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‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’: Eddie Redmayne and David Yates talk new wizarding world

By Bruce Kirkland, Special to Postmedia Network

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is as close to a sure thing for the 2016 holiday movie season as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In the case of Fantastic Beasts, the reason is just as obvious: This is another wizarding world tale conjured by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, one of the planet’s most beloved novelists.

Making her screenwriting debut and borrowing her inspiration from one of Harry’s textbooks at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Rowling has created a prequel set in the same world — but decades earlier in 1926. This is obviously long before Harry was born and raised in England as a boy wizard with a remarkable destiny.

In Fantastic Beasts, the first of a five-film franchise, the reluctant hero is a shy adult wizard named Newt Scamander, the future academic who becomes the author of Harry’s textbook. We see Englishman Newt stepping onto American soil as a special visitor to the U.S., just when tensions between wizards/witches and the “normal” world are about to explode. Although Newt has his own motivations for being there — because of the rare beastly creatures he protects from harm — he gets caught up in the conflict.

Newt is played by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, the 34-year-old English actor who won an Oscar for his stunning portrayal of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne was hand-picked by Beasts director David Yates, who is a close confident of Rowling after directing the final four of the eight Harry Potter films.

On an intense, if brief visit to Canada this week to promote the Nov. 18th release of Fantastic Beasts in theatres around the world, Yates and Redmayne sat down for an interview with Postmedia Network. Here are the question-and-answer highlights of the session:

Question to Yates: Is Redmayne’s Newt Scamander the reluctant hero of all five Fantastic Beasts films?

Answer from Yates: “Yes!

Exclamation from Redmayne: “I didn't know that!”

Question to Redmayne: Even if you are not yet obligated to do all of them by contract, are you committed to all five films regardless?

Answer from Redmayne: “Yes. But there will only be more films if people enjoy this film. For me, it actually was the most wonderful thing to jump into because, while you do jump in slightly blind as to what the future is, you do so in incredibly safe hands — and exciting hands — with David Yates and J.K. Rowling. With all the conversation around Fantastic Beasts — just as it was with Harry Potter — at the core of it all is J.K. Rowling. When you meet Jo, she is just so passionate about her characters and her stories. That it the only thing that matters to her, frankly.”

Question to Yates: What prompted you to return to Rowling’s wizarding world after directing four Potter films?

Answer from Yates: “I asked myself: ‘Can I go back? Is it like attending Hogwarts again?’ Then I opened the script (by Rowling herself) and it said: ‘Newt Scamander gets off a boat in New York in 1926 with a Keatonesque walk.’ And that’s what got me. That’s not Scotland. That’s not a school full of kids. There is this really interesting figure walking through this New York landscape in 1926 and I got really excited. The script was delightful, so that was the first inducement.”

Question to Yates: How well did Rowling do with her first-ever screenplay?

Answer from Yates: ‘It was really charming to read, although the first draft was actually quite ’young’. It felt very playful and whimsical. But it felt like it lacked a little heft and depth. Subsequently, Jo developed the story from that point on with Steven Kloves (a frequent Harry Potter screenwriter) involved. And Jo found the story that she wanted to tell.”

Question to Yates: What was different working with Rowling directly on Fantastic Beasts, versus adapting her novels for the Potter films?

Answer from Yates: “The idea of working directly with Jo was enormously appealing. Because, when we turned the books into movies, we adapted them. She would show up, always very graciously and always kind and supportive while saying: ‘Well done guys … love what you’re doing … carry on!’ But working with her directly on the development of these characters in Fantastic Beasts was great. And I’ve always loved my relationships with writers.”

Question to Redmayne: Even though Yates was enchanted by Rowling’s reference to silent film star Buster Keaton’s as an inspiration for Newt, how did you feel?

Answer from Redmayne: “When you read those things in a script, part of you as an actor goes: ‘What the hell does that mean? That is so super-specific!’ But it was a process of finding out who he is. Newt is this weird mixture. He has to be confident in his own abilities, and confident with his creatures, his animals, and yet not be confident with human beings. The way that he first looks at New York is almost like a scientist, like a zoologist scrutinizing a habitat.”

Question to Redmayne: How did that approach inform your unique physicality as Newt, because he is awkward, often turning sideways to people and averting his eyes?

Answer from Redmayne: “With that Keatonesque reference, I thought: ‘God, does that mean I have to go and find a weird eccentric walk?’ But then I went and met this animal tracker and he showed me this thing (a silent tracking walk that Redmayne gleefully demonstrates). It was there in his physicality. It felt grounded.”

Question to Yates: Is it a risk to have a hero like Newt, a singularly odd man who seems uncomfortable as he engages the wizards of New York during a dangerous crisis?

Answer from Yates: “There was a conversation with the studio because they were saying: ‘Look, is he warm enough? Is Newt going to be charming enough?’ But Joe was passionate, I was keen and Eddie was determined to ultimately make sure that we didn’t lose the knots and the awkwardness of Newt. Then, when we first showed the film to an audience, they warmed to that sense of oddness in Newt. They liked it. They’re not pushed away by the fact that he is sometimes unable to connect with people. They sort of feel for him. So I think it’s a really brave performance. It is actually a really brave character to put at the heart of a big movie!”

Question to Yates: What is the biggest difference between directing four of the eight Harry Potter films and doing the first of the Fantastic Beasts films?

Answer from Yates: “I joined Potter halfway through. The train had left the station. Harry was halfway along the tracks. I was invited aboard. I hopped on it. The world had already been cast — and it was brilliantly done, I think. But, on this, I was driving the train out of the station. I could reach out to Eddie and to other people who have inspired me. Then it was up to me to see where this whole thing could go. So it was kind of irresistible.”

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens Friday, Nov. 18.

Twitter: @Bruce_Kirkland

BKirkland@postmedia.com