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October 12, 2018 at 12:34 PM EDT

When you’re an actor, auditions always contain an element of mystery. You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen. For South Korean actress Claudia Kim, her on-the-spot improv skills were really put to the test when she went in for a mysterious role in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Kim (Marco Polo) had previously read for a character who’s a Maledictus — a woman suffering from a “blood curse.” That’s about all she knew about the role when she went into for her final audition with director David Yates.

A Harry Potter fan since the sixth grade, Kim was quite excited for the opportunity. “I love all the books and absolutely fell in love with this world and watched all the films,” she tells us.

When Kim arrived in London, she was introduced to Yates, an acclaimed British director who also helmed the final four Harry Potter films (and who is, by all cast accounts, lovely and easy to work with). So far, so good.

Then Yates dropped the first big reveal. This character wasn’t just any cursed person, but Nagini. Kim instantly realized the significance of the name. “I think my jaw dropped,” she recalled to EW. “I was speechless for a little bit.” 

Nagini is Lord Voldemort’s murderous snake in the Harry Potter books. That she was once a human woman is a bit of backstory that author J.K. Rowling says she secretly had in mind for about 20 years. In The Crimes of Grindelwald — a prequel set decades before the events in the other franchise — Nagini is a human circus performer who can transform into a snake at will, yet is starting to lose control of her power. Nagini befriends the fugitive Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who killed his adoptive mother in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and has a difficult-to-manage destructive power of his own.

Then Yates dropped his second reveal. Nagini’s transformations back and forth from human to snake is partly accomplished by special effects, but is also heavily reliant on the actor’s physical performance — Nagini is often struggling to contain the beast inside her. So, as part of her audition, Kim was asked to give her interpretation of a “transformation” into a snake.  

“I instantly felt heartburn, and then two minutes later I had to become a snake,” she recalls, laughing.

And what was that like?

“A lot of insecurity,” she says. “You have to empty your head and trust your instincts and stretch your imagination. I had to trust myself.” 

Yates notes that Kim was almost a lock for the role at that point anyway given her performance in the first reading. “The initial audition for all of the actresses who read for Nagini involved delivering a moving scene written by Jo about succumbing to a blood curse,” he says. “Claudia read it in a more moving way than anyone else. She had a dignity, strength and a vulnerability.” 

After being cast, Kim worked with a contortionist to perfect her act, and strove to infuse her performance with varying degrees of snakiness. “I would act with Ezra and while we were doing the scene I would get directions like, ‘Can you do 2 percent more snake? Or: ‘Five percent more snake.’ So that was challenging.” 

At one point, Kim also handles a live snake, which was a bit of a hurdle. Yes: The actress who plays one of Hollywood’s most all-time notorious serpents is … “actually scared of snakes,” Kim admits. 

Kim kept the secret of her role for many months until it was recently announced with the release of the film’s final trailer. The news was largely greeted with fandom support, though some have criticized the casting, saying that having a person of color play a fictional character doomed to twisted subservience to Voldemort is offensive. Those close to the production see that view as rather backwards — the alternative is to refuse to give a terrific actress a dark and complex role because of her ethnicity.

“Claudia Kim is a living god,” Milller enthusiastically declares. “You’re about to get your head blown off. There’s going to be a venom in your veins that you’ll feel just like love. Prepare yourselves for Nagini. This is a tragic and beautiful story that in some ways we already know the end of.”

And for Kim, she’s just excited for fans to see her interpretation of the infamous character. “I think It would be so interesting to see another side of Nagini,” she says. “You’ve only seen her as Horcrux. In this, she’s a wonderful and vulnerable woman who wants to live, she wants to stay a human being and I think that’s a wonderful contrast to the character.”  

Though she’d also be just fine if fans never see her audition tape pretending to transform into a snake on short notice without the benefit of special effects.

“Oh god,” she laughs. “If I find it, I will destroy it!”

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