Working Title producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner are Oscar perennials (“Les Mis,” “Atonement,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” “Anna Karenina”). And they and their distributor, Universal’s Focus Features, know they have a robust awards
contender in “The Theory of Everything
,” the moving $18-million love story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, played by Eddie Redmayne
and Felicity Jones
. Both are in the Oscar race, along with the film’s director James Marsh
(Oscar-winning doc “Man on Wire,” “Shadow Dancer”) and New Zealand-born screenwriter and Hawking obsessive Anthony McCarten, who nurtured for many years his adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking.”
I interviewed Redmayne and Jones in Toronto right after their movie’s rousing debut (video below). Focus chose to skip Venice, Telluride, New York and London fests in favor of the TIFF launch and a week-long splash in Los Angeles in advance of a London premiere. The duo were still all grins when they met a standing ovation this week at our Sneak Previews screening. See the Q & A and video below.
The movie takes a domestic angle on the compelling story of how famed astrophysicist Hawking overcame the many obstacles in his life. (See Errol Morris’s “A Brief History of Time” and the 2004 BBC movie
“Hawking” starring Benedict Cumberbatch.) Mainly Hawking’s wife Jane made it possible for him to pursue the science he loved, as the family adapted and persevered with the help of others. The iconic wheelchair-bound Hawking, now 72, was able to redefine the theory of relativity, black holes, and the physics of the universe. He wrote the crossover bestseller “A Brief History of Time” and has earned many awards and plaudits for his work. The movie shows us his life through the prism of their relationship.
Redmayne’s performance has earned raves. Hawking is a complex character, a brilliant, witty and vulnerable mathematician who’s always the smartest person in the room–his joy and humor inspires others to admire and support him. Redmayne, 32, is a respected character actor (“Les Mis”) who twisted his face and body and thoroughly researched Hawking and the motor-neuron disease ALS, which atrophies his muscles until he is wheelchair-bound and can hardly talk. He winds up using a motorized chair equipped with a computer and voicebox. Redmayne prepped for four months before shooting with a dance choreographer, with on-set support from an osteopath, contorting his face in a mirror to mimic Hawking’s expressions. He’s ready to earn his first Oscar nomination. (See Daniel Day Lewis in “My Left Foot.”)
Jones (“Like Crazy,” “The Invisible Woman”) as Hawking’s wife Jane is also getting high praise. Jane Hawking was an equally heroic and brainy Modern Language professor; she married the scientist even after his ALS diagnosis. Their romance produces three children, as his sexual functioning is not governed by the part of his brain that ALS has damaged. She supports his work, but struggles heroically to take care of him and run the household, while seeking help from her choirmaster, a lonely widower (Charlie Cox of “Boardwalk Empire”) who becomes a beloved member of the family. She acts as a communicator and enabler so that Hawking can interact with the outside world. She literally saves his life–and stayed with him for 25 years. Jones is ready to earn her first Oscar nomination.
Redmayne and Jones are clearly enjoying their most successful outing to date as they ride the road to Oscar. “You’re in LA at the premiere of the film with lightbulbs flashing everywhere,” says Redmayne. “It never gets less intimidating. And you remember those hours of angst in a tiny studio in the suburb of London, so far removed. It’s a lovely feeling.”
Q & A highlights:
What caused fear and anxiety:
Playing real people. That’s where it starts, it comes with such responsibility, Jane and Stephen are such complex nice interesting people that we want to do them justice. That was a tiny bit of extra pressure.
Eddie Redmayne: When we both got these parts it was a combination of great trepidation and fear that we knew they would see the film. We find their stories so passionate and extraordinary.
Jones: It hit us both reading the script that this wasn’t a cliched biopic with a traditional happy ending. There’s a divorce, the couple are happy, but they’re with different people. It wasn’t trying to be easy for the audience.
I spent months researching, watching documentary material, reading as much as I could.
Jones: We had lots of rehearsal time, four or five months before we started shooting to immerse ourselves in the lives of these characters and understand them intimately. We had that rehearsal space to make fools of ourselves in front of each other before facing the camera and crew on set.
