Ever met a Niffler?
Eddie Redmayne has, and he learned one of the magical animal’s secrets from an earthly anteater.
The Oscar winner grabs a wand in J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (in theaters nationwide Friday, with preview screenings Thursday night) and took his Muggle self to a wildlife park in England to prepare to play a magizoologist.
“There was this anteater that had just been born, and people were trying to feed her and she kept scrunching herself into a ball. The way they would make her uncurl was to tickle her belly,” says Redmayne, 34, whose floppy-haired wizard surreptitiously transports magical animals to the USA inside a bottomless travel case.
On screen, the actor copies that trick to relieve an adorable, kleptomaniac creature called the Niffler of its horde of pocketed gems in Fantastic Beasts, a Harry Potter spinoff that meets Newt Scamander as he disembarks from a ship in New York City, 70 years before Potter’s story starts.
Let’s start with the basics: In Fantastic Beasts, set in America circa 1926, the non-magical sort are called No-Majs instead of Muggles, and this era is plagued not by Voldemort but by the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, who has vanished after terrorizing half of Europe.
Set in a period of Prohibition, with fascism growing abroad, there’s a power struggle going on inside the Big Apple, with a witch-hunting sect known as the Second Salemers threatening security for a magical community bent on keeping wizarding under a cloak of secrecy.
Redmayne was attracted to how Rowling set the tale amid real-world events. “What I loved about the Potter films was the idea that you could be living coinciding with this whole other thing going on,” says the actor, whose wizard is joined by brand-new sidekicks: an American witch named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who was recently sidelined from her job as an Auror, and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj baker who stumbles into Newt’s frantic search for his beloved, erratic creatures.
With Rowling on board as screenwriter, the new film is the author’s way into “telling a much bigger story of an epic battle of good vs. evil and of sort of segregation and repression and this big idea that this Grindelwald character believes in a superior race, and that wizards should be ruling over the world,” Redmayne says.
The seed of Fantastic Beasts, as fans know, comes not from best-selling novels but from one of Harry Potter’s textbooks (which bears same title as the new film), published as a supplemental one-off by Scholastic in 2001.
With less source material to draw from, “you don’t have the security of books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies,” allows David Heyman, who produced all eight Potter films, which have grossed more than $7.7 billion worldwide. “But with that comes a certain freedom because you don’t have to deal with people’s expectations.”
And thanks to fresh faces and new creatures including a giant Thunderbird (named Frank) and a clingy, lock-picking tree-creature called a Bowtruckle, “it’s a world anyone can dive into,” the producer says. “You don’t have to have seen a Harry Potter film to enjoy this or read a Harry Potter book. I think it stands on its own. But if you have, you have a slightly different experience informed by that.”
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 bid farewell to Potterheads in 2011, but Rowling never formally closed Hogwarts’ doors, thanks to new stories released via the author’s ever-expanding Pottermore website, her critically acclaimed West End play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which flings the Potter cast 19 years forward and was printed as a script-book in August), and casual character reveals, including Dumbledore’s sexuality (he was gay).
The actor met the famous author just before he started filming. “She was working on the play whilst writing the second Fantastic Beasts film, (and) she would come in with nuggets of information” for the cast, says Redmayne, marveling at her full plate. “And you’re like, ‘I don’t know how you compartmentalize.’ … It’s kind of extraordinary.”
In Fantastic Beasts, Rowling goes even darker, haunting New York with a malevolent force and pitting the director of magical security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), against Newt.
“It’s a process of finding the right tone,” says director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films. Fantastic Beasts is “set in the world of grown-ups, and the themes are quite grown-up; inevitably it’s a little bit darker.” He notes that Rowling “never been afraid in the Potter books to look at things like death and bereavement or the darker side of humanity.”
Here’s the 411 on Newt Scamander: The mop-haired friend to the gnarliest of beasts hails from a serious British wizarding family (in the book, his mother is a Hippogriff breeder). “His brother is quite an influential and strong Auror — much more part of the establishment, whereas Newt is absolutely not that,” Redmayne says. “He’s his own person, and he doesn’t work well with rules or regulations or being sat behind a desk.”
For reasons unknown, Newt lives a life of solitude with his coterie of beasts — whom he spends most of the film chasing down after they flee his cavernous case.
The actor had just portrayed two real people back-to-back when he took the role: Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, which won him an Oscar in 2015, and transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, which earned him another Oscar nomination.
“I was weirdly relieved, having played two real people most recently, actually to be playing someone that was fictional and that didn’t come necessarily burdened with people’s expectations of who that person should be,” he says.
(Fun fact: Roughly 15 years ago, while at school, Redmayne answered a Harry Potter casting call for the role of Tom Riddle. He received no call back. “I think I got about three lines into my audition, and it was with the assistant to the assistant,” he laughs.)
In a world of Hollywood braggadocio, the gracious Brit has remained remarkably unchanged since his pre-Oscar days. Over a long lunch, he’s chatty and inquisitive about other professions, sharing anecdotes about life as a father (he and his wife, Hannah Bagshawe, welcomed a baby girl named Iris in June) and comparing notes on cilantro (he’s a fan).
Though thanks to infant-induced four-hour sleep stretches, “I’m not quite sure what’s coming out of my mouth,” he says. And he has no potion for perfect parenthood: “The answer is my wife is amazing. We tend to read very little and just trust our instincts.”
After years of shooting films back to back, Redmayne describes taking what Americans would call an extended “babymoon.” “Before Iris was born, we did some dream things; we traveled around Japan and we went to Paris for a month. Basically, since we’ve been together, it’s been rigorous. It felt like almost like a sabbatical. It was so much fun.”
There’s one word he still struggles with: “franchise.” Even on a question regarding the financial stability that comes with a series (Redmayne is signed on to at least three of what Rowling recently revealed are five planned Fantastic Beasts films), the actor steers focus back on the present.
“I just hope that people enjoy this film first off. What I loved about the script was it was its own thing. It stood alone. J.K. Rowling has a bigger story to tell, but if the film doesn’t go beyond that, it stands alone as a film. It has its own wholeness to it.”
But analysts expect these Beasts to rise again, predicting a $75 million to $100 million haul in the film’s first weekend.
“How do you follow Harry Potter? You make an amazing movie, and with social media buzz so strong, the film looks like it could be one of the biggest films of the year,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, calling the Potter brand alive and well.
A second script is in the works, and Potter diehards know somewhere in this new world awaits an epic battle, given that Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald in a duel in 1945. “As the series develops, there will be more connective tissues, more characters, more narratives that will be familiar echoes into the Harry Potter universe,” Heyman says.
So count on this magizoologist to keep his rather fantastic day job.
Redmayne laughs describing the reality of riding a rhino-like beast known as an Erumpent. “The reality of that is being astride a huge big bucking bronco with two men dressed in full bodysuits that look like massive green condoms,” the actor recalls. “Being thrown around in the air (while) screaming about teapots and insects.
“I remember at the time going: ‘I get to do this for a living? This is amazing!’ ” [Source]