Eddie Redmayne was so overcome with nerves at meeting Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist he plays onscreen in The Theory of Everything, the English actor admitted he came down a serious case of “verbal diarrhea.”
“He is intimidating,” Redmayne said with a wide grin as he sat down with the Star the afternoon following The Theory of Everthing’s premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Equal parts romantic drama and biopic, the film is based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, written by Jane Hawking, Hawking’s first wife and mother of their three children. Directed by Oscar winner (for Man on Wire) James Marsh, it opens Friday.
The film is framed by their relationship and follows their lives together from meeting at Cambridge, Hawking’s diagnosis at age 21 with what was then described as a fatal motor neurone disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), their marriage and the scientific triumphs and emotional challenges that followed.
“It’s what I loved when I read the script, I found it a complete revelation,” said Redmayne, who starred (and sang) as Marius in 2012’s Les Misérables, of the “unconventional love story” central to The Theory of Everything.
“It felt like love in every single one of its guises,” he continued. “Young love, passionate love, sexual love, family love, love of a subject matter in science but also the complications of love, the failings of love. That for me was one of the most interesting things.”
Handsome and slightly built with a generous spray of freckles, 32-year-old Redmayne laughed when asked to compare being at TIFF 2014 to his previous experience with Hick in 2011. There, he played a far less admirable character: a drug-addicted American who preys on a teen runaway (Chloë Grace Moretz).
“Last time I came (to Toronto) was with a film that didn’t have distribution, a tiny little indie film, whereas (The Theory of Everything) already came with distribution. It was entirely a different beast when I was playing a meth-addict pedophile,” he said. “And this one I was playing Sir Stephen Hawking. Definitely a difference.”
What he didn’t mention — and Redmayne comes across as the kind of person who would be loath to do so — is the other big difference. The Theory of Everything is generating serious Oscar chatter for both Redmayne and Felicity Jones’s outstanding performance as Jane.
Redmayne certainly looks like the young Hawking on film. Small physical traits, like Hawkings’ rumpled hair or that his horn-rim glasses are consistently askew, came from Jane Hawking, said Redmayne. Hawking’s wonderful sense of humour, something that comes across often onscreen, was evident to Redmayne when they met.
“The thing that I gleaned most from that first meeting was his humour. Even though he can move very little, even in his expression, it’s funny,” said Redmayne.
For inspiration, Redmayne kept three photos on the wall of his on-set trailer: Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out, the joker in a pack of cards (“there’s something about Stephen where when he’s in a room you can see him completely controlling the situation,” he explained) and James Dean.
Why the Hollywood star?
“James Dean because he’s the most player,” said Redmayne of the 1950s screen heartthrob. “He (Hawking) has an amazing connection to women and women love him and he loves them.”
It’s a remarkable performance. For much of the film Redmayne is slumped in a wheelchair, his speech deteriorating until he loses the ability completely after a tracheotomy to treat pneumonia. In fact, the computer-generated voice used onscreen is Hawkings’ own copyrighted vocalization. He gave his permission to use it after seeing an early screening of the film, said Marsh.
“I knew that the key was in the preparation really, so I spent several months,” Redmayne explained of how he was able to handle the physical demands of the role. “I worked with a dancer and we investigated the motor neuron disease together and how it manifested itself in Stephen.”
An osteopath created “a map” of Redmayne’s body to compare what was happening during filming as he held his frame in increasingly more torqued postures. He also had regular treatments to keep his body in alignment.
“He’s a teacher of osteopathy and he found it riveting how the body was changing,” said Redmayne, adding the makeup designer discovered it also affected his face. Because Hawking spoke primarily from one side and “these muscles change, I got more lines on this side of my face,” he explained.
“I think Eddie is like many British men: not good at emoting or as a moaner,” said director Marsh, observing Redmayne never complained. “But it did have a toll, no question; you could see it when we were filming. There was a release any time we would shoot long takes with him. There was a release of ‘ugh,’ we’d say ‘cut,’ you’d just see it all kind of leak out of him … I feel terribly guilty.”
But Redmayne, who is working to raise awareness about various illnesses with the Motor Neurone Disease Association in London, was quick to point out: “Whatever discomfort you were in you got to step up out of the chair at the end of the day and a lot of people I met don’t have that.”