Daniel Radcliffe and Erin Darke on Being the First Celebrity Coronavirus Hoax

Daniel Radcliffe and Erin Darke. Photo: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

As the ancient proverb dictates, no international pandemic is complete without an accompanying celebrity hoax. In the case of our current global crisis, that honor was bestowed upon Daniel Radcliffe. In mid-March, a Twitter account with the handle @BBCNewsTonight reported that the actor had contracted coronavirus, making him “the first famous person to be publicly confirmed.” The tweet was shared hundreds of times before Twitter suspended the account, including by journalists at the New York Times and Politico. Another journalist, me, also thought the tweet was real for a split second and texted Radcliffe’s long-time girlfriend Erin Darke, who’s a friend, asking if she and Daniel were okay. By the time my text had gone through, I realized that I was, in fact, an idiot whose non-existent journalism degree should be rescinded.

Soon afterward, BuzzFeed spoke to the people behind the hoax, a group of 33 anonymous people who said they did it because “it was funny, that they were manipulating people’s minds, and that the internet was lowering people’s IQ.” They chose Radcliffe because “we needed someone who was famous but not famous enough to be unbelievable.” Radcliffe himself good-naturedly joked about the rumor days later during a round of pre-scheduled press for Endgame, a play he was performing in across the pond until the pandemic shuttered it. In one interview, he wondered if those behind the hoax had chosen him because he “looks ill all the time.”

I was interested in hearing more, so I called up Radcliffe and Darke. They talked about what it was like to be the unwitting subject of a celebrity pandemic hoax — and years of unhinged gossip — and how they’ve been faring otherwise.

Where are you guys holed up?
Erin Darke: We’re in New York, at Daniel’s apartment. We decided to be super-responsible and self-quarantine so we haven’t stepped out of the apartment in … 11 days?

Radcliffe: We gotta cross that off.

Darke: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, we gotta check off the 11th day on our prison checklist.

Are you keeping a log?
Radcliffe: We have a little Post-It on the wall that we’re keeping a tally on. There was something about it that just made me laugh, immediately treating it like a prison film. We’re both in the situation where we’ve never been more grateful not to have a kid, or more annoyed that we don’t have a dog. But generally speaking, compared to a lot of people, we are very, very much okay.

Daniel, where were you when you first heard that you had coronavirus?
Radcliffe: I was doing a play in London, which obviously had to finish a little early, but at the time we were still doing it. The London theaters carried a week or so longer than most other plays. We’d done the matinee and I went into hair and makeup for the evening show, and the hair and makeup artist, a lovely guy called Rob, turned around with a sort of knowing smile, and he was like, “You’ve got coronavirus.” I was like, “What?! I’m sure I don’t. I just did a play.” And he said, “Yeah, my niece just texted me. She said, ‘Oh, yeah, that dude’s got coronavirus.’” It was very much like, “Watch yourself. I don’t know if you should work with this guy. He’s got coronavirus.”

So I was immediately like, quite amused by it. It’s not the first time I’ve had something crazy written about me. I don’t ever think there’s been a rumor about me that was so topical, that was pivoting off the news. Most of it before has been random stuff that British newspapers have said. So this one was slightly odd. But then you end up having to text a bunch of people saying, “No, I don’t have coronavirus, I’m fine.”

Erin, when did you first hear the rumor?
Darke: I was on a plane back from visiting him. As soon as the plane landed, I turned my phone on and I had all these texts like, “Tell me the internet’s wrong!” “Is Daniel okay?” I was like, “What the fuck is happening?” And finally a couple people texted me, “Oh, it was a hoax, never mind.” But I also had a text from Dan asking what he should do with the Invisalign that I accidentally left in the retainer when I left. I was like, I think he’s okay? [Laughs.]

When you first got all those texts, were you ever worried?
Darke: No, because I’d just seen him that morning. I was just very confused. I was like, He seemed really okay this morning and he’s only texting me about my retainer, so if that’s his way of letting me know he has corona, we need to work on our communication. 

When did you finally get on the phone and talk about it?
Darke: So you were already asleep when I’d landed, so I didn’t get to talk to you about it till the next day. But I spent an evening texting people back, like, “I think he’s fine!”

Radcliffe: Didn’t I text you about it, being like, “There’s this thing going around?”

Darke: [Laughs.] No!

