Eddie Redmayne is opening up about his mysterious storyline in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Below, the Oscar-winning Theory of Everything star takes a bunch of our burning questions about his role as magi-zoologist Newt Scamander in the Harry Potter spin-off, which opens Nov. 18.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start at the beginning: When did you first hear about this project?
EDDIE REDMAYNE: I think it must have been two years ago. I got a call to have a meeting with [director David Yates], and he talked through the story in the vaguest of terms and said there will be a script in five months time and then we’d have a meeting on it again. Everything was hyper-secret. I was so excited at the prospect, and then there was nervousness, because what if I read the script [and didn’t connect with the character].
After your prestige roles, was going to a big, broad audience vehicle like this attractive or no?
When you start out acting, you dream of getting an agent and getting a job. For years, you audition and you get what you can. Choice isn’t something that you have much of. What was interesting about this, one doesn’t often get these opportunities, but you look at it like any other script. Because a film can look amazing, but if you can’t find anything in that character… so there was the drumroll to reading the script: What would the character be? And what’s lovely is that J.K. Rowling has a staggering imagination to the thoroughness of the world. There were so many elements to Newt. I met her once, and she could talk back through everything, every intricacy. You’re not playing a real character, but in J.K. Rowling’s mind, [Newt is] entirely three-dimensional, and you can talk to her about what his life was like.
Did Rowling help with anything specific?
One of the wonderful things about the script is when you read it, it’s not just what the characters say, it’s the stage directions and descriptions in between. You have to read each thing; you can’t just skim it. When I met her, our instincts were pretty similar; it was just little details of his background that she was particularly helpful with.
How would you describe Newt?
He’s a man with a passion, and his passion is animals. His mother bred hippogriffs, and it’s the world he’s most comfortable in. He’s not particularly comfortable with human relationships. He’s comfortable in his own skin, but he disconnects with people. People seem to misunderstand him, and he doesn’t know why, but he’s also not particularly interested in why. He has his own relationship with his animals.
Any special talents as a wizard?
He’s not an astounding wizard. He’s capable. He’s used to being physically capable when dealing with animals.
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And you studied animal trainers for this, right?
I had a few months to prepare. I had never done a film of this scale, and I don’t have a particularly lot of imagination, and there’s a lot of interaction with animals and fantastic things and working with puppeteers. How does one go about prepping for that? Going out to these amazing zoos, to parks, and going into cages with animals and meeting their keepers and hearing what their lives are. I spent a day or two with a gentleman who lives in the forest, and tracking is his thing. And it’s about using all of your senses — from smell to sight to peripheral vision to sound — and knowing things like using plants for antidotes. Also, when you are tracking animals physically, he was showing me this thing. [Redmayne demonstrates planting his feet starting with the side of shoes first.] It created this slightly open gait that Newt has.
What does Newt think of America?
When he first arrives in New York, you see him walking down the street, and the way he’s observing the city is the way that he would observe a natural habitat. He’s kind of smelling it; it’s as if he were in the jungle. It’s totally alien to him to see somewhere that’s filled with such vibrancy and people. The 1920s has a prohibition quality, and that’s been put into magical terms — but I don’t want to give too much away.
How was working on such an effects-driven film?
I’ve done CGI films where the whole world is green, and you have no context. What’s amazing is the amount of puppeteers or dancers or people you work with who will then not be there. There is a magic that you feel when the art department sends you 12 mock-ups of wands and you get to have a full-on discussion of what wand to have. It’s the stuff kids’ dreams are made of. The hardest thing was the months of prep of working with the visual effects department, talking to Jo [Rowling] and David [Yates] about what the specific relationships and characterization of all of these different animals so that Newt could interact with them with a kind of fluency that made you really believe in his love of them and his care for them.
What are your favorite beast?
There are two favorites. The Niffler — they have this wonderful love-hate relationship. It’s just incredibly aggravating and wonderful at same time. He’s a complete nightmare, yet Newt gets off on his playfulness and single-mindedness. And the Bowtruckle, Pickett, I love him. There are many bowtruckles in the film, but Pickett has attachment issues. Newt knows he shouldn’t have favorites, but he loves Pickett.
What’s his least favorite?
Newt doesn’t have a least favorite!
