The Tragedy of Comedy — Daniel Radcliffe Returns to Broadway in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan

Film and stage star Daniel Radcliffe discusses taking on the demanding title role in the Broadway production of The Cripple of Inishmaan.

Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe (Photo by Hugo Glendinning)

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Daniel Radcliffe thinks. He thinks deeply about what he's doing and why he's doing it. He may only be 24 but he's been a star since he was 11, and he knows exactly how he wants to move forward and what it will take to get where he is going.

"I didn't just want to be famous, I wanted to be an actor," he professed during a delightful and wide-ranging conversation about his latest challenge, playing the title role in The Cripple of Inishmaan at Broadway's Cort Theatre.

He has just arrived in New York for rehearsals with his director, Michael Grandage, and the rest of the cast of this Martin McDonagh play set in the west of Ireland on the Isle of Aran in 1934 when an American film company arrives to make the documentary that became Man of Aran. His character, Billy, has cerebral palsy ("it's a particular form of cerebral palsy," said Radcliffe, who has researched the illness thoroughly, fluently pronouncing the medical name for it), and is accustomed to being dismissed and maltreated by everyone on the tiny island. He is routinely and casually the butt of jokes and the touchstone for the entire community's frustrations. His body is distorted, he has a deformed arm and leg, and his head is set sideways on his body. Poor Billy is a physical mess. "He's outwardly a cripple, but he's more mentally agile... than anyone else on the island." Billy, despite his infirmities, is determined to get a part in the film.

And how does the physically agile and strong Radcliffe manage the physical demands of being folded almost in half for the whole play? "It's something that your body has to get used to, and builds up the strength to do. It's something I was keen to get right. When I played it in London I had months to adjust, but this time it's harder because I've been filming 'Frankenstein' right up to this week and my character is hunchback. So, different physical challenges, but both characters are similarly abused." Wait a minute, did he say a hunchback? What makes an actor take on harder and harder roles and increasingly demanding physical challenges? Why? He could easily go from rom-com to light comedy to undemanding young leading man parts?

"The harder it gets the more fun it can be. If you've got a director who's brilliant and helpful like Michael, he creates an environment that makes you feel safe and then you can try anything. Grandage is wonderful; he builds a company where we all feel safe. I've been so fortunate to have already worked with such great directors. I always seem to get to work with the right director at the right time in my career. Every time I've gone back to the stage, I've come away feeling that I know so much more about myself and about being an actor."

McDonagh's plays are all inky dark, with comedy so black it is often indistinguishable from tragedy, and Inishmaan is no exception. Radcliffe was entranced from the first moment he read the play. "I fell in love with the writing. And what a wonderful chance to play such an interesting character. Through biting exchanges of dialogue it gives you a unique window into the past, into an authentic time and place. It's such an intricate story, told through only nine characters and all their lives are so deeply entrenched in each other. What happens to one affects everybody on the island. There is an amazing sense of community so that you know everyone on the island including those you don't see. They lean on each other and need each other and bring out the cruelty in each other. It's such a cruel play and so funny." On the press night in London, the audience was almost hysterical with laughter, no matter how shaggy the line.

The Cripple of Inishmaan, with the same cast and director, had a sold-out run at the Noël Coward Theatre in London's West End, but because of its Irish setting and characters, it is sure to play differently on Broadway. "It should be better in New York," claimed Radcliffe. "When you know you're going to do a part you've already done, your mind keeps everything ticking over; I feel like the relationships in the play got stronger here. I'm even finding solutions to things that I didn't find in London. [It's] hard to put my finger on but there is a different feel in New York. Audiences never realize what effect they have on the cast and having that relationship with the audience, when they are different — it makes us on stage react differently."

Both of Daniel's parents, now a literary agent and a casting director, were stage actors and they took their son to a lot of live theatre as a child. He has thought about the gap between movie making and theatre. "You go from getting a couple of minutes of footage a day to telling an entire story in a night. It's a job that holds you accountable every day and if you give less than 100 percent every night the audience will know it. You can't fake it. That's the challenge."