 2011).

“Weird” is a recurring theme on the forum and it seems there is some kind of internal struggle going on for fans where they want to be supportive but don’t yet know how they will react when watching what feels like their Harry Potter move on to play different roles. Much like the ending of a relationship, concern about moving on affects both parties, in this case the fans want Radcliffe to succeed but also need to be able to move on themselves. “Post Potter Depression” was a term used by many fans to describe their emotional experience at the end of the series they grew up with and relied on so much. This “weirdness” is very much an emotional response. Riddikulus writes, “I was worried that trying to watch Dan in anything else would be difficult. But for some reason when I see these photos, I don't think of Harry as much as I thought I would.” Arou writes, “I'm seriously going to be very sad if he does not succeed in his post-potter career. He seems to have so much to offer!” (Ibid.)

So while fans are primarily supportive of Radcliffe, the intertext at play involves their own emotional connections to his role as Harry and is therefore potentially “difficult” to deal with. The “ghost” of Harry is in this case haunting the fans.

Elsewhere jokes and puns about spells and other Potter characters continue to fill up the comment spaces. On YouTube under the trailer for The Woman in Black, “that is not Daniel Radcliff, that is and always will be harry potter.” And “LOL when they called him Arthur I was like, his name isn't Arthur it's Harry!” (TheWomanInBlackMovie, 2011) But amongst this Harry fans are fighting Radcliffe’s corner urging the rest of the audience to move on too, “I wish people would stop with the Harry Potter Jokes. I myself am a big HP Fan but really people need to accept he is not playing Harry in this movie” (Ibid.) Fans are actively shaping their own intertextual readings of Radcliffe’s adult roles, by attempting to separate their love of Harry Potter and Daniel Radcliffe in order to fully enjoy and support his performances. 

The narrative surrounding Daniel Radcliffe’s post Harry Potter adult roles has been dominated by the “child star curse” in the press, in the most part to marvel at how well he has avoided the crash and burn trajectory. Radcliffe himself has been well aware of the “curse” and has been driven by desire to prove it is a myth. By taking ownership of the expected child star narrative he has been able to show himself to have a sense of humour and also to be taken seriously as an adult actor. Although he will probably never be able to outrun his first major role as The Boy Who Lived, the acting choices he has made all seem to be in aid of distancing himself as much as possible, even if the narrative in the press still always relates back to Harry Potter. Simon Hattenstone for The Guardian writes:

 “Yet over the past half-dozen years, he has done everything he possibly could to distinguish himself from Harry: riding a horse naked and aroused on stage in Peter Shaffer's Equus, limping around stage as Billy Claven in The Cripple Of Inishmaan, haunted by ghosts in the horror movie The Woman In Black. Now he's at it again, with another part from which Harry Potter would run a mile: in Kill Your Darlings, he plays gay beat poet Allen Ginsberg, sexually infatuated with the dangerous Lucien Carr” (Hattenstone, 2013).

Harry will always be this “ghost” for Radcliffe, even if it is used as a marker for success and how far he has come. The “ghost” haunted fans too as they set out on the journey with him into his adult acting career, concerned about how “weird” it would be to see such a beloved figure in new roles. The intertextual relationship with Radcliffe’s post-Potter roles does not necessarily impede or increase enjoyment for audiences, but instead creates an entirely different viewing experience for every single person within a vast “web” of intertextual meaning.


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[1] MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron also have popular and well-used forums, however at the time of researching these forums had been taken offline. I believe this is temporary and due to well needed site refurbishment, as these have been active fan spaces since before the first film in 2001. The nature of social media now means that there is space for comment almost everywhere, however forums still hold weight as important spaces for fan discourse.

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