The Guardian Observer posted this new article about Eddie and his work in The Theory of Everything.
For Eddie Redmayne, playing Stephen Hawking in a film about the brilliant scientist with motor neurone disease was a huge challenge. But the hardest part was meeting the great man himself…
When Professor Stephen Hawking saw The Theory of Everything, the new feature film adapted from his ex-wife Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, there were moments, he has been reported as saying, when he thought it was himself he was seeing on screen. It wasn’t. It was Eddie Redmayne in the performance of a lifetime (if he does not win an Oscar, there will be an outcry), playing the theoretical physicist from his early days as a PhD student at Cambridge in the 1960s, before he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND), right up to the late 80s and beyond, when A Brief History of Time became a surprise hit, selling more than 10m copies worldwide and making its author the greatest science celebrity since Einstein. In the film, which is the story of a tender, defiant, imperilled marriage, Jane is played by Felicity Jones and Hawking has judged her “charming”. But it is Redmayne’s faithful performance, comparable in its ambition to Daniel Day Lewis’s in My Left Foot, that overwhelms. It reminds one that great acting is about transformation.
It is a mild Sunday afternoon – no such thing as a day of rest for Eddie Redmayne. I wait for him in the green room in the Jerwood Space in London’s Southwark. His Hawking is so fresh in my mind, I half expect him to wheel in. Instead, a handsome, upright young man opens the door. I joke that the rehearsal room is set up as if for a job interview and he laughs – he has a firm handshake (job interviewers like that). But when I congratulate him on his performance, his response is to talk about how great Felicity Jones is: “Felicity is so strong…” I interrupt: “We’re not here to talk about Felicity.”
There is something unearthly, even slightly eerie about Redmayne’s good looks on screen but meeting him now, he has a warm presence, is quick to blush, looks younger than his 32 years. One might almost say he was school-boyish were it not for his beautiful clothes (he once modelled for Burberry, is on Vanity Fair’s international best-dressed list and is not about to fall off it). The look is expensively understated: navy cable-knit sweater, well-cut trousers, classy brown suede shoes.
The room was silent before he came in but will not, by his own sympathetic admission (he is big on self-deprecation), stay that way: “As someone who gets nervous in silences,” he explains, “I spill words rather than really think.” This is nonsense – he thinks about everything. But he reveals that self-consciousness is his greatest fault. “There’s a part of me sitting outside myself observing,” he says. He claims that his best work as an actor is in the rare moments when self-consciousness goes (think of his distraught Marius singing Empty Chairs and Empty Tables in Tom Hooper’s 2012 film Les Miserables).
I have seen The Theory of Everything twice, I tell him, to scrutinise and marvel over its details. “I’m so glad…” he says. And as I look at him, his face stops me in my tracks – partly because I have been studying it so intently on screen. Early in the film, while still cycling round Cambridge, he has a shambolic charm, bites his lips, looks keenly at everything with a not-always-scientific curiosity. When he first meets Jane at a student party, you see love-at-first-sight in the smile that escapes him, brought on by this pretty girl – a radiant reflex.
In the film, and in life too, Redmayne does bashful to perfection. But control of his face, especially in the film’s later stages, was challenging: “The ironic complication was that when Stephen was stillest, it was most energy-consuming for me. His face cannot move but that didn’t mean I could relax mine. It has to get into incredibly contorted positions. I worked on getting into extremes of physicality and then trying to relax. Does that make sense?” I get the impression we could consign an entire hour to eyebrow control alone (Stephen’s mother, in a documentary, once said her son’s eyebrows were especially expressive).
As Hawking’s illness progresses and the muscles in his neck fail to hold his head high, Redmayne must look up rather than across at Jane, cocking his head like a bird, looking sweetly askance from under an untidy fringe. He knows how to convey, in a glance, a private joke across a dinner table. Behind the clunky Hawking specs, his eyes are hazel and there is a transparency about him that is about more than his pale skin – it defines his acting talent too.
But what I want to settle first is what the film does not reveal: how has Stephen Hawking, now 72, miraculously defied MND for 50 years when doctors predicted that, as is the case for most MND sufferers, he had only a couple of years to live?
“People don’t know whether it is to do with the specific strain of the illness. There is another narrative that says it is to do with his drive. But remember, he has extraordinary nursing care and direct contact with Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge.” Redmayne’s reply is circumspect – he is resolved not to pose as Hawking’s spokesman.
The film is circumspect too, careful not to make light of Hawking’s challenges. By the end, Redmayne is in a wheelchair, his body limp as a discarded puppet’s. Was it difficult to find the balance between a depressing portrayal of illness and a falsely upbeat one? He says it was – but wants to backtrack. It matters that people understand this part was not handed him on a plate. He “chased” it – against stiff competition. “I thought it was going to be a biopic but the script was a complicated, intricate and, at moments, difficult love story. And because it was so unexpected, I found it riveting. And I wanted to do it because of James Marsh.” (Director of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.)
