Meticulously pushing your physical and emotional limits to prove you can defy the odds and achieve your ultimate goals is an endearing process that proves your inner strength and capabilities. Not only has famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking showcased his relentless drive in his praise-worthy career, but also in his determination to fight the motor neuron disease, which he has been battling since his early 20s. BAFTA Award-nominated actor Eddie Redmayne is also proving his physical and emotional perseverance in his new biographical drama, ‘The Theory of Everything,’ in which he showcases the struggles the famed scientist has faced after first being diagnosed, and throughout his first marriage to Jane Hawking.
‘The Theory of Everything,’ which was directed by James Marsh, begins in 1963, when Stephen (Redmayne) is a cosmology student struggling to find a topic for his thesis at the U.K.’s Cambridge University. While contemplating how he can find the one simple equation that could explain the start and meaning of the universe, and how he could figure that question into his doctrine, he meets and instantly connects with a fellow student, arts major Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). But soon after they realize their true love for each other, Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease (which is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). His doctors give him a prognosis of two years to live, during which his limbs and motor skills will deteriorate, and leave him with limited speech and movement.
Despite the short amount of time Stephen’s doctors believe he has left to live, Jane is unwavering in her love for him. Her resolve to maintain their relationship leads them to get married, and gives him the courage to finish his doctorate. While Stephen tries to prove the initial theory of the creation of the universe and embarks on his most ambitious scientific work, he begins a family with his new wife.
Since he’s faced with the limited amount of time he’s expected to have left in his life, Stephen also incorporates how time also factored into the universe’s history. Through his commitment to his scientific work and family, he continues to defeat the odds and remains healthy enough to keep living. However, the strain of maintaining Stephen’s care throughout the course of their marriage leads Jane to take comfort in her new friendship with Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), the choir director at their church. But Jane remains loyal and committed to caring for her husband and their three children. Through her continued support for Stephen, the family achieves more than they ever could have imagined in medicine, science and the appreciation of love.
Redmayne generously took the time recently to sit down for a roundtable interview to talk about playing Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’ at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was drawn to playing the iconic scientist, as the film not only showcases his honored career, but is also an extraordinary investigation into his unconventional love story with Jane; how he met with a speech specialist and a choreographer before he began filming, as they helped him prepare for the role’s physicality; and how it was an honor for him to meet Hawking after he spent months researching his life, but knowing he would watch the film after it was completed put an extra pressure on him to perfectly capture the scientist’s life on screen.
Question (Q): Fortitude was something you had to consider when tackling a role like this. What was it about this character that you were passionate about, and what was your preparation process like for the role?
Eddie Redmayne (ER): The passion came from reading Anthony (McCarten’s) unique script, as I originally thought it was going to be a straight Stephen Hawking biopic. I know Stephen as a science icon, as well as for his voice. But I studied art history in school, so I had no idea what he discovered in his career.
So when I read the script, it exceeded my expectations. It seemed to me to be an extraordinary investigation into an unconventional love story. It’s about young love, love of subject matter and the failings and boundaries of love. So that excited me.
Then I fought pretty hard to get the job. From there, James was generous enough to give me time. He understood what the process for me as an actor would be. He also gave me complete freedom to work with many interesting people who aided me. I went to an ALS clinic every couple weeks, and met with a specialist, Dr. Sidler. She would look at pictures of Stephen, from the 1980s until now, and she noted how he would holding Jane’s hand. She would help track his (muscles’) decline in each photo.
There was also a speech specialist who works with ALS patients who I studied with, and I worked with my own vocal coach. I also worked with a dancer, Alex Reynolds, who’s an extraordinary choreographer. She helped with the role’s physicality, in relation to the character’s fortitude. We knew that as we were shooting, we’d be jumping between different physicalities.
But we really didn’t want the film to just be about the physicality. We also wanted it to be an emotional story. So I had to embed all the physicality, so Felicity and I could play the emotional aspects when we needed to. So part of the process of the rehearsals was getting used to these things, so we could bring it to the set.
Q: What was it like to actually meet Stephen?
ER: I met him about five days before we began filming. Felicity and I both met him, and by that point, I had done months of reading about him. So he had an enormous presence in my mind by that point. So when I finally met him, I made a complete fool out of myself. I spent the first half-an-hour telling Stephen Hawking about Stephen Hawking. (laughs) He just smiled during that. But eventually I calmed down, and it was the most wonderful experience.
Q: James has said you were one of the first actors he met for the role. So what was that experience like?