During the prep period we went to an ALS clinic, met a specialist there who introduced us to 30 to 50 people suffering from this brutal disease and their families, we were invited to their homes to see the physical and emotional ramifications. We were trying to work out what Stephen’s specific decline was. There was no documentary footage before the 80s. In their wedding photo, you can see his hand pushing down, she was entirely physically supporting him. So we know the hand had gone by that year.
We tracked the specifics. I decided to work with a dancer to train up those muscles. If you jump into those physicalities, the body will react, so we trained the muscles for four months to understand that. For the physical stuff on the body working with the dancer very helpful. The facial things, I had documentaries on my iPad and I’d sit in front of a mirror and make sure no one else was around. It’s extraordinary that when Stephen was at his most still and could move the least, he was using face muscles he had never used before. As muscles became rigid he’d find a wealth of other ways to express his personality. He had expressive eyebrows, that helped him as the disease progressed. I spent a lot of time contorting myself in front of a mirror.
We were building trust, so that in those intimate moments in the film, we got to know each other and felt comfortable. It was intimidating showing that kind of intimacy.
Redmayne. We both broke out at same time, via Michael Brandige who ran the Donmar Warehouse, we had seen each other’s work. James grabbed our hands and we lept off our cliff.
Meeting the Hawkings:
They were so generous to us in the process, to have the actual Jane Hawking styling your hair! Stephen’s medal was his. I gained the most when I met Stephen a few days before we started filming. It was weird and slightly intimidating as I’d spent months doing all the work, and had to chart what the arc of the performance would be, having watched the documentary material and met the students. I was in fear, “what if I meet him and realize I have it totally wrong?”
When I went to meet him I had an hour by myself with him before Felicity came in. I was so nervous. I hate silence, it now takes Stephen a long time to talk, so I spewed forth information about Hawking to Hawking. It was minorly disastrous. He was looking at me: “Really?” I calmed down, he was funny and generous and had a razor wit. He had this mischief, this lord of misrule quality, and then Felicity came in and I was invisible. He’s a great flirt.
Jones: Somebody asked Stephen: “What’s the greatest mystery in the world?” Pause. “Women.”
The children are wonderful. Tim said, “We’d get in Dad’s wheelchair and use it as a go cart, and put swear words into his voice machine.” We went to James and said “We need those scenes.” They don’t judge. They were still finding joy in the family.
Jones: The eldest Robert became a physicist. Tim the youngest works for LEGO. Lucy is a writer who writes children’s books on science. When Stephen watched the film, he typed the words “broadly true.” The whole family is coming to the London premiere.
On how the Hawkings adapted and kept going:
Jones: It’s fascinating all the way through, how they are constantly adapting, the conditions would change. The weight on these people’s shoulders! It was a huge responsibility.
Stephen loses his speech, he becomes less audible and people have to lip read. Jane and he are responding to that. After his tracheotomy he has no speech and they are communicating through a machine. It’s a testament to them that they are always finding new ways to keep the relationship going, despite the hurdles. He needed 24-hour care after the tracheotomy at great cost, financial and physical. You have people living in the home with you all the time. Jane made the decision, he didn’t know until later that she was the one who said, “don’t turn off life support.” She saved his life.
Redmayne: Stephen’s disease has been around for a long time, they’re barely getting close to finding a cure or a reason. No one knows when it starts. Only when you go to the ER when you fall, an astute doctor may realize, ‘there’s something wrong with the muscles here.’ No one knows what specific strain of ALS he had. I can’t help but think it was his mind and passion and the extraordinary relationship they had. He had a melancholia after the diagnosis, but when he got engaged, he had to buck up and had to earn money. She did power him out of that and give him a reason to live.
In many ways the disease enabled him to get on with his work, gave him this freedom to explore his mind in interesting ways, he found the good in the disability.
