10 Behind-the-Scenes Facts About Daniel Radcliffe's New Show Miracle Workers

Courtesy of TBS
Courtesy of TBS

Have you ever wondered if someone is up there, answering your prayers? In the new comedy Miracle Workers, which premieres on TBS on February 12, there is someone up there answering prayers, and it’s Daniel Radcliffe. The Harry Potter star plays Craig, an angel at Heaven, Inc. who works in the Department of Answered Prayers. He’s the only one in the Department until Eliza, played by Geraldine Viswanathan, is transferred there. They soon must answer an “impossible prayer” in order to keep God, played by Steve Buscemi, from destroying Earth. (Radcliffe, Viswanathan, and Buscemi are joined by Karan Soni, who plays Sanjay, an executive who works closely with God, and Lolly Adefope, who plays Rosie, God’s assistant.)

Mental Floss hopped on the phone with Radcliffe to find out all about why he loves Miracle Workers, what he has in common with his character, and what he hopes viewers will take away from the new series.

1. Miracle Workers is based on a book, but differs a bit from its source material.

Miracle Workers is based on Simon Rich’s book What In God’s Name: A Novel. "The TV show is much more sort of secular than the book was in many ways,” Radcliffe tells Mental Floss. “There’s a few kind of Bible-y, Old Testament-y tropes in there, but it’s mainly much more this idea of heaven and God as a corporation and a CEO. There’s an internal bureaucracy to how everything works.”

The book has been compared to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and, says Radcliffe, “One of the things that’s fun about Douglas Adam’s books, or loads of great books that fall into some sort of fantasy, sci-fi [category], is that they build these worlds. I think that the world Simon has built in this heavenly corporation is really a fun place to spend time as a viewer, hopefully. And part of the joy of the show is in seeing the mess of how it all supposedly works—or doesn’t work, in many cases.”

2. Radcliffe has wanted to be involved since reading the book ...

Radcliffe loved What In God’s Name from the get-go. After reading it, he met with Rich, “and I basically said, ‘I love this book, and if you ever turn it into anything—if that was film, TV, or radioplay, I don’t care—I would just love to be involved.’”

About a year later, Rich called Radcliffe and proposed a TV series. Usually when something like this happens, Radcliffe says, your agent sets up the call and you know you shouldn’t commit until you’ve run it by them. But when it came to Miracle Workers, “I was basically immediately in. It wasn’t one of those things where I have to like ‘Oh, I should need to talk this over with anyone.’ It was just like, ‘No. I am doing this. If this show is happening, then I want to be in it.’”

3. … and he would have played any character.

An image of Daniel Radcliffe on the set of Miracle Workers.
Courtesy of TBS

When it came time to figure out what his role would be, Radcliffe says that he was “literally up for anything. It was very much just a case of me saying to Simon: ‘Any role you see fit to use me in, please use me. I would love to have that happen.’” That said, Radcliffe admits that, “I always felt like Craig was the most natural fit. Or Craig is the one I would pick if I could pick. And I’m very happy that he chose Craig.”

Radcliffe didn’t just act in Miracle Workers; he also executive produced it (along with Rich, Buscemi, Lorne Michaels, Andrew Singer, and co-executive producer Katy Johnson). “I was involved in the development of the project, and casting and that side of the process,” Radcliffe says. “But once I got on set, I was focused on just acting. I don’t want to take credit away from the people who really worked very hard!”

4. Miracle Workers shows off Radcliffe’s comedic side.

As Radcliffe told us in 2014, when he’s on the hunt for new projects, he’s always looking for something that will challenge him. He’s dabbled in comedic roles before, especially in indie films and onstage (and, of course, in a memorable appearance on Extras)—but he says Miracle Workers is “the [first] time I feel like I’ve got to really do comedy in a way that many people in America may have a chance to see it, which is really exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever been in anything with quite [this] sense of humor before. So it was kind of new for me. And to be able to work on a series like this, which had a writer’s room ... I got to spend a little bit of time in that room, and I’m just in awe of how f***ing talented and funny people are. I’m very, very lucky I got to say their jokes.”