How many beasts does he keep in that case anyway?
Oh god, many. I don’t have a specific number. If you read his book, there are so many extraordinary ones that you don’t get a glimpse of in the film, but I’m hoping if we’re lucky enough to make more films, there is such a vault of cool beasts that we can show more.
We learned that he was kicked out of Hogwarts despite Dumbledore standing up for him. What sort of backstory insight can you shed on that?
I would love to give you backstory, but that’s something in which the Warner Bros. troops would shoot me for if I said anything. I can’t talk about that, I’m afraid.
Okay, what’s been your favorite spell to cast as Newt?
There’s one which basically stuns someone and sort of makes them kind of go almost statue-like. Shooting that, there was the most brilliant stuntman doing it, and he literally goes from fully standing to falling like a log and smacking on the ground and, I just couldn’t believe that he didn’t break his brain.
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I know you can’t get specific, but what do you think that fans will be most surprised by in this film?
One of the things that I found quite extraordinary about the script when I read it is that it’s there are moments that feel like a thriller. There is a dark aspect to it. There is a kind of comedic quality to it, and sort of romance. We have all these different genres, and yet somehow J.K. Rowling has managed to weave them together. I think it’s surprising about how moving it is. All I have when I read scripts is that instinct, and I was really moved by it. So that should hopefully be surprising. And now I just ruined the surprise [laughs].
Have you bumped into any of the cast from others films and gotten useful advice from them?
I bumped into Ralph Fiennes, and he was asking who was directing, and I said David Yates. Ralph said that what’s extraordinary is amongst all the huge scale of the operation is that Yates has an incredibly acute eye for every single detail of performance. He’s an actor’s director, and that was lucky to know.
Who’s the one person from the Harry Potter universe that you would like Newt to meet?
To meet in a future film? That’s really an interesting question. I think a Newt and Ron scene would be quite enjoyable. I think those guys would find each other quite intriguing. Ron and Newt would have quite a good time. I’m not sure a huge amount would be achieved.
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Is there romance in the film? According to canon, Newt has a destiny with Tina (Katherine Waterston)…
Newt’s been damaged by human beings, and at the beginning of the film, he’s someone that’s pretty content in his own company and the company of the beasts. He enjoys his solitude, and he’s also spent a year out in the field. So he really hasn’t had to deal with people. And when he arrives in New York, there are more people than he’s ever imagined. Certainly at the beginning of the film when he meets Katherine’s character, there’s a great antagonism between them, and they’re both quite sort of naughty characters. We sort of know that ultimately those two in the Potter lore get together, and there’s this sort of central build of these two people who are outsiders finding each other. And there’s Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie, there’s definitely a romance in the air there.
If it were up to you, where would you like to see Newt go in the sequel?
I was at [the studio] when it still had all the Tarzan set out, and I was like, “Can’t we just have a crossover here? Can’t like Newt swing through one of those?” It made me think that I would like to see Newt out in the wild.
What’s your favorite of the Harry Potter films?
My favorite film is probably the finale — Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
Probably a wise choice since Yates directed that one.
With the last two, they had something I kept rewatching, going back and watching Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Radcliffe do that extraordinary duel. When you’re [casting spells on set], the effects of this huge tension of what’s coming out of your wand is put [into the shot in post-production; you’re] literally acting with nothing, and I found it so operatic and deeply moving. I found it so climatically satisfying.
What about a favorite Potter book?
I suppose I’d go with [Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone] My little brother, when he was 6 years old, he would always read it, and it had that instant immersion into the world that made you release your imagination.
In interviews you said you were into magic as a kid. What was your favorite trick?
My favorite trick was this coloring book that you would open the pages, and the pages would be blank, then you’d then tap it with a wand, and you’d open the pages again and there would be like drawings, and then you’d tap in with a wand again and then all of the drawings would be colored in. That was my favorite trick. I bought it from a place from a place called Davenports Magic Shop and School. And it didn’t involved any skill, it was just a proper old-school trick.
Have you done the Pottermore house sorting yet?
You know what, I did the other day! And that would be really depressing for me to find out that like I’m not actually Hufflepuff and then it sorted me with Hufflepuff. I literally was by myself at home and I yelped with excitement that I got Hufflepuff. I was like, “the magic exists.”