There you have it. Eddie Redmayne has just summed up everything in a single word. The life of an Oscar-winning actor. His career so far. The English charm that embodies his on and off-screen persona. The monumental leap he is about to make into the upper echelons of
the A-lilst. And, perhaps more than all the others combined, the magical world of upcoming movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
From attending England’s privileged Eton school (where he was a friend and rugby team mate of Prince William) to taking the starring role in the most anticipated movie of the year, his journey has been an unusual one.
Not that Redmayne is convinced his next starring role is going to change anything at all. “Who knows whether it will be a success or not?” he asks. Nobody knows anything, of course, but a long-awaited Harry Potter spin-off and the first on-screen glimpse into J.K. Rowling’s magical universe in five years suggest Redmayne is playing it cautious about the enormity of the role likely to define him for decades to come.
“You don’t really anticipate these things. Each film you do people always say ‘your life is going to change so much’. But does it really, though? No, it doesn’t,” explains the actor who has already picked up a Best Actor Academy Award win and a further nomination.
“I live a totally normal life and then sporadically there are moments of insanity,” admits Redmayne. “That moment of insanity can be that you are on the train and reading your newspaper and suddenly a flash goes off in front of you and suddenly you realise the person sitting in front of you pretending to text is actually taking photos.
"Then you stare at them. And they stare at you, because you’re both slightly shell-shocked. So there’s about 40 seconds before you arrive at the next station in which you feel really awkward and everybody is looking at you both and no-one knows quite what to do and I normally just run off the train and feel really embarrassed.
Strange indeed, but it seems like something the actor will have to get used to as his recognition factor soars.
“That’s the oddness of it. Coupled with something like Comic Con where thousands of people turn up just for that and there is this surreal, almost pop band, moment. Standing up in front of 5,000 people? Not for a play – but just being yourself. Or, for example, talk shows. I get nervous having to stand in front of 5,000 people and try and be funny. I am not inherently a funny person. I feel I wasn’t built to do this.”
For an actor who is more commonly associated with theatrical roles and what would once have been labelled “serious films”, playing a magician with a suitcase full of mythical creatures in what could well be the biggest box office smash of the year is quite the swerve.
A first career franchise for Redmayne is not for a want of trying, however. Unsuccessful auditions for roles in Star Wars movies, The Hobbit and even for the role of a young Voldemort in previous Harry Potter films came while achieving critical notoriety in The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl and numerous costume dramas.
“I remember auditioning for 10,000BC. When I read the script it was about this ripped, muscular Neanderthal. Tanned and living in Egypt. I called my agent and remember saying: “Have you actually ever seen me? Do you know what I physically look like?” Needless to say he didn’t get the part.
But auditions and rejections continued. “I’d dreamt of doing a big-scale movie because those are the sorts of films I enjoy seeing. All I care about is the enjoyment aspect of it. I love the Bourne films. I go and see all the Fast and Furious films. I enjoy the cinematic experience in all of it. So, in the past I’ve auditioned for franchises and just not got them.”
Spectacle alone and the promise of eye-watering box office returns aren’t sufficiently appealing to draw Oscar winners and nominees to play the big movies. “It is not enough nowadays for it to be just bells and whistles,” suggests Redmayne. “There has to be something at the root of it. The thing that was extraordinary for me when I read this script is that for all the fantasy, the action, the darkness and the comedy in the film at its heart is an incredibly emotional story.
That’s what pulls you in. That’s what makes you care.”
The script and the world we are about to be pulled into in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are both products of what Redmayne calls Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling’s unlimited imagination. Not a sequel to Potter, nor in the strictest sense of the word a prequel, it is a spin-off. Redmayne’s character, Newt Scamander, existed in the same wizarding world of Hogwarts, muggles, Quidditch and so many more familiar magical moments. But Newt lived decades before Harry’s first day at school. In Rowling’s world, Scamander is the adventurous author of a text book studied by students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Aside from the most fleeting of mentions in the films and the charity publication of the book, more a pamphlet to entertain only the most avid of Potter obsessives, little is known of Scamander’s backstory.
Despite the familiarity of the universe it creates, Fantastic Beasts is a wholly original work and Rowling’s first-ever screenplay. “When I read the script I was so blown away by it. It was unlike anything I have read and I’m just hugely intoxicated by it,” says Redmayne. “What you care about is serving the script as well as you can and trying to make it as good a thing as it can be.”
The familiarity of the magical world and a story by J.K. Rowling is enhanced by the return of director David Yates at the film’s helm. As the man behind the camera for the final four instalments of the Harry Potter franchise, Yates has the trust of Rowling and can be considered a safe pair of hands as the director of Fantastic Beasts, which has already been announced as the first of five new films. For Redmayne and the core cast it is a beguilingly new experience.
“I’m used to much smaller-scale films and it was just completely awe-inspiring making this. One of the first shots we did was on a back lot at Leavesden Studios. They built a massive portion of New York on a scale I have no idea of. There were big cranes, cars, smoke coming out of potholes and about 500 extras. It felt like a different age of movie-making.”
The set, costumes and entire art direction literally do represent a different time and space to that portrayed in the eight Harry Potter films. The story unfolds in 1920s New York and hardcore Potter fans are already bristling about the changes.
American magic, it seems, is very different to what we’re used to seeing. Muggles (that’s humans born without magical powers) are known as “nomaj” across the Atlantic and their relationship with wizards and witches is far more strained than we’re used to seeing. Zero contact between the magical and human world is permitted and yet they must occupy the same physical space. It is one of the driving forces of the film and a key creative challenge for the filmmakers.
“Watching the designers and David and Jo [Rowling] work out how this thing was going to work was extraordinary,” says Redmayne. “You have to go into this world and as an audience you have to believe in it. Because otherwise the whole thing will fall apart.”
Bringing that world to life means more than set design and a convincing script. The fantastic beasts of the title play a huge part in the movie. Nifflers, bowtruckles, a demiguise and a flying reptile known as the Swooping Evil are all making their screen debuts.
For Redmayne, however, it meant something all the more scary: green screen. “You’ve got to believe in Newt’s relationship with these creatures. Yet the creatures don’t exist. Some actors can just turn up on the day and talk to tennis balls and everything is just fine. I don’t have a good enough imagination.”
How does an Oscar-winning actor prepare for discussions with dragons and befriending bowtruckles then? “The great thing about this job is that you can sometimes use playing a character as an excuse to have fun. So I went to wildlife parks and met with people who handle animals, because, why not? You learn snippets of reality that you can take to J.K. Rowling and David Yates and go ‘Look, I met this animal handler who has this creature who does this weird, eccentric thing. Can we add that?’
“It is so odd, but if it is real then it can be interesting.”
You could almost say it is discombobulating.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in cinemas from November 17.