Daniel Radcliffe and Director Daniel Ragussis on ‘Imperium’ and Changing Minds
In one scene in Daniel Ragussis’ feature film debut, Imperium, Daniel Radcliffe sports a shaved head, a white power T-shirt, throws up the Nazi salute and spews racial slurs at his African-American colleague. Radcliffe is genuinely terrifying and convincing as a white supremacist, a far cry from playing the world’s most famous wizard, and it’s one of his best performances yet.
But Radcliffe is also playing a dual role in Imperium. His Nate Foster is a bookish and introverted FBI agent who gets roped into going undercover to infiltrate a community of white supremacists. When several canisters of cesium go missing, the FBI begins suspecting a dirty bomb from foreign terrorists. But Toni Colette’s agent Angela Zamparo has a hunch it could point to a domestic threat. She picks the eager Nate to adopt a new identity, befriend a group of white nationalists, and get close to a right-wing radio host, played by Tracy Letts, to find out whether the country is facing the next Oklahoma City bombing.
A film like Imperium offers Radcliffe the perfect opportunity to further establish his dramatic range, something he’s been showcasing in recent years since parting with Harry Potter. But Radcliffe, now 27, says he’s more interested in stories that challenge our belief systems and the way we think about the modern world. When I sat down with Radcliffe and Ragussis, the British actor told me about working on Imperium and his off-Broadway play Privacy, two projects that attempt to bring awareness to important, timely subjects. The filmmaker, who make his feature debut with Imperium, also told me about changing minds with his film and the importance of making an authentic undercover movie.
Congrats on closing Privacy last night. That must have been exciting.
Radcliffe: Thank you very much. I miss it already. There was so much interaction with the audience in the show that it made it really fresh and exciting, but kind of scary in a great way every night. I sort of miss that. I don’t miss it today, but I’ll miss it tomorrow when I would’ve been doing a show.
I’m sure that energy is amazing.
Radcliffe: Yeah. It’s also because, actually it’s nice doing this film as well and talking about this film and that play as well. There’s something very exciting about doing a job you feel is potentially really important and is contributing to an important conversation. Just as this film – my hopes for this film are obviously that some people see it who are white supremacists and have their minds at least forced to question things and think about things again. Just as in the play I was doing we got to make the audience think differently about stuff every night. That’s a very cool feeling. It was all about privacy and when people [are] just talking theoretically about privacy no one gives a shit. It’s fine, why would anyone be interested in me or my stuff? But when you actually say, no this is how they’re tracking you, this is how they’re doing this, this is how they do that, you get the sense people actually going home and changing stuff on their computer. That’s very exciting.
That’s so interesting that you want white supremacists to see this movie. Did that at all factor into how you played Nate when he goes undercover? And Daniel [Ragussis], did it factor into how you made the film?
Ragussis: I mean yeah. It certainly was a thought that was always in my mind in the sense I wanted to at least try to present them, as they want to be presented is maybe too strong a way to put it, but to have [the characters] say things and to have them take viewpoints that would not be at odds with what the real people would say. For example, one of the sources of research that was really useful to me was a whole group of social scientists who have spent time in these communities and who have had the opportunity to interview them and say, “Listen, we’re coming at this from a very non-judgmental sort of way. We want to hear you present your own ideas and your opinions in your own words. We want to hear you present yourselves as you are.” There’s also a photographer, Anthony Karen, whose work made it into the film who also has spent time in these communities and gained their trust and said, “Look, I’m not here to judge you. I’m just gonna take photographs of you in your daily life so that people can get a picture of that.”
That whole sense of trying to show the world in a non-judgmental way and let it be as authentic as possible and let it be as it would be if you or I could ever walk into it and pass unnoticed and see it with our own eyes. That definitely was informing what I was trying to do in the film. Hopefully we succeeded at that.
Radcliffe: The interesting things in life are the gray areas, and one of the uncomfortable things about – because of course there are people you’d see in the street and avoid, skinheads and heavily tattooed and all that. And then there’s the subtler kind of thing where there are people who are perfectly lovely people in every other aspect of their life and their existence, other than the fact that were you every get them onto politics or race you would be repulsed by their beliefs on that. But as Dan says, they’re family men, they’ll go out with you. When we were talking earlier, some of the [white supremacist] message boards you go on, it’s not all politics. It’s sports and recipes as well.
Ragussis: Art and music and all sorts of other things.
Radcliffe: And there, like many other places, you see what a lot of people really respond to more than anything else; more than the politics is being a part of a community. I do think – the photographer Dan mentioned, I spoke to a friend of his on the phone. We were talking about the potential for changing these people and the thing Anthony Karen – I believe he’s a former Marine – he’s kind of a fucking badass, he’s tough as shit. He’s blond-haired and blue-eyed and would go in and have these people’s respect off the bat, but by going in and saying, “I’m not like you, I don’t believe the things you believe, but I am going to hang out with you because I’m interested in you.”
Those are the things that you can engage people in a way that you might be able to change their mind. If you start a conversation lecturing somebody, or if you start having an interaction with somebody where your interaction and the way you talk to them is based on the idea that you think they are stupid or evil, then of course they’re not gonna really engage with you. As hard as it is, if you actually want to change somebody’s mind you’re gonna have to let them be on an equal footing with you in the conversation. Which is not easy to do.
Nate really empathizes with these people and with radical extremists. Daniel, how did you prepare to play a character like that?
Radcliffe: It was a lot of talking to Mike German, the guy who Dan was talking to about writing the script. This is not Mike German’s story, but everything in it is inspired by either something that happened to him or something that Dan researched. That was one of my main resources, talking to Mike.
