JK Rowling’s latest addition to the Harry Potter franchise has attracted fans old and new to its cast, writes Philippa Hawker
The prospect of a new movie in the Harry Potter universe caused anxiety for many dedicated fans. Can you have too much of a good thing? Could Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, from an original JK Rowling screenplay, possibly measure up?
Actor and Potter devotee Ezra Miller — who plays a character called Credence Barebone in the movie — was utterly confident from the outset. “It comes directly from the mind and voice of JK Rowling, so for me as a huge fan there was never a moment of doubt.” He knew, he says, “what she would deliver would be magnificent. Something special, not just the run-of the-mill spin-off to exploit the ready audience of a franchise.”
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is set in New York in 1926. It began as a passing reference, the name of a textbook used at Hogwarts school. In 2001, Rowling produced a facsimile of Harry’s annotated copy in aid of the charity Comic Relief. Now it’s a film featuring the book’s author, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), in an adventure that takes place in the US, an entirely new magical location.
Miller, who played the title role in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and will star in The Flash, can’t say enough about what it means to him to be in it. His character in Fantastic Beasts is a young man, one of a troop of orphans who have grown up in the charge of a woman obsessed with ridding America of witches. She’s brutal to them all, but particularly to him. Meanwhile, Credence is burdened with a secret: he recently has been approached by a member of the wizarding world seeking his help.
Miller says he “lost it completely” when he learned he had been cast. His father read him the first Harry Potter book when he was seven and he devoured the books and films as they came out. But it was the audio recordings by English actor Jim Dale that stayed with him. “I really feel like it’s one of the greatest performances in any medium, and one of the most influential ones in my life.” The audiobooks “were a sanctuary for me as a kid, as an early adolescent, even into my adolescence” from bullying he experienced.
When he auditioned for the role, he had to improvise scenes from a few small details he had been given about his character. He’d love to see a tape of it now, he says, to see how much his image of Credence had changed.
He talks about the way costume designers and other collaborators provide “canes and crutches and pogo sticks” for actors to help build characters. Costume designer Colleen Atwood and hair and make-up designer Fae Hammond helped him to create the figure of an isolated young man who suffered abuse. Hammond brought him some photographs from the 1920s she had been using as reference points, “and together we chose the haircut. It was simultaneously so authentic and tragic.”
Fantastic Beasts is a departure in many ways for Rowling. There’s more action in the nonwizarding world than in the past, and the story takes us to a new magical terrain. At the same time there are some familiar references from the Potter world, from beasts to famous wizarding families to the Deathly Hallows symbol. Most of all, there’s the figure of Gellert Grindelwald, a European wizard who was once close to Dumbledore but went down a dark path. An opening montage of headlines in the magical press show Grindelwald is on the move, and witches and wizards fear his influence.
Miller says Rowling’s depiction of Grindelwald’s “magical fascism” is the kind of detail that matters to him about the Potter books. “They have always confronted the darker aspects of the human species in really productive and admirable ways, and have served as a reminder to all of us who have loved these stories of all the gifts and tools we have to combat this element in the world: our compassion, our kindness, our love. We are reminded again and again through these stories that love is the highest magic.”
He likes to think his generation will view Fantastic Beasts in this way. “I see it even as a call to arms for those of us who love this material and have perhaps pursued creative works and works in social justice with the intention of effecting change positively in our world, partially because of the Harry Potter influence in our formative years.” And, he believes, it’s a reminder that’s needed now more than ever.
Will we see more of Credence in the future? If Miller knows, he definitely can’t say, but there is one thing of which he is certain: “I’m just so grateful to have been involved with this project.” He uses a Hebrew expression to sum up his feelings. “In the tribe of my lineage we might say ‘dayenu’ — it is sufficient. Which I mean quite sincerely.”
Katherine Waterston, on the other hand, has a degree of certainty about her character’s future. She knows, at any rate, that we’ll see more of Porpentina Goldstein, who is mentioned in the author’s notes in the facsimile book, and who has become close to Scamander.
Waterston ( Boardwalk Empire, Inherent Vice, the forthcoming Alien: Covenant) wasn’t a Potter devotee like Miller but she has embraced the world Rowling created. Reading the screenplay, she says, what she saw on the page was a witch with admirable and vulnerable traits, someone who is a mixture of confidence and insecurity. Porpentina — known as Tina — lost both parents when she was young and she takes care of her younger sister. She is immensely proud of her work as an auror, a member of an elite squad trained to catch dark wizards. She has been demoted recently, however, for reasons we discover in the course of the film. They have a lot to do with her compassion.
Costume, too, is immensely important to Waterston in creating character. When she went for fittings with Atwood, she asked if she could try on a pair of trousers rather than a skirt. “And I don’t know why,” she says, “but when I put them on, this whole considerable chunk of her backstory came to me in that room with Colleen. I said, ‘ What if these are her father’s trousers?’ She’s practical. She doesn’t go shopping, she doesn’t have the money, nor does she have the time or the interest in her interior self. She’s all function.
“OK, so the dad’s old trousers were too big in the waist, she took them in at the waist and now they’re too short, but they’re out of her way. That’s fine, she can get her job done. And the blouse, I thought, ‘ What top would she have? Maybe it’s something of her mother’s.’ So that’s why it’s more Victorian-looking than something really hip and what would have been the fashion at the time.
“That’s where the haircut came from, I thought, ‘ Well, she’s not going to have a sleek
Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; JK Rowling, above