Several actors have donned the squiggly tattoos and shorn scalps of neo-Nazis in order to play against type at a key career moment. (Think Ryan Gosling in 2001’s The Believer, rather than Patrick Stewart in last spring’s Green Room.) Daniel Radcliffe is not one of them.
For one thing, the former child star has been defying typecasting since his provocative turn on the Broadway stage in Equus back in 2007. More importantly, though, he isn’t playing a white supremacist in Imperium, but rather an undercover FBI agent posing as one. It’s a role both Radcliffe and his character slide into with unnerving ease, and there’s a simple explanation for why that is.
Imperium, which is in theaters August 19, owes its existence to the book Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent. Author Michael German wrote it after 16 years in the field, including 12 months spent infiltrating a white supremacist circle. When director Daniel Ragussis got in touch with the former agent to find a movie within his book—German ended up with a "story by" credit—what he was most impressed to discover is that apparently what it takes to succeed in undercover counterterrorism is people skills.
"As I talked to Michael more about the nature of his work and what it is that he had to do," Ragussis says, "the point he made is that being an undercover agent is really about social relationships, being well liked, gaining trust, and being a master of social situation."
German is not the superheroic undercover FBI agent depicted in most films. Instead, he is a well-read, soft-spoken former philosophy major. This is where Radcliffe comes in. It’s not that he doesn’t look like a typical action hero—dude is fit, lean, and a credible puncher of faces—it’s that he has the right blend of charisma and sensitivity to pull off someone who is inwardly scared while outwardly menacing. Also, the fact that this is not the typical undercover role is what drew him to it.
"Often in these kinds of scripts you’ll have a character that’s set up as being smart and that’s how he overcomes obstacles in the first two-thirds of the film, but then in the last act, it’s just, ‘Ah fuck it, give him a gun,’" Radcliffe says. "And it’s nice to see a script that has the balls to keep him unarmed and using his brain until the end."
Radcliffe’s character, Nate Foster, is a quiet, intelligent young war vet who finds himself coaxed into infiltration duty by Toni Collette’s case agent, Angela Zamparo. Foster is given a wire to wear and a plausible cover story and then he's sent in to root out a putative domestic terrorist attack by white supremacists. He’s also given a book to read, however, the same one Michael German’s case officer once gave him in real life: Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. Rather than inventing a character like an actor might, Foster has to become even more himself.
"You have to sustain whatever you’re doing and be it all the time and you can’t do that if you’re not still you," Radcliffe says. "You’re just a version of yourself who happens to have these horrible opinions and views."
The character in Imperium simulates holding these views by reading and absorbing as much of the world and its vocabulary as he can. In real-life, that task fell to Ragussis, who went through whole shelves of books to learn about the difference between Klansmen, punk skinheads, and neo-Nazis. He read biographies of people in the white supremacist movement, memoirs of people who left the movement, and tomes by social scientists who’d studied them all. What emerged from all this research is what makes the movie most jarring: a portrait of a splintered community that contains both Hitler-mustached pariahs and suburban, pre-Heisenberg Walter White types. This fringe group may be less fringe than most people would like to think.
"Every one of these characters was inspired by and composed of pieces from all of these real things. I wouldn’t have the capacity to make it up," Ragussis says. "When you come at it from the outside, anyone would naturally see it as this monolithic group, and if somebody has that level of anti-Semitism and racism, they seem like they're all alike. But they’re wildly different as people, and even their beliefs are wildly different."
As far as Radcliffe’s research went, it mostly consisted of long conversations with Michael German. However, he also spent a lot of time examining certain, let's say radical message boards, to get an idea of how these people talk to each other and function as a community. Aiming for authenticity may have led both star and director to end up on some clandestine NSA lists. (Ragussis had to look up what goes into making a dirty bomb.) In fact, after a while, it became an inside joke that whenever the production designer or costume designer would come on board, they would inevitably ask whether it was safe to be Googling the kind of things they were Googling.
The other main challenge, beyond not getting a team of Kevlar-vested feds battering down dressing room doors, was revealing the version of Nate who didn’t hold appalling views while out in the field.
"Something I deferred to Dan [Ragussis] on all the time was working out how good Nate is at hiding his feelings," Radcliffe says. "Because you want to show the audience stuff that you don’t want to show the character you’re in the scene with, so it’s sort of trying to find that line of showing I’m shit-scared in a way that they can see it without the guy I’m with being like, ‘Hey, you’re obviously shit-scared—presumably you’re FBI.’ It was hard to make sure you know where he is emotionally at all times but make it believable that the people he’s with wouldn’t."
Ragussis and Radcliffe addressed this issue by filming reams of different takes for each scene in which Nate is in a tight spot. (There are roughly 6,000 such scenes.) In certain takes, Nate would be Mr. Cool Breeze, and in another he was shaky as a leaf. The idea was to gather enough variance to calibrate the performance in the editing bay for maximum cohesion, tension, and believability.
Overall, the performance Ragussis ended up with is one that mirrors Michael German’s stone-cold commitment to the lie. When Radcliffe is cornered in the film, his face contracts into a sinister, razor-thin smile, one that throws down a challenging thunderclap of a rebuke to anyone who dares question him. Similarly, when German was asked to be patted down in his undercover days, he would never relent. He just said no repeatedly and stuck with it, and he was convincing enough that the groups he was infiltrating relented instead.
It’s this kind of conviction in one’s words, rather than the words themselves, that wins friends and influences people, according to Dale Carnegie. Some of the particular words in this case, though, made Radcliffe ultimately wary of just how convincing he could be when he applied himself.
"No swear words can offend me but when you get to the racial stuff, it’s like, oh yeah, this is the last bastion of what is really truly horrible and offensive. There’s a reason those words are powerful," the actor says. "Even though you know that everybody knows and understands that you’re acting and this in no way reflects on you, it’s still just horrible to say some of this stuff, so I found myself going up to some of the actors between takes and apologizing: ‘I know you know, and I know I don’t have to, but I just feel like I need to.’"
Spoken like someone with the social skills of an undercover FBI agent.