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JK Rowling finds the new Potter story she wants to tell with 'Fantastic Beasts'

The author will write all five screenplays in the prequel film franchise.
J.K. RowlingGetty Images

J.K. Rowling doesn’t need to write anymore, not since the first Harry Potter book let alone the seventh. It’s not even that she wants to keep writing — she simply has to.

“I feel strange if I don’t write,” she says at a rare press conference appearance for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the new Potter prequel film (the first of five!) for which she wrote the screenplay. “I love it so much it would feel like almost some sort of self-amputation if I didn’t have the ability.”

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Though she took only a supervisory role when it came to the script for the other Potter project, the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on the West End, “Fantastic Beasts” was different. “Ever since the end of Harry Potter, there was still a huge hole for more,” she confesses. “It would be easy to say, ‘I’ll just keep producing,’ but I never was that person. I planned seven books, I knew exactly what I wanted to write, and that story was finished. But I always had some ideas about Newt.”

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That would be Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the magizoologist “author” of Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts” wizarding textbook adapted into the film, which comes out Nov. 18.

Though she “had some thoughts about what happened to Newt and who he was,” it wasn’t until Warner Bros. approached her about doing the movie that she thought, “‘Wait a minute, I better tell them what I’ve got because I wouldn’t want them to get anything wrong.’ And before I knew it, I’d actually written a screenplay.”

Though the story is very much of the Potterverse, there’s very little tying them together: “Fantastic Beasts” is set not in modern England but late 1920s New York, the hero’s been swapped from a school-age misfit to a grown misfit who has a childlike fascination with magical beasts, and (thankfully) nobody wears robes.

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But Scamander’s world is still a scary place in which magic is hidden (Salem is not just a footnote yet) and wizards are not supposed to mingle with “no-majs” like Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the factory worker who dreams of becoming a baker and, of course, gets swept up in Scamander’s adventure along with a pair of sister witches.

“I conceived this story a few years ago, and it was partly informed by what I see as a rise of populism around the world,” she says. As for the setting, she quips, “He needed to go to America to be taught that people were likeable.”

Two names Potter fans will recognize are the villain who looms over the action, the original dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, first friend then rival to Albus Dumbledore, the Hogwarts headmaster who has been confirmed to appear in the next film.

“There’s lots to unpack in that relationship,” Rowling says when asked about them (shecontroversially revealedthat Dumbledore was gay during an interview at Carnegie Hall in 2007). “I will say that you’ll see Dumbledore as a younger man, and quite a troubled man because he wasn’t always the sage. He was always very clever, and you will see what is a formative period of his life. As far as his sexuality is concerned, watch this space.”

Despite the dark overtones and lack of her most famous creation, Rowling is confident the chemistry of the cast, this new story she’s been given the freedom to tell and her tried-and-true formula of forging friendships between lonely people will be enough to lure Potter fans into a new corner of her magical world.

Oh, and all that writing she does? There’s no special formula — “it’s partly inspiration and it’s partly a lot of hard work, that’s it, always” — and most envy-inducing of all, she can do it anywhere, anytime. “I can write with the TV on in the background, I can write half-answering my kids,” she says. “I have written, surprisingly enough, one chapter actually on the lavatory because it was the only place I could get temporary peace.” Enjoy speculating on that one.

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