Eddie Redmayne is having his Big Bang moment.
To watch the British actor as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” a rather conventional biopic (and a bit of redundancy, that), is to watch his star ignite.
Filmmakers have frequently had an irrepressible urge to hire spectacularly good-looking people to portray intellectual giants: see Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, Russell Crowe as Nobel mathematician John Nash, Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II codebreaker Alan Turing in the upcoming “The Imitation Game.” Add to that list Redmayne as Hawking, arguably the world’s most beloved theoretical physicist and best-known person with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
His performance in “Theory” has given Redmayne the reviews of his career, ranging from “brilliant” to “knockout,” with comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis. His notices have far surpassed those of the film. New York magazine’s headline: “ ‘The Theory of Everything’ does not deserve Eddie Redmayne’s astonishing performance.”
“I tried to educate myself on the science, which was complicated for someone who is pretty inept,” Redmayne, 32, remarked modestly over coffee and croissants at a hotel cafe the morning after the movie’s Washington premiere. “I’d really given up at 14 years old on science.”
Redmayne attended Cambridge, studying art history, French and English at Trinity College, when Hawking, who is now director of research in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics — “and has rock star status” — was a faculty member. To prepare for the role, Redmayne read many of Hawking’s writings, although “understanding them is another matter,” he admitted. Used to playing romantic leads, he found it a switch to play the smartest person in the room, “something I had never felt before.”
An acclaimed stage actor who was plucked to play opposite Shakespearean master Mark Rylance in an all-male “Twelfth Night” while still an undergraduate, Redmayne is the winner of a Tony and an Olivier. And a few million adolescent female hearts for his role as Marius, the impassioned revolutionary and Cosette’s swain in “Les Misérables,” which was all grand gesture, singing and marching in the streets. The opposite, in other words, of playing Hawking.
Force of character
The challenge was to portray the world’s most recognizable genius — possibly the only cosmologist with his own “Simpsons” action figure — who is still very much alive, his ALS-ravaged body recognizable to a mass audience through YouTube videos. (To many people, ALS might as well be Stephen Hawking’s disease, not Lou Gehrig’s.)
For four months leading up to production, Redmayne studied hours of those videos, imitating Hawking with a mirror and an iPad. He shed 15 pounds, worked with a choreographer (who had crafted zombie movements in “World War Z”) and regularly visited a London neurology clinic, meeting with more than 30 ALS patients.
“I would feel their hands and talk to their partners, trying to get a sense of the physical and emotional ramifications,” Redmayne said. “I had to figure out Stephen’s unique decline. With the upper neurons, there’s a rigidity of the muscles, whereas with the lower neurons, there’s a wilting. ALS is a mixture of those things.”
Like an athlete, Redmayne was in training, only in this case, to portray atrophy. “When Stephen is at his most seemingly still, your muscles are not just sitting there relaxed,” he said. “All your muscles are contorted. So those moments were the most energized.”
A one-time Burberry model, Redmayne possesses a face of exquisite geometry, a confluence of sharp angles softened by a grove of freckles and eyes the color of English peas, with a pale rose of a mouth. His lithe, long body is ideal for hanging clothes, which placed him on Vanity Fair’s international best-dressed list (even though he’s color-blind). But for much of “Theory,” he contorted that body like so much tissue.
The movie, co-starring Felicity Jones as Hawking’s first wife, Jane (and based on her memoir, “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”), portrays Hawking from age 21 — when he is given the diagnosis of ALS and two years to live — to age 45. For much of the movie, Redmayne is pale and largely immobile, seated in a wheelchair. When he speaks, he is barely comprehensible.
“When you meet [Stephen], you can see he can move so few muscles yet has the most charismatic of faces,” Redmayne said. “From our meeting, I took this force of character. When he smiles, the world feels a great place.”
Ego in a box
The movie is a love story, set on an edenic campus, about genius ravaged by illness yet undeterred. Instead of “A Beautiful Mind,” it’s “A Destroyed Body.”
It is a remarkable performance, talk of Oscar and such, all the more so for denying Redmayne the use of many of his natural talents: beauty, agility and a gift for gab. Or, as he put it: “I suffer from a fear of silence.” (He is a man so proper and self-effacing that he can say “wee bit” three times during the better part of an hour yet not sound fusty.)
It was that fear that had Redmayne prattling during a three-hour meeting with Hawking days before the start of production at Cambridge. Hawking, now 72, uses his cheek muscles to communicate with a sensor on his glasses that prompts a computer screen with an alphabet and a cursor. “It takes a long time for him to communicate, and one’s instinct is to start a conversation,” said Redmayne. “Maybe Stephen said eight or nine sentences. So I spilled forth about Stephen Hawking to Stephen Hawking for 40 minutes.”
He shook his head at the absurdity. Hawking had just published his memoir, “My Brief History,” in which he mentioned being born on Jan. 8, 1942, three centuries to the day after Galileo’s death.
“And I told him my birthday was Jan. 6 so we’re both Capricorns,” Redmayne said, “and as I said that I thought, ‘What am I saying?’ ”
Indeed, what was he? “There was this excruciating pause,” he recalled. Hawking, a man of few words but considerable wit, replied, “I’m an astronomer, not an astrologer.” In response to which, Redmayne said, “I died a hundred deaths.”
To Hawking, “the disease is entirely secondary,” the actor said. “When you meet him, he has absolutely no interest in it. He decided to live very passionately. Similarly, he wanted to make sure this wasn’t a story of a disease.”
Redmayne’s performance won Hawking’s ultimate gesture of approval, permission to use the scientist’s trademarked computer-generated voice in the film (instead of going for a studio attempt at verisimilitude), which is oddly American-sounding rather than Oxbridge. “So, yes, I nailed his voice,” Redmayne said wryly.
Before seeing the movie, Hawking told the actor, “I will let you know what I think, good or otherwise.” Redmayne responded: “Stephen, if it’s otherwise, perhaps you can just stick to ‘otherwise.’ We don’t need to know all the things I got wrong.” Apparently, Hawking was pleased, although Redmayne demurred on the specifics with a polite wave of his hand.
“When we cast Eddie, we knew he had the talent and the passion, and he knew the milieu. On paper, he absolutely ticked off all the boxes,” said screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who also served as a producer on the film. “We knew he would be good. I didn’t know he would be spectacular. He took his ego and put it in a box. He worked a thousand percent to get the accuracy of this guy.”
McCarten spent an eight-year “odyssey” trying to secure the rights to Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir. “I saw this as a three-stranded movie that I rather clumsily described as a ‘triple helix,’ ” he said. “There’s the love story, the battle against ALS and the physics. And I wanted to wrap these stories all around each other and do justice to all, find balance between Stephen’s and Jane’s story, so it’s not just about the sufferer but also the carer.”
Redmayne understood the significance of the role. “I was absolutely conscious, from the word go, that he is an extraordinary human being, and this was an extraordinary role and, with that, it was a formidable privilege,” he said.
Before filming, Charlie Cox, who plays a choirmaster and Jane’s eventual second husband, told Redmayne, “When you are lucky enough to get a part like that, the great thing is you have no option but to give your everything.”
And so, having no option, Eddie Redmayne did.