Last November, the degree of separation between Ori Zaff and the Wizarding World shrank by about a thousand.
Zaff, a 22-year-old Scarsdale Alternative School graduate and Harry Potter super fan, was one of two winners selected to fly to Paris, France for the world premiere of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” and serve as a red carpet correspondent with SYFY WIRE, a science fiction-focused media company. The film marked the sequel in Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts” series, which is an offshoot of the “Harry Potter” books, a phenomenon of more than two decades.
It was a role Zaff seemed made for. The self-professed Ravenclaw, who is finishing up his master’s degree in cognitive science at the University of Delaware, first encountered the beloved fantasy series “before I could even read it on my own.”
Zaff’s father, John, began reading the stories aloud when his son was in kindergarten. As soon as he could read, Ori Zaff began “grabbing the books any chance I could get,” relishing the immersive world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He often took the novels on family trips to Israel, where his relatives teasingly referred to him as Ori Potter.
Meanwhile, Zaff developed an interest in psychology. He participated in mediation training at the A-School, took AP psychology and started off on the psych track in college.
He explored wide-spanning fields from philosophy to computer science, but found research labs didn’t spark his interest — or his imagination — quite like writing did.
In high school, Zaff interned at The Scarsdale Inquirer and received the paper’s coveted journalism award. He also pursued creative writing and poetry, and journaled constantly.
Now, Zaff is job hunting as he gears up to achieve his master’s degree in June. He’s also completing an independent study, which involves writing pop science articles in a journalistic style.
The SYFY WIRE contest seemed to marry several of Zaff’s passions. The winners ideally needed strong interviewing skills and a borderline obsession with the series.
Zaff certainly fit the bill. When the final Harry Potter novel debuted in 2007, he convinced his mother to take him to the mall outside of Jerusalem early that morning to pick it up. He finished all 759 pages the same day.
As an undergraduate, Zaff took not one, but two courses on Harry Potter literature, one of which was an upper-level English course. The class required students to read (or reread, in his case) the entire series over the semester, which Zaff called “the easiest thing I’ve done in college.”
His favorite book is “The Half-Blood Prince,” and his favorite character — at the moment — is Professor Remus Lupin.
“I pick a new favorite scene or favorite character every time I read it, because I come at it from a different place in my life,” Zaff said. “[It’s] the idea that books belong to the readers instead of to the authors. ... You read it from your own lens, and that lens can change as you grow.”
Zaff heard about the SYFY WIRE contest late in the game and turned his submission around just an hour before deadline.
The video opens with Zaff on piano, playing a rendition of John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme,” before appearing clad in glasses and Gryffindor garb, a red penciled scar on his head. “Hi, my name’s Harry Potter,” he said. “Just kidding, I’m a Ravenclaw.”
While Zaff described the video as “cringey,” he confessed he was proud of it and hopeful it would do well with the judges.
Indeed, in the height of last year’s midterms, Zaff learned he’d been named one of seven finalists eligible for SYFY WIRE’s grand prize. Two winners were named based on public votes.
Zaff had a high fever when he got the official call — “Can you be in Paris in two weeks?”
After clearing it with his teachers (some of whom wondered if Zaff was joking — or lying), he was on his way.
The next few days were a whirlwind. Zaff met the crew and his fellow winner, Katie Aiani, got sleep, got fed, got prepped and got made up. Soon, he was on the red carpet interviewing such stars as Eddie Redmayne and Jude Law, and longtime Harry Potter film producer David Heyman. He just missed J.K. Rowling, but did capture a selfie with her in the background.
In the moment, Zaff said he was focused on being professional, but in hindsight, the best part was “being involved in the whole scene I’d so admired growing up.”
Zaff documented his experience in a 15-minute vlog, which is available on his YouTube channel, 4Zpeople.
Contemplating the Harry Potter craze, Zaff cited the community the stories create and their universal appeal. “Harry Potter hits people ... the same way something like The Beatles hit people,” he said. “It’s something that just struck the culture and feels very fresh and very human and familiar. The powerful universe it builds for the reader just sweeps you up.”
For more on Zaff’s journey, watch “Meet The Harry Potter Superfans” on SYFY WIRE’s YouTube channel.