When Weird Al Yankovic Met Daniel Radcliffe, Things Got … Well, You Know
The real Weird Al Yankovic, left, and his movie double, Daniel Radcliffe. “I hope this confuses a lot of people,” the musician said of their biopic.Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times
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Generally speaking, Weird Al Yankovic and Daniel Radcliffe are never going to be mistaken for each other. 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 career.
Still, this past winter, during the making of the 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 maximum 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, “Every time I would walk by the ‘Weird Al’ sign on your trailer, I’d be like” — he paused and acted out an exaggerated double take — “Oh, no, that’s not me.”
This is the effect that the makers of “Weird” are hoping it will have on audiences when Roku releases the biopic on Nov. 4. It is 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,” “Another 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 a lot of people,” Yankovic said of “Weird,” which he wrote with the film’s director, Eric Appel. “We want to lead them down a path and think, Is this a real biopic? Is this the real 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 like the musician and had no desire to impersonate him.
For all the attention he brings to it, Radcliffe said, he appreciated “Weird” precisely because it allowed him to follow his post-“Potter” path into more unexpected roles. Playing Yankovic, at least as he’s depicted in the movie, was the exact assignment Radcliffe was looking for — even if the title put some constraints on how he could describe the film.
Radcliffe started to say, “There was nothing weird — see, it makes the word ‘weird’ hard to use 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 was very, very into the idea.”
Over a breakfast interview last month at a downtown Manhattan restaurant, Yankovic, 62, and Radcliffe, 33, exhibited an adorkable affection for each other. There were a lot of “you go ahead,” “no, you continue” exchanges. It was as if neither man knew who was the celebrity and who was the admirer.
They said there was a similar energy in their first video chat in the winter of 2020, when Yankovic was pitching Radcliffe on the idea of starring in the movie. “I have a real problem in meetings sometimes when I like something and I want 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 just 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 became a viral success.
Over the years, Yankovic showed the fake trailer at his concerts, where some fans believed it was advertising a real film.
“People would be like, ‘You should make a whole movie,’” Yankovic said. “I was like, ‘Nah, it’s a trailer. It’s what it’s supposed 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 idea 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 new 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 slightly. “I guess they thought nobody knows who Long John Baldry is.”
An initial effort to pitch “Weird” around Hollywood was unsuccessful, and studios seemed to expect a movie that more directly lampooned existing biopics, in the same 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 is,” Appel said.
So he and Yankovic sat together in a coffee shop, watching the trailers for other biopics and looking for common storytelling tropes. Together they wrote a script in which, Yankovic said, “facts are changed arbitrarily, just to change them.”
No matter what “Weird” may depict, Yankovic did not compose his song “My Bologna” in a spontaneous moment of out-of-body inspiration. Also, he said, “I did record it in a bathroom but not in a bus station. Why did we change it? Just ’cause that’s what biopics do.”
Their movie still needed a leading man, and they thought of 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 often played Yankovic’s albums on road trips.
(Throughout their first video call about “Weird,” Radcliffe said in an excited whisper, “I was going, If this happens, my girlfriend is going to be so thrilled.”)
More crucially, Radcliffe said he felt “Weird” offered the artistic liberty he has sought on films like the biographical drama “Kill Your Darlings,” which cast him as the poet Allen Ginsberg, or “Swiss Army Man,” a dark comedy in which he played a highly versatile corpse.
“Whenever I get a chance to throw myself into something, I will,” Radcliffe said.
Compared to a scene in “Weird” when the fictionalized Yankovic is on a psychedelic drug trip and hatches from a giant egg, Radcliffe said, “maybe only Paul Dano riding me like a Jet Ski in ‘Swiss Army Man’ comes close to the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.”
He added, “There was definitely a freedom in the version of Al that is in the script. And it is so insane.” Turning to Yankovic, he said, “You didn’t murder many, many people.”
“Not a lot,” Yankovic replied. “Very few.”
With Radcliffe on board, Roku picked up the movie. But the company agreed to only 18 days of filming, which made for an incredibly tight schedule on a project in which he had to perform several musical numbers (lip-syncing Yankovic’s original vocals), as well as execute a couple of action sequences.
“On ‘Potter,’ one of 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 end up realizing I am shirtless in the Weird Al movie more than anything else I have done,” he said. “Most of it was scripted, but I hadn’t really taken it in.”)
And once cameras started rolling, everyone held on tight. “The Covid of it all was terrifying, especially for me and Eric,” Radcliffe said. “There is no Plan B. We just have to not get sick.”
Even before filming started, the comedian Patton Oswalt, who had been cast in a key role as Dr. Demento, the radio host who gave Yankovic some 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 in this story, the Material Girl is a sly, selfish seductress who is clearly only using Yankovic in hopes that he will parody one of her songs.
“I’m amazed the lawyers let us get away with this movie, frankly,” Yankovic said. “But they’re like, Oh, yeah, all public figures — go for it.” (A representative for Madonna did not respond to a request for comment.)
Appel said Yankovic and Radcliffe were especially important for setting a professional tone while everyone worked at breakneck speed. And during postproduction, Appel continued to communicate closely with Yankovic while the musician has been on a North American concert tour.
“When we were mixing the movie, he was on Zoom with us, all day long, from a different city every day,” Appel said. “He’d text me between songs: ‘I think the backing vocals on this song need to get bumped up a tiny bit.’ Then I’d start to respond and he’d say, ‘Oop, gotta go onstage.’”
“Weird” is arriving at an awkward 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 company missed earnings goals this summer.
While this might seem to put 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 at all.
“This is a new thing for them,” Yankovic said of Roku. “Hopefully this will 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 believe people weren’t jumping at the chance 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 New York Theater Workshop, and Yankovic was due in Toronto that evening to continue his concert tour. (“We’re in the homestretch now — just three more months,” he said wryly.)
But they would always be united by their time together on “Weird” and the unique opportunity that Radcliffe had to learn the accordion from Yankovic — at least enough to make him look like a competent musician in a movie.
“When you’re playing Al, to not give it a good, honest attempt seems a wasted opportunity,” Radcliffe said.
Yankovic replied, “Every time I see somebody play the accordion on TV or film, it’s always a disappointment.” (As an exception, he singled out Mary Steenburgen, who he said “can actually play.”) “Dan put in the effort,” he said. “I don’t know if he could do a solo performance.”
Radcliffe quickly responded, “No way, I could not. 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 other.” He laughed and added, “Doing them both at the same time is a nonstarter.”
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.