Daniel Radcliffe talks new documentary 'Circus Kid' and his upcoming TBS comedy

Daniel Radcliffe and Lorenzo Pisoni
Daniel Radcliffe and Lorenzo Pisoni. (Photo: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

Daniel Radcliffe knows a thing or two about unconventional, larger-than-life childhoods, which is only part of the reason he’s not just a producer on Circus Kid, the documentary that premieres today on Sundance Now, AMC Networks’s premium video streaming service.

Radcliffe is also a close friend Lorenzo Pisoni, star and director of Circus Kid, whose childhood as a clown and multitalented performer in the Pickle Family Circus is chronicled in the documentary.

Pisoni’s engaging, thoughtful film sheds light on his role in the seminal, non-Ringling Bros.-type circus — he was the professional partner to his dad, Larry, the Pickle Circus founder and head clown — and his complex relationship with his father, who eventually left the circus, and his family after having an emotional breakdown.

Radcliffe, who became friends with Pisoni when they co-starred in Equus on Broadway in 2008, talked to Yahoo Entertainment about what makes Circus Kid so compelling, how he and Pisoni have bonded over their unique childhoods, and why he has to pinch himself over his upcoming TBS comedy, Miracle Workers, a workplace comedy set in Heaven, where Radcliffe plays overworked angel Craig, and Steve Buscemi plays his boss, God.

Circus Now is fantastic. It left me wanting to know even more about the Pisoni family.
Oh, good, that’s great! We’ll do a sequel.

You worked with Lorenzo in Equus on Broadway. Is that when you became friends and heard his story for the first time?
Yes, we worked together [on Equus], and I was 19 at the time, and just thought he was the coolest person I had ever met. And he’s cool without trying to be. He’s just a lovely human being, but he’s also extraordinarily talented. He thought on Equus that he was going to be getting, for the first time in his career on Broadway, his own dressing room. And that would have been really nice for him. But, unfortunately, he had a 19-year-old groupie call me, who just, like, invaded his dressing room for the duration of the run. We became very, very good friends. And he’s somebody that helped me; he helped me on that show, but he helped me in my personal life too. He’s been somebody that I’ve often gone to, to talk through things and help keep my sanity. And I like to think that I’ve sort of been a useful sounding board for him at times throughout the years. But also, professionally, he’s somebody that, because he’s obviously, as you’ve seen, somebody so extraordinarily talented physically, whenever I’ve been doing parts that require a sort of physical element to them — the two I’m thinking of are Victor Frankenstein and Swiss Army Man — he was somebody that I would go to to work through ideas with, because I know I don’t mind making a total fool of myself in front of him.

When we were doing Equus together … he doesn’t hide his circus past at all. But he didn’t flaunt it. At some point, we were talking, and we had very different childhoods, but I think we both came from a place of having childhoods that were, that other people would probably regard as strange or abnormal in some way, but that, I think, we’re also both very proud of and very attached to, and I think we wouldn’t change anything in either of our lives, because it made us the people that we are. When we were doing [Equus], he was working on the first incarnation of this film, which [started] as a stage show called Humor Abuse, which was done in a circus tent — I can’t remember exactly where, but I think somewhere near the river in New York. We went there, and it’s only like 100 people watching, and it’s still one of the most amazing … and the show changed a lot by the time it got to its off-Broadway run and by the time it went to Los Angeles. But that first show is still one of the most special theatrical experiences I’ve ever had, because it was an amazing show and partly because I knew the guy in it, and I was friends with him, and I was learning all this stuff about him, about his life and his past. And I also learned, Lorenzo is the kind of person who will be like, if you say to him, “Can you dance?” he’d be like, “No, not at all.” And then you go, “You actually can tap dance. You’re just saying you can’t dance because you think of dancers as people who can dance, and you don’t regard yourself that way. But you actually are a really good dancer.” … I think I knew Lorenzo for a couple of years before I learned that he speaks multiple languages and plays multiple instruments. He’s sort of so talented that he doesn’t regard them as talents anymore. And he’s also incredibly grounded and levelheaded and self-aware and you would never … if I had that much talent, I’d be f***ing telling everybody. I’d be like, “Come in here, I’m gonna play something on guitar and do a backflip at the same time because I can!” But Lorenzo doesn’t do any of that stuff. He’s just, he’s a very lovely, reflective, smart human being, and that’s what I loved about the [Humor Abuse] show and what I love about the film: all the fun of learning about the circus and the crazy, talented people that work there, while also getting this very poignant, beautiful story about fathers and sons, and parents and children.

And it’s also a history of the Pickle Family Circus, and why entertainment like Cirque du Soleil exists now.
We say in the film that the Pickle Family Circus was one of the, really the first circus in North America, to not use animals in the show. Also, clowns are not having the best time in terms of their public image at the moment, in terms of It and those Derry [Ireland] people dressing up and wandering around freaking people out. I’m hoping this film kind of does something to remind people that, actually, clowning is a very beautiful art form, and there is something fundamental to all comedy that stems from that world, the fact that clowns are [using] simple suggestions and simple situations and feelings, and often feelings that kind of relate to our quite sad situations. … Comedy is derived from fear of pain and fear of living a life that you don’t want to live and fear of anxiety or fear of social environment, and it sometimes forms into something hysterically funny and there’s something healing about that. I’m sorry, I know I’m getting into very pretentious-sounding characterizations now, but I do think there’s something really interesting about the fact that the origins of a lot of comedy comes from clowning, and Lorenzo’s dad, Larry, in particular, is a real exemplar of that in the modern world.

