In the "Harry Potter" movies, Richard Griffiths is the cloddish, rejecting Uncle Vernon Dursley to Daniel Radcliffe's Harry. But in real life, as they chat in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel, their relationship seems more like that of Potter and the wise wizard Albus Dumbledore, Harry's trusted and caring mentor at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"We've known each other since he was 11," since the first Potter film, says Griffiths, 61. He smiles fondly at his 19-year-old colleague, with whom he is co-starring in the first Broadway revival of Equus, Peter Shaffer's 1974 Tony winner for Best Play.
"Working with Richard on Equus made me feel that doing the play would be less terrifying than it possibly could have been otherwise," says Radcliffe, the trust and ease of their relationship apparent in every word and gesture. "It gives you confidence. Richard's so experienced I know that if I mess anything up or if anything goes wrong we can salvage it."
In Equus, at the Broadhurst Theatre, Griffiths — a Tony and Oliver Award winner as Best Actor in a Play for Alan Bennett's The History Boys — portrays Dr. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist called on to treat Alan Strang (Radcliffe, in his Broadway debut), a disturbed adolescent who has blinded six horses. Thea Sharrock directs the production, a sellout hit last year in London. Why did Radcliffe decide to risk the journey from film to theatre? "The play was shown to me, and I wanted to do it. It wasn't so much that I had the ambition to do theatre. I wanted to do Equus, and the medium for Equus was theatre. If I'd gone off and done another fantasy film, people would have said, 'Oh, he's not stretching himself.' But then if I'd gone and played a terrorist, they would have said, 'Oh, it smacks of his desperation to be seen as something else.' So you have to find that middle ground." And "a play like Equus," he says, "comes with a certain literary clout. And, of course, I was going to do it with Richard."
Not everyone was certain it was a good idea. During rehearsals in London, he says, "there was a lot of newspaper stuff about it being a big mistake. My favorite headline was 'Crash - What's That? - The Sound of a Career Coming to a Grinding Halt.' But when I'd look around me in the rehearsal hall, I thought that if I'm going to screw up I couldn't screw up with better people."
He sees Alan Strang as someone who "lives entirely in the moment. He knows that his addiction, if you will, his sexual worship of his horses, can only end badly. I think he has some knowledge of that. He can't look to the future because it's too terrifying."
Griffiths says that Dr. Dysart's similarities to Strang are as crucial as his differences. "He's as troubled in his own way as is Alan. When he's dealing with his authorities they all see him as a man offshore in the waters waving. He sees them as people on the safe shore, and he's drowning. They don't get that he's not waving but drowning."
At one point, Griffiths notes, Dysart "says he wishes there were one person in his life he could take with him to Greece and point to a grove or wood or rock or statue or something and he could get the feeling of ancient Greece, where he wants to live. The only person he could fittingly take who would appreciate it is Alan."
There is a moment in the play that has received much press — the scene in which Strang, and, therefore, Radcliffe, appears naked.
"The one quality I can't stand in any actor," Radcliffe says, "is having taken a part and then hemming and hawing about whether to do it. If you accepted the part, and you accepted the fact that you're going to do it, you just get on with it, and damn the consequences."
Griffiths gently interrupts his younger and thinner colleague — "That's why I turned it down," he says.
They both laugh. "It could be quite scary," Radcliffe continues. "But you also get a big rush of adrenaline." He pauses. "It is terrifying. But you accept that fact. . . . The people are seeing Alan, rather than me. At that point they're so involved in the play that for 80–90 percent of them, all prurient thoughts have departed."
In February, it's back to the movies, to begin the seventh and final Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (the sixth, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," opens next summer, bumped from this November). But is Radcliffe hooked on theatre, naked or clothed?
"Absolutely," he says. "I'd love to do Shakespeare. I'd love to play Puck. I'm short, and I think I have an impish quality."
But there's more. Strang sings advertising jingles, and Radcliffe has been taking singing lessons. And, he says, a Broadway musical beckons, at least eventually. "The part I'd ultimately like to play, maybe in 20 years, is Bobby in Stephen Sondheim's Company. It's my favorite musical by a long way — and the lyrics are beyond superb."
In other words, Harry Potter has fallen under the spell of Broadway musical magic.