It’s a bright but windy autumn day on the south-eastern edge of England. A 1913 Rolls-Royce is carefully puttering along a twisty, 1.4km causeway that threads its way through a tidal salt marsh, the North Sea lapping all around.
Out here in darkest Essex, a 380-acre lump of land lurks offshore. This is Osea Island, or HMS Osea as it was known during the first world war, when it was a base for the construction of torpedo boats. It’s the perfectly haunting setting for Eel Marsh House, where much of the film The Woman in Black is being shot.
At the centre of the chilling ghost story is a lawyer, Arthur Kipps. Grieving for the wife who died in childbirth, he’s come to the remote, shuttered mansion to tidy up the last will and testament of a recently deceased client. But no one in the nearby village seems to want him to meddle in reclusive Alice Drablow’s affairs. The sooner he goes back to London, they seem to be telling him, the better for all concerned – especially their children.
Out on the causeway, the 100-year-old car is being piloted by Ciarán Hinds. The venerable Irish character actor is wearing a flapping bilge-green overcoat and tweedy checks. From a distance, driver and vintage vehicle suggest speedy Toad of Toad Hall. "That’s the very reason we don’t let him wear his cap while he’s driving it," chuckles Daniel Radcliffe, lest the likeness be too funny. And humour or lightness is the last thing they need round here. The Woman in Black is to be a very modern horror film: dark, cool and utterly chilling.
The young actor – current reading The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek; current bank balance of around £48m – is wearing his own peculiar get-up. He sports a locket on a watch-chain containing a dead woman’s tresses, a dark three-piece suit and fake sideburns. "The hair is all mine though," he smiles, smoothing his dyed-black barnet. "But Ciarán’s wearing a wig."
The Victorian-set film is based on the 1983 bestseller by Susan Hill, and has been scripted by Jane Goldman, who previously worked her adaptation magic on the comic book-based Kick-Ass and the fantasy novel-based Stardust. The director behind the camera: James Watkins, whose Eden Lake (2008) gave us the terror of feral hoodies on the rampage. The studio behind the production: the rebooted home of horror, Hammer.
And the leading man, occupying huge swathes of screen time, much of it without dialogue: Daniel Radcliffe, or The Man Who Used to Be Harry Potter. It is October 2010, 2010, and it is three long months since the most famous British actor in the world filmed the final scenes in the final instalment of the eight-film, 10-year, .7bn blockbuster franchise.
"I’ve been going slightly mad just kicking around doing nothing," he sighs.
This is not, strictly speaking, true. Back in London, Radcliffe has been putting in serious hours with dance and singing coaches in preparation for his other post-Potter project: the lead in a new Broadway production of the 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Still, "this has been the longest time I’ve spent away from a film set since I was…"
He wrinkles his brow. He can’t quite believe it himself.
"…since I was 10. And I don’t know what to do with myself during the day. I’ve found it much harder than I thought I would, actually. I just don’t know how to fill the days," he muses. "It’s very, very strange."
But now, at last, surrounded by marshland, Radcliffe is back on terra firma. "Loads of the crew were on Potter anyway, so it’s not been too much like the scary first day at a new school." The team are five weeks into the seven-week Woman in Black shoot, and this is the third of four days filming on Osea Island.
He’s loving the pace of the production, with scenes being completed three times as quickly as they are on Potter. The 250th shot will be completed tomorrow. Eagerly inhaling a Camel Blue cigarette, he admits: "I’m not used to this pace. For me, it’s electric. It’s amazing how much more flexible you can be. On Potter, we’d arrive on set and it had already been constructed so you couldn’t really deviate from the script unless they took down a wall and re-rigged the cameras. Whereas, here, there’s a sense that anything is possible. It’s very liberating. To use," sniffs this savvy young veteran, "a boringly overused word."
