Rapidly becoming hailed as one of the greatest actors of his generation, Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in ‘A Theory Of Everything’, and received another nomination for his portrayal of Lili Elbe in ‘The Danish Girl’. His ability to disappear into his characters is nothing short of wondrous – some may even say magic.
It’s fitting then that Redmayne’s next part is as a wizard in ‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’, a prequel to the ‘Harry Potter’ stories. Directed by David Yates and written by J.K. Rowling, the film takes place in New York in 1926. The city is becoming increasingly dangerous, with battles between wizards and non-magical people (known as ‘No-Majs’) brewing. Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a curmudgeonly wizard whose magical creatures are set loose across the city, escalating the tension and the fun.
The thirty-four year old actor talks to Movies.ie about entering the world of wands and wizards.
Tell us about your character, Newt Scamander.
I love Newt because he’s complicated. He’s not your average hero, he’s actually quite knotty and spiky, and is much more content in his won company or in the company of his creatures than he is in the company of other human beings. He’s been a bit damaged by life and likes solitude, and only through the film and the other characters does he see that other people are passionate about life and are worth being passionate about. But I like that he’s not someone you instantly warm to, you have to navigate with him and almost earn his trust. The film has a lot of oddballs like that, and shows how great and worthy and powerful oddballs can be.
Newt hides some of his beloved creatures in a nondescript but quite extraordinary suitcase. It feels like you’ve been preparing for this role all your life, because like him, you always travel with a mysterious suitcase…
It’s true! It’s actually really embarrassing, the first time I met the director David Yates, I was summoned for a meeting to a club in Soho in winter and it was all very enigmatic and mysterious, I wasn’t allowed know what the project was. And I have this battered old suitcase, which is my attempt at embodying my Dad. Growing up, my Dad had a proper job in the city and had a briefcase, so I copied him. I put all my research in this bag, and David starts telling me the story of a wizard Newt Scamander who loves magical creatures. We were sitting by a fire and he leaned in and said very dramatically ‘And then there’s this case…’ All I could think was ‘Oh my God, he’s going to think I’m one of those weirdo actors who turns up dressed like the character!’ So I was trying to shove my suitcase under the table and hide it!
The film was directed by David Yates but writer J.K. Rowling was also on set quite a bit during filming, Was that intimidating?
It was actually wonderful. What is amazing about what JK does is that everything has such a logic, you don’t even have to think about how to balance the humanity and the magic of your character; it’s all set, and so thorough. And so she is the resource; if you ever have a problem you can just ask her.
What was your favourite detail of the wizarding world she created?
I adored the different types of magic. The film obviously has these glorious big set-pieces and magical show-downs, but I loved the everyday magic. There’s a scene in a house where people are just laying the table and cooking and it’s all tiny domestic, banal jobs. But shooting is actually really tricky, because there’s a logic to laying the table, putting the dishes out – but obviously nothing is there on the day, it’s all CGI, so paying attention to where people are flickering their invisible magic is tricky! But the small, subtle magic is so delicate and beautiful and seeing it come to life onscreen is wonderful.
How open were J.K. Rowling and David Yates to you improvising on set?
Wonderfully open! There was so much trust among the whole creative team. And you might expect J.K. Rowling would be very protective over her words, but she was so open to hearing ideas and letting us play. Dan Fogler, who also stars in the movie, was a hugely inspirational force on set, he has such a talent for improvising and playing, it was a very invigorating set to work on. I’m quite an analytical actor and hate myself for it! So while I’m like ‘Sorry, exactly how big is the creature, and how exactly does that work?’, he’ll be off playing and causing mischief!
You’ve obviously faced the pressure of being in films with Oscar buzz and portraying real people, but here you’re facing a few different forms of pressure. Not only are you making a film for Harry Potter fans, but you’re also replacing Daniel Radcliffe as the leading man in a work by J.K. Rowling. How does that feel?
I generally feel fine until people say it! Of course you feel pressure, but I also feel pressure because I’m also a fan and what Daniel and Rupert and Emma and the directors created was incredible. But all enthusiasm is welcome! Also, I think every job always feels like the hardest, most pressurized job you’ve ever had. That is a weird aspect about being an actor, first of all you always fear that you’ll never get hired again after your last job, and hen whatever you’re working on feels like the hardest job. On A Theory Of Everything I felt so much pressure because I knew Stephen Hawking was going to watch the film, then on The Danish Girl I felt such a responsibility to Lili’s story. And now on this, the pressure comes from knowing that J.K Rowling wrote such incredible characters and we get to play them. But unlike the Harry Potter films that were based on the books, here we’re not working off a similar source material. So with that comes some freedom but also a heightened responsibility.
Did you re-watch the Harry Potter films as a cheat-sheet to the spells and magic?
I did! I had to do an ‘Obliviate’ spell and I was struggling with it so went back and watched the films, and Emma Watson does the most graceful, beautiful movements! I think the films so seduce you with the battles and special effects but it was re-watching them that I realised how much work went into those details and the incredible work the actors did – and they were five years old!
Fantastic Beasts tackles the theme of segregation and prejudice – in the film, it’s obviously about magic people and non-magic people, but obviously reflects real divides in our society. Did that affect you when you read the script?
Absolutely. There’s obviously so much of that division going on in the world today, and one of the things that makes J.K. Rowling a genius is her ability to weave in these very important social issues into the context of a magical world – but also to do it with a lightness of touch so you don’t feel like you’re being sledgehammered or lectured. But there are so many things in this film and characterisations that feel so relevant to the world today. I think people will be very moved.
Finally, the most important question: if you went to Hogwarts, what house would the Sorting Hat put you in?
That’s so funny, I only went onto Pottermore the other day and thought ‘there’s no way this will get my house right – but it put me into Hufflepuff! I’m such a Hufflepuff! Now that’s magic!
Words – Roe McDermott
‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’ is in Irish cinemas from November 18.
STREAM THE TRAILER