Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

Inside The Crimes of Grindelwald and its fight to reinvent Fantastic Beasts

November 12, 2018 at 11:39 AM EST

Nobody expected Johnny Depp to send those photos, though in retrospect they probably should have.

Director David Yates was finishing filming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when the images arrived in his email. Depp had yet to shoot his climactic scene: Magizoologist hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) reveals that the fugitive dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald has been hiding in plain sight the entire film, disguised as dapper auror Percival Graves (played by Colin Farrell). The Farrell-to-Depp switcheroo was to be the film’s biggest shock when it came out in theaters, but first it was the director’s turn to be surprised.

Much like Depp had done when crafting his takes on Willy Wonka and Capt. Jack Sparrow, the actor huddled together with a makeup team to design his own creative look for J.K. Rowling’s villain.

“I had an image in my head of the guy,” explains Depp, who felt emboldened in his creative choices by a Skype chat with Rowling about the role. “She said, ‘I can’t wait to see what you do with him.’ It was beautifully left as this open gift.”

So Depp sent photos of himself as Grindelwald to Yates. His first-draft makeover was “slightly more extreme” than where Grindelwald ended up, the director recalls. “We saw this character as a combination of poet, rock star, visionary, and sociopath, beguiling but lethal,” says Yates, who also helmed the final four Harry Potter films.

After some back-and-forth (at one point a “foppish, romantic look” was considered and rejected), the production embraced Depp’s concept of Grindelwald as a pre-WWII vision of Aryan fascism — an ultra-white, pasty-faced platinum blond, with an undercut haircut and pale mismatched eyes.

“I almost felt like he’s maybe two people,” Depp says. “He’s twins in one body. So a gamy eye is more like the other side of him — a brain for each eye, and he’s somewhere in the middle.”

When Depp’s Grindelwald was unveiled in the final moments of Fantastic Beasts, fans were indeed stunned, but also concerned. The dark wizard looked so strange. Was he supposed to be comedic? So for the second title in the planned five-film franchise, The Crimes of Grindelwald, the evil wizard’s appearance was “softened and refined,” made to look more natural. Judging by the enthusiastic fan reactions to the film’s final trailer at the end of September, the tweaks worked.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Grindelwald’s evolution was just a small example of how the Fantastic Beasts team leveled up for the sequel. Where to Find Them bore the burden of launching a new Wizarding World franchise with a different cast, setting, time period, and characters. While the movie was largely a success — with solid reviews and $814 million worldwide at the box office — members of the filmmaking team quietly felt that the sequel could (and should) be an improvement over its predecessor.

“When we made the first film [the actors] all thought it was great,” recalls Ezra Miller, who plays troubled young wizard Credence Barebone. “But the department heads — Yates, [production designer] Stuart Craig, [costume designer] Colleen Atwood — were all like, ‘It’s not good enough, it has to get better, it has to get way better, and here are all the things that were wrong with it.’ [Crimes] is a serious push by some of the greatest artists in the game to elevate in a way that’s inspiring to watch and be around.”

That elevation began with Rowling’s script, which largely shifts the action from New York to Paris — a new locale, sure, but returning to Europe feels more Potter-esque. And while the first film was focused heavily on Newt, the sequel is more of an ensemble piece that deepens returning characters, introduces several new ones, and plays like a life-and-death, wartime noir thriller (no whimsical three-minute scenes of Newt demonstrating a mating dance at the zoo with a horny Erumpent).

The setup is that Grindelwald escapes while being transported to a new prison and rallies an army of supporters with his pledge to unify the Wizarding World and rule Muggles. That leaves Hogwarts professor Dumbledore (Jude Law), the dark wizard’s former childhood friend (and perhaps more?), to enlist his expelled former student Newt and, by extension, his American friends — rebellious auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), her telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and affable No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler). But that’s only the beginning.

“The script is labyrinthian,” says Redmayne, whose introverted beast-wrangler is a bit more comfortable in his own skin this time around. “You’re going down this maze, and Jo [Rowling] is weaving the stories together with such intricacy. Along the way, connections to Harry Potter and secrets are falling at your feet. And there is one…” The Oscar winner pauses, knowing he’s treading into heavy spoiler territory. “I got to the end and my jaw dropped. There was one thing I didn’t see coming.”

“Darker” is a word the cast uses a lot. “Complex” and “fast-paced” are others. The film is more, well, adult — The Crimes of Grindelwald may be the most grown-up of all the Wizarding World titles.

EW caught up with Fogler shortly after he saw the completed film for the first time, and he was as excited as any fan stepping out of a cineplex. “It reminds me a lot of The Empire Strikes Back,” he says. “The first movie is so positive. It’s sweet and lovely. But this time everybody is really put under fire. People are gonna see this, like, a hundred times just to get everything. They’re going to be going nuts that they have to wait for the next one. And Jude Law, oh God, he’s perfect.”

Ah, yes. From the moment that first photo was released of Law as a dashing Dumbledore, even the most discriminating Potter purists admitted he was spot-on as the beloved wizard (and some are rather hot for teacher, with hashtags circulating like #Dumbledaddy and #Dumbledamn). Adding Dumbledore to this prequel pleased Rowling, too, who spent more time visiting the set during this shoot than the first film.

