Daniel Radcliffe and Jennifer Westfeldt on their Unique Documentary ‘Circus Kid’
Available exclusively on Sundance Now, the documentary film Circus Kid (directed by Lorenzo Pisoni, produced by Jon Hamm, Jennifer Westfeldt and Eden Wurmfeld, and executive produced by Daniel Radcliffe and Karen Lehner) shows the spirit, danger and dynamics of growing up in a circus family. As young as age 2, Lorenzo Pisoni started his career in the family business, the Pickle Family Circus, and while that’s a fascinating story, in itself, the doc also delves deeper into the father-son relationship, through interviews with Larry Pisoni, exploring not only how he changed the way people view the circus and what it can be, but also the tension that a family working together can create.
During this interview with Collider, Daniel Radcliffe and Jennifer Westfeldt talked about how they got involved with Circus Kid, why they were so impressed with Lorenzo Pisoni and fascinated by his story, the incredible challenges of a life in the circus, and the complicated father-son story at its center.
Collider: How did you get involved with Circus Kid?
JENNIFER WESTFELDT: Lorenzo [Pisoni] and I did a play called The Explorers Club at Manhattan Theatre Club, a few years ago, in 2013. I just couldn’t believe that this dashing guy who looked like Clark Kent and who was playing this British Hugh Grant role opposite me in this British farce had grown up in the circus. He was carney folk. It was so incongruous ‘cause he’s so straight-laced. It just doesn’t quite compute. I learned that he had been doing this one-man show called Humor Abuse, which was basically telling this story in a different way, on stage. He won a lot of awards for the show and people loved it, and he was actually going to finish our play and then go do that play again, at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. I just remember thinking, “You’ve been doing this play for how many years, and you’re in your late 30s, doing stunts where you have to fall off a ladder into a pail and standing back flips. We should film this before it’s too late.”
So, that was how it began. I wanted to film and capture the play at the Taper. It stared with just that in mind, for a special or something like that. And then, as soon as I met Larry (Lorenzo’s father) and saw this magnetic, compelling, dark, tortured figure, and watched their dynamic together, I was like, “Actually, this is a documentary.” That’s how we started, and it just grew from there. The play was wonderful, in its own right, but it was a different tone and we wanted to go much more in depth into Larry and everything that went down.
DANIEL RADCLIFFE: Lorenzo and I first worked together when I did Equus in New York. I think it was the first Broadway show in which he had ever had it in his contract that he would have his own dressing room, which is always a nice thing for an actor. And then, he didn’t get to enjoy that because I invaded his dressing room for basically the entire run. I just thought he was amazing and I wanted to hang out, so he had me, as a 19-year-old groupie going, “Tell me more stories about the circus! Can you juggle?”
He became a huge part of my life, specifically my life in New York, and has become an incredible friend who I’ve turned to for advice and sanity, at various points in my life. I’d like to think that I’ve been a sounding board for him, as well, sometimes. Personally, I adore him, but professionally, he’s somebody that I’ve gone to because his physical work is so amazing. I’ve gone to him when I was doing Frankenstein and Swiss Army Man, and quite physical roles. I go to him to work on ideas with him because I know I can fall on myself in front of him and I don’t mind. Also, I am in the process of writing a script, which I haven’t in many years, and when we’ve done readings of it, he came and read one of the main parts for me. He’s somebody who’s supported me in my career, and particularly my post-Potter career.
So, when we were doing Equus, I saw Humor Abuse, which was the play that he did that pre-existed the documentary. It was a wonderful show, but it was a very physical show. Lorenzo is at a point, in his career, where he’s still very capable and he can still do a standing back flip, if he needs to, but he would prefer not to have to. So, I saw the very early version of the show and I saw the final version when it was in L.A., but after that was done, he wanted to continue telling the story and tell a version of the story that focused even more on his relationship with his dad, in a way that reached more people. The first few years of my relationship with Lorenzo, I would describe as ice packs and tiger balm. He’s an amazing performer. Circuses are incredible and the range of talent in there is so extraordinary.
So, to have something that combined all the fun of the circus with this very reflective, self-aware man, who was also willing to go in-depth on his childhood and on his relationship with his parents was really beautiful. Both of us have had what other people would probably regard as a slightly abnormal childhood, but we’re both really grateful for it because it made us how we are. The range of experience and the range of people that we encountered was a big influence on both of us. Of course, there were difficult times in Lorenzo’s life, but he’s always been incredibly grateful for what that childhood gave him, as I have been, as well.
Daniel, how did you originally find out about Lorenzo’s previous life in the circus? Is it something that he readily shares with people?
RADCLIFFE: He doesn’t shy away from it, but he doesn’t promote it about himself. When I met him, Lorenzo was transitioning from mainly circus and physically-based stuff into more straight acting, but he wasn’t shy about it. When we did Equus, there’s one role that was double cast, which is the main horse, Nugget, that Alan has a particularly intense relationship with and there’s a physical relationship with him. So, I was literally on Lorenzo’s back, and standing up and carrying me around that stage was a lot of his job on that show. All the while, he’d wear these insane stilts that he would have to balance on while carrying me. He played that part, and he played the young horseman on the beach, which is another part of the play where he had to put me on his back.