ER: Well, you never know what happens behind the scenes. But I spoke to James on the phone when he was in Copenhagen (where he lives). During our conversation, he asked me how I would go about playing the role. It’s amazing when you’re trying to get a job, and you act very confident. You’re like, this is why I should do it. Then you actually get the job, and you worry.
When James and I spoke on the phone, he asked if I had done any physical roles. He had seen some of my dramas. I had done an indie film with Kristen Stewart a few years ago, called ‘The Yellow Handkerchief.’ So I sent him that film.
I think James and I are relatively similar people; we have passion and fear, and that fear drives us. He could see how scared I was, so he probably though I’d work had.
Q: Since you played such an icon, did the pressure help with your performance?
ER: Playing an icon made the stakes higher than anything I’ve ever experienced. Although I’d hate to admit it, that helps drive (the performance). If you know the person you’re playing is ultimately going to watch the film about their life, and make judgment on it, it gives you a year of sleepless nights.
Q: Did you watch the 2004 BBC film, ‘Hawking,’ which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen, before you began filming your movie?
ER: Benedict and I are actually old friends. We actually both played husbands of Scarlett Johansson in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl.’ (laughs) I heard his version is extraordinary. It was also directed by an old friend of mine, Philip Martin.
I thought long and hard about watching it when I was in preparation (for ‘The Theory of Everything’). But I would probably try to steal all the best bits, so I decided not to watch it, and I still haven’t seen it. But it’s only because I want to get through talking about this film before I watch their movie.
Q: Another challenge to this role was having to portray Stephen when he wasn’t able to use his voice later in life. What was that experience like?
ER: The thing about meeting Stephen was that for someone who can make very few movements, he has the most charismatic face. So the complication was that everything you’ve been taught about screenacting is that the camera sees everything, so you have to do less. In playing Stephen, I actually did more than I’ve ever done before. My face couldn’t be relaxed; I had to put it into these extraordinary positions.
When you have ALS, and your muscles stop working, and you have to use whatever muscles you can. So I spent months in front of the mirror, trying to replicate Stephen’s movements.
After I met Stephen, I tried to capture the mischief and glimmer in his eye. He has the ability to command a room, even though he says very little. So I was trying to take on all of these qualities.
Q: Did you watch the dailies while you were filming?
ER: Yes, but this was the first time I had that. I watched them because we were jumping between different physicalities in the same day. I asked James to be sent all the dailies, so I could keep track of the different stages. the make-up and costume designer did a wonderful job of making me look like Stephen. What was lovely was that after Stephen saw the film, he gave us his voice. For an actor, that’s a step closer to reality, so that was helpful.
Q: After making several other acclaimed films over the past few years, including ‘My Week with Marilyn’ and ‘Les Misérables,’ how has your career changed? What have your recent acting experiences been like?
ER: What I find interesting is that since I didn’t go to drama school, I always feel like a fraud. So I’ve always tried to learn from the people around me. One of the things I’ve been incredibly luck with since I started is that I’ve worked with incredible actors. What I find interesting is that everything affects everything.
For example, I started doing theater before I began making films. Like I mentioned earlier, the camera captures everything, which made my theater acting more refined when I returned to plays. Then when I look back on films like ‘The Yellow Handkerchief,’ which I did with Kristen and William Hurt, not many saw it. But that film helped get me this part. It gave James the confidence I could jump off a cliff with him. I try to keep learning from my mistakes. I believe in looking at what you’ve done wrong, and sort it out the next time.
Q: How do you choose your roles, since you have starred in such different films? You went from ‘Les Misérables’ to this movie, to ‘Jupiter Ascending,’ for instances.
ER: Choosing roles is an interesting thing. I wish I can say, “I chose this role.” But that’s not the way it’s ever worked for me. It’s really about working hard, and if there’s a story you’re interested in telling, you fight to tell it.
‘Les Misérables’ was something I loved as a kid. We went through about seven rounds of ‘American Idol’-style auditions to get there. Then similarly with ‘Jupiter,’ I love the Wachowskis, and I thought it was so different from anything I’ve done.
You have to fight to get the opportunity, and it’s similar with this. I’ve been so lucky that since I left university, I’ve been consistently working. I love what I do, so for me that’s enough. I wish I can say it’s a strategic, crafted choice. You do get offered things, but it’s after the the replication of the job you did before. If you ever want to shift the work you’re doing, then you have to fight for it.
Written by: Karen Benardello