When I speak to Marsh on the phone later, he says: “To say Eddie was hungry for the role was an understatement, he was ravenous.” Redmayne, Marsh continued, had made no secret, “over quite a few beers on his part and quite a few coffees on mine”, that he was daunted too. “It was often quite uncomfortable to see what he had to do. He internalised the part. It took its toll physically, he was inhabiting an illness, which is a complicated thing to do. I was pushing him as far as he could go.”
What most worried Redmayne was that he would let the Hawkings down: “The fear was knowing that Jane and Stephen and Jonathan Hellyer Jones [now Jane’s second husband, beautifully played by Charlie Cox] and the children would see the film. If you are playing someone living, it is a different type of judgment. However much work you do, it is not a documentary, there will be things you can’t get right and, ultimately, you have to take a leap because – you weren’t there.”
You can see why this would torment him because he is a perfectionist. When researching Red, John Logan’s play about Rothko at the Donmar (he played Rothko’s assistant for which he won an Olivier award and a Tony on Broadway), he came upon the words of artist Dan Rice, who argued that art must strive for perfection yet acknowledge that it will never get there.
Yet what is interesting about this part is that it is about imperfection. It involved unlearning: as an able-bodied young man, Redmayne had to disable himself. He explains that he visited the Queen Square Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases in London to talk to MND patients and their doctors. He approached portraying the disease as if it were a dance. In one sense, it was – with choreographer and movement specialist Alex Reynolds his teacher. He had an osteopath, Dan Studdard, at his disposal too: “I had to train my body like a dancer but learn to shorten muscles instead of stretch them.” He made charts, detailing what he needed to do physically in each scene.
What was helpful was the decision that Hawking should have the disease from the film’s beginning. “The problem with motor neurone disease is they don’t know when it starts. People go into hospital having fallen but get wrapped up and sent away, unless they’re seen by an incredibly astute doctor. It is only when several things begin to go wrong that it’ll be diagnosed.” Redmayne hints subtly at the disease at the outset with tiny failures: a wobble on a bicycle, an initial disinclination to dance at a May ball, a risky whirl with Jane on a college lawn in which his feet turn perilously outwards on their sides (“foot drop” is an early symptom). “James ended up shooting two separate films of what my feet were doing and what my hands were doing.” One especially poignant moment shows Hawking in hospital unable to count on uncooperative fingers – a painful irony for a consummate mathematician.
Redmayne marvels at the fortitude and black humour of some MND sufferers. “I met a man in the clinic who, the night before, had almost choked to death. The first thing he said next day to his wife was: ‘What death-defying act can I do this morning?’” He witnessed “love of life within the death sentence – optimism”. Inevitably, he experienced physical strain in the role but, he emphasises: “At the end of the day, I could get up. I was constantly reminded of how lucky I am.”
Redmayne’s first meeting with Stephen Hawking was always going to be difficult for someone who finds silence awkward – for the same reason that the part was a challenge to take on. At the beginning of the film, his voice is beautiful, low, perfectly enunciated: every word finished, Ts crossed, Ps and Qs minded, and slowly his speech curdles into incomprehensibility. Later still, after contracting pneumonia, Hawking has a tracheotomy and learns to use an E-trans Board, with colours and groups of letters, to communicate.
When Redmayne walked into Hawking’s house in Cambridge, “the first thing that happened was that Stephen’s nurse held up his arm to shake my hand”. He describes a “complicated rhythm and specificity” in Hawking’s company: he has to look away to communicate, his cheek muscle controls the cursor on his screen. “I started talking and made a fool of myself, going: ‘Hello, Professor, how are you?’ I then realised that a response to ‘How are you?’ takes him several minutes. Pleasantries are pointless.” Hawking told him: “Please call me Stephen.” His machine voice, with its unchanging sing-song, cannot express nuance nor signal intention. Redmayne was in the dark as to whether this was a friendly invitation or a mild rebuke for sycophancy – he had been slavishly addressing him as Professor Hawking. The meeting did not immediately get easier – mainly, Redmayne admits, because he wanted Hawking’s approval. In his autobiography, Hawking makes something of the fact that his birthday is on 8 January, 300 years after the death of Galileo. Redmayne piped up that his birthday was on 6 January which meant they were all Capricorns. Back came the slow, robotic American voice of Hawking’s machine with the words: “I am an astronomer, not an astrologer.”
Does Redmayne care too much about what other people think of him? Does he need to cultivate more of a rhinoceros hide? “Yeah, that could well be true,” he laughs ruefully. I was recently told, with friendly concern, by the Guardian’s theatre critic, Michael Billington, that he had heard that when Redmayne, in December 2011, read his review of Richard II at the Donmar, which said, “he has the temperament but not yet the technique to play the king”, he burst into tears. It was the first review of Michael Grandage’s production he’d read. The others (uniformly ecstatic) will have cheered him up (he won a Critics’ Circle award for his performance).
