Ever met a Niffler?
Eddie Redmayne has, and he learned one of the magical animal’s secrets from an earthly anteater.
The Oscar winner grabs a wand in J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (in theaters nationwide Friday, with preview screenings Thursday night) and took his Muggle self to a wildlife park in England to prepare to play a magizoologist.
“There was this anteater that had just been born, and people were trying to feed her and she kept scrunching herself into a ball. The way they would make her uncurl was to tickle her belly,” says Redmayne, 34, whose floppy-haired wizard surreptitiously transports magical animals to the USA inside a bottomless travel case.
On screen, the actor copies that trick to relieve an adorable, kleptomaniac creature called the Niffler of its horde of pocketed gems in Fantastic Beasts, a Harry Potter spinoff that meets Newt Scamander as he disembarks from a ship in New York City, 70 years before Potter’s story starts.
Let’s start with the basics: In Fantastic Beasts, set in America circa 1926, the non-magical sort are called No-Majs instead of Muggles, and this era is plagued not by Voldemort but by the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, who has vanished after terrorizing half of Europe.
Set in a period of Prohibition, with fascism growing abroad, there’s a power struggle going on inside the Big Apple, with a witch-hunting sect known as the Second Salemers threatening security for a magical community bent on keeping wizarding under a cloak of secrecy.
Redmayne was attracted to how Rowling set the tale amid real-world events. “What I loved about the Potter films was the idea that you could be living coinciding with this whole other thing going on,” says the actor, whose wizard is joined by brand-new sidekicks: an American witch named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who was recently sidelined from her job as an Auror, and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj baker who stumbles into Newt’s frantic search for his beloved, erratic creatures.
With Rowling on board as screenwriter, the new film is the author’s way into “telling a much bigger story of an epic battle of good vs. evil and of sort of segregation and repression and this big idea that this Grindelwald character believes in a superior race, and that wizards should be ruling over the world,” Redmayne says.
The seed of Fantastic Beasts, as fans know, comes not from best-selling novels but from one of Harry Potter’s textbooks (which bears same title as the new film), published as a supplemental one-off by Scholastic in 2001.
With less source material to draw from, “you don’t have the security of books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies,” allows David Heyman, who produced all eight Potter films, which have grossed more than $7.7 billion worldwide. “But with that comes a certain freedom because you don’t have to deal with people’s expectations.”