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

You might assume Dumbledore would be the least mysterious part of this tale since we already know so much about his past and future. Not so. “There are things to resolve from Albus’ life, some of which we know from the story, some of which we don’t know about yet,” Law says, and then comes up with an even better tease: “This is a good riddle. One of the reasons Dumbledore trusts and likes Newt so much is Newt understands and forgives beasts and monsters. And there’s a part of Dumbledore — only a part — that sees himself as a bit of a beast.”

The friendship between Newt and Dumbledore might feel a bit wistful for Harry Potter fans: It’s like a glimpse into what might have been if the future Hogwarts Headmaster had somehow been able to carry on his friendship with the Boy Who Lived into adulthood. Yet Newt, unlike young Potter, can quickly spot Dumbledore’s “for the greater good” manipulations.

“One of the things I love about Newt is he has this naivete and gentleness on the surface, but he’s got quite a steel core,” Redmayne says. “He adores Dumbledore, but he also knows when Dumbledore has crossed a line and isn’t afraid to call him on it.”

Newt’s whip-smart Auror love interest Tina is back as well, going on a mission to hunt down Credence in Paris. “She’s more confident this time. No one is questioning her intellect and instincts,” Waterston says. Yet her character’s love life is a mess thanks to some long-distance-relationship misunderstandings. While fans know Newt and Tina eventually end up together, the duo clearly have no idea. “It’s fun to play something out where the audience is one step ahead and Newt and Tina are the clueless ones,” the actress says.

Newt also has a tense relationship with his older brother, Theseus, played by Callum Turner, who broke his wand during his first day on set during an enthusiastic screen test. Theseus is an uptight careerist and Head of the British Ministry of Magic’s Auror Office, who’s pressuring the rebellious Newt to fall in line with the wizarding government’s plans.

“Theseus wants his brother to stand up and fight [Grindelwald],” says Turner, but the two have conflicting ideas on how to #resist. That Theseus is engaged to Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) — Newt’s schoolboy crush — complicates matters as well.

Yet perhaps the most intriguing new character is the one fans only discovered last month: Nagini, a circus performer who gives customers one heckuva transformation act as she morphs into a massive snake. South Korean actress Claudia Kim wasn’t told which character she was playing until she arrived for her last audition. A Harry Potter fan since sixth grade, Kim instantly realized Nagini was cursed to eventually become Voldemort’s murderous serpent.

“I was speechless,” she recalls, and then was told that for this final test, she had to pretend to transform into a snake — on the spot. “I instantly felt the heartburn, a lot of insecurity, but you have to empty your head and let your instincts take over,” she says. “If I find [the audition tape] I will destroy it!”

Warner Bros. Pictures

Once on set, Kim worked with a contortionist to perfect her act, infusing her performance with varying degrees of snake-ness. “David would give directions like ‘Can you do 2 percent more snake?'” she says, laughing.

Since her casting was announced, however, some have objected to a person of color playing a character doomed to subservience. Those close to the production disagree with that perspective and note that Kim simply gave the best audition for a standout role. “Claudia Kim is a living god,” Miller declares. “You’re about to get your head blown off. Prepare yourselves for Nagini. This is a tragic and beautiful story.”

Miller should know, as it’s his character, Credence, who teams up with Nagini to form a power couple of sorts: two lost souls with unique magical abilities they can’t entirely control. “Credence has joined the circus, as one does when you’ve killed your foster mom and fled the country,” Miller says glibly. “He’s trying to figure out who he is. They’re two people who don’t really trust anyone who are learning trust for the first time.”

Another challenged couple (actually, every major character in Crimes of Grindelwald is arguably part of a couple, and that’s why the Paris setting is so apt) are Jacob and Queenie, who flee America due to its strict policy against No-Maj/wizard relationships. And guess which charismatic politician is surprisingly in favor of such unions?

“Grindelwald actually sounds like he’s all for love — if you love a Muggle, you should be allowed to be with them, and you should be allowed to marry,” Fogler reveals. “But wizards, he feels, should be on a pedestal. This is very tantalizing to some.”

So hold up. Could the nicest couple in this story, Jacob and Queenie, join Team Grindelwald? They’re not saying, of course, but Sudol notes: “Grindelwald’s like staring at the sun — you’re not supposed to, but he’s hard to look away from. He does very, very bad things.”

And he does them with flair. One of Depp’s improvisational additions was giving the wand-waving Grindelwald a conductor-like rhythm during a key sequence. “When Johnny conducts a barrage of spells he’s like a conductor guiding an orchestra — except instead of creating music he’s effectively creating fiery mayhem and death,” Yates says.

Indeed, the film’s title promises crimes. And that this dark wizard’s deeds are wrapped in divisive rhetoric at rock-concert-style rallies peppered with populist appeal sounds kind of, well, familiar. Is Rowling making — unintentionally or not — some kind of modern political point? Sudol certainly sees one.

“The film is terrifying that it’s so relevant,” she says. “We really need to focus on trying to find commonalities amidst the instability of the world’s climate. When a lot of crazy things are happening, it’s very easy to lose true north.”

Which brings us, quite appropriately, back to Newt, the story’s moral compass. At one point in the movie, Newt tells his brother, “I don’t do sides.” That’s almost a revolutionary stance in hyper-partisan times. But it’s also one that, given the forces at play, is perhaps unsustainable. “You really get the sense that Newt’s always gonna make the right choice,” Fogler says. “In this day and age, that’s very refreshing.”

A version of this story appears in the Oct. 19-26 issue of Entertainment Weekly, available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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See all the stars at the Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald world premiere
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