Eddie Redmayne’s astonishing performance as the famed scientist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” has been earning him awards buzz ever since the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Redmayne, who began his career in theater, is most likely best known for playing the dashing young Marius in 2012’s musical “Les Miserables.” But since transforming himself into the ALS-afflicted Hawking through a grueling four month process, Redmayne’s star has been rising, and with good reason. The performance, absent of caricature, is indeed one of the best of the year, and Redmayne is, no doubt, a shoo-in for nominations.
“The Theory of Everything” hits theaters on November 7. Before the New York premiere, Redmayne sat down with Indiewire to chat about his intense process, being a science geek and how he never, ever wants to sing again.
How familiar were you with Stephen Hawking’s life and his work before you signed on to the film?
Well I had been to Cambridge. I had studied there and I had studied the history of art so it couldn’t have been further from what he was doing. But I’d seen him on the campus and I’d overheard his voice and I knew that he had done some pretty interesting work into black holes, but I was embarrassed to say that I knew next to nothing. That’s why for me the script was such a revelation. I just couldn’t believe that I didn’t know this story, and I suppose this sort of love story, behind this icon. And I find it properly riveting. So pursued it quite hard. I chased the part down.
Did you get to meet with him?
I did. But what’s sort of weird in the process is that once I had been cast I had four months of prep time in which I found as much documentary material as I could get my hands on. I met with his old students who would sort of teach me the science while also spending a lot of time at an ALS clinic in London, meeting people suffering from that disease. The specialists there showed photographs of the young Stephen to [my coach] so she could help work out what his physical decline had been specifically. And I worked with a dancer who helped find that physicality in my body. So I was doing all that work and really reading everything, all of Stephen’s work, as much as I could, having given up science when I was about fourteen.
And then I got to meet him. I wanted to meet him months earlier but he was incredibly busy promoting his film, the documentary on him [2013’s “Hawking”]. By the time I met him it was five days before we started shooting, and it was weird because we weren’t shooting chronologically. I had to work out the physical progression. I had to do it fast because you can’t wing that on that day. You’re jumping between these time periods everyday. So in some ways I had to project some sense of what the character arc would be. And I had a sort of huge fear of not only meeting Stephen, but what if these things I’ve projected are completely incorrect, and are proven wrong when I meet him? So when I did meet him I basically just ended up filling the air with noise. I just told Stephen Hawking for the first half hour about Stephen Hawking! And he could only really use his cheek muscle now to communicate, so his glasses were the sensor, and the computer with the alphabet and a cursor going across the alphabet and stops on a letter. So it takes him now substantially longer than it used to. So for the three hours I spent with him, maybe he said eight or nine sentences.
There’s a very extraordinary dynamic there, because it’s all about what he’s expressing facially, what he can do. But it’s also his timing, humor, what words he chooses to say. So the thing I took from the experience was this: a profound humor and rays of wit, and love of life, like a vibrancy of what was there. But the specific things he said were, one of the first things he said to me was, “Are you playing me before the voice machine?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “My voice was very slurred.” And that was really important, because at that point I think the production company was a bit afraid of me being incomprehensible. There’s documentary footage of Stephen before his tracheotomy and you can not understand a word of what he’s saying, only his wife and his students could understand him. And I think the production company got a bit nervous about that, but having that be one of the things he spoke I could take that back with me with James, and say, “Look guys, we need to take it.” And in the end we didn’t take it quite as extreme but by the scene, in which Felicity translates some of my words, we were trying to indicate that. So there were great things taken from it.
Now I’m a bit of a space geek…
Are you really?
Oh yeah, I love to watch “Cosmos” and “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.” How familiar were you with the science that Stephen Hawking does?
I wasn’t. I really wasn’t. I was embarrassingly uneducated in it. And it was a massive education for me. What was interesting, I tried to go back to the period documentaries, because it was one thing to learn about where we’re at now, as far as that knowledge is concerned. But I was curious about where we were at then. The amazing thing that I’ve found while investigating this was, that world of hard-core scientific academia– that these are gigantic debates happening across continents, between scientists in Russia and scientists in…I met a gentleman the other day who was an extraordinary Russian-American cosmologist. He was talking about how he once gave a lecture on behalf of Stephen, but Stephen was then arguing against one of his own points! It’s very nebulous, and science changes. Those things that have been discovered then have been proven wrong. As the film slightly shows Stephen constantly has to…
“I have to prove my own theory wrong.”
Exactly. And I found that wonderful, this sort of grappling for a truth was really extraordinary.
So tell me more about how you broke down the process of the physical transformation?
There’s basically no documentary footage that I could find before the eighties, when he’s already fully in the wheelchair. So what I did was took as many photos as I could and took them to a specialist called Dr. Katie Sidle, in London at in the Queen Square Neurology Clinic. She and the clinical nurse called Jan Clark, she would look at these photos and I would have what date the photos were at. And silly things like a wedding photo, you see in photo he’s holding Jane’s hand but his hand’s on top and you can see that his hand is pushing into hers. With ALS or motor neuron disease you have upper neurons and lower neurons. If your upper neurons go there’s a rigidity, there’s a firmness. If the lower ones go there’s like a wilting. ALS is like a mixture, by definition, of those two things. But where is upper and where is lower is entirely unique to the specific patient. So what was interesting was by showing me these photos, and by going on YouTube there’s actually a great video of Stephen doing the zero gravity thing recently, then you see him in the air and only then can you see what’s rigid and what’s [wilted]. So then trying to work out from all those photos by showing it to the specialist what went when, which muscles stopped working, and then trying to track all that through on a big page, and vocally. And even things like what glasses he was wearing, what wigs, which wheelchair he was in. I had all of that planned out in prep so when we came to play it all of that was secondary and it was just about an emotional story. That’s the root of it.
