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To meet Richard Griffiths is, at the outset, to be disappointed. Perhaps it’s because you’d expect a rotund, Kris Kringle look-alike to be jolly. But Griffiths, who is best known for his role as the overly friendly history teacher in the Tony-winning play (and later, film) “The History Boys,” isn’t extraordinarily jolly. Over brandy-spiked coffee and a near-constant stream of cigarettes during the course of an interview at Angus McIndoe in New York, which he insists take place outside in the 36-degree chill, the Brit talks of his disdain for cities (“I don’t think I’d live in London unless you paid me. Nine figures would be nice.”), and later, after a self-deprecating fan interrupts him for an autograph, he deadpans, “Hardly selfish at all, was that? It drives me nuts, this business of autographs.”
But for all of the cynicism and impoliteness, there’s Griffiths’ endearing wit and the enjoyment he takes from leading — and mentoring — young, inexperienced co-stars to Broadway victory, most recently with Daniel Radcliffe, who’s receiving critical praise for his performance in “Equus.”
“I love it,” says Griffiths, 61, of working with fresh-faced actors like Radcliffe, whom he met while filming the first three “Harry Potter” movies (Griffiths portrays Potter’s evil Uncle Vernon). “I know I have this kind of teaching element in me, but I don’t want to become a ‘teacher of theater’ because that would formalize something that I’d much rather keep casual.”
Nonetheless, he speaks with near-parental pride about his “Equus” co-star. “I watched [Dan] grow up. And having spent six consecutive years filming, he probably has more elapsed time experience in front of a camera than almost any other actor in the country, including people like Sean Connery.”
Griffiths admits, however, that when it comes to the stage, “[Dan’s] a complete virgin.” To this end, he offered Radcliffe numerous theater tips, covering everything from taking a bow (“Feel it. Remember it. Savor it.”) to tackling the character of Alan Strang — a part Griffiths says he could never have done at Radcliffe’s age. “Not in a month of Sundays. I certainly lacked the emotional awareness that you need for it.”
A psychosexual thriller, “Equus” tells the story of Strang, a stableboy who is committed to a mental asylum after inexplicably blinding six horses. Griffiths plays Strang’s psychiatrist Martin Dysart. He says he was reluctant to take the role, which was originally offered to Kenneth Branagh, who workshopped the play with Radcliffe in London. “It’s not that I’m sick of the theater, don’t get me wrong,” says Griffiths. “I’m just tired of the commitment.” This from a 10-year veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
As to whether Radcliffe’s “Harry Potter” fans, who are decidedly not the intended audience for “Equus,” will be pleased by their hero’s latest turn, Griffiths says there have been “very weird” moments since the show opened in September. “Once somebody came in with two nine-year-olds,” he recalls. “So I said, ‘You know, this is very bad for the kids if you let them sit through this.’” Radcliffe, after all, cops to equine masturbation in the first act and bares all in the second. “I think they left when it was explained to them that just because it was Daniel Radcliffe didn’t mean a) that it was Harry Potter or b) it was a piece of fun like, say, the ‘Wizard of Oz.’”
As dark as the material is, Griffiths — halfway through the play’s six-month Broadway run — still enjoys each of his eight weekly performances. “The minute it becomes like hard work, I’m off to do something else,“ says the actor, who next appears in Adam Sandler’s holiday flick “Bedtime Stories,” out Dec. 25.
“Bertolt Brecht probably summed it up best,” he continues, spitting out a few lines of perfectly formed German. “Which is to say, ‘If you don’t have fun, you don’t have a show.’”