Eddie Redmayne only has made a handful of films, most notably My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables, both of which raised his profile considerably in Hollywood. But the British actor is no stranger to the awards circuit; just two years ago he made the rounds with Les Mis, where we ran into each other often. Toward the end of that season, Redmayne told me, “Well, I guess I’m not going to see you again unless I do something good.” Bingo. He did something very good. Winning flat-out raves for his portrayal of renowned physicist and ALS survivor Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne has landed front-runner status in what easily is the most competitive best actor race in recent memory. It’s well-deserved praise for one of the toughest roles out there.
Was this film a challenge that you thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t do it,” or “Can I do it?”
I wish I could say it was a choice. I chased pretty hard for it. When I read the script, I had no idea that there was this extraordinary story about the background behind Stephen’s genius. (Director James Marsh and I) went to a pub, and he said, “What do you want?” It was about 4 in the afternoon and I was trying to work out, coffee or beer? “Beer?” He said, “OK. I’ll have a coffee.” So after about four beers I managed to persuade him to cast me. The moment was one of extraordinary elation that lasted about a millisecond, followed by deep trepidation and fear.
You met Stephen Hawking, who was on set. What was that like?
The stakes felt incredibly high. The book that the film is based on was Jane Hawking’s story. We knew that Stephen had read the script and he sort of OK’d it. But I had asked James for some serious prep time. The greatest gift he gave me was allowing me to spend four or five months researching and working on elements of the performance. Unfortunately, I only met Stephen five days before we started filming. By that point, I had to try and at least technically, if not emotionally, structure what the performance was going to be, because we weren’t shooting chronologically. When I met Stephen, it was this astounding moment with this man who’d become an idol in my mind. I actually had feared, “What if this man ends up in reality being nothing like what I predicted?” Fortunately, in that meeting, he just emanated humor and wit and a joy of life. It became absolutely clear in meeting him that the illness is secondary.
This film didn’t shoot in sequence. How did you deal with Hawking’s physical changes over time when shooting this way?
That was one of the biggest challenges, other than voices. I think it’s pretty impossible to make films that are shot chronologically. James fought for that but became very aware that that wasn’t going to be a possibility. What I decided to do was go back to a sort of old-school model of working. Again, he facilitated that. I worked with an amazing movement coach, a choreographer. My instinct was that every aspect of the performance would affect everything else. You were doing work physically that would have ramifications on what the costumes were doing, which would have ramifications on what the makeup was doing. Stephen lost a lot of weight during the illness, but I couldn’t take the time out in the middle to lose weight. I ended up losing weight for the beginning of the film, and then (shirt) collars would be made tighter at the beginning. I’d be made out to look healthier.
Not just on camera but between takes, what were you doing physically to embody Stephen, and how did if affect your body?
When I hired the choreographer, I told her I wanted to spend enough time in these positions that my body started relaxing in them. She suggested that I see an osteopath. This osteopath basically mapped my body during rehearsal, every two days, and it was amazing. She said the shape of your body starts changing, especially by being in the position that Stephen is in, which specialists call “windswept,” this sort of S-shaped thing. But also my face was affected because Stephen speaks out of the side of his face a lot. The makeup designer was like, “You’re growing muscles in the side of your face.” I would have to stay in the same position between takes, and that’s why I had to trust so much in this team of people, in particular James, behind the camera, because I couldn’t see what I looked like. There was a bit of a physical cost, but the reality is that every day I got to get out of my wheelchair. The 30 or 40 people with ALS that I met, a lot of them didn’t.
How did the relationship between Stephen and Jane Hawking, portrayed by Felicity Jones, develop offscreen?
I’ve known Felicity as a friend for a long time. Working with her took enormous trust, because Felicity describes being Jane as kind of like being an extension of Stephen, like a sixth sense. When his head drops, she’s lifting it. There are amazing documentaries that show that side. So it was like a dance, the two of us.
Photograph and video of Eddie Redmayne by Mark Mann
Below, Redmayne comments about portraying a real-life character and never feeling done in his preparation to become Stephen Hawking: