For Daniel Radcliffe, playing Weird Al Yankovic was intimidating and thrilling

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

Daniel Radcliffe (center, front) plays Weird Al, and Rainn Wilson (far right) plays Dr. Demento in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.” Photo courtesy of The Roku Channel.

Weird Al Yankovic launched his career in the 1980s with a spoof of the Michael Jackson hit “Beat it,” which sold half a million copies. A new movie — a parody — tells the origin story of Yankovic. It stars Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter” movies) as Weird Al, and debuted on the Roku Channel. 

Yankovic, who wrote the film, says a true biopic wouldn’t be interesting because his life hasn’t been full of scandal. “We figured it should follow the same formula as every single other Hollywood music biopic. So we had a troubled childhood, and a lot of things going on that maybe are exaggerated, or perhaps more likely fabricated from scratch.”

Some things in the movie actually happened. Yankovic says he did start taking accordion lessons because of a door-to-door salesman, and recorded his first single in a public restroom. He says he did not, however, have a relationship with Madonna. 

Radcliffe says this role was intimidating but exciting to take on. 

“I’ve played real people before, but I've never played somebody that I am an active fan of, while they are also there and part of the process. That's a pretty unusual situation. But I ended up in the best version of that situation, because it was Al, and thankfully Al is incredibly supportive and kind and encouraging of both my performance and the movie as a whole. So yeah, it made the intimidation factor lessen as we went on.”

Yankovic adds that he and Radcliffe immediately collaborated well because they were “two huge nerds” doing what they love.

For Radcliffe, core to becoming Yankovic was identifying character traits that they shared.  

“Al operates in … a space that’s between the incredibly sweet and kind and earnest, and just psychologically unhinged and deranged. If I could spend my entire life working in that area, that would be ideal,” Radcliffe says. “That was the thing I was going for with the character, is trying to capture both that earnest sweetness, but also later … that feral unhinged, a quality that he has to have.”  

How ‘a weird kid making stupid songs’ became popular

Yankovic credits Dr. Demento’s 1970s radio show for exposing him to new and “crazy” artists, such as Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, and Stan Freburg. It motivated him to start submitting his own music tapes. 

“Just me and my accordion, recording into a cheesy little cassette tape recorder, and he would play my stuff on the radio. This is decades before YouTube, or any kind of social media, so there wasn't any kind of outlet for a weird kid making stupid songs,” Yankovic explains. “That made my brain explode. I couldn't believe I was getting played on the radio and that encouraged me to just keep doing it. And I just never got tired of it.“ 

He says luck played a big role in his enduring popularity, but he also thanks the talented people he works with. That includes his band, who’s played with since the early 1980s. 

“I tend to keep people close to me, and I'm loyal to them and they're loyal to me. And there's probably a modicum of talent out there somewhere, but I think it's mostly me faking it and surrounding myself with people that know better,” Yankovic says.

Radcliffe disagrees: “Al’s a very naturally self-effacing, humble person. … It's not just luck. It's an enormous amount of talent and hard work. …. I was lucky enough to see Al’s concert the other night and watching him live, seeing the breadth of what he can do as a performer and a vocalist is so cool, and definitely something that I feel like people overlook sometimes.”