Radcliffe: Oh, sorry.

Darke: You literally only texted me about my retainer.

Radcliffe: I thought I’d mentioned that. I did know about it at that point.

Wait, so you already knew about the hoax but just didn’t mention it to her?
Radcliffe: I think I was like, filing it under — Erin and I have been together long enough that she also knows weird stuff gets written about me occasionally. It wasn’t really until the next day, until I did a round of phone interviews, that it was like, “This has been taken seriously by more people than it should have.” I spent the whole morning just having to tell journalists that I did not have coronavirus. And it was maybe only a day later that Tom Hanks said he had it.

Darke: When I talked to you the next day I was like, “It’s a crazy hoax, partially because it could have been true. At some point, someone will be the first famous person to have it.” And it was like, eight hours later that Tom Hanks came out.

Radcliffe: The original tweet was something like, “Daniel Radcliffe becomes the first famous person to get coronavirus.” And I was like, That’s such a weird distinction. Surely the first person to get coronavirus is the first famous person to get coronavirus.

A good point.
Radcliffe: I also wonder if someone would do that now. Even in the relatively short time since that happened, the gravity of the situation has sunken in a bit more. I don’t think people would be so quick to make something up. Erin saw the article about the people who’d done the hoax, and they said they wanted to make a point in how easy it is to get people to believe things that aren’t true. I feel like we’ve got that point. Everyone is all too aware of that. Also, at some point, I might get it!

Darke: Right, that’s the thing. So many people will get it before this is over. And I was like, The weird thing will be that he could get it now. “Oh, it’s real this time, guys!”

Radcliffe: The actor that cried coronavirus. What did you say about one of the people in the group who did the hoax?

Darke: One of them thought he was a celestial being. I do also think that if you got it at some point and wanted to be public about it, you might have to do a video of yourself talking about it, because now if there’s just an article, I don’t know if people would believe it.

Radcliffe: I don’t know if I’d do that.

Darke: Well, some people are publicly saying it just to take away the stigma of people having it. That’s why Tom Hanks did it, I think. Like, “A lot of people are going to get this, don’t freak out about them or at them.”

Radcliffe: Right, right.

Who was the most random person to reach out to both of you?
Radcliffe: I don’t know! I don’t think there was anyone particularly random. I did have the producers of the play call me the next day like, “Hey, can we talk to you tonight?” And it was actually about something totally different, but my first thought was that they had also believed it. I was like, “I don’t have coronavirus!”

Darke: That was what was funny. It wasn’t as much random people as it was friends. I just felt bad for all of our friends who temporarily got very worried.

Radcliffe: Didn’t [the New York Times’s] Maggie Haberman retweet it or something?

Radcliffe: I feel very sorry for her about that. I’m sure the amount of news coming at her every day must be very hard sometimes to filter out the occasional crazy story. And everyone piled on her on the internet. Sorry, Maggie Haberman.

I love that you’re apologizing to her.
Radcliffe: It’s not like she printed something terrible, she just passed on something that wasn’t true. And yes, everyone should be more careful about that, but if you’re spending your day overwhelmed by the news, it must be hard to pick out a crazy news story that also is fake.

Darke: And it was at that tipping point. Our culture is so celebrity-obsessed that it felt like a weird thing that was about to happen. It was weird, perfect timing for this bizarre thing.

Erin, I love that you immediately had a sense of humor about it. Your text back to me was like, “Ha! This is so fucking weird.”
Darke: It’s key —

Radcliffe: — if you’re going to be involved in my life, having a sense of humor about the weird shit happening to me.

Darke: Dating a famous person teaches you very quickly that shit is weird sometimes. People are weird with fame sometimes.

Radcliffe: There’s no “right” reaction, but I [credit] a lot of my attitude to things toward my parents. To give a tangential story, but Harry Potter was massive in Japan. When I arrived in Japan when I was 12, there were thousands of people at the airport. It was this crazy crowd, a hundred security there trying and failing miserably to hold them back, as these young girls and old women piled through these guards. We got through the crazy crush and we got in the car, and my mom and dad just started laughing. They were like, “How fucking weird was that.”

And that’s honestly the most helpful reaction that you can have. I’m glad to hear [Erin reacted] like that. That’s why I didn’t feel the need to text you on some level, like, “Oh, you’ll see this and recognize it as bullshit.”