He first encountered Watkins in spring 2010. The director, aged 33, had to fly to Los Angeles to meet him – even though, the filmmaker says with a laugh, as they live near each other in south-west London, "I could probably cycle to his house from my place!" They discussed the script for "a few hours" as they "took the temperature of each other, and how we saw Jane’s screenplay. Dan and I both wanted to make a film that had a degree of heart as well as horror."
Watkins’s thorough approach appealed to Radcliffe the movie spod. He invited him to discuss the script with Goldman and roped him into the camera tests. Ever keen to soak up as many experiences as possible – hence his lead in the 2007 West End/Broadway revival of Equus and hence How to Succeed… – Radcliffe has been studying how the director goes about his craft.
"The only reason we’d do a camera test on Potter was if we were testing a particular prosthetic makeup or something. Whereas on Woman in Black we’re testing different styles of lighting. One of the things we’re talking about doing is covering my whole face in Vaseline or lip balm. That kid in City of God, he was covered in Vaseline – and it meant that as he was running through all those street scenes, he reflected the colours around him. So we’re doing stuff like that. On Potter it was all very flat, frontal lighting. But here there’s maybe one light down below, so half my face is in shadow – proper horror movie lighting," he says eagerly.
He’s also lapped up Watkins’s acting instruction. "It’s less demonstrative acting than on Potter," Radcliffe says, adding that the director wants him to "pull back his physicality and his expressiveness". This will fit with the style of the film: sparse, simple, classic. The thinking seems to be: if they’re going to bring back the Hammer marque, it can’t feel like it’s cobwebby and out-of-date. This is horror for the Potter generation. Well, the older end of it anyway.
Coming up: a 10-day hiatus. The entire Woman in Black cast and crew will disband while Radcliffe fulfils his penultimate Potter promotional obligations. The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is released in November 2010, and the actor is hitting the PR trail in New York and London. He was hopeful for one last trip to Japan, but that’s been nixed. "They’re just the most complete fans there," says this fanboy’s fanboy.
But the end of the boy wizard is, finally, in sight. On The Woman in Black set, Radcliffe is finding his feet, both as a man and as an actor. There was, though, one disorientating moment earlier this week. He absent-mindedly scratched his forehead and instantly feared the wrath of the makeup department for undoing their hard work: "Fuck! The scar!"
Radcliffe had momentarily forgotten that he had, at last, graduated from Hogwarts.
Fast-forward 16 months. It is mid-January 2012, and the 22-year-old Radcliffe is back in London, at the Soho hotel. Last night he co-presented the unveiling of this year’s Bafta nominations. At the weekend he was guest presenter on Saturday Night Live in New York. As with his self‑mocking appearance on Extras in 2006, the reaction to Radcliffe’s comic turn has been positive.
"It was great," he enthuses of his stint on the long-running TV comedy institution. "It’s that guerrilla way of working that I just love. What they do in a week – put on a full musical and comedy show – is amazing."
The graft involved appealed to Radcliffe’s own unstinting work ethic. James Watkins says: "I’d researched Dan, and lots of people told me how dedicated he is. And I thought, OK, is this just the party line? Then you meet him and he is all of those things. He really is willing to do the work, and he’s incredibly brave – he’s happy to try the craziest of ideas."
Cue the actor’s feet-first enthusiasm for the "anarchic" spirit of SNL. "For the people that work there it’s a very hard job because the hours are pretty unrelenting," says Radcliffe. "But what a gratifying job as well, to have nothing at the beginning of the week, then by the Saturday you put on this show that you’ve created. It’s the best of theatre and film – the instant gratification of having a live audience there, but also the creation of the sets and messing around with wigs, and the film-type elements that they use as well. I want a permanent position there, as I told them all when I left!" he laughs.
He "definitely" thinks his year on Broadway has improved his comedy chops. He finally finished his run in How to Succeed… three weeks ago. Courtesy of his daily workout over the past 12 months, and having been teetotal since August 2010, he’s looking trim.
