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Eddie Redmayne’s bag of tricks

November 22, 2016 GMT

Eddie Redmayne has no problem with versatility. He has scored technical and emotional knockouts as a true-life, transgender pioneer in “The Danish Girl,” British physicist Stephen Hawking in the throes of mobility-reducing ALS disease in “The Theory of Everything,” a sinister, whispering, mumbling extraterrestrial in “Jupiter Ascending,” and singing the role of an anti-monarchist rebel in the film version of “Les Miserables.”

The latest from his bag of tricks moves him into the fantasy adventure world of J.K. Rowling. In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a spinoff from the Harry Potter franchise, he plays British magi-zoologist Newt Scamander, carrying a suitcase full of mystical creatures around the jazz age New York City of the 1920s, amid much social, political and supernatural conflict.

In a phone conversation, he explained that he didn’t chase the plum role and the makers didn’t pursue him. They sort of “bumped into each other on the street.”

“It came about in the most hilariously cryptic way,” he remembered in a droll and sociable tone. He went to meet David Yates, director of the last four Potter films, about a mysterious project in a club in London on a wintry night.

“I was making ‘The Danish Girl,’ and I came in with all my work stuff in a little globetrotter case. He started telling me the story of this man Newt Scamander and describing the menagerie in his case. I started gently shifting my case behind the chair so he didn’t think I was one of those actors who comes dressed up as the character.” Five months later he read the completed script “and I was so intoxicated by its world, it superseded my pretty high expectations. I think there were a few other people they were talking to, but I was entirely seduced and just hoping they would offer it to me.”

Redmayne, 34, had his first significant film role a decade ago in the CIA spy drama “The Good Shepherd,” playing the son of Matt Damon and Angeline Jolie. Sharing the screen with them while being directed by Robert De Niro left him feeling “quite out of my depth.”

“I had worked in theater, and I was given this extraordinary opportunity to play with those people. You’re flown from London, you’re staying in an extraordinary hotel, driving in massive cars to this phenomenal set that was built in the Brooklyn Armory. There are paparazzi outside, there are Angelina and Matt, Robert De Niro behind the camera and suddenly there’s a lens 3 inches away from you. To do your best work, the camera sees everything and you need to be relaxed. And I couldn’t have been less relaxed. But what I learned from those guys was a huge amount,” including De Niro’s directing method of filming an emotional scene by keeping the camera rolling between takes.

“You finish the scene and you go right back into it again with all the emotional stakes you had at the end of the scene, and put that back onto the top of the scene.” It was “an incredibly useful technique” that Redmayne used in “The Theory of Everything,” earning his first Oscar. He considers it akin to serving an apprenticeship.

“It was a massive learning curve. I didn’t go to drama school or anything. It was osmosis, I suppose, beginning in small films with formidable actors, watching and learning from them.”

One of the qualities Redmayne admires about Rowling’s work is her willingness to take young readers into pithy, timely issues, focusing this film on bullies and political prejudice.

“One of the things that I love about Rowling is she’s an artist. Artists take a mirror and hold it up to our society and comment and question in a way that’s pretty important. What I love about this film is that there are themes of oppression and segregation that feel incredibly current. And yet she weaves those themes in with a deftness of touch that doesn’t leave the feeling you’ve been sledgehammered. I thought that was a really important part of the film.”

The ensemble includes a rich crop of outstanding character actors, from seasoned veterans like Jon Voight, Colin Farrell, Ron Perlman and Samantha Morton to comparatively fresh faces such as Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller and Alison Sudol. Redmayne said one key to Yates’ casting choices was assembling an international team where everyone got along comfortably.

“In casting, they were looking beyond (performing) characteristics, also looking at personalities to see how we would blend as a group of people. Consequently, without sounding too smug about it, we had the most wonderful time making this film. It was a genuinely wonderful experience.”

While he has signed on to play Newt Scamander in four sequels, “I don’t think you ever feel safe” in a career like his. “That’s part of the thing that keeps people working harder. From my experience, the moment I do feel safe I start doing shoddy work. On this film it was extraordinary things, like doing a sort of mating dance” to calm a mythic rhinoceros, “or having a quality of prickliness at the beginning, because the audience doesn’t have to warm to you quickly. And interacting with all of these creatures who didn’t exist and ground them in something that was real and distinct. It came with a load of wondrous challenges that kept you on your toes. But I don’t think that I ever felt safe.”