Redmayne: He has humor, wit and optimism. The disease is the least important thing in his life. He has managed to overcome obstacles and limitations placed in his life. He always looks forward. The disease is secondary to him. A team of 12 people are working with him. Hearing their stories, he still lives spontaneously, he’ll decide he wants to go to the theater, which is a big hullabaloo, but he won’t let anything stand in his way.
Jones: He said recently that the thing we must all have is curiosity. That’s what he has always had. He’s never complacent, he’s looking for new meaning and new answers. The searching keeps him going.
He just joined Facebook. The last word he said: “Be curious.” Stephen copyrighted his iconic voice; during filming we used an approximate synthesized version. He gave us his voice.
Jane Hawking as hero:
Jones: They both are in their own way. We’re both so passionate about telling the story of our characters. Women of 50s and 60s, their main goal in life is to be a good wife and mother. Jane struggled to have a career in her own right which was not necessarily expected of her. Women weren’t respected as an academic’s wife in that period. She had to get through her desire to be taken seriously in her own right. Jane and Stephen both had academic careers and intellectual curiosity, it was hard for Jane seeing how much Stephen was loved by the world for his mind. There was that tension in the relationship, a competition between them, that we tapped into. That’s one reason their relationship broke down.
Redmayne: One of the things Charlie Cox, Felicity and I under James’ direction tried to do was not judge the people. Because of the extremities they were put under, one of the things that Stephen didn’t do was to thank Jane very often. But if you are that entirely dependent on someone, the guilt you must feel, I feel like he almost made an active choice: “I can’t spend rest of my life feeling that guilty.” I tried to find a psychological way through that that involved not judging.
Shooting on set:
Jones: Within the same day we’d jump from plain Jane and Stephen in their late 30s and 40s with children in the morning to in the afternoon being 18 when they first met. It took us time to get used to that jumping around. We had to know those characters completely inside out before we got to set and started shooting on the first day. Jane was an extension of Stephen’s body, we had to get that down so that when it came to shooting we could jump in and out of sequence.
There was a complicated chart on which muscles were going when and how.
When James would call cut, you’d hear an exhalation from Eddie. I didn’t realize how much energy it took to stay in these contorted positions.
Redmayne: Some muscles become spastic and rigid. The less he’s moving, the more energy it took, as you’re concentrating on blinking speed, the cost of lifting something, the breathing. When the camera comes that close, anything is a giveaway of health. As he could use less muscles, he’d focus on specific muscles. Jane said he had very expressive eyebrows and face, a huge smile.
He could still show a lot of emotion. She could read him. In the documentary footage, they’re having whole conversations without using any words. In the garden, his head comes down, and she’s placing it back. It’s so tender, yet purely functional. Doing it all the time, it becomes automatic, almost choreography.
Redmayne: There was a certain amount of pain in more extreme moments. I had a brilliant osteopath I worked with for months leading up to shooting who mapped my body. I made a weird case study for him. There were occasional moments of an emergency acupuncture in the middle of the day.
The strain that the story created for both of us was severe: “I can’t move, I can’t do that, no.” Felicity had to find ways around it, to use my body, it’s like they became one body.
Jones: The chair was changing. How do we get this chair from the bottom up these steps, and keep everything on camera? That’s what made it a challenge, which is not usually the case in films. This had a huge technical side to it. We did lots of takes. That’s the beauty of digital, it’s inexpensive to shoot. You can go for a long period, go back, try something else. James was responsive to us, we’d come in to rehearse the scene before they set up the shot, so we were responding to performance, we reworked things, had flexibility.
Redmayne: James respects everyone’s opinions. It feels like everyone is working in concert with each other. He take ideas from everyone, allows us freedom to mess up and to not be judged for it.
Shooting studio films like “Jupiter Ascending” and “Spider-Man 2”:
It’s fun to do movies where you’re not crying every day.
Redmayne: In January, Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” based on the true story of two artists in the 20s in Copenhagen, Einer Wegener and his wife Gerta. He was one of first men to transition. It’s a complicated love story about identity. In some ways, as Stephen showed, you only have one time on this planet. It’s how you choose to live it, and the bravery of being true to yourself.