Darke: We’re at the point now where I’ve seen my own wedding reported several times. You do start to dismiss things you read about your partner if you’re pretty sure they’re not true. I spent a week once having to text all my family members being like, “I promise if I’m getting married, you will find out from me and not Us Weekly.” At first I assumed it was a weird tabloid story rather than a deliberate hoax.

Outside of this, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen written about you?
Radcliffe: At least three different times, somebody has written that we’re getting married and Emma Watson is gonna be the maid of honor, and Rupert Grint is my best man, and we’re getting married on a lake in Michigan.

Darke: It’s always very detailed, and with things that would never be true if you’ve ever met us. Clearly they’re like, “What are the four things we know about these people? Okay, these are their co-stars, and this is where she’s from. Okay, that’s their wedding!” [Laughs.] 

Radcliffe: I’ve had a bunch of really weird ones. And this is all, by the way, not Twitter hoaxes but newspapers. There was one thing that I’d hired former SAS soldiers to walk my dogs. There was a rumor that I’d had a full-sized nude statue of myself made and put in my house. There was a rumor that I had special beer made for myself from a monastery with Belgian monks. And there was a really weird one at one point: The logic was that I’m too famous and important to hold an iPad, and I didn’t want to hold an iPad to read scripts, so I sent my assistant to like, hold it up behind me in a mirror while I was having my makeup done. Wouldn’t even work because I’d be reading it backwards. [Laughs.]

But as I’ve said, they’re more normally weird, idiosyncratic, and unrelated to what’s going on in the world. This was my first time getting dragged into a news cycle.

Darke: Mostly, they’re very uninterested in me, except where it concerns the two of us and whether or not we’re getting married.

That sounds about right for the tabloid industry.
Radcliffe: I’m okay with their lack of interest in us.

Darke: We’re boring to them. Ninety percent of the paparazzi photos of us are getting coffee.

Radcliffe: Or getting yoga mats.

Darke: Or going to the grocery store. We’ve been photographed twice waiting for an Uber. Dan is not the most exciting celebrity.

Radcliffe: I’m really not. I’ve bored the paparazzi out of following me. The last interaction I had with a paparazzi, actually — I was walking home from getting coffee and he followed me for ages and I saw him jumping out from behind a car. Because I’m so not used to them being around me at the moment, I was like, I assumed there must be somebody else around where I lived that he was waiting for. So I was like “Come on, you’re not here for me. Who are you here for?” And he just looked at me and gave this weird creepy smile and went, “It doesn’t matter.” Other than that, we’re very left alone.

Darke: You can only sell so many photos of two people waiting for an Uber.

Why do you think you were selected as the first celebrity pandemic Twitter hoax, perhaps ever?
Radcliffe: I think most of it, and they said as much, was that I’m not on social media. So I wouldn’t see it or be able to respond to it quick enough to flatten it, so it’d get a few hours of time to germinate before anyone was able to shut it down.

Darke: Also I think it’s because you’re not a dramatic celebrity. You’re not in the news for crazy shit. So it feels more believable when there’s something dramatic.

Radcliffe: Maybe, but I feel like it could’ve been someone like Charlie Sheen and still been a massive story.

Darke: I love that Charlie Sheen is where you went for “dramatic.”

Radcliffe: My mind went to other places first but I didn’t want to say. He’s someone everyone can agree is dramatic.

Do you think part of it was a heartstrings thing, because you were a big part of people’s childhoods?
Radcliffe: Maybe! [Laughs.] That’s pretty shitty, if it was. That also makes sense, that it would be somebody who was a part of people’s childhoods. It’s like telling people that Santa has coronavirus.

Well, I’m glad neither of you have coronavirus.
Darke: For now! Who the fuck knows?

Radcliffe: We’re going to keep isolating and try and stave it off.

Are you going to stay in New York?
Darke: I think so. At this point, I don’t really know where we’d go. I also love this city so much, I don’t want to leave her when she’s down.

Radcliffe: It’s scary here right now, but it’ll be scary in a bunch of other places, too.

Darke: I also think it sounds like the safest, most responsible thing we can do is stay in this apartment as much as humanly possible. So that’s what we’re going to try and do.

Okay guys, stay safe. Let’s grab a drink or a coffee in one year.
Darke: Absolutely.

Daniel Radcliffe, Erin Darke on Being the First Corona Hoax