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Fantastic Beasts' Dan Fogler sees magic in tech

From CNET Magazine: In the Harry Potter spinoff movie "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," actor Dan Fogler got an education in magic -- and not just the kind conjured by wands.

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Dan Fogler can't cast a spell, but he knows what magic feels like.

The comic actor plays Jacob Kowalski, the only non-wizard (or "muggle") of four main characters in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," which opens Friday across the US. Set in 1926 New York, the movie is the first in a big-budget series that revives J.K. Rowling's wizarding world.

Fogler says he felt like "a kid in a candy store" when on the set of the most ambitious film franchise he's ever played in.

"I've got this Cinderella, very magical story that's happening in my career," he says.

Fogler's career already included some remarkable moments even before he landed the role. A stand-up comedian, actor, singer and playwright, he first rose to prominence when he won a 2005 Tony Award for playing William Barfée, a cocksure spelling champion with a mucous-membrane disorder in the Broadway musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

He's since performed in movies like "Good Luck Chuck" and "Fanboys," was the voice of Zeng in "Kung Fu Panda" and has appeared on TV series including "The Good Wife," "The Goldbergs" and "Secrets and Lies."

Now Playing: Watch this: 'Fantastic Beasts' star Dan Fogler dishes his magic turn-ons
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Fogler, 40, spoke with CNET about the sorcery of technology and film. (Just don't make him choose between Dumbledore and Yoda.) Here's an edited transcript of the conversation.

A movie like "Fantastic Beasts" creates wizardry through special effects. Is today's technology a kind of modern-day magic?

We've definitely caught up with many of the aspects of our favorite sci-fi films, "Star Wars" and "Star Trek." When I was a kid, I remember thinking, "When we reach the year 2000, everyone will have jetpacks and it'll be like 'The Jetsons,' and we'll fly everywhere!" It's just a matter of time before someone invents something that's really practical and useful, and then suddenly we are flying around in cars.

It's a fine line between magic and science. In medieval times, science was magic. In the field I work in, Hollywood, there's that magical feeling you [felt] watching E.T. fly across the moon. A lot of technology went into making an audience feel that tingle.

Is "Fantastic Beasts" the most effects-heavy project you've acted in?

Oddly enough, it's not. I did a movie that nobody saw called "Mars Needs Moms." I come from "black-box" theater, where basically you make your own adventure out of nothing. "Mars Needs Moms" was motion capture, where you walk into a space that's essentially a black box with cameras everywhere. It was so technical. You have these mandibles with cameras on your face and a helmet, and you have to hit certain marks. You couldn't shoot this stuff without the green-screen aspect.

Now you jump to "Fantastic Beasts." I'm sitting in the room, and I'm ready. I'm like, "You want me to imagine a monster? I'm ready!" And they say, "OK, so in this scene, all these beasts escape from this case, this magical case."

I'm looking for the green screen, and they say, "Oh, no no no no. We'll just paint a creature in after-effects wherever you look, man." So I'm in a room that is perfectly made up, the set pieces are everywhere, and now it's so actor-friendly that wherever you look, they'll work with you. You can be in the scene, in costume, and just say, "I'm looking there. You're going to put the monster there. Great." That was astonishing to me on set. The technology is speeding up exponentially.

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Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski in the new wizarding world adventure, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," set in 1926 New York.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Has technology had an impact on your own career?

On Twitter, you're connecting with people all over the globe. A beautiful thing that came out of that was [meeting] a guy who happens to be the most prolific writer I've ever tweeted with. We've written several scripts together, and we've never met in person. That's amazing. And then you have YouTube, with clips of stuff I did years ago that wouldn't have a life otherwise. It's in the technology collective. At any moment, someone could go fishing and find some gem they like of yours from a billion years ago. And suddenly you have a new fan.

Were you already a fan of the Harry Potter universe when you were cast?

I was a fan of the movies. Once I got into the world, because I was coming at it from the muggle perspective, I almost didn't want to know as much as I did. I wanted to come in totally fresh and oblivious to what was going on. It helped with the character because everything was new. It was honest.

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Do you feel like you're an expert on the wizarding world now?

No. [laughs] No, I mean, I love "Star Wars," and I must have seen those movies like a billion times, but I still don't know every single character.

If you were given the gift of being either a wizard or a Jedi, which would you pick?

Oh my God! Am I allowed to do that? Wow. Oh my God. Oh my God. I think that I would have to be some kind of hybrid.

No, that's not allowed. I set the rules. I set the totally arbitrary rules.

A chakra-aligned, chi-manipulating Wedi, which is a wizard Jedi. I'm a Wedi.

This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.