At the recent world premiere of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” there were no sightings of Harry Potter. But Eddie Redmayne, the star of the new Warner Bros. blockbuster, wore a plastic Bowtruckle — a green twig-like creature — on his tuxedoed shoulder. “It was given to me by a fan on the red carpet,” Redmayne later recalls, over eggs and coffee at Manhattan’s Crosby Street Hotel. “It looked so realistic,” he says, it even fooled one of the movie’s producers.
There are sure to be more fan homages in the months, and years, to come. In the new franchise written by J.K. Rowling, Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, the Magizoologist who arrives in New York with a suitcase packed with mystical animals like the gold-seeking, furry Niffler or the enormous Erumpent. To prepare for the part, the Oscar-winning actor studied with animal trainers and re-watched key “Harry Potter” scenes. “I went down a YouTube hole,” he reveals.
While the new franchise isn’t set at Hogwarts, there will be some overlapping characters in the five movies that Warner Bros. has planned for the series. Redmayne spoke to Variety about “Fantastic Beasts,” meeting with Rowling, and why he won’t ever play James Bond.
How did you learn about “Fantastic Beasts”?
It came to me in a wonderfully top-secret way. I got a call, saying David Yates wanted to meet me about an unknown project. We met in a pub called Blacks, which is in Soho in London. As I went to this place, it was pouring rain, and downstairs in the basement, there was a fire and David. The whole thing had a Diagon Alley vibe to it. He started telling me this story that J.K. Rowling was writing, and he talked about Newt and the case. I had taken a suitcase that I had. As he talked more about the case, I gently pushed my case back. I had this embarrassment that I looked like one of those actors that turned up dressed for the part.
When did you read the script?
In three months time. I never ever have done a film where you have to literally lock up the script in a safe. First, you’re not really allowed a paper script. I was like, “I need a script to write notes on it.”
Could you not take it home?
Not really. Occasionally, I would smuggle my script home.
Did you need to audition?
No, I didn’t. But we came here to this hotel, after I’d been cast. There was a group of actors for all the different roles. They were trying different combinations.
How did you find Newt?
It came with instinct. I hadn’t really started prep. I played him quite insular and observant, and when I came for the second day of auditions, David said: “It was really interesting, but once you’ve trained, you’ll be stronger and broader!” I was like, “Yes, absolutely, he will.” But in my mind, that’s not how I envisioned him at all. J.K. Rowling watched the tests, and she liked the more insular character.
You’re coming off two independent films, “The Theory of Everything” and “The Danish Girl,” where you were meticulous about research. What about for “Fantastic Beasts?”
I met animal handlers. I met a guy who tracks creatures, so he showed me a bizarre thing. When you’re trying to track a creature, you try to make absolutely no noise. You put one foot down at an angle, and he stood open-toed.
What kind of animal handlers did you meet?
I met this woman who was handling a newborn anteater and feeding the anteater. The way to make the anteater relax was to tickle her. I could bring little things like that to David, and said: “How about with the Niffler, when it tries to protect its pouch, I tickle him.”
Did you re-watch “Harry Potter?”
I didn’t. They are always on. I did watch moments, like the wand stuff. There is a sense that every actor is like, “One day, I’ll get my wand moment.” I got my wand moment, and I got stage fright. I got awkward. I didn’t know what to do with it. In the end, I watched Dan Radcliffe, Ralph Fiennes, and Emma Watson. I definitely stole, and thieved.
Did it become more comfortable?
It’s an odd thing, there’s nothing more weird, without spoiling the scene, when [a character] is whipping you with electricity. It’s like “Fifty Shades of Wand.” There’s no way to talk about wands without going to catastrophic innuendo.
It’s like shooting a sex scene.
Your words, not mine.
Did you get to choose your wand?
Oh, yeah. I talked to the art department, and had long discussions about Newt. He’s a simple guy — nothing pretentious, just a wooden wand with a shell at the bottom. I wonder if the people from the merchandising department went, “I wish he could have gone a bit bedazzled.”
Did you shoot with a lot of green screen?
No. The extraordinary thing about the film is that they built so much of it. I had worked out talking to nothing. But then for the Erumpent, for example, some of the people who worked on “War Horse” built this massive puppet. We would rehearse it for camera, then they would go off and I would have the sense memory of what we had just rehearsed.
How much time did you spend with J.K. Rowling?
I had a meeting for an hour with her. When you meet J.K. Rowling, there is such great anticipation, but it was really about talking about Newt. He’s personal for J.K. Rowling. It was helpful and gave me a sense of who he was. When she wrote the script, her characters did jump off the page.
There were originally going to be three movies.
Three-plus-one, whatever that means.
And then it became five. Did you worry about staying with the character for so long?
I didn’t, because I’d love who she’d written. As an actor, if it’s your dream to tell stories, getting to tell stories within the imagination of one of the greatest storytellers in the world is all you can hope for, really. Long may that continue.
Do you know how the series ends?
No. We really do not know. I think different actors know different amounts. We probably need to sit down. There was one day when [Rowling] came on set, and she was writing the second movie. She said, “I’m not allowed to say anything.” But she would sort of spill forth, and it was so infectious. Katherine [Waterston] and I were called back to a scene, and I remember the two of us doing the scene, but looking to the right — at Jo. Poor David was like, “Focus on the task.”
Did you hear from J.K. Rowling after she saw the movie?
She had seen the first cut of the film, and she tweeted a load of faces with heart eyes. I never felt more happy. Who knew that an emoji tweet could make me feel so happy?
Have you read the second script?
No. The impression I get is I won’t for a while.
Are you nervous about audiences embracing “Fantastic Beasts?”
I’m always nervous. But the nerves come out of a place, having enjoyed the “Harry Potter” films and books so much, you get to be part of an extension of that world. You don’t want to be the new guy, the schmuck, that turns up and screws that up. But I think there’s something unique about it. What I loved about the script — there’s a darkness to it, a thriller quality, a comedy, there’s a romance, and there’s heart at the end of it. I was really emotional when I read the script. That’s hard to do; there’s a deftness of touch to it. I just hope we managed to retain what the script had in that way.
Would you do another franchise in addition to this one?
Franchises. I hate that word. I don’t know why — it sounds so businessy. For me, it’s about the character.
Would you be interested in playing James Bond?
I definitely will not be playing James Bond. I would hate to see myself play James Bond. I love going to see “James Bond” and seeing really freaking cool actors that I admire doing great things. Never say never, but … no. Who would I like to see as James Bond? That’s a different question.
Okay, who would you like to see as James Bond?
Tom Hardy. Seeing him in “Inception,” I thought he was so debonair. But are they even looking? See, you don’t know. Nobody knows. I love Daniel Craig.