J.K. Rowling, who rarely does interviews or makes public appearances – she’s too busy writing – was greeted like a rock star at the press conference for her new movie, “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” Thursday afternoon in Chelsea at the Waterfront on 28th Street. The space is a giant warehouse and was recreated to resemble the 1925 New York setting of the film with shops, streets and posters.
Rowling is making her screenwriting debut in “Fantastic Beasts,” which is inspired by a novella of the same name she wrote for charity. It’s a prequel of sorts to the Harry Potter universe, and Potter fans will recognize the book as required reading at Hogwarts.
Directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter movie adaptations, and produced by David Heyman, a long-time producer of the franchise, Warner Brothers has already planned four additional films, which will all be written by Rowling.
Eddie Redmayne stars as the central character, Magizoologist Newt Scamander, who arrives in New York carrying a well-worn bottomless suitcase that contains the magical and fantastic beasts he’s collected on travels around the world. He’s trying to protect these adorable and awesome creatures, who have no idea they are in danger and keep escaping and running around causing mischief. In the city where there are growing tensions between the wizarding factions and the No-Majs (American for Muggles), political and social tumult and strife is constantly an undercurrent of tension.
At the press conference, Rowling, who looked terrific in a leopard-print wrap dress, confirmed that some characters from the Harry Potter universe like Dumbledore as a young man – who she hinted may be gay – may make appearances in the future “Fantastic Beasts.” Sadly, Harry will not turn up.
“Harry’s not in the movie because he’s not born yet,” said Rowling. “There are characters we’ll learn more about through Fantastic Beasts. I’m being so careful,” she said, trying not to give away spoilers. “There’s a certain glory in writing a stand alone novel and just saying anything you want. Now I’m back in top secret territory again,” she told journalists who tried to needle more details out of her, such as who would be playing Dumbledore, an actor she said they already had in mind.
Praising cast members Redmayne, Alison Sudol, Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller and Dan Fogler, who all attended the press conference, Rowling said, “I certainly have told a story that I really wanted to tell, and I can’t think of any better reason to tell a story. I hope that people love it. I think we’ve got a cast with more chemistry than I could have dreamt of.”
She noted that Fantastic Beasts is essentially about outsiders who become friends, echoing a theme of the Harry Potter books. Waterston and Sudol play sisters who have wizardly powers and are polar opposites in personality. Fogler plays a schlubby human, who falls hard for Sudol’s character, Queenie, a sexy and lovable character who is great with a wand. The movie has elements of a thriller, romance and, of course, fantasy.
But Newt anchors the film. “We definitely do have an unlikely hero in Newt, who goes to New York, and in some senses he’s Everyman,” said Rowling. “He gets drawn to something, as we all do, in a life that he wasn’t planning to become part of, but he’s very much an outsider also. Newt isn’t really a guy who has a lot of friends. He’s very British,” Rowling said to laughter.
“He needed to go to America to be taught that people were likeable … he’s not really a people guy. He’s much more comfortable with things that are spikey and fanged, and he meets his antithesis in this trio of people.”
Rowling said she also enjoyed writing two big female roles. “I’m one of a pair of sisters. I won’t say too much more, or I won’t be able to go home unscathed.”
Speaking of the genesis of Fantastic Beasts and her commitment to the five-film franchise, Rowling mentioned that Warner Bros approached her. “I’ve been aware since the end of Harry Potter that there was still a huge hunger for more. I think it would be easy to say that I’ll just keep producing, but I never was that person. I’d planned seven books. I knew exactly what I wanted to write, and that story was finished.”
She added, “But I always had some idea about Newt, and I was intrigued by him. The truth is when I was asked will you write more, at the back of my mind it was Newt. I thought, well maybe that, and so here we are.”
Rowling, who was in New York for the premiere that evening, said she was eager to hear the reaction to the film. She said she could hardly wait.
As in the Potter books, the new film has a strong social message, especially to the rise of populism she sees in this country and abroad. But she didn’t want to talk about the recent election, opting instead to focus on the film. “We’re here for the movie that we’ve all worked so hard on,” Rowling said. “I would like to talk about that.”
She added, “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. But I can’t say anything specifically about yesterday (the election).”
“This hasn’t been created in response to a need or an awareness that I could write,” Rowling said. “This has been created because this is something that I really wanted to write, and I hope when people see the movie, they will understand that it grew out of certain things that were very important to me in the world at the moment.”
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” opens in theaters November 18.