And it’s not hard for me to understand how you would end up empathizing with these people because being undercover is very lonely. You don’t have a ton of or any contact with your friends and your family. Often the people you become closest to are the people you are surveilling and supposed to be spying on. So it was very easy for me to see how that would happen and, although obviously Mike worked with many people over the years whose views he hated, it was his job to form relationships and friendships. That’s how you work undercover and get information. You have to be liked before somebody can trust you with that stuff. The one thing [in the movie] that is absolutely taken directly from Mike’s story is that he was given a copy of [the book] How to Win Friends and Influence People and told, “This is the only training you’ll need to go undercover.”
I think that’s in stark contrast to what we normally see in undercover movies where it’s about guns and f---ing stuff like that. It’s like, no, if you fire a gun undercover you are terrible at your job. It should never get to that point ever. And having Mike there to talk to about research was just amazing, to pick an actual former FBI undercover officer’s brain about stuff. Especially with what Mike has done since, working for the ACLU. He’s got a very unique perspective on things, which isn’t just rah-rah-rah FBI patriotism. It’s a much more considered version of that.
The film is a lot less violent than I expected. Was it important for you both that the movie was more about personal relationships than an undercover action movie full of guns and violence?
Ragussis: Absolutely. It was sort of the primary inspiration for the film. When I first heard about Mike and I talked to him, first of all I was taken aback by him. He was this very soft spoken, highly intellectual, highly cultured guy, not what my stereotypical version of an FBI agent would be. And second of all, as I started to talk to him about the nature of undercover work [and] his cases, he was adamant about all the things Dan was talking about. You’re not going around engaging in violence, you’re not going around breaking the law. The second any of that happens your case would be over, you would be suspended. You can’t break the law while you’re trying to enforce it. That was striking to me and felt like something I hadn’t necessarily seen a lot of before. I thought that’s a very interesting angle to pursue, and that’s an interesting story to tell.
From the beginning, both Mike and I agreed we want to do something authentic, we want to do something real, we want to show what it would really be like to go undercover. What that’s going to mean is the kind of things Dan just talked about. He’s not gonna go around shooting people, he’s not gonna be getting in fights, he’s not gonna be engaging in crimes. So from the get-go that was very important.
The film is so politically relevant and timely in this moment, which is pretty scary. Did that inform your approach to making the film, or even how you’re discussing the film now?
Ragussis: Well it really happened as the movie was finished and most of the things that you’re talking about, maybe [they happened] a little bit [during] post. We’ve talked about this a decent amount and one of the things I’ve said is it’s not like in the last year all these millions of people started feeling this way and espousing these beliefs. It was always there, what’s been happening politically is sort of illuminating it and shining a light and making it visible in a way that it wasn’t visible before. So in that way hopefully the movie can be some small part of that because I think that is what’s important, is visibility and transparency. That we can see the fact that there are huge portions of society that still holds these views, here and in Europe, that they’re important for us politically, and that we have to have our eyes open about that.
Radcliffe: Yeah and these things can only be dealt with when they’re being talked about. I think there is the sense, certainly for me, there’s a sense of complacency all through my growing up, is that you assume the arc of everything tends towards progressiveness and liberal attitudes and you forget that it is possible to take a big step back at times. I think that is sort of happening around the world now and there’s this sort of wave of hostility to the idea of multiculturalism and things like that, which I find really upsetting. I think films like this are useful reminders that this scary stuff is all still alive and well. But also I think it reminds us of the importance of the need to believe that minds can be changed and that’s the importance of Devin [Druid]‘s character Johnny. To me that’s the power of that storyline, that people don’t come out of the womb thinking this stuff and we have to believe that we can still, not everyone’s, but we can still change a lot of minds. The way you do that is by engaging them in a conversation that starts off on an equal footing.
Ragussis: And one thing I’d add to that is trying to illuminate how widespread these beliefs are, how prevalent they are. But also how they’re not just held by the uneducated and the poor. That’s an important thing that was a real discovery for me, that it would only take you a few Google searches to find scholarly journals that are written by people with PHDs that are talking about Holocaust revisionism and the Jewish Bolshevism and all sorts of other things. These are beliefs that are held by a lot of people that have advanced degrees, that are affluent, that do not have the kind of backgrounds that we would expect. I think while that’s very disturbing. It’s also, again, important. You have to realize that there’s an intellectual backbone to this movement that exists out there that also has to be dealt with and talked about if we’re to make any progress.
Radcliffe: As you say, if you’re going to argue with them about it you need to know what their argument’s going to be.
Ragussis: Exactly. Their view would be that they could win a debate with anybody at any time on any of these issues. And if you’re not informed then maybe they could, which would be all the more upsetting and disturbing.
Well this movie is coming at a good time for that.
Radcliffe: Yeah absolutely. I don’t think we quite anticipated how much this stuff would move towards the mainstream, but as [Dan] says, it’s not new.
Ragussis: What Mike said once in one of his interviews was, “What is shocking is what was being discussed in dark basements and dirty garages when I was undercover is now being discussed on national TV 20 years later.” So that is disturbing, but again, while I’m not happy it’s being talked about on national TV, if it is being talked about in all those other places then it should be talked about on national TV.
Radcliffe: Right, yes.
Ragussis: Because if we’re not talking about it then we’re not acknowledging it. We’re allowing people to exist in a state where they think, “Oh this isn’t really there, this isn’t really happening.” I can’t tell you how many times when I was shopping this script around people would come up to me and say, “Well this isn’t really happening anymore. Is this a thing?” So I think we have to recognize that it is and that it’s big and widespread. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to deal with it.
Imperium opens in limited theaters and On Demand on August 19.