Daniel Radcliffe on playing an anti-apartheid activist: 'It lights a fire in you'

Daniel Radcliffe and Tim Jenkin on the set of 'Escape from Pretoria.'
Daniel Radcliffe and Tim Jenkin on the set of 'Escape from Pretoria.'
Photo: TNT
  • Daniel Radcliffe plays anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin in the thriller, Escape from Pretoria.
  • Based on the 2003 book by Tim Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison it tells the story of his real-life escape from Pretoria Central Prison in 1979.
  • Tim and two other political prisoners escaped from jail using a set of keys made from wood.
  • The movie premieres on Saturday, 4 July at 20:00 on TNT (DStv 137).

In 1979 anti-apartheid activists Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris broke out of Pretoria Central Prison using a set of handmade keys.

It's the perfect plot for a prison break movie, and after numerous attempts to bring this remarkable true story - of what is considered to be one of the greatest jailbreaks to the screen - Tim's dream has finally materialised.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Tim in the thriller Escape from Pretoria co-written and directed by Francis Annan which is based on Tim's 2003 book Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison.

Tim was sentenced to 12 years and Stephen to eight years in prison in 1978 after being convicted of producing and distributing pamphlets for banned organisations including the SACP, the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Not long after they entered the gates of Pretoria prison, they started working on a plan to escape which involved making copies of keys from wood.

For the 72-year-old, it's exciting that this project finally came to life.

"It's something that I have dreamt about since I wrote the book. I mean, we didn't escape with the intention of making a film about it. That wasn't one of our motives to get out.

"But from the moment that we did get out, almost the very first person we met outside the prison couldn't believe the story we told them, and said: 'That's got film potential'."

When Daniel signed on for the role, he couldn't believe that it wasn't already a film.

"It's an amazing escape story, and it just felt like this is a story that should be in the canon of incredible escape movies and stories.

"Normally in a prison break film, the people in prison have done something bad to get there. In this film, these guys were put in prison for being on the right side of history and taking a moral stance. They were also people that you could really root for to escape."

Any time as an actor, you get a chance to tell a story that you think is valuable to a wider audience, you grab it with both hands.
Actor Daniel Radcliffe

This is not the first time the 30-year-old is playing a character based on a real person; it is, however, the first time he is playing someone who is still alive.

Daniel says it is an added pressure when the person you're playing is going to see your work.

"It's intimidating, but it's also very useful. These were people who sacrificed a lot and were willing to risk a huge amount for what they were fighting for, for their principles.

"You do have a certain duty when you're telling these kinds of stories. It lights a fire in you to give it your all, every day."

Daniel Radcliffe as Tim Jenkin in 'Escape from Pre
Daniel Radcliffe as Tim Jenkin in 'Escape from Pretoria.'

Tim gives Daniel's performance a 10 out of 10, saying that he captured Tim's quiet sort of character.

"He's not playing himself in that role. And you can see he's a different sort of a person. He's just a quiet guy that gets on with things, and he doesn't grumble a lot. He has this mission, and he's going to do it, and he does it. So, I think he pulled that off very well."

"Especially with the final scene where he tried to break out of that front door. For me, that was the most realistic scene, and it really brought it back for me," adds Tim.


The South African accent is a notoriously difficult one to master. With the help of an acting coach Daniel prepared for this aspect of the character.

He explains: "I'd go through the script and I get somebody with a proper South African accent to say everything to me.

"And then I write it down phonetically next to the line in a way that will make me repeat those sounds. Repetition and then hoping for the best."

The movie was filmed in Adelaide in South Australia. The set was used for another South African film in 1980.

Tim, who was on set during filming, says it took him back to his days in prison in many ways.

"It was very strange being on set; it was built exactly according to the layout of the prison.

"Seeing the size of this operation, hundreds of people involved, and huge big trucks and this big structure that they created, all of this because I wrote a story. It's a very strange and humbling kind of experience."

Tim Jenkin on the set of 'Escape from Pretoria' in
Tim Jenkin on the set of 'Escape from Pretoria' in Australia.

He also has a cameo as an inmate who sits next to Daniel's character during a prison visit scene.

"He was me; I was just some random old guy talking to a visitor there. And this figure doesn't even appear in the film at any other point. So, you may wonder who this guy was," he says jokingly.

With the movie centred on apartheid and the fight for equality, its release comes at a relevant time as protests against racial discrimination across the world has once again erupted.

For Daniel, what this movie means for him, and what he hopes viewers take from it is that it's one thing to believe in equality, but begs the question: What are you willing to do?

"What are you willing to sacrifice? We all like to think that we would be on the right side of history if we are placed in a certain time period. But the reality is, you know, very few people are. And Tim is one of the people who was. I think it's a story that, as you say, now is a good time for it."

We all thought at the time that the end of apartheid would be sufficient to shake the world, that racism must come to an end. We thought the world would wake up and say never again, never again. Here we are 25 years later, and we're still seeing the same thing.
Anti-apartheid activist and political prisoner Tim Jenkin

Tim says that racism is just one element of the bigger malaise in the world and that the coronavirus crisis has shaken us all up.

"These struggles are part of a bigger struggle. What is the struggle? I think it's clear that we have a collapsing economy all around us. We're all slaves to money. We're all slaves to the system. We're all looking for a way out.

"And the prison escape represents what we're all looking for. We're trying to find the front door to escape from this prison that we're in. And we can't just get divided into little separate struggles. We all need to combine together to find that front door and find the tools to get there. And I think if people can take that home with them, then we've at least got part of the message across."