When Eddie Redmayne first started acting professionally after he left England’s Cambridge University in the early 2000s, he half-expected to get a call from the Harry Potter producers. With his hair having a slight ginger tinge, he thought he might have a shot of playing a minor member of the Weasley family. “Sadly, it never happened!” he jokes.
This conversation is very Eddie Redmayne. The 34-year-old British actor has landed the role of a lifetime in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, JK Rowling’s new film set in the same cinematic universe as Harry Potter. The producers say he was the first and only choice to play eccentric magician Newt Scamander, the face of a whole new franchise. And yet, here Redmayne is, laughing about what a failure he is.
We meet at Claridge’s Hotel in London’s Mayfair. It’s his first day back at work after paternity leave. Redmayne’s wife, Hannah Bagshawe, gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Iris, in June. He says he’s knackered. But frankly he looks like he’s just he’s just stepped off a shoot for a Burberry campaign, bright-eyed and grinning ear-to-ear.
And, to be fair, the Londoner has a lot to smile about. Hollywood loves a British actor – and right now they love him the best. First he won an Oscar last year for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Now he’s gone and bagged – or briefcased – Fantastic Beasts, playing Newt Scamander, who arrives in 1920s New York with a case full of magical creatures. Potter fans will know him as the author of the Hogwarts textbook studied by Harry and the gang.
During the hour we spend chatting, the only time a cloud passes over Redmayne’s face is when he thinks he might have let slip something about Fantastic Beasts he shouldn’t have (he hasn’t) – as if heavies might appear in the doorway to haul him off to JK Rowling’s basement to have wands jammed in his eye sockets as punishment. They don’t, and, seriously, if they did, he’d probably melt them into puddles in two minutes flat.
Eddie, you must be the only British actor never to have auditioned for a Harry Potter film...
I know. I never got an audition! Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did get one, when I was at school, to play the young Voldemort, but it wasn’t very successful.
The producer of Fantastic Beasts said you were the first and only choice for Newt Scamander. Was it a good feeling not having to audition?
With the thrill comes the paranoia that you’re going to get fired after day one. I went over to New York to audition with the other actors for their parts. I felt like it was an audition for me. I was convinced I was going to lose the job. This is how neurotic actors work!
You’ve said in the past that fear fuels you. Did winning an Oscar not help?
I think sometimes you say something in an interview and it becomes the story. But certainly, fear is always there. It’s what makes you work harder. And it’s interestin. When I saw the first cut of The Theory of Everything all I could see were the things I hadn’t nailed. And God it feels lovely when someone gives you a prize, but it’s not like that blanks out the things that you would have done differently. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. Do you get nerves at work day-to-day?
Yes. I don’t in my general life, but at work I do, yeah. It’s quite helpful in some ways. There’s an edge that’s perhaps helpful to access emotion.
JK Rowling says that her characters are outsiders. Is Newt Scamander an outsider? He likes his magical creatures more than he likes people.
Yes. What I love about him is that he is absolutely his own person. As a consequence, he can be quite prickly. At the beginning of the film he doesn’t care what people think of him. You see his heart through his relationship with his creatures. He’s also been damaged by relationships in the past. That’s something Jo and I talked about: there are many qualities to him that aren’t obviously heroic.
Well, he is a Hufflepuff...
He’s a Hufflepuff! I love Hufflepuffs. They’re loyal, kind, openhearted.
Hufflepuff is JK Rowling’s favourite house. Have you done the sorting test?
I have and I’m a Hufflepuff. What’s interesting is that when I did the Patronus test, I did it twice and ended up with a basset hound both times. It’s all done through algorithms. The people from Pottermore were like ‘that’s impossible. There are a eight gazillion variations’. But I’m happy with a basset hound.
Newt’s magical creatures have been added during post- production. Did you find it easy acting opposite a sock puppet or whatever was playing your beasts?
I’m useless with green screen. I have a really shoddy imagination. At the heart of the film are Newt’s relationships with the different creatures, so it’s kind of really important. I ended up working with Alexandra Reynolds, who I worked with on The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl.
She’s a physical coach?
Yes, exactly. We spent months with puppeteers and then some actors dressed up, and then I met the designers of the animals. They’re artists but they’re also actors, because they know each of the animals. I asked to have one on set, Pablo, who is six-feet-five and plays the little Niffler. Then sometimes we’d have almost War Horse-style puppets for the rehearsal. But it varied and sometimes it just involved having little Pickett the Bowtruckle, who is a stick insect, and he would be on my hand. I’d be on the Underground in London, imagining talking to this thing, and suddenly realising I’m being stared at.
Do you still take the Underground?
Be honest. Yes I take the Tube! What’s the other option in London? This morning, they sent a car and it took an hour to go half a mile. On the Tube, it would have taken 10 minutes. I’m a bit of cyclist too, but my bike got nicked, right outside the front door. Not happy!
Does anyone try and take a sneaky photo of you with their phone on the Underground?
