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When Weird Al Yankovic Met Daniel Radcliffe, Things Got … Well, You Know


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Generally speaking, Weird Al Yankovic and Daniel Radcliffe are never going to be mistaken for one another. Yankovic is the lanky, longhaired Southern California dude who became an accordion whiz and a master parodist of pop music. Radcliffe is the more compact, London-born wunderkind of the “Harry Potter” movies who has since graduated into an eclectic acting profession.

Still, this past winter, throughout the making of the brand new movie “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” their mutual presence on the set occasionally led to confusion. When crew members called for “Weird Al,” they wanted the actor playing him, which meant Radcliffe. Eventually, for optimum clarity, they began referring to the authentic Yankovic as “Real Al,” though some further disorientation was inevitable.

As Yankovic explained in a recent conversation with Radcliffe, “Each time I’d walk by the ‘Weird Al’ sign in your trailer, I’d be like” — he paused and acted out an exaggerated double take — “Oh, no, that’s not me.”

That is the effect that the makers of “Weird” are hoping it’ll have on audiences when Roku releases the biopic on Nov. 4. It’s a wildly satirical, highly nonfactual telling of Yankovic’s ascent from a geeky young accordionist to the beloved performer of hit songs like “My Bologna,” “One other One Rides the Bus” and “Eat It,” embellished with stories of sex, drugs and jungle combat that never really happened to him.

“I hope this confuses quite a lot of people,” Yankovic said of “Weird,” which he wrote with the film’s director, Eric Appel. “We wish to steer them down a path and think, Is that this an actual biopic? Is that this the actual story? The movie starts out pretty normal. Then it progressively goes way off the rails.”

Central to fulfilling that premise is the casting of Radcliffe, an enthusiastic Yankovic fan who looks little just like the musician and had no desire to impersonate him.

For all the eye he brings to it, Radcliffe said, he appreciated “Weird” precisely since it allowed him to follow his post-“Potter” path into more unexpected roles. Playing Yankovic, a minimum of as he’s depicted within the movie, was the precise project Radcliffe was on the lookout for — even when the title put some constraints on how he could describe the film.

Radcliffe began to say, “There was nothing weird — see, it makes the word ‘weird’ hard to make use of in other contexts — there was nothing unusual about it.” He added that even before he had read the script, and was simply asked about playing Yankovic, “I used to be very, very into the thought.”

Over a breakfast interview last month at a downtown Manhattan restaurant, Yankovic, 62, and Radcliffe, 33, exhibited an adorkable affection for one another. There have been quite a lot of “you go ahead,” “no, you proceed” exchanges. It was as if neither man knew who was the celebrity and who was the admirer.

They said there was an analogous energy of their first video chat within the winter of 2020, when Yankovic was pitching Radcliffe on the thought of starring within the movie. “I actually have an actual problem in meetings sometimes once I like something and I would like to do it,” Radcliffe said. “I just gush in various ways. I get very, very repetitive.”

“Weird” was very much a passion project for Yankovic, who has released 14 studio albums since 1983 but starred in only one movie, the 1989 cult comedy “UHF.”

In 2010, Appel wrote and directed a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a nonexistent movie, also called “Weird.” Starring Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) as a hard-partying version of Yankovic, the video was released on Funny or Die and have become a viral success.

Through the years, Yankovic showed the fake trailer at his live shows, where some fans believed it was promoting an actual film.

“People could be like, ‘It is best to make a complete movie,’” Yankovic said. “I used to be like, ‘Nah, it’s a trailer. It’s what it’s alleged to be — it’s a gag.’”

But more recently, following the success of other rock biopics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” Yankovic began to take seriously the thought of a feature-length version of “Weird.”

He was also annoyed at what he felt were unnecessary changes to the factual stories of the rock stars depicted in these other movies. He pointed to a scene in “Rocketman” when Elton John impulsively chooses his latest surname after he spots a portrait of the Beatles and zeros in on John Lennon.

“Everybody who’s an Elton John fan knows it was inspired by Long John Baldry,” Yankovic said, raising his voice just barely. “I suppose they thought no one knows who Long John Baldry is.”

An initial effort to pitch “Weird” around Hollywood was unsuccessful, and studios looked as if it would expect a movie that more directly lampooned existing biopics, in the identical way Yankovic’s songs parodied other hit singles. “People thought it was going to be more spoofier — more ‘Naked Gun,’ more ‘Scary Movie’ — than it’s,” Appel said.

So he and Yankovic sat together in a coffee shop, watching the trailers for other biopics and on the lookout for common storytelling tropes. Together they wrote a script through which, Yankovic said, “facts are modified arbitrarily, just to vary them.”

Regardless of what “Weird” may depict, Yankovic didn’t compose his song “My Bologna” in a spontaneous moment of out-of-body inspiration. Also, he said, “I did record it in a toilet but not in a bus station. Why did we modify it? Just ’cause that’s what biopics do.”

Their movie still needed a number one man, they usually considered Radcliffe, who they knew appreciated comedy musicians like Tom Lehrer.

