Why on earth has Johnny Depp been cast in the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise?

And who will he even play?

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If your childhood wasn’t ruined enough by the domestic abuse allegations that surfaced against Johnny Depp after he split from his now ex-wife Amber Heard back in May, you’re in luck. Deadline reports that Depp has now been cast in the sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It’s a move that has been resoundingly unpopular online – with many questioning the decision to place the controversial actor in a mainstream film franchise. Heard and Depp have now settled their acrimonious divorce case, issuing a joint statement drawing a line under the saga, but it has still made fans around the world (myself included) see him in a different light.

Why, God, why has Johnny Depp been cast in this series?

It’s actually looking like Depp was cast before, or during, the filming of the first movie – as his head seemingly makes a cameo in the current film (more on that later). So it’s possible that he signed along the dotted line long before Heard stated her then husband was “verbally and physically abusive” back in May. When asked for comment about how the bad press around Depp’s marriage breakdown might affect the film a representative for Warner Brothers studio told Mashable“it [doesn’t] comment on personal issues.”

While the (confirmed) news of his casting has been the biggest celebrity story of the day, and many have used Twitter to express their disappointment directly to JK Rowling, the author has stayed silent on it. Notably, she has happily retweeted not one but two stories about the casting of Holliday Granger in a TV adaptation of one of her crime novels, as well as some other Fantastic Beasts promotional material. Rowling has also been keen to insist in the past that she does not cast the film adaptations of her work (though this article from 2000 and this article from 2001 suggest casting agents work “very closely” with Rowling and she has specifically requested actors in previous Potter movies).

Ok, fine. He’s in the freaking film. Who does he play? How much of a dampener will this put on it?

All we know for sure is that Depp’s character briefly appears in the first film and will have a larger role in the second. When Deadline reported that the actor was signed on to the sequel, they didn’t spill any details on who he played, except to say that, “if you look carefully, you might spot him in a tiny turn in the first installment of the JK Rowling-created Harry Potter spinoff”. But fan theories travel fast in the Potterverse, and it wasn’t long before Hypable posted a screengrab from a fan featurette that appears to show the back of Johnny Depp’s head, and claimed a source close to the film knows that this head belongs to the character of Grindelwald.

In the featurette, as we glimpse the back of this mysterious blonde head, JK Rowling’s voiceover states the film series tells of “the first time a wizard rose and threatened the world order.” It follows a line about “Grindelwald’s attacks in Europe”. Contextually, the fan featurette seems to be setting up that this is, indeed, Grindelwald’s head. (As a colleague reminded me, Grindelwald is also blonde – a big clue that yer a wrong’un in the Potterverse.) It looks pretty definitively like Depp’s head, too.

There’s more evidence to back this up. Over two months ago, a fan on Reddit claiming to have seen a screening of Fantastic Beasts only had one thing to say afterwards: “wow […] Johnny Depp is Grindewald”. The secrecy surrounding Depp’s involvement matches with the secrecy surrounding the true extent of Grindelwald’s role in these films.

Depp is Hollywood’s go to for anything “quirky” or “eccentric” – Grindelwald’s character description notes he is “merry,” “wild” and has an “air of triumphant trickery about him.” While it’s a weird casting in terms of age (Grindelwald is a decade younger than Depp in 1926, when the film is set – and wizards always look younger than their age), Warner Brothers haven’t been particularly accurate in this arena in the past (Alan Rickman was 30 years older than Snape’s book age), and Grindelwald will be in his mid-Sixties by the time the series ends.

Fans have long speculated that two other existing characters in the Fantastic Beasts saga may play Grindelwald. One theory is that Percival Graves, the US director of magical security, is actually Grindelwald in disguise – a line of thought that developed from a character poster of Graves featuring the Deathly Hallows symbol (long associated with Grindelwald), and a distinctly Grindelwald-esque lines in the trailer: “I refuse to bow down any longer.”


From top to bottom: the back of Colin Farrel’s head in the Fantastic Beasts promotional featurette; the back of an unknown, Depp-like head in the same featurette; the back of Johnny Depp’s head in his 2015 film Mortdecai

Others placed their bets on Ezra Miller’s shady character, Credence Barebone – seemingly the leader of an anti-witchcraft group. The fan featurette implies that the anti-witchcraft-brigade might in part be fake, an anti-Muggle conspiracy lead by dark wizards in order to push the magical community towards their cause. It’s been made clear that Barebone is not the character he seems – Entertainment Weekly reported in an interview with the cast, “Credence is the most enigmatic character of the lot, and one who might evolve into somebody rather notable in the Potterverse”. In the fan featurette, Graves says to Barebone, “We’ve both lived in the shadows for too long,” and it seems that Barebone holds a Deathly Hallows symbol in these two consecutive shots.

But it seems the evidence points overwhelmingly in Depp’s favour. There’s nothing to stop either of these characters from being revealed as Grindelwald’s supporters, and it would make sense for him to remain in the background in this early film. But Grindelwald’s role will grow and grow over the five films – as Ezra Miller hints in this recap of the most important Potter information you need to know before seeing the film – with many convinced that the climax of the series will lie in Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s famed duel. That means if you’re both a Harry Potter fan, and someone whose respect for Depp was dented by the domestic abuse allegations that surfaced against him, there’s going to be some tricky decision making ahead.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.