Daniel Radcliffe and the director of his new movie argue why we need to rethink terrorism

Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel RagussisNicola BaileyDaniel Ragussis (left) and Daniel Radcliffe at the TimesTalks event for ‘Imperium.’

Daniel Radcliffe will make you give terrorism and white supremacy another thought. Really.

The actor everyone (still) knows as Harry Potter gives a surprisingly nuanced performance while playing a young FBI agent who goes undercover as a white supremacist in his new film “Imperium,” in theatres Friday — sporting an American accent and a shaved head.

Just when you think the white supremacists, who often literally tower over Radcliffe, are about to discover his plan, Radcliffe’s Nate steers them the other way or talks his way out of a boiling situation.

Director Daniel Ragussis says he spent three years on the project, from research to conception, while filming only took 25 days. Ragussis cowrote the film with Michael German, a former FBI agent on whom the story is based.

Business Insider sat down with Radcliffe and Ragussis before a TimesTalks to discuss the problem with the label terrorism, what it takes to be a good undercover agent, and trying to talk to white supremacists.

I grew up with an awareness that terrorists come from everywhere.


Meryl Gottlieb: I saw the movie, and it’s pretty intense.


Daniel Radcliffe: Yes, absolutely. I know “enjoy” is not quite the right word but I hope you got something out of it.

Gottlieb: I did, but I’m curious what drew you to the role since it is so heavy?

Radcliffe: I’ve read a lot of scripts where they set the character up as being smart and that’s how he solves problems and then in the last third of the movie they just give up on that and give him a gun and it becomes all action and you think, “Oh just go and bloody stick to it,” and this film actually stuck to that the whole way through. And then once I’d spoken to Dan Ragussis about the world and to Mike German, it became even more fascinating and felt like something that was really worth talking about and portraying.

When I first read it, it was around the time that Dylann Roof happened and there was a real reticence on the part of FBI officialdom to refer to that as terrorism… My dad’s from northern Ireland, he grew up during the troubles, I grew up with an awareness that terrorists come from everywhere and have all sorts of motivations and so it seemed like that was a very relevant thing, but I don’t think either of us envisaged that white supremacy might take this sort of bizarre jag towards the mainstream or rather that the mainstream might jag toward that by the time it came out.

Gottlieb: How do you think this movie affected the way you see terrorism then?

Daniel Ragussis: The main thing that I learned in terms of working with Mike is that it seems to be, at least in the way that it’s applied, a very subjective definition and one that’s often unfortunately politically motivated, and I say unfortunately because there probably should be a lot more consistency in terms of how we look at those things. Whether we call something terrorism or not has a great impact as to the way the law enforcement community approaches it, the way that the media approaches it, public policy approaches it and so unfortunately the choice of words becomes an incredibly important thing in terms of how our society deals with and views the issue.

Radcliffe: [Homicides] are not all politically motivated but it instills terror and in that sense it is. Any kind of murder with any sort of political or religious ideology could be defined as terrorism but as you [points to Ragussis] say, that has so much sway over how people deal with stuff and actually it might be much more useful to just start referring to all gun crimes as a form of terrorism

It might be much more useful to just start referring to all gun crimes as a form of terrorism.

, because at this point it does always almost feel like a political statement of some kind.

Ragussis: It can cut both ways because on the one hand, certain crimes probably are not getting a certain kind of attention — like the Dylann Roof example — because they’re not labelled as terrorism. Certain crimes that are labelled as terrorism are getting such undue attention and attention that really affects the political discourse in such a way as to do all sorts of things: create laws that invade our civil liberties, which is a topic that [gestures to Radcliffe]

Radcliffe: I’m in a play about that, yeah [“Privacy” at The Public Theatre].

Ragussis: Yeah exactly, so it has this massive outsize impact upon our government, our laws, the nature of our society, so it’s a tricky thing because it’s sort of a very selective attention that can work both towards good or bad for the society.

Daniel Radcliffe ImperiumLionsgateDaniel Radcliffe in ‘Imperium.’

Gottlieb: To me, going undercover seems like acting.

Radcliffe: I made the same assumption… but actually what you do, you have to be able to maintain all the time, so it’s much easier to just be yourself — be a version of yourself that also happens to hold these views. Mike just went in and was very much him. I think he gained almost a reputation or nickname of being called something like the “Hippie Nazi” because he was so chill and would never engage with people. That was his whole thing. 