But now Redmayne is starting, eloquently, to defend his right to be thin-skinned: “I’ve worked with some actors who have such thick skins and think they are so extraordinary. I’ll think: have you stopped learning? They stop listening to directors or other actors and do the same thing again and again. So it is complicated because for my sense of self, I’d rather my skin were a wee bit thicker.”
Hawking was back in the headlines last week prophesying that artificial intelligence may bring nemesis to the human race, an unexpectedly doom-ridden message from someone whose recently upgraded computer software has helped him communicate faster and made his life more livable. As you would expect, Redmayne has applied himself to trying to keep up with the professor’s formidable intellect and the film’s cosmological content (Hawking would have liked more physics in it). He was helped by Professor Jerome Gauntlett, head of theoretical physics at Imperial College, London, but admits that, with the best intentions, beyond page 25 of A Brief History of Time, he is out of his depth. And does he share the desire behind Hawking’s continuing quest to find a single, elegant equation that explains everything? “No,” he laughs, “I’m happy with inexplicability.”
“I muddled into acting,” he says. He seems genuinely to regret never having experienced a “boundary-testing” drama college. Eton was his drama school. When I talk to Simon Dormandy, former head of drama there (now directing professionally, with the first-ever stage adaptation of a Coen brothers film, The Hudsucker Proxy, coming up in the spring and formerly an accomplished RSC actor himself), he says: “His talent was obvious and innate. I first cast him as Adela Quested in A Passage to India. He admits that though Eddie was not then “fully fledged gorgeous”, it was a bold move for him to play “a plain woman”. Eddie also starred at school as the MC in Cabaret and as Henry VI. Dormandy sees in him “emotional availability and courage. He is prepared to do things other actors would be afraid of.” Redmayne returns the compliment: “Simon treated us like professionals, taught us to speak verse.” It was through Dormandy that Mark Rylance was tipped off about Eddie when searching for a teenage Viola to play opposite his Olivia in an all-male Twelfth Night. Performed at Middle Temple Hall in 2002, it was this astonishing production that launched Redmayne’s career.
By this stage, he was in his second year at Cambridge, where his actor friends included Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens and Tom Hiddleston (also at Eton). It was strange, he says now, to return to Cambridge 10 years later to play Hawking. It took a while before “nostalgia flooded”. At first, he could not enjoy it. He was “in a tunnel”, too busy obsessing about the film. “I was staying at a hotel opposite the art history faculty next to Martin’s, sadly closed now, a greasy spoon where I used to go for cheese and ham toasties between lectures.”
His background was in no way theatrical. He grew up in London, by the Albert Bridge, in Chelsea. His father worked – still does – in the City and his mother, now retired, ran a relocation business. His parents sound wonderfully supportive. “What is hilarious with Mum is she gets to the truth very quickly. Though she doesn’t come from a theatrical background, she has pretty incisive judgment. Whenever I do a play, she will give me a hug afterwards and be very lovely and then – you can time it to about 23½ minutes – the note will come: ‘Do you think you had your hands in your pockets a bit much?’ and I always go: ‘Mum! You don’t understand…’ and then realise she is totally right.”
His parents have had to watch some testing pieces starring their son: Savage Grace (2007), “a true story of incest”, and Edward Albee’s The Goat (2004) – “in which I have to snog my dad on stage” – and Now Or Later (2008) by Christopher Shinn at the Royal Court, playing the troubled gay son of the American president. Not obvious parental fare. At least he has also starred in BBC films of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008) and Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong (2012).
He has not lost his love of art and when he gets a break, gallery-going is what he likes to do. He has just returned from the US and talks about the “amazing” Egon Schiele show (New York) and Modernism exhibition (San Francisco) and looks forward to catching up in London. He has a flat in Bermondsey and describes himself as “a full-on London man”. When I ask whether he would ever like to live elsewhere, he picks Paris and, less predictably, Derbyshire, “the most beautiful place in the world”.
The future for Redmayne now has a double focus. He is about to star in another Tom Hooper film, The Danish Girl, a true story about 1920s painter Einar Wegener, one of the first people to transition into becoming a woman and is already “prepping” for it – another transformation in prospect. Even more important, there are what he describes with a laugh as his “forthcoming nuptials”. It is to be a winter wedding. He is marrying Hannah Bagshawe, whom he has known since his teens, an antiques dealer from Staffordshire. “Please make sure if you talk about Hannah you don’t say – it’s just that, occasionally, she is hilariously described in the press as my publicist. She used to work in financial PR.” That must be irritating? “She finds it quite funny but – oh God…” Does he see it as a sane decision to marry someone not in the business? He replies instantly: “I don’t think who one marries is a decision. It is how you feel.” It is the most heartfelt and wonderfully unselfconscious thing I have heard him say, a last line in the latest chapter of a Brief History of Eddie Redmayne.