5. Radcliffe and his character have at least one thing in common.

Craig is a bit of an oddball; he’s extremely devoted to his job and doesn’t have many friends. And also, he really loves mustard. It’s something the character has in common with Radcliffe, who is emphatic on this point: “I f**king love mustard. If you have a steak or something and there’s some like mustard left in the bowl at the end [of dinner], I will eat that off a spoon.” When he read that moment in the script, “I swear I almost emailed Simon, like, ‘has someone told you something about me?’” Radcliffe says, laughing.

Craig’s method of eating mustard differs slightly from Radcliffe’s, however: The character squeezes packets directly into his mouth. “I worked out that the most efficient method of getting an entire packet of mustard into your mouth without just squeezing it all over your face is to tear off a corner, and then bite down. Put the entire packet into your mouth and just drag it out through your teeth,” Radcliffe says. “I don’t do that in real life.” Which isn’t to say he actually minded having to eat mustard while shooting. “Everyone on set was going ‘you must hate this,’” he says, “and I was having to pretend like, ‘Yeah, yeah. This is weird.’”

6. The Heaven Corporation’s industrial vibe comes from Miracle Workers’s set.

Miracle Workers was shot in Norcross, Georgia, in an airport-sized factory-turned-studio space. “They basically scaled [the factory operation] down so that now, I think one-tenth of the factory space is in use for its original purpose, and the rest of it’s just rented out for films and studio spaces,” Radcliffe says.

The production team took advantage of what was left in the factory for the set of Miracle Workers. “[That’s] why it does have this fantastic semi-bureaucratic, semi-industrial feel to it, the whole set,” Radcliffe says. “A lot of the time in the corridors we weren’t even using sets, we were just using the factory and the studio itself as our set.”

7. The show’s production and design teams clearly had a blast.

An image of Daniel Radcliffe, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Karan Soni in Miracle Workers.
Courtesy of TBS

The humor in Miracle Workers extends to the show’s sets and props—look in the background and you’re likely to find something that will get you giggling. “It was one of those projects where you could tell those departments were having a lot of fun,” Radcliffe says. “Sometimes the production designer’s job is to go unnoticed and create something incredibly naturalistic, but when you have to create a really unique, unexpected version of heaven, something that everybody has at some point had some concept of—I think those departments have a lot of fun just upending it [and], along with Simon, creating that world.”

8. Radcliffe’s favorite set was Craig’s office.

“I loved my, Craig’s, office,” he says. “Just an endless amount of jokes in the background, and an endless array of props to play with and get involved in the scene. It felt like I had imagined it, somehow. It was a really brilliant set, with the wall of prayers he’s answered just stretching up into infinity. There are so many great ideas in there.”

9. Answering an “impossible” prayer drives most of the action, but there are other hijinks, too.

In the Department of Answered Prayers, Craig separates the prayers into ones he thinks he can accomplish, and ones he labels “impossible,” which go directly up to God. When answering a prayer they’ve marked doable, the angels have to do it unobtrusively; being too obvious or taking a shortcut can lead to unintended consequences. So Craig spends inordinate amounts of time generating wind to precisely blow leaves away to reveal a missing item, for example.

But those minor miracles take a backseat when Craig and Eliza start trying to answer their impossible prayer, which involves Earthlings Laura and Sam (played by Sasha Compère and Jon Bass). “That’s really what drives the plot in every episode,” Radcliffe says. “There are things that they have to do along the way in order to [answer it], and some of that does involve orchestrating people on Earth’s lives, in hopefully as unobtrusive of a way as possible. But as the series goes on and we get more desperate, our miracles get a lot less subtle.” (And, it should be said, more hilarious.)

10. The humor in Miracle Workers is dark, but the message is uplifting.

One thing that really excites Radcliffe about Miracle Workers is ultimately what he hopes audiences will take away from it. “Simon’s tone in that world view is something that I’m excited to share with people—that sensibility that the world is a dark, chaotic place sometimes, but it’s the only one we have,” he says. “[The show] has a lot of faith in human beings, and there’s an immense amount of excitement for the idea of being alive—in spite of all the insanity that the world sometimes offers you. The jokes are very sharp, but there’s a generosity of spirit that I really love and hope that other people love, too!”

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.


Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

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