There’s the odd surreptitious one, which is funny because you have this incredibly embarrassing thing – the flash goes off, you look up and they look, and you have this awkward 40 seconds to the next stop.
What was it like meeting JK Rowling for the first time?
It was a week before we started filming. I knew she was only there for an hour and I had so many questions. I felt slightly embarrassed afterwards because there wasn’t much polite chitchat. We just went straight into Newt. I’ve played a couple of real people, and you have diaries and books – and in Stephen Hawkings’ case, the real person. For Newt, it was amazing having the encyclopedia that’s her brain.
Newt was expelled from Hogwarts. What’s the worst thing you ever did at school?
Oh my God. Did I ever come close to being expelled? No. I wasn’t deeply rebellious. I’m trying to think. No, let me think on that. I’ll come back to that.
JK Rowling is such an impressive human being. Her magical power is handling Twitter trolls...
She’s an extraordinary human being. I’m not on Twitter or any of those things for many reasons and one of them is not having a thick skin. But because she’s so eloquent and intelligent, she comes back with such a turn of phrase and she undermines arguments. I admire that. It’s a great strength.
David Heyman, the producer of Fantastic Beasts, says you’re good at playing outsiders. But that’s not you, is it? You seem totally at ease.
I don’t feel particularly like an outsider, life-wise. I suppose I’m drawn to vulnerability. I’m interested in people who are willing to expose their vulnerability and their passion. What I love about Newt – actually I find any human attractive if they are passionate about something because it shows a great love.
How good is your wand waving?
The wand thing is hilarious. There’s part of you that’s seven-years- old again when the director says ‘choose your wand’. Then, you feel like a fool, really awkward with a stick in your hand. And there were injuries... wand wrist, wizard elbow.
That was genuinely a thing! We were doing these huge wizard duels, throwing your arm around left, right and centre. Colin [Farrell] and I came in one day, and we said to each other ‘mate, is your arm a bit sore?’ It’s a hazard.
Pretty much everyone you’ve made films with is on record as saying you’re the nicest man they’ve worked with. Where does that nice-guy-at-work ethic come from?
That’s very kind. I’m not sure they’d all say that. But I didn’t go to drama school. So when I was lucky enough to start working with extraordinary actors I wasn’t just watching their technique but how they behave. There’s an extraordinary hierarchy on set and some people can behave appallingly and feel completely relaxed with the knowledge that the entire crew hate them. I can’t do that.
What would your family say is your most irritating habit?
My family is divided into people who are late and people who are on time. Half of my family would hate my punctuality. I’m hardcore about it. I just feel like in life: get somewhere early and have 10 minutes to chill out. But I do take it to ridiculous levels. My wife is like ‘really, we have to be at the airport three hours early?’ But I love an airport!
You met your wife Hannah when you were a teenager. Do you think it’s good having someone around who saw you as a spotty 15-year-old and won’t let you get too big for your boots?
It’s great that she found me attractive then and still does, through all the shit. That’s good! It’s wonderful also having a shared history and friends. Even though we didn’t get together for about 15 years.
You’ve worked non-stop over the past few years. Has becoming a dad slowed you down? You’re just back from paternity leave.
By the end of Fantastic Beasts I was zonked. And Hannah was timeout.com/hk pregnant, so I’ve taken time off. Iris arrived and it’s been so lovely. It’s the first time that I've ever done it properly. And what happens is that you start thinking ‘what if this film is a disaster?’ You always think ‘this industry is fickle and it could disappear’.
The Theory of Everything was a beautiful film about an extraordinary family. Did you learn anything about being a parent from Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane?
Reading Jane’s book, it was really interesting, just because she was helping to look after Stephen but also had young children at the same time. It’s the thing that no-one knows until you have a kid, just how intense it is. You get this extraordinary love.
Has being a dad changed how you see the world?
At the moment it’s so recent. We’re still at the stage of getting through the night, trying to keep our child alive. I don’t think I’ve got past the lack of sleep deprivation yet to get to a point of having a more philosophical take! We’re just scrabbling through in the most wonderful way.
Some quick questions now.
What’s been the most embarrassing moment of your career? Probably forgetting my lines on stage at the Royal Court in quite a catastrophic way in front of the head of casting for Warner Brothers.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s a quote by Chekhov – I’m butchering this – “Take life step by step, slowly, and leave the competition to others.”
Who’s your favourite actor?
What makes you angry?
Were you upset when a tabloid called you ‘Eddie Mundane’?
No! That was the weirdest thing. It was the day after I got back from the Oscars and was going to Sainsbury’s and getting my dry cleaning. A newspaper photographed me and called me ‘Eddie Mundane’.
If you had to watch one film for the rest of your life what would it be?
The cartoon of Robin Hood.
You’re the only actor we’ve met who admits to reading reviews. Why not ignore them?
I’ll tell you why. Because I’m going to find out anyhow. It’s like being in the playground and people are talking about you. The idea of walking into the theatre thinking you’re doing a great job when the world is going ‘er, no you’re not’. It makes you look like a tool.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them In cinemas citywide Thu Nov 17.