He had been "neurotic" about falling short on Broadway but the show was a sell-out and a critical hit. His goal had been to emulate Hugh Jackman, who managed the entire run of 397 performances of 2003/4’s The Boy from Oz. He pulled it off, hitting his marks as ambitious young executive J Pierrepont Finch for all 345 shows in the 10-month production.
"It’s worked immeasurably for me," he says of his year living in New York and hoofing it up nightly at the Al Hirschfeld theatre on West 45th Street. "The advantage of a long run is that you have the great moment when you open and you think you’re fantastic and the world loves you, and you’re getting great audiences all the time. Then you have that moment halfway through the run where you suddenly think you’re awful and you’ve been doing it for so long that it no longer feels fresh, and you just think you’re phoning it in and faking it. Then you find a way past that again to a point where actually the material suddenly takes on a new life. And that’s all up to you – that’s your job over a long run, to find ways of keeping it fresh."
The rigour and the dedication helped Radcliffe learn about himself, his capabilities, and about who he was now that he’s finally hung up his wand and wizarding robes.
"One of the things that I really opened up to this year was the idea that – particularly with a part like Finch – you’re allowed to let your own natural oddness and eccentricities shine through, rather than worry about them looking weird. The more of your own natural weirdness you can use, the better, in any part," says this self-confessed history nerd and poetry buff whose dyspraxia means he can’t ride a bike.
"And as a person rather than an actor," he adds, "overcoming self-doubt over this long run has been really useful. I’ve learned how to deal with and turn it into something constructive and actually get fired up by it. So it was a very good year for me."
And now, finally, The Woman in Black is upon us. The film was originally scheduled for release last autumn but was shifted last summer – the marketing and promoting of Harry Potter, it seems, casts a long shadow, as does the fame of the lead actor. "It was pointed out that the final Potter DVD launch was happening towards the end of the year. So you don’t want it to get mixed up in that really."
The wait is worth it. The Woman in Black is a truly effective and satisfying horror film. Chills up the spine are guaranteed by a movie in which the director artfully deploys the entire arsenal of classic scary devices: haunted house, screaming faces in windows, things that go bump in the nursery, guttering candle flames, whey-faced children in frocks, creepy clockwork monkeys, spooky Victoriana.
"Yep, they’re all there!" laughs Radcliffe. "All the favourites."
For his part, Radcliffe puts in a gripping performance as the widower lawyer haunted by the titular veiled lady. "The main challenge with this film was to suppress my own natural energy. My frenetic energy has always been very useful in my career, just for having the stamina to be on [the Potter] set. But for this film, it was a case of really learning how to quash that."
But of all the things he might have done for his first film role after Harry Potter, why this – an endeavour that, for all its stylish modernity, is at heart a good old-fashioned horror film?
"One of the things that was attractive to me originally was how surprised I was to find myself enjoying the script," he replies. "Because if you’d asked me before Potter ended what the next thing I would do would be, I would never have said horror. It’s just not something that I gravitated towards in my own life. So I wasn’t expecting that."
It wasn’t about cashing in that A-lister bankability and pursuing a blockbuster role. It was about heading in another new direction, and about embarking on an interesting, intriguing project – one headed up by a hot new talent.
"Everyone wants to work with Spielberg and Scorsese. And of course I do – but I also want to work with the next Christopher Nolan and the next whoever. James is a seriously good director with a European sensibility but with big film ambitions. And I was very excited about the prospect of working with him early in his career."
And for his next trick: playing the 19-year-old Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings. Radcliffe starts filming the New York-set indie/arthouse flick – a real-life story about the gay Beat poet, incipient hipsterdom and murder in 1940s Manhattan – in March.
"It’s a great story about aspiration and love and betrayal. And it’s a historical piece, as well as being what should be a pretty good thriller."
Plus, it has the added advantage of maxing out his inner poetry geek. "It does, it does," Radcliffe grins. "I was never much of a free-verse guy but I guess I’m gonna become one now."
The Woman in Black is in cinemas 10 February
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010