“Gosh, who knows what’s going to happen,” mutters Eddie Redmayne. We are seated together at a hotel in Lower Manhattan on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, and, despite the nerves, his hair remains as voluminous and FernGully-like as ever.
Little did either of us know that, some 30 hours later, a former reality-TV star who ran on a platform of bigotry, a self-admitted sexual predator with a decidedly un-Redmayne-like coif, and a man who J.K. Rowling herself proclaimed was worse than Voldemort, would be elected the 45th president of the United States. It’s a development that’s since made the occasion for our meeting, the lovely new film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, even more timely; a welcome respite from the drudgery and skulduggery of these past few politically infused months—and, really, a god-awful year overall.
Fantastic Beasts is spinoff of the Harry Potter series, and, though Rowling penned the novel in 2001, she recently claimed the film’s screenplay, which she wrote around 2012, was inspired by “the rise of populism around the world.” And it’s easy to see how. The film opens with Newt Scamander (Redmayne), a wizard and magizoologist who’s been banned from Hogwarts under mysterious circumstances, arriving in 1926 New York. There, wizards are living in hiding, fearing persecution from the public, including a fanatical faction of No-Majs (humans) out to disappear them for good. The oppression of the wizarding world seems very much like an allegory of immigrant life—a theory shared by Redmayne.
“There are themes of oppression and segregation, and what I find interesting is it’s all based on their history,” he says. “It’s back to the Salem trials and the fear that is instilled centuries ago remains in us, and that seems weirdly contemporary. J.K. Rowling is an artist, and the role of art is to question the way things are in the world—but she does it in the context of something that is fun, and scary, and inviting, and comedic.”
Scamander, for his part, is possessed of an open mind... eventually. Though he’s understandably distrustful of humans and has been cast out by the wizard community, he is the Noah of this tale, protector of a suitcase full of magical endangered creatures—animals that have been outlawed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) for fear of exposing the wizards’ existence to the narrow-minded public. “He’s someone who has edges, is prickly, and is not someone you’d instantly warm to,” says Redmayne.
He eventually warms up and forms a clique of like-minded outcasts, including the witch/Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her delightful younger sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and an aspiring No-Maj baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), all of whom must help Scamander catch the fantastic beasts after they’ve escaped from the suitcase. As far as acting alongside these elaborate CGI creatures goes, Redmayne shares that he had a bit of help.
“They built a lot of it so much more than you would expect was there—from vast New York sets to giant puppets for some of the beasts,” he offers. “As for the suitcase, they had built in this studio lots of the elements, so when you went up to the Thunderbird, the rock where the bird came down was there, and there would be a puppeteer with the head of the bird coming down. But then while you were doing that, you’d have Pickett [the Bowtruckle] walking on your hand who wasn’t there at all, and it felt like you’ve just spent a few weeks talking to your imaginary friend.”
Sounds like a real-life acid trip, I tell him.
“It would be an interesting film to do that!” he replies, with a chuckle.
Redmayne’s flirtation with the Potterverse didn’t begin with Beasts. Years before he took home a Best Actor Oscar for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and became a superstar, he’d auditioned for the role of Tom Riddle—a gifted Hogwarts student who over time mutated into Lord Voldemort. It didn’t go so well.
“When I was at university I’d had one of my first—and most unsuccessful—auditions,” he recalls. “They were casting the net quite wide for Tom Riddle, so they were coming around schools and universities and I met with I think the eighth assistant casting director and lasted about three lines into the first scene before I was shown the door!”
The bright-eyed actor probably wasn’t the best fit for a young man destined to become one of cinema’s most iconic villains, but he’s managed quite well for himself—as has one of his best mates, Benedict Cumberbatch. The two not only came up in the industry together, but have been leading bizarrely parallel lives. When Redmayne was shooting the aforementioned Stephen Hawking film, a role Cumberbatch had played in 2004’s Hawking, he “even texted me from Harrow, my old school, underneath a chalkboard with my name on it while he was dressed as Stephen Hawking,” Cumberbatch told me. “It was one of the most surreal, hall-of-mirrors experiences I’ve had.”
The similarities don’t end there. Both Redmayne and Cumberbatch were nominated for their first Oscars the same year, got married two months apart from one another, recently each welcomed their first child, and are both serving as topliner in a blockbuster film for the first time playing… wizards (Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange).
“It’s freakin’ odd! You’re absolutely right—there is an oddness to it,” admits Redmayne. “I think we’d love to work together someday rather than working in parallel worlds. And we did work together once on a film called The Other Boleyn Girl where we played Scarlett Johansson’s husbands.” He pauses. “What is lovely is that the past few years for both of us have been such a ride that it is wonderful to have a pal who you can go and really talk to about the intricacies of the experience. It’s been kind of wonderful. And I found Comic-Con to be this amazing frenzy, but I called Ben and was like, ‘Dude! Talk me through your experience! How do you handle it?!’”
Redmayne married his longtime girlfriend, Hannah Bagshawe, in December 2014, and their daughter, Iris Mary, was born this past June. The thought of his daughter one day seeing her father as a wizard in a Harry Potter film prompts Redmayne to collapse into a bashful smile.
“Wow,” he says. “She’s four and a half months but Katherine Waterston was making a point this morning that she is the daughter of an actor, and the reality is that all your friends are like, ‘Oh, your Dad is so cool!’ and you’re like, ‘My Dad’s lame.’ I imagine it will be more like that. But she’s only four and a half months so who knows what she’ll think of wizards and all that!”