Ragussis: You want to have good relationships and be friends with everyone. You don’t want to be alienating one particular person or group both for your own safety and also for the purposes of the investigation. You don’t know which of those eight guys is actually going to be the guy that you want to foster a relationship with and follow deeper into and all the rest of it. So you actually have to use charm, social skills — you have to be the guy that everybody likes.

Radcliffe: And he said he was just incredibly helpful.

Ragussis: Yeah like he would do the dishes.

Radcliffe: Also I would like to say, Mike was doing this at a very different time than we’ve set the movie in, so Mike was doing it with like a big Casio cassette player strapped to his ankle the whole time and he had to go and flip the tape every 90 minutes.

Gottlieb: That’s a lot more pressure than the wristwatch [which Nate wears to secrety record his meetings with the white supremacists].

Radcliffe: I’m wondering if the advent of the internet and social media has made it almost impossible for an undercover to go undercover more than once because Mike did multiple things for like 12-15 years.

Ragussis: Right because it’s spread so rapidly.

Gottlieb: You’d be outed on forums and other online resources.

Ragussis: Exactly, and then you also have to appear at the trial, so once you’re outed in that way, I don’t know how you repeat. That is a good question.

Radcliffe: Yeah, we should ask him [laughs].

Daniel Radcliffe Toni ColletteLionsgateToni Collette’s Angela convinces Daniel Radcliffe’s Nate he has what it takes to go undercover in ‘Imperium.’

Gottlieb: If you are playing a version of yourself who has these values, with something so extreme as white supremacy, how do you incorporate that into yourself?

Radcliffe: I don’t. As an actor, I don’t believe that I have to try and live this the whole time at all… Also, I think it’s fair to say, Mike is much smarter than the average person at this, so Mike’s ability and Nate’s, my character’s, ability to read and digest all of this — the world of information and all of that stuff — and to parrot it. Most of these guys, as long as you’re agreeing with them, no one’s going to question how much you believe in it.

Ragussis: There’s also a reason that these ideologies are appealing to people. There’s a certain sense of simplicity and consistency about them and once you accept a few basic premises, then you’re able to construct a worldview that’s very coherent and consistent… These are ideologies that were appealing to masses of people back in Nazi Germany all the time.

Radcliffe: I think my biggest takeaway from this film is that as much as we want to demonize these people and in a way demonize their views, we should try and find a way of getting them into this conversation

As much as we want to demonize these people and in a way demonize their views, we should try and find a way of getting them into this conversation.

unfortunately, as awful as that sounds, because the more you ostracize them and aggressively dismiss them, the more it just plays into their worldview that everything is a conspiracy against them… I think we have to try and believe that there are some people out there that in the right circumstances could have their minds change and recount this terrifying belief system.

Ragussis: And as with anything else, I don’t really know how you confront it or deal with it unless there’s some level of understanding of what it is that you’re dealing with. The problem with terms like “monster” is they don’t give you any understanding. They don’t give you any access as to the mechanism that’s going on there and why the people are behaving the way they are. I think if you’re going to try to dismantle that or change it, you have to understand what’s going on and what’s happening

Radcliffe: Absolutely, you have to engage with it.

Daniel Radcliffe ImperiumLionsgateDaniel Radcliffe in ‘Imperium.’

Gottlieb: The idea of leader-less resistance, that plays into that. It’s not just one uniform group.

Radcliffe: Leader-less resistance should be called out for what it is, which is a mechanism for the higher-ups of these organisations to not get their hands dirty. That’s why this exists. It’s not like a lone-wolf phenomenon. They encourage this lone-wolf phenomenon because it means that people enacting their worldview without them ever having to actually commit a crime — people like Tracy Letts’ character in the film.

Ragussis: It’s very convenient for the ideological leadership. They’re basically able to sit there and write pamphlets and make speeches and do all sorts of other things

Gottlieb: Host radio shows…

Ragussis: Exactly. And get a great deal of affirmation and approbation and even money and all the rest of it without actually committing crimes or putting themselves at risk or anything else. In some ways it’s a very cynical viewpoint from the leadership.

Radcliffe: Weird to think of these guys as being cynical [laughs].

Ragussis: [
laughing] They’re not all true idealists.

Radcliffe: But that is a point that the film makes as well. This world is a mix of true believers and opportunists who are capitalising on other people’s fears.

For more from Radcliffe and Ragussis, watch the full TimesTalks:

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