On day one of rehearsal, we were split into two groups. There was the horse group, who were learning their choreography in one room, and then all of the actors were in another room, doing the body of the play. Lorenzo was the one going between both rooms. At one point, I went into the other room to look. All of the horses had been cast because they were dancers, and I think Thea [Sharrock], our director, thought Lorenzo was a dancer, as well. I went in there on the first day, and all of the dancers were walking around on these stilts and being amazing, and Lorenzo was panting and like, “Oh, my god, this is hard! I’m not a dancer. I don’t know if Thea knows that.” But like with everything in Lorenzo’s career, a physical challenge is only a physical challenge for as long as he hasn’t mastered it, and by the end of the week, he had. I would go up to his room, all the time, and find out more and more about his life and how extraordinary it was.
At one point, during Equus, he was doing that very early version of the stage play and he invited us to see it. It was a 90-minute show in a circus tent, down by the river and in front of maybe a hundred people maximum, and it was still one of the most special theatrical experiences and memories I’ve ever had. I think I knew Lorenzo for years before I found out that he speaks a couple of other languages, plays multiple instruments, and tap dances. I went up to Lorenzo and said, “I thought you weren’t a dancer!” And he said, “Well, I can do a bit of tap.” He’s one of those obscenely talented people that has got so many talents that he doesn’t even really regard them as talents anymore. One of the lovely things about him is that he doesn’t really know how special he is. He’s an incredible performer.
This is such a deeply personal story that is also unique, touching and absolutely fascinating. What did you learn about Lorenzo, from watching this film?
RADCLIFFE: I think there’s something very brave about going to your parents and asking them the questions that you’ve always wanted to ask them. Not necessarily because the answers will be bad, but because there are probably answers in your head that you want to hear and the likelihood of actually hearing them is very, very slim. That’s why my admiration for him went up, even more. I’ve met his mom, in real life, a couple of times, and she’s a wonderful woman, but it was very funny and sweet to watch her having this moment of realization and saying, “Yeah, I guess it was weird when we sent you off at 13 to work. That’s not something that would happen now.” I’ve not met Lorenzo’s father, so watching that interview, for the first time, was really special. I think there’s a certain amount of catharsis for anybody, male or female, who’s ever gotten the opportunity to ask a parent those questions. I talk about this film in terms of fathers and sons because that’s a big dynamic. I do think, for any child of any parent, there’s something about watching anyone go and find out what was going on in their past.
WESTFELDT: At the heart of it, this is a father-son story. Every one of us has an incredibly complicated relationship with our parents, whether or not we work together, whether or not they taught us to juggle, whether or not they were strict, or any of those things. In this case, there’s so much connection, love, chemistry and energy between this father and son, in particular. There’s also a very complicated underlying issue of the dreams you have for your son and how you relate to one another. Larry always envisioned Lorenzo taking over the family business, and that could be any family business. A lot of fathers, and just a lot of parents, in general, hope that their kid will follow in their footsteps and learn from them, and also not make the mistakes they made. Larry made a lot of mistakes, and he was an incredibly unusual character who came from a broken home. It’s such an unusual story, that he accomplished what he did. He was a high school drop-out, who was self-taught and living the American dream, and he accomplished so much. If he hadn’t had the emotional and substance abuse challenges that he had, who knows what he could have become. In a way, that could be a story about any father and son, or any person in America, who’s trying to make it from nothing, take risks and create a legacy. I also feel there’s an element to this story of Larry being this unsung hero in the development of the circus. He really was incredibly influential, in the development of what we think of as the circus now, and I don’t think many people know his name. I hope they will after this. I hope they learn about him.
Jennifer, as a filmmaker yourself, did you give Lorenzo any advice in putting the finished film together?
WESTFELDT: We did it like a circus. It was definitely a group effort. We actually had a lot of fun working on it, and we also learned so much. Every time Larry and Lorenzo were together and we had the camera rolling, all of the things that would come out of Larry’s mouth, Lorenzo would be like, “Wait, I’ve never heard that story!” I couldn’t believe that there were so many firsts, in terms of what they were learning about each other still. I think that peeling back of the onion, in finding out just what was going on, is so interesting. We have ideas about what our childhoods were like, what our parents were like and what our relationships were like, and yet we don’t really know. Looking back with an adult lens is so illuminating. Very few of us get the opportunity to really delve into it, in this way, and also find new common ground and new clarity. It was amazing for me to see how their relationship changed, just by making this film.
Would you consider producing more documentaries, or would it have to be a special circumstance, like this was?
WESTFELDT: This came out of a friendship and a fascination with the subject. We were just going to record the production. That was the goal, but we just got swept up in the process and the personality of Larry. He just took over. So, I don’t know. Never say never. I’m so eclectic in my career and the things that interest me. I’m mostly an actor, but I have had these forays into filmmaking – writing, directing and producing. It’s just about the subject matter for me and what’s compelling to me.
It’s been a bit since you did Friends with Kids, which you wrote and directed. Would you like to do another project like that, where you get to flex the writing, directing and acting muscles again, or has it become more difficult to do that, these days?
WESTFELDT: I don’t know. I’ve got two projects of my own, that are in development at the moment. It always takes so long to get something made. I have a TV project, as writer/actress/EP, that we’re in development on and are trying to find a home for. And I have a screenplay that’s about two-thirds of the way done, so we’ll see. Certainly, the landscape has changed so much that it’s hard to know the best venue for your work when there are so many streaming platforms, and yet it’s a very crowded marketplace. People don’t go to the movies that much anymore, so it’s hard to know where to put your creative voice. We’re all struggling with that. As an actor, you get a job and you go to work, and it’s being made. That’s a lot easier.
Circus Kid is available to stream at Sundance Now, starting on December 21st.