“Why was I ravenous for this role?”, ponders Eddie Redmayne as he speaks of his take on Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the most recognisable men on earth. The film in question is ‘The Theory of Everything’, which looks at the early life of the physicist and best-selling author.
“It was down to that man [points to director James Marsh, who has just done his round of interviews]. Was ravenous because I saw ‘Man on Wire’, which is a breathtaking film. On the surface it’s about this genius who wants to tightrope walk across the Twin Towers, but by the end, his friend is asked about what happened when Philipe Petit came down and started having fun. He’s asked if that is a betrayal and he says “Yeah, but we always knew that was going to happen” and then he breaks down. It felt like the film was about friendship and the betrayal of friendship. When I read this script I thought this film was going to be about Stephen’s life, but in fact it was this incredibly delicate and intricate love story. Quite complicated, and about two extraordinary people. That was tantalising.”
The film focuses on the relationship between Stephen and his first wife Jane Wilde. They meet at university, before fame or motor neuron disease (MND) strike, and it’s an unconventional take on the Biopic formula, based on Wilde’s autobiography.
“It’s difficult to tell from the script to see how that would work. But I liked Anthony’s [screenwriter Anthony McCarten] take on it. Also Jane’s story, I think she is a pretty formidable, groundbreaking woman.”
How daunting was it to play such an iconic character, and what were the physical challenges?
“I did chase the role, but that’s what we do as actors. We audition, you never think you are going to get them but you persuade people that this is how you would go about. Then there is the sudden sucker-punch of doing the thing. On this one there were many things. If you’re playing someone who is living and an icon, you know that he is going to see the film and review it. I also spoke to a number of people who suffer from motor neuron disease, and they gave up their time. So I felt the responsibility of that. Then, of course, there is the science element of it. We want to make an entertaining film at the end of all that.”
Professor Hawking has now seen the film. We hear he is impressed by Redmayne’s portrayal but what was the crucial part of getting the role just right?
“It was meeting him. That happened quite late in the process. It was the personality that you take away, an extraordinary force of personality. An incisive wit, humour and mischief. He has a glint in his eye and that was worth its weight in gold. You can study all the books, but that’s not what the film is about. Meeting his son, Tim, was also really important. Having met other sufferers, he said “yeah, but we did get in dad’s wheelchair and use it as a go-kart. We did put in swearwords into his voice box and play them!” People finding humour in extreme circumstances.”
“I also went for a meeting at ‘Le Pain Quotidien’ and had space time and singularity theory explained to me. I had to say “woah, back up there…” I needed to get a grounding on the basics first. You have to have that to understand that to see how brilliant Stephen really is.”
Having seen some of the obstacles that Stephen (and other sufferers) have faced, did it give you a different perspective on your life and any challenges you might face?
“Definitely. One of the things Stephen says is that when he was first diagnosed [in 1963], he was given two years to live. Every day since then he sees as a gift. One of the other people with motor neuron said that your notion of time changes. Every minute becomes an hour. Every hour becomes a day. Every day becomes a year. I feel like Stephen is someone who has lived every minute fully and passionately. I’m someone who get caught up in the anxieties of now and this gives you an extraordinary perspective.”
“It’s the big question mark. How has he managed to defy all expectations? I wouldn’t want to make any guesses. No one knows. It could be the strain Stephen has. He also has a team of 12 people to help, but he has also always found the positive. When told he couldn’t speak any more he said it meant he didn’t have to give lectures any more and could concentrate on his own work..”
“It’s been asked before, and the answer is no. Motor Neuron is very specific to what it is. I mean Daniel-Day Lewis is fantastic, but a very different character as well. I’ve seen it many times, but you don’t go looking for inspiration otherwise you end up doing something more general that has nothing to do with MND.”
Already garnering significant Oscar-buzz, and having just nabbed a Golden Globe nomination, Redmayne continues to take daring roles. As well as the villain in Blockbuster Jupiter Ascending, he will soon begin work on The Danish Girl, where he portrays a transsexual. So is he fearless?
“Gosh no! Fear-fulled, perhaps. I find fear can be useful. It might not feel like it at the time, but it can galvanise you. It’s also just about the stories. The Danish Girl is another true story about two artists who paint in the 20’s. It’s an incredibly passionate love story. It just struck me.”
And was there any fear in awaiting Stephen Hawkings verdict on his performance, and on the film itself.?
“I saw him just before he went in to see it. I wasn’t going to see him afterwards, so I told him to tell me what he thought. It was a while before he responded…. and then he replied in his iconic voice “I will let you know what I think… good or otherwise.” Thankfully he said he was moved by it! I haven’t actually seen him since then, but I will at the premiere.”
“I’m not sure everyone knows this, but when we were making the film we used a synthesised approximation of his voice as he owns the copyright. After seeing the film he kindly offered us his voice, so the one you hear in the film is actually his. That, for me, after seeing the dailies and spending ages getting the look right with the costume and make-up teams, that edged it closer.”
Was it freeing to leave the traditional vanity of a leading man behind? You are playing a man who’s mind is valued above everything else.
“What I love about Stephen is his look and appearance. When he was a younger man, I pictured James Dean because there was something so cool without trying about him. He had the sexy quality of being incredibly confident in his own skin. I quite enjoyed being able to play that confidence. I’ve done a few roles where you’re meant to be playing this handsome person, and you can see the studio execs whispers “tell him to sort his hat out!” That can be quite stifling. I loved the freedom, of playing him when he was younger.”
And what was the portrayal of young Stephen based on? He has become an icon for the way he is n later years, but there isn’t much to base the twenty-something Stephen on.
“We had Jane’s documents. In her book she describes his “awkward gait”. Then it was about photographs. There is a beautiful one at the rowing club where Stephen is like this [puts one arm aloft], and Jane describes him as looking like Lord Nelson. So there was a moment when me and Felicity [Jones, playing Jane] are going around on a carousel, and I tried to recreate there. I just wanted to find that exuberance.
One of the problems with MND is that no one knows when it starts. It’s not usually diagnosed straight away, so I played it as Stephen having MND right from the start of the film.
There were lots of movements that I found. It’s almost certainly not “right” of course, ultimately its my interpretation of it. When we had all the documentary material from the 80’s,you could replicate certain things.
I worked with a dancer for three or four months to prepare. That was partly about finding the decline in the body. We would film it and scrutinise it. It was also about training the muscles to sustain holding these positions for long periods, for take after take. I chose dancing because we weren’t shooting chronologically, I would have to jump between different time periods everyday. All I knew is that I didn’t want the physicality to be “the thing” about the film. When I read the story it was about love, so when you learn a dance at first you watch everything. Then, when it s in you, you can be more expressive. So I thought if I can learn the physical side as a dance, then I can improvise. They were so embedded by the time we started shooting, then I could play within those confines. That’s what James also brought, he comes from a documentary background. And he would just throw the camera on us and I could be free to play it.”