Channeling the spirit of Brooklyn and bootlegging into ‘Beasts’

Dan Fogler was beyond thrilled when the call came to audition for a role in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a prequel to the billion-dollar “Harry Potter” film franchise.

“I was just, like, ‘Whoa, you can offer me a part where I’m some weird walrus-tusked gobliny dragon monster, and I would’ve done it no matter what,’ ” the jovial Fogler, still boyish at 40, said during a recent interview at the Chamberlain West Hollywood hotel. “Then when I read the part, I was like, ‘Man, I could actually get this. This guy is really close to me. He could’ve been a member of my family. He’s in my DNA.”

Fogler ended up landing the role of Jacob Kowalski, a “no-maj” (non-magical person, or “muggle” in British slang) who aspires to open a bakery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1926. After a chance meeting with the British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Jacob gets swept up in a harrowing adventure among the magical folk of New York.

Fogler felt a special kinship with Jacob because his own great-great-grandfather, Isaac Fogler, an Orthodox Jew, had owned a kosher bakery on the Lower East Side after fleeing pogroms in Russia. 

“I’ve always felt like I had a strong relationship to the 1920s,” he said.

Fogler’s father often told Dan that he reminded him of his favorite uncle, Manny, a bootlegger and gangster who ran a taxi racket during that era. “My dad would always say I had the same devilish look in my eyes,” Fogler said. “So I always had that connection to Manny and my grandfather’s other fun brothers. They were badasses … and I feel like their energy is living on in me.”

Fogler assumed his character was Jewish until he asked “Fantastic Beasts” screenwriter J.K. Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” books, during the film’s shoot. To his surprise, she replied that the character was a Christian.

The Jacob Kowalski character falls in with Newt when they chance to meet in a bank and accidentally walk off with each other’s suitcase. Newt’s is filled with fantastic beasts such as a twig-like bowtruckle and a mischievous niffler, which is reminiscent of a platypus. Eventually, the wizard and the muggle team up with witches Porpentina Goldstein and her sister, Queenie, to help capture a more frightening creature that is terrorizing New York.

Along the way, they battle scions of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, who forbid marriage and even friendships between magical people and no-majs, as well as the leader of a religious sect who wants to exterminate witches and wizards.

Rowling has said the story reflects the current global rise of nationalism, racial intolerance and xenophobia. “There’s been a lot of hate rhetoric and negative energy that’s been bubbling to the surface ever since this recent election,” Fogler said.

Like his “Beasts” character, the actor grew up in Brooklyn. He became bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue and spent summers at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskills, where the aspiring performer saw shows by Borscht Belt classic Jewish comedians such as Alan King and Jackie Mason. “Being Jewish is a large part of my personality,” Fogler said. “The way I describe myself is, ‘I’m a Brooklyn Jew.’ ”

As a kid, Fogler earned the nickname “Meshuggenah D.D.” after he delighted his brother with his impressions of Daffy
Duck (aka D.D.) and other cartoon characters. “I knew I could make people laugh,”
he said.

But Fogler was in for a rude awakening when he visited several drama conservatories while pondering where to attend college. One school’s representatives assured the heavyset actor that he would lose 30 pounds due to the rigors of their curriculum. “But I was, like, ‘Actually, I’ve been fighting my weight my whole life — what if I don’t?’ ” he recalled. “They said that then I would get a red slip that said, ‘Lose 30 pounds or get out.’ And I was, like, ‘F— this place.’ ”

Fogler eventually chose to attend Boston University because “The first guy I met there was this 30-year-old freshman who looked like a young Santa Claus,” he said. 

At Boston University, Fogler’s professors quickly pronounced him a character actor. The good news was that he would get to play a variety of parts during his career. The bad news was that character actors don’t start working until they are in their late 30s.
“That made me want to prove them wrong,” Fogler said.

Several years later, he created the character of William Barfee, a slovenly tween spelling champion, for a friend’s improvised play, “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” in a theater that “smelled like rat piss” because of all the vermin.

At 28, Fogler won a Tony Award for playing Barfee in the Broadway musical adaptation of the play “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” 

The portly, duck-walking Barfee drew on Fogler’s own adolescent angst — especially his nausea on the school bus as he worried about bullies who might attack him each day.

During his Tony acceptance speech, he tearfully thanked his parents for their support and their DNA (Fogler’s duck walk comes courtesy of a genetic hip-displacement condition). He also pointed out that he had been able to perform his role “looking like this and in this body,” he told the Journal.

Critics have remarked that Fogler (“Fanboys,” “Good Luck Chuck”) steals many of the scenes in “Fantastic Beasts.” To perform the role, he drew on his love for the slapstick antics of vaudeville, Borscht Belt comics and especially the work of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

He sees Kowalski as a kind of “sad clown.” “He’s back from World War I, where he’s seen some really scary, horrendous stuff,” Fogler said. “But he’s somehow been able to maintain a level of compassion and kindness. All [the baker] wants to do is to make people happy with carbs.”

On the set, Rowling hinted at where the “Fantastic Beasts” story line might go in the four upcoming films of the franchise. The Goldstein sisters’ Jewish heritage will take on more significance as the timeline moves toward the Nazis and World War II, Fogler said. And it’s perhaps no coincidence that the no-maj-hating dark wizard who will come to power shares the genocidal tendencies of the Third Reich. “I think there’s something they’re trying to get at with [that] mentality, when it comes to wizards being [supposedly] superior to muggles,” Fogler said.

“Fantastic Beasts” is now in theaters.

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