Radcliffe, it turned out, liked Yankovic’s music also — and so, too, did his longtime girlfriend, the actress Erin Darke, who had been a fan for years and infrequently played Yankovic’s albums on road trips.

(Throughout their first video call about “Weird,” Radcliffe said in an excited whisper, “I used to be going, If this happens, my girlfriend goes to be so thrilled.”)

More crucially, Radcliffe said he felt “Weird” offered the artistic liberty he has sought on movies just like the biographical drama “Kill Your Darlings,” which solid him because the poet Allen Ginsberg, or “Swiss Army Man,” a dark comedy through which he played a highly versatile corpse.

“Every time I get a probability to throw myself into something, I’ll,” Radcliffe said.

In comparison with a scene in “Weird” when the fictionalized Yankovic is on a psychedelic drug trip and hatches from an enormous egg, Radcliffe said, “possibly only Paul Dano riding me like a Jet Ski in ‘Swiss Army Man’ comes near the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.”

He added, “There was definitely a freedom within the version of Al that’s within the script. And it’s so insane.” Turning to Yankovic, he said, “You didn’t murder many, many individuals.”

“Not quite a bit,” Yankovic replied. “Only a few.”

With Radcliffe on board, Roku picked up the movie. But the corporate agreed to only 18 days of filming, which made for an incredibly tight schedule on a project through which he needed to perform several musical numbers (lip-syncing Yankovic’s original vocals), in addition to execute a few motion sequences.

“On ‘Potter,’ one among those scenes could take 16 days,” Radcliffe said.

So he used his preproduction time to learn his lines and choreography and get into top physical shape. (“I did find yourself realizing I’m shirtless within the Weird Al movie greater than anything I actually have done,” he said. “Most of it was scripted, but I hadn’t really taken it in.”)

And once cameras began rolling, everyone held on tight. “The Covid of all of it was terrifying, especially for me and Eric,” Radcliffe said. “There is no such thing as a Plan B. We just need to not get sick.”

Even before filming began, the comedian Patton Oswalt, who had been solid in a key role as Dr. Demento, the radio host who gave Yankovic a few of his earliest airtime, broke his foot. Though there was some talk of whether Oswalt could play the part on crutches, Rainn Wilson (“The Office”) took over on short notice.

The production was also buoyed by a committed performance from Evan Rachel Wood (“Westworld”), who plays Madonna — though on this story, the Material Girl is a sly, selfish seductress who’s clearly only using Yankovic in hopes that he’ll parody one among her songs.

“I’m amazed the lawyers allow us to get away with this movie, frankly,” Yankovic said. “But they’re like, Oh, yeah, all public figures — go for it.” (A representative for Madonna didn’t reply to a request for comment.)

Appel said Yankovic and Radcliffe were especially necessary for setting knowledgeable tone while everyone worked at breakneck speed. And through postproduction, Appel continued to speak closely with Yankovic while the musician has been on a North American concert tour.

“Once we were mixing the movie, he was on Zoom with us, all day long, from a distinct city day-after-day,” Appel said. “He’d text me between songs: ‘I feel the backing vocals on this song have to get bumped up a tiny bit.’ Then I’d start to reply and he’d say, ‘Oop, gotta go onstage.’”

“Weird” is arriving at an ungainly moment for the streaming industry, which is in a period of reassessment and retrenchment after years of expansion, and for Roku, whose stock took a beating after the corporate missed earnings goals this summer.

While this might sound to place increased pressure on the movie to deliver an audience, the filmmakers could only shrug their shoulders and say they were just grateful to have made it in any respect.

“It is a latest thing for them,” Yankovic said of Roku. “Hopefully this can do well for them.” Radcliffe said he had encountered more curiosity about “Weird” than he did for the Harry Potter reunion special he appeared in for HBO Max this past January. “I still can’t consider people weren’t jumping at the possibility to make your movie,” Radcliffe said to Yankovic. “They’ll regret it now.”

The Weird Al of “Weird” and Real Al would now go their separate ways: Radcliffe was preparing for a revival of “Merrily We Roll Along” at Recent York Theater Workshop, and Yankovic was due in Toronto that evening to proceed his concert tour. (“We’re within the homestretch now — just three more months,” he said wryly.)

But they might at all times be united by their time together on “Weird” and the unique opportunity that Radcliffe needed to learn the accordion from Yankovic — a minimum of enough to make him appear to be a reliable musician in a movie.

“Whenever you’re playing Al, to not give it an excellent, honest attempt seems a wasted opportunity,” Radcliffe said.

Yankovic replied, “Each time I see any person play the accordion on TV or film, it’s at all times a disappointment.” (As an exception, he singled out Mary Steenburgen, who he said “can actually play.”) “Dan put in the hassle,” he said. “I don’t know if he could do a solo performance.”

Radcliffe quickly responded, “No way, I couldn’t. But I can do the left hand on ‘My Bologna’ pretty effectively. I learned the bits I needed for the songs, on one hand or the opposite.” He laughed and added, “Doing them each at the identical time is a nonstarter.”

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

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