Your process sounds very scientific.
Hopefully. There’s something so beautiful in the scientists’ talk about the beauty of science. When an idea comes it has to be right because there’s a symmetry or a perfection to it. And then everyone is aspiring to prove it. I found that really beautiful. But then also that you have to make brave tangents in order to try. I wanted to do all the physical work so then I could just improvise and play within the scenario.
I imagine that even if you got that urge on set you’d have to adhere to your own physical limitations.
That’s why I had those four months. It was to prep all those physical phases and make the through line, because I didn’t want to be thinking about my left finger when I was [on set].
Was it jarring to watch yourself go through this transformation?
It’s ultimately frustrating is what it is. Because at that point I had on my iPad every bit of documentary footage. Because James [Marsh] allowed me to see the dailies every night so I could track this thing. And Jan Sewell, the makeup designer, and Steven Noble, the costume designer, had done such a beautiful job getting the period and everything just right, it was ultimately frustrating because you never got to this. You kept trying to get as close as you could to the essence of who Stephen was but you could always see the distance. I suppose it was the perfectionist sort of aspect of me. When we made the film we used a synthesized approximation of his voice for the film. And after seeing the film Stephen gave us his voice. For me, that was an extraordinary thing because it was that extra step further to getting it right.
Both your and Felicity’s performances are so amazing that you’ve earned quite a bit of awards buzz surrounding this film. Is that something you’ve been thinking about?
If I may be absolutely frank, when I got cast the stakes felt so high. I ultimately couldn’t help but think, he is going to see this film at some point. This is his life and it’s going to be on cinema screens so it’s what people are going to believe is a truth because that’s what cinema does. So the stakes felt so high to be authentic to him, to the family, to the disease, to the science, and also to make it sort of entertaining. I took it on because it was an extraordinary story, but in reality, as soon as I…It was pretty intimidating. And the fact that when he saw it, and when Jane saw it, and when the children saw it, and when Jonathan [Jones, Jane Hawking’s second husband] saw it, that they had such lovely things to say, for me it was the greatest reward. And I also think it’s a really important story, so anything that becomes buzz is all wonderful and hopefully encouraging people to see it. It’s wonderful and complimentary.
What did Stephen have to say after he saw the film?
He’s been really generous. He said some really nice things basically, which made me very, very happy.
Can you tell me about your transition from theater into film? What kind of things did you do to adjust?
Everyone always says that theater is more real like, where you have to go back to muscular things and remind yourself how to be an actor. I think that’s bullshit. I got into acting through theater. I did it at school, I loved it. And then started doing it professionally. I never thought I would have an opportunity in film. The weird thing is I did four years of theater in London before getting my first film. The first scene I ever shot was with Toni Collette in a film called “Like Minds.” We were shooting in Australia and it was a psychological thriller. I was the screwed-up kid and she was my psychologist. After an hour of filming she was like, “We should go watch the playback.” And I was like, “No no no, the director says I’m not allowed to.” She’s like “come on, come on.” I’m like “no.” She’s like, “no really, come on.” And thank God. Because my eyebrows were doing this crazy thing and my face! I was projecting! So that was an education for me, but the weird thing was going back to theater after I’d done film. In theater I’d always felt like I had to [be very presentational], then you realize you don’t. People see you. I actually find that jumping between those two refines both of them in some way. So that’s the idiosyncratic side of it. Definitely on this one, because as I was saying with the process and this four month thing, you never get that on film normally. It was something that James Marsh, the director, was so wonderful at carving out for me. I basically rehearsed it like a play. I worked with a dancer and I worked with various specialists. Some of the scenes, for example, the scene where we part ways, they were like fifteen minute takes. And then starting all over again, it felt very much like theater. Having to recreate those emotions was like that.
As a British actor, do you ever worry about being pigeonholed into period pieces?
What I find intriguing is it’s what people see. It’s the luck of the draw, of what films you’ve done, what films have made big business. I first came over here because I did a play in London called “The Goat” playing an American kid. And that’s what got me cast in “The Good Shepherd,” DeNiro’s film. From that, “Savage Grace,” and then “Yellow Handkerchief.” But some of those films are indie films with a much smaller life. But for me it’s fine because it feels very diverse from doing a period drama musical to playing a sort of psychopath cowboy. It gives me variety as far as my life and my interests are concerned in terms of challenging myself. I don’t really think about that too much.
Are you looking to sing some more?
No! [Laughs] I think that’s quite enough of that. A lot of the actors on “Les Miserables,” my pals around me, were Broadway actors and it was just familiar, I could see it. It’s a way of life they have committed years and years of training to, while I just about got away with it in “Les Miserables.” I would never for a moment believe I could do it.