NEW YORK — After spending two straight falls consumed by awards season, Eddie Redmayne is taking a break from the Oscars and fronting his first franchise.
In the Harry Potter prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the mantle of J.K. Rowling’s leading man has been passed from Radcliffe to Redmayne. His Newt Scamander also wields a wand, but he’s a humbler operator in the same magical realm. Newt is a sheepish Brit arriving in 1926 New York, with a leather case stuffed with wondrous but outlawed creatures.
Though the film, which also stars Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterson and Dan Fogler, is an ensemble, Redmayne is undoubtedly the freckled face of the new Pottermania. It’s a new, high-pressured role for Redmayne, an Oscar winner for his Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” and a nominee for last year’s “The Danish Girl.” So is fatherhood; in June, his wife, Hannah Bagshawe, gave birth to their daughter, Iris.
A few hours after taking a break from promotional duties with Iris, Redmayne chatted in a downtown Manhattan hotel about his headlong dive into Rowling’s empire, the film’s multicultural message and just how many movies he’s gotten himself into.
Your first blush with the Harry Potter world came much earlier, didn’t it?
Redmayne: This is true. When I was at university, they were casting the net quite wide for Tom Riddle, the young Voldemort. I had gotten an audition. I think I was seeing the casting director’s eighth assistant. I remember surviving about three and a half lines of the first scene before I was shown the door, so I wasn’t very successful. It wasn’t the greatest introduction to the Harry Potter world.
I imagine, being a young actor in Britain, many of your contemporaries were finding their way in.
Redmayne: I definitely thought having a slight ginger gene there must be some distant relative of a Weasley I could be. I had lots of friends — Robert Pattinson did the film and then Domhnall Gleeson played a Weasley. They would come back with wonderful tales. But I never got the call.
So how did “Fantastic Beasts” come to you?
Redmayne: It came in the most wonderfully cryptic, slightly sort of Harry Potter-y way. I got a call saying that (director) David Yates wanted to meet. We met at a club called Blacks in Soho in London. I went downstairs and I found David sitting by a roaring fire. And I have this little case, this Globe-Trotter case that I always use as my work case. I think I was working on “The Danish Girl” so I came from there. He just gently started telling me this story and introducing me to who Newt Scamander was. And then he mentioned this case that had this sort of Mary Poppins-like quality. And I subtly pushed my case back. I was so mortified that he might think I was that actor who had turned up dressed as the character.
What did Rowling tell you about Newt?
Redmayne: We had a discussion for about an hour two weeks before filming. It was the first time I met her. She told me where Newt came from in her imagination and aspects of her own life. It was a really wonderful conversation and galvanizing conversation. But it’s not one that’s really my place to talk about because it was personal to her.
The fantastical beasts your character is secretly shepherding are deeply feared and banned in America. The political subtext is hard to miss.
Redmayne: I find that interesting in what it represents of things we don’t know, things we see as other that we just become terrified of and dismiss. Newt believes, with the right education for both wizards and the creatures, there’s a way to live harmoniously. I don’t feel like he’s a broadcaster. He’s doing it in his own gentle way.
Rowling has recently announced she plans not three but five “Fantastic Beasts” films. Will you be around for all of them?
Redmayne: In my heart of hearts, I don’t know. I’m contracted to a few more but they always contract you to more in case you’re needed. But I think only Jo knows what the story is. What I feel, what I get the sense of, is that Newt and his case and the beasts are the catalyst and the entrance — our eyes — into this much bigger story that she wants to tell about good versus evil. I had the most wonderful time doing it and I would love to be a part of it as it moves forward — unless I get killed off!