Celebrities who have nothing to prove

James Luxford

Some stars aim only to please through their work, but often the most interesting few are those who blithely do whatever they want...

Daniel Radcliffe takes on a hard-hitting subject for his new film, Escape from Pretoria. He plays Tim Jenkin, a South African activist held in the brutal Pretoria Central Prison, who hatches a plot to escape. It’s another left turn in this interesting chapter of the actor’s career. Since leaving the Harry Potter franchise in 2011, the actor has chosen a variety of edgy, independent projects to star in. One of his first choices was to play a young Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, followed by a man cursed with supernatural powers in Horns. He has played the infamous assistant Igor in Victor Frankenstein, a corpse in Swiss Army Man, a cop who goes undercover in the White Supremacist Movement in Imperium, and will soon be seen as a man with firearms bolted to his bones in Guns Akimbo

It’s easy to dismiss these unusual choices as the actions of a man desperate to get as far away from "The Boy Who Lived" as possible. However, there may be something else at play. By virtue of his beginnings, one could argue that Radcliffe is not motivated by the same things as other 30-year-old stars. He is a face that would be recognised anywhere in the world, has starred in films that have broken box office records, and is financially comfortable. In short, he is not trying to “make it”. This puts him in a unique position enjoyed by only a few other actors, whose post-franchise lives have been devoted to choosing the projects that interest them, rather than further their careers, a path that can produce some unusual results. 

One man who will understand Radcliffe’s path is Robert Pattinson. Aged just 20, he was thrust on to the world stage in the Twilight franchise, the success of which made him a teen idol and brought intense media scrutiny. It’s a level of notoriety he has always seemed uncomfortable with, describing it as a “prison” in one interview, and making a short film with GQ about the anxiety of leaving his hotel room.   

It makes sense, then, that the films he has made outside of the vampire saga have been low-budget, niche projects that are for Art Houses rather than multiplex crowds. In 2012, he impressed many critics with 1-percenter drama Cosmopolis. It was a world away from the Hollywood fantasy he was known for, and would set a tone for his choices from then on. He starred in post-apocalyptic drama The Rover,  and showed a whole new side to himself in The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, playing a manipulative, small time crook. This, plus films like January’s The Lighthouse, showed a man driven by his own artistic desires, rather than box office receipts. 

His Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart has gone on a similar journey. Focusing on smaller films since becoming a global celebrity in the 2000s, she has enjoyed a varied CV ranging from harrowing dramas such as Still Alice to stoner comedy American Ultra. Interestingly, many of her roles are also supporting characters, choosing interesting characters rather than marquee opportunities. With 21 roles in the last eight years, she is a star looking to define herself through a rich and textured body of work. 

Perhaps the greatest example of a career lived on their own terms in Leonardo DiCaprio. An Oscar nominee at 19, by 23 he would be the biggest star in the world thanks to James Cameron’s Titanic. By its very definition, financially there is nowhere to go after starring in the most successful film of all time. DiCaprio’s choice was straight-forward: for the last 20 years he has eschewed blockbusters or franchises, turning down roles in Star Wars, Spider-man and The Matrix, in favour of interesting projects with directors he admires. This includes five collaborations with Martin Scorsese, two with Quentin Tarantino, plus work with Clint Eastwood, Danny Boyle, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. He has bucked trends, never appearing in sequels and making prestige dramas financially successful at a time where superheroes and Death Stars rule. By dictating his own destiny, he has gone from being labelled “the star of Titanic” to perhaps the last true Hollywood movie star.

Unfortunately, DiCaprio’s status is unique to him, and not everyone who chooses an independent path will earn such plaudits. Taking an independent path doesn’t always guarantee good quality work, and may just end up in a career fading away quietly. An example of this is the trio of young stars from 2000’s Best Picture Oscar winner American Beauty—Mena Suvari, Thora Birch, and Wes Bentley—all of whom experienced stuttering careers following the film’s triumph. 

Based on the reception of Radcliffe’s performances, that seems unlikely to happen to the British actor, but questions still remain over where this career direction may lead him. After all, the success of his contemporaries meant it wasn’t long until big opportunities came calling again. Stewart has sprinkled the occasional big budget movie in between artier projects, appearing as Snow White opposite Chris Hemsworth, as well as appearing in last year’s Charlie’s Angels and recent thriller Underwater. Even Pattinson seems to have relented and taken perhaps one of the most coveted blockbusters roles as the star of The Batman

It’s something that the actor has of course considered. “I think I would” he remarked while promoting Kill Your Darlings. “If it was good enough I would absolutely never stop myself. You know, stuff like Potter and Batman and now all of the stuff that Marvel is doing... they’re proving that franchise doesn’t need to be a dirty word”. It appears that Daniel Radcliffe’s choice to tread an independent path is motivated by passion for his art rather than contempt for the mainstream, and given that the actor himself has been linked to the Fast and Furious and Marvel Universes recently, his passion could lead him back into the studio fold very soon. 

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