Dan Fogler must believe in magic, because landing his latest role in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” felt to him like it had been preordained by the cosmos.
“I asked the universe,” the stand-up comedian, musician and Tony Award-winning actor revealed, “ ‘Please give me a part where I can play the full spectrum of my abilities.’ ” After an elaborate array of auditions and screen tests, the universe answered. Fogler was cast as Jacob Kowalski, the only character in J.K. Rowling’s magical world without any magical powers.
But what Kowalski lacked in wand skills he made up for in heart. The “no-maj” (Rowling’s American slang for “muggles”) steals many of the film’s major scenes, and he does it all without any incantations or Polyjuice Potions.
“In college, I learned that my favorite parts were the sad clown parts,” Fogler said. “Those are the ones I love because you get to do everything. You get to be funny, make them laugh one minute and make them cry the next minute. That’s what I saw in this character.”
Even the similarities between Fogler and Kowalski feel oddly enchanted. On his way to Beijing, the next stop on the globe-trotting press tour for “Fantastic Beasts,” the actor revealed how Kowalski was practically family.
Warning, minor spoilers ahead.
How did you get involved with “Fantastic Beasts”?
I auditioned like everybody else in the world for this part. I went in and I thought I nailed it. Then I got a call to come to L.A., and I auditioned with David Yates and Fiona Weir, the casting director. I thought I did a really good job there too, and I’m pretty sure they were wiping away tears when I was leaving. Then I didn’t hear a damn thing. Then they were just auditioning everybody in the world again, and then I got a call for a screen test. I met Eddie [Redmayne] and Alison [Sudol], and that was really good too. Then they said, “If we do call you again, then it’s going to be for another 5 million screen tests,” so I was like, “Oh… dang.”
I was traveling back and forth to the U.K., and it was a really hectic time because I was also doing the “Spelling Bee” show. The same day as the screen test [in the U.K.], I got off the plane and ran to the Town Hall theater [in New York] and performed “Spelling Bee” for the 10-year reunion and that was insane.
Then I went to Comic-Con. I asked, “Should I be on call in case I have to go to the U.K. again?” And they said, “Nah, go to Comic-Con, man.” So I went to Comic-Con in San Diego 2015, and that’s where I heard it. My agent called and said, “Yo, what are you doing?” I told them where I was and they said, “Well, you know Comic-Con’s going to be a lot crazier next year,” and they were right. They were absolutely right. Cut to the next year, this last Comic-Con was just Hall H filled to the brim with screaming fans. It’s pretty life-altering.
I think I brought some real authenticity to it. I grew up in Brooklyn. When I read the part, I thought, ‘Oh, man, I know this guy.’ ”
Had you ever been on a Hall H panel before for Comic-Con?
I was there for [the ping-pong film] “Balls of Fury,” and we were just like, “Everyone in the back move forward. Fill in the seat there.” So this was a lot different. [Giggles.]
Did you feel like you had an advantage while auditioning because you’re actually from New York?
I think I brought some real authenticity to it. I grew up in Brooklyn. When I read the part, I thought, “Oh, man, I know this guy. He’s one of my ancestors.” I have a great-grandfather, Isaac, who was a baker in New York on the Lower East Side. It’s really surreal stepping into the role. I felt like it was written for me. I felt like he was family already, so I loved him.
Then I paid homage to a lot of my favorite actors from that era, like Chaplin and Buster Keaton. When Eddie and I are together, it’s like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. I tried to infuse him with all of that great, elegant kind of comedy, that real physical kind of comedy. Also [James] Cagney. I liked how Cagney stood. He was very conservative in his motions — because I’m such a broad, wacky guy, I thought that it helped me stay in the period. Cut to me flailing and running like a maniac. [Laughs.]
These are all brand new characters that didn’t come from a book but from J.K. Rowling’s screenplay. Did you get to talk with Rowling for additional research?
In rehearsal, she gave me a nice hint. She said, “I love what you’re doing. Keep doing what you’re doing,” and, “I love Jacob’s character.” I was like, “Do tell.” And she said, “He reminds me of Ron.” That’s great because Ron, he gets to do everything. He gets to be the clown and the hero and he gets the girl. This is going to be fun.
Whenever [Rowling] came on set, she would give us little hints about our futures, so that instills you with confidence that she is formulating a repertoire for you. She told me where this character’s going, and man, it’s an incredible transformation.
He’s also the only nonmagic person out of the whole main cast. Why do you think that makes him special?
I think it’s incredible. He’s back from [World War I] and somehow, he’s been able to maintain a philosophy of compassion and kindness, and he’s running into the fray with these wizards, and he doesn’t have a wand. This guy’s really brave. I think those qualities make him a quite magical person even if he doesn’t know how to wield magic.
The film culminates in this wonderful sequence in the rain — what was it like shooting that scene?
That was lovely. That was like “Shawshank Redemption,” you know that moment in the rain that [Tim Robbins] has? It was so epic and everything was leading up to this wild moment, and it was just perfect the way it was directed.
For me, [shooting] that moment was the last day of sleep-away camp. You made these lifelong friends and you’ve had your first kiss and your first girlfriend and the end of the summer your parents come and you got to leave. I remember many summers where I was going home just blubbering like an idiot, and that’s what this felt like when I had to leave this little motley family.
Final question. How long did it take you to find Kowalski’s giggle after drinking the giggle water in the magical jazz club?
I had that in my pocket. One of my little bag of tricks.