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Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

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July 6, 2007 - 2:16PM

One enchanted night at theater, Radcliffe became Harry Potter

Barry Koltnow, Tribune

It was June 2000, and British movie producer David Heyman had a bit of a problem.
Filming for the first Harry Potter film — the “Sorcerer’s Stone” — was scheduled to commence in one month, and Heyman didn’t have his Harry Potter yet. It’s very important to have a Harry Potter for a Harry Potter film.

One night, he couldn’t take it anymore. He needed a break from the search, so he and screenwriter Steve Klovis attended a play in London. It was called “Stones in His Pockets.” In the lobby during the intermission, Heyman said he ran into an old friend, a talent agent named Alan Radcliffe. He was standing with his wife and their 10-year-old son, Harry Potter.

Actually, the boy’s name was Daniel Radcliffe, but Heyman saw only Harry Potter.

“It was his eyes,” explained Heyman, who has produced all five Potter films, including the new “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which opens Wednesday.

It’s a great Hollywood story. The 17-year-old star of the Harry Potter films chuckles when Heyman’s story is mentioned. According to Radcliffe, the story does have a lot of truth to it but, like all Hollywood legends, is exaggerated a bit.

Yes, Heyman and the elder Radcliffe met in the lobby. And young Daniel’s father was an old friend of the producer’s.

“I had already done 'David Copperfield’ (a 1999 TV movie) and 'The Tailor of Panama’ (released in 2001), so I wasn’t an unknown person. Up until that point, however, my parents were reluctant to have me sign a contract that tied me to at least six films. So I hadn’t even auditioned, and I hadn’t met David.”

The producer insists that it was indeed a magical moment when he discovered his Harry Potter. That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.

New film, new challenges

In “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” directed by David Yates, Harry is fresh off his battle with the dastardly Lord Voldemort. But first, he must defend himself against charges that he used magic outside the school and in front of a Muggle.

Harry must deal with a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Dolores Umbridge, who doesn’t seem interested in preparing the students for the life-and-death battle against the dark forces that is coming. So, Harry forms his own defense classes and begins to train his fellow students.

Radcliffe says he loves the political direction the film took, and says he was more challenged as an actor in this movie than in any other Potter adventure.

“This film has more realism than any of the other films and David (director Yates) kept pushing for more realism, which is something I’ve always aspired to in these films,” the actor says.

“For example, there is a scene in this film when I have to deal with someone’s death. I have never been bereaved before, knock on wood, and David had me meet with a bereavement counselor. It was a great help. In case I couldn’t connect with the scene on an emotional level, the counselor helped me connect on an intellectual level.

“I never would have been able to do scenes like that before,” he adds. “I was less experienced as an actor, and now I felt more prepared. David pushed me the extra mile, and I appreciated it.”

Yates, who says he had never met Radcliffe before working with him on this film, says he was impressed with the actor’s ambition and determination.

“He was anxious to be pushed as an actor,” Yates explains. “It was a very demanding journey for him to take, and he was ready to handle it. He always came on the set with great energy, and he beat himself up when he didn’t get it right.”

Growing up Harry

Radcliffe has been living with Harry Potter almost half his life (he’ll turn 18 on July 23), and there is no way of knowing how his life would have been different if he had never gotten the role.

“Actually, I can imagine my life without Harry, and these probably would not have been the greatest years,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly good at school before (he has been tutored on set for most of the last six years). I wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t really stand out at anything, which is not a very good thing when you’re in a school environment. I wasn’t in with the sports crowd, and I wasn’t really in with the academic crowd. I was just sort of drifting.

“And that only would have been accentuated if I had spent all my teen years in school. Harry Potter gave me a fantastic chance to avoid all that and to do something I truly loved.”

Despite his movie-star status, Radcliffe insists that he has led a fairly normal life.

“These next three weeks, while I’m doing interviews and promoting the movie, are the movie-star part of my year. I’m going to movie premieres and getting dressed up. It’s all great fun, but the rest of the year I’m either working or doing what every other teenager is doing.”

Producer Heyman says the Daniel Radcliffe he knows now is pretty much the same Daniel Radcliffe he met that night at the theater.

“He is unaffected by his fame and success. He remains a bright, curious, open, sensitive and generous young man. Sure, his interests have developed and matured over the years. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, he reads voraciously and he is interested in art. Oh, and he has a keen interest in girls.”

Director Yates says he couldn’t believe how down-to-earth Radcliffe was on the set.
“Every time I looked around, he was joking with the stunt guys and makeup people, or just being friendly to the crew. When a stranger came on the set, Dan would go over and make them feel welcome. There is absolutely no movie-star attitude about him. He is just a normal kid. No, that’s not right. He is an extraordinary kid.”

Radcliffe, who appeared recently in the play “Equus” and has a non-Potter film coming out in September (“December Boys”), says he is hoping for a long acting career after the seventh and final Harry Potter film is completed in 2010, but he will never forget the experience of playing the boy wizard.

“Thirty years from now, when I look back on the Harry Potter films, I will remember things that no one else will remember,” he says. “I won’t be able to watch one of the films without thinking about the friends I made and the experience of working on that film. Those memories will represent my teen years, and I will treasure those memories.

“But the most important thing is that I hope other people look back on these films and feel that I have done justice to their favorite character. That will be my legacy, whether I lived up to the image they had of Harry when they first read the books.”

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