Eddie Redmayne assumed he’d be a Manhattanite when he signed up for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” The film, a prequel to the “Harry Potter” movies, is set in the Big Apple circa the 1920s. “My wife and I were so excited when we read the script. We were like, ‘We get to go to New York!’ And then we’re shooting in Watford,” says the Oscar-winner, referring to town just outside of London.
But making the film was still exciting. It meant the 34-year-old, known for very serious, demanding roles — “The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl” — got to play a wand-wielding wizard: the noted Newt Scamander, famous in the books and movies for writing a textbook cataloguing strange and magical creatures. In the film, Newt journeys to New York where he winds up involved in trying to save the city from an evil wizard on the loose.
The unfailingly self-deprecating Redmayne, 34, talks to us about acting with puppets and his very poor memory.
With films like “Theory of Everything,” you had to field really hard questions from journalists about science. But you’ve read the “Potter” books. Has it been easier doing press for this film?
I mean, I am so bad. My memory is the worst in the world. Any intense “Potter” questions I just deflect to Ezra [Miller, one of his costars]. There are these amazing wizard Wiki sites that you give you all the information — or you can just talk to Ezra. He’s not just one of the brainiest people I know but is also the greatest “Harry Potter” fan you’ve ever met.
Would you tend to just consult with him if you didn’t know something “Potter”-wise?
I would genuinely consult him. There was one moment in the film early on where Newt is listening to [costar] Samantha Morton giving a speech. She asks Newt, “Are you a seeker of truth?” I was supposed to say, “I’m more of a chaser” — completely missing that that’s a hardcore Quidditch reference. It took Ezra coming up to me saying, [slips into a spot-on Ezra Miller impersonation] “Isn’t that greatest line you ever heard?” I was like, “Yeah! Why?!” [Laughs] It was good Ezra was there; he sort of salvaged my performance.
Is there something you’re actually quite good at remembering? Rugby?
No, definitely not rugby. [Laughs] I’m quite good with art. I can remember paintings and artists. I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe that’s a visual thing.
Maybe you have a photographic memory.
In my frickin’ dreams. [Laughs] I’m the worst. People say, “How do you remember lines?” Remember when you’re seven and you were told to go off and learn a poem? That’s how I learn lines. It takes me forever. My worst thing is when I’m doing a film and the writer says, “I just have these new lines for the day.” I’m like, “No, no, no. You give them to me seven weeks before that. Otherwise I’m screwed.” [Laughs]
But you’ve done Shakespeare on stage before. How did you swing that with a bad memory?
I had to be cast a good year beforehand — and then spend seven months learning it.
How long did it take for you to forget it all?
Depressingly really soon. I’ve played quite a few Shakespeare characters, but if you ask me to quote any of it, I would really struggle. [Laughs]
In this film you have another, very different challenge: You have to act with creatures, some of whom were puppets. You seem to have a different physical language with each of them.
Oh good! I’m pleased you noticed! [Laughs] That was really important to me. One of the last things we shot was that scene down in the case. [Ed. Newt has a suitcase a la “Mary Poppins” which, inside, is a huge realm where all the beasts live.] I thought if I didn’t nail that the whole film would feel like fluff, because it would take you out of it. You’d say, “Oh, I don’t buy that.” So it was really important that it was grounded in something real, as magical and wonderful as it was. We worked quite hard on each relationship.
Did you have any other unusual challenges you don’t normally get when making serious dramas?
There was the Erumpent dance [with a rhino-esque creature], which was a mating dance. That was kind of odd.
How did you come up with that dance you do?
That was a few days of personal humiliation — going down a YouTube hole for animal mating rituals, and then ignoring all of them and coming up with something that was absurd. I’d send the director some ideas and spend an excruciating four hours waiting for a response — one of which, I remember, being, “I’m not sure that’s seductive enough.” So thank god I added a bit more sex to my seduction dance.