Lorenzo and Larry Pisoni
Lorenzo and Larry Pisoni. (Photo: Sundance Now)

No, I think that’s lovely, and one of the standout moments from the documentary is when they’re talking about Larry’s history as a clown, and how he got to a point where he was very depressed, but that the more depressed Larry became, the funnier his clown persona became.
Yes. And I’m not somebody who subscribes to the view that you need to be a tortured artist to produce good art. I don’t think that’s the case. But, I think it can be. I think you can also use some of the… I think it is probably true that, on the whole, you learn a lot more from bad times or from pain than you do from just happiness. I think it would be great to just be happy all the time. But I’m not sure how much I would have grown as a person over the years if I hadn’t had a couple of darker days. And I think that probably goes for everyone. You actually illustrated my point with a perfect quote from the film, so anything else I’m saying is pretty redundant. [Laughs.]

In interviews Lorenzo has done, and certainly, in Circus Kid, he appears very honest, but also still sort of private about his complicated childhood, his complicated relationship with Larry. And, as you describe him, he appears to be very grounded, after a childhood that was unusual. I always think of you as a similar example of someone who is very grounded and self-aware, after such a public childhood and starring in one of the most beloved movie series ever. Is that something you and Lorenzo bond over?
I’ll tell you the story that most illustrates in a very sort of tactile, sort of physical way, how connected we were. We were standing on stage for the pre-show checks during Equus at one point, where they check the lights and the sound and all the effects and things. There’s a point during those pre-show checks where they would have to check the smoke machines, which are under the stage, and would puff a bit of smoke up onto the stage. And, I don’t know, but I imagine that most people who are unaccustomed to the smell of a petrol or gasoline smoke machine, would probably not find it to be a particularly nice smell. But this smoke came onto the stage, and me and Lorenzo both immediately were cast back to our childhoods. And, we talked about how that smell to both of us is very nostalgic because it was what was in the wings for him in the circus. It was what was on every Harry Potter set for most of the films because even when you don’t see smoke in the scene, they often use smoke machines to light the scene to give it a sort of hazy, lovely feel. And so there’s a lot of overlap, and we would talk about that … and, I think we’re both very grateful for all the people that we’ve met and spent time with. I think some people will watch this documentary and go, “That kid should not have been allowed to just travel across the country at 12-years-old. Crazy!” And, a lot of time when people talk to me, they don’t say it out loud, but often the implication of some questions or, even from people I work with, is that a film set is not a good place for a kid to be. And I really don’t think that’s necessarily the case. For me, it was a lovely place to be. I think it broadened my experience of what the world could be. And it broadened Lorenzo’s, in his childhood, as well. I feel like we both recognize that, yeah, we have comparatively different, outside of the beaten path of what most people do in terms of regular school. But Lorenzo was always part of his dad’s juggling act … when he was 6-months-old, [he was] a thing that was juggled. So, I think we both accept that there are things in our childhood that other people would regard as strange or abnormal, but we’re both very grateful for it because it made us the people that we are. And I’m definitely becoming more OK with the person that I am. I can’t speak for Lorenzo, but I can speak about him, and I think he should definitely be very, very pleased with the person he is, because he’s just an incredibly fantastic human being, and one of my best friends. I’m fortunate enough to know him and his partner and their now 16-month-old son. They’re a wonderful family, and I certainly can’t imagine what my life would be like without Lorenzo now. I’m just very proud of my friend and the film that he’s made and the fact that I was able to sort of help him and support him in that process. It was very special to me as well.

Larry and Lorenzo Pisoni. (Photo: Sundance Now)
Larry and Lorenzo Pisoni. (Photo: Sundance Now)

This was your first project as a producer, but you’re also a producer on your upcoming TBS comedy, Miracle Workers, right?
Yes. It’s all very strange to be thinking of myself in those terms. And I certainly won’t be doing it on everything that I do. But on these couple of projects where I’ve been sort of involved since the beginning stages of them, I’m very happy to be involved in that capacity as well.

Have you started filming on Miracle Workers?
Yeah, we’re filming. I just actually finished my first week. And it’s one of those things where I’m slightly having to pinch myself, and going, “This is all too good to be true.” I’m having so much fun. I think it’s also going to be really, really good. I’m such a huge fan of our writer and show creator, Simon Rich [Saturday Night Live and Man Seeking Woman]. He and all the writers on this show have done something extraordinary with these scripts and I’m just so thrilled to be a part of it. I had a moment last night after we finished our first week, going, “I’m either insane, or I have no taste, or this is going to be great,” because I love it so much. And if it comes out and everyone’s like, this sucks, then I’ll like, “OK, well, I need to reevaluate what I think good is because I’m so in love with this project.”

What is it you love about it? It’s based on Simon Rich’s book, What in God’s Name? Is the show in the same tone and spirit of the book?
It’s very much in keeping with the spirit of the book. Things have been expanded and changed in order to sort of fit this over a long period because the book is very short. So things have been expanded in the world a little bit and changed in places. But the thing I love about it most is that it is, it has, a lot of very dark comedy, a lot of very funny, dark humor, but it’s also very kind. There’s a huge amount of compassion, and I think it’s really hard to write comedy that ultimately has nothing but compassion for all of its characters, and, I know, this is going to sound very overblown, but really for all of humanity. … Simon Rich articulates something about my worldview that I would never have been articulate enough to say myself. So, when you can find projects that you think project something you really feel about the world, that feels like a very special opportunity.

I’m also excited to see you and Steve Buscemi together.
I’m really excited about that too. I’ve done some rehearsals with Steve, but we haven’t filmed anything together yet. But, yeah, I mean, I for a long time have regarded Steve as one of the best working actors around. I think he’s so special, and so to be working with him is just really a dream.

Circus Kid premieres Dec. 21 on Sundance Now.

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