Interview: Eddie Redmayne Channels Stephen Hawking for The Theory of Everything


There are many avenues for British actors to take once they complete their drama school training and Eddie Redmayne has run the gamut from theater to taking smaller roles in films such as Robert De Niro’s 2006 spy thriller The Good Shepherd, playing Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie’s son. In the years since then, Redmayne has been a mainstay of British cinema, finally getting attention with larger roles in Oscar fare like My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables.

With his latest movie, The Theory of Everything, Redmayne is going to get even more attention, as he plays Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most well-known physicists and cosmologists as well as author of the best-selling “A Brief History of Time.” While the film touches upon some of Hawking’s acclaimed theories, it’s more about his meeting Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) while at Cambridge and how their romance blossomed even as his physical condition deteriorated due to his motor neuron disease (ALS).

Redmayne goes through the type of transformation to become Hawking that’s one of those rare portrayals of a known person that’s as much about capturing the spirit of said person as it is about their physicality, and there’s little question that Redmayne’s name will be on many more lips once they see the movie and his performance. spoke with Redmayne about portraying Hawking at the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Theory of Everything had its premiere. (Unfortunately our time got cut short? in case you’re wondering why this interview seems to end rather abruptly.) In “My Week with Marilyn,” you were playing a real person, but it was not someone who we’d be very familiar with. In this case, Stephen Hawking is very much in the public eye and he’s still alive, so what kind of pressures does that add in playing the role?
Eddie Redmayne:
Well, I’m not going to lie, the stakes felt pretty high. For me, obviously, Stephen’s an icon. What he has done scientifically is pretty extraordinary. So, I wanted to depict the science truthfully. Also, I was privileged enough throughout the prep process to meet many people suffering from this hideous disease, ALS, and speaking to nurses and doctors there. You felt like you needed to depict this disease authentically, because these people have let me into their lives. But also, Jane and Jonathan and the Hawking children and Stephen had embraced us so generously, that the stakes felt incredibly high. But what is amazing is James Marsh is a wonder, as is Felicity, and he sort of took our hands and we sort of leapt off this cliff together. He allowed us to be brave enough to make mistakes basically, and yeah, it was driven by fear a lot of it.

CS: Obviously, there are other movies about Hawking, both documentaries and dramas.
Yeah, absolutely.

CS: What people might not realize going into this (at least not until they read this interview) is that it’s actually from Jane’s perspective. It was based on her book and it looked more at the relationship and their marriage, aspects of Hawking’s life we don’t know as much about. Because his theories are things we generally could have read about.
Completely, completely. That was the revelation for me. I was lucky enough to go to university at Cambridge and I studied history of art? which I had to admit to him when I met him. I’d seen Stephen and the iconic silhouette of the wheelchair, and even overheard his voice. I knew kind of it was – went into black hole theory and science at the age of 12. What was a revelation for me is when I read this script and realized that there was this whole other world of obstacles thrown at him and an amazing kind of unconventional love story at the focus of it. Also, the humor. This man, when you meet him, is one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. That was so wonderful, because every part of the story that I was reading was so unexpected to me, I suppose.

CS: You already answered one of my questions, because I was curious whether you’d met him or if you wanted to meet him beforehand. I’d think that would make it even more intimidating to play him.
Yeah, yeah, well, it’s interesting, I did. I wanted to meet him. Unfortunately, I could only meet him five days before we started filming. That was complicated, because I’d spent six or seven months researching and doing a lot of prep work on motor neuron disease. Because we weren’t shooting chronologically, we had to jump between all the different years within a day. So I had to do a lot of sort of technical work to make sure that? I didn’t want the disease to be the thing. As I was saying before, it’s a story about people. But what was difficult was after having watched all the documentaries and read all the books and all this sort of stuff, I then got to meet him. I was a bit worried about meeting him, because I thought, “What if the person I meet ends up being very different to what I’ve now projected?” What was amazing was that the thing that I took? I mean, he gave me many insightful things in that first meeting, but he emanates humor and wit and an optimism. He is someone that lives forward. The disease couldn’t be less important. That, for me, was amazing, because it meant that every single scene in this film, even when he’s having to overcome insane things – finding the wit and the glints, he has kind of a flirtatious quality. I had three images in my trailer. One was of Albert Einstein with his tongue out. The other was of the joker and a pack of cards with a puppet, you know? There’s something about Stephen. When he’s in a room, the room is around him. Then, the third one was James Dean, because there is something sort of incredibly cool and like a ladies man about him that if you see photos from that early period–he and Jane–they’re just effortlessly cool. Even with those glasses, he’s a really cool guy.

CS: One of the curses and blessings both you and Felicity have is that you look much younger than you actually are which allows you to play your characters both older and younger and you can shift between ages. Did that make it easier to do a movie like this, where you had to play him five or 10 years apart within the same day?
Yeah, it’s weird because I think you always feel like you’re 18, even if you’re a 32 year old. Also, because I went to university there, the young side of it, I feel younger than I felt when I was there. That side of it felt interesting. I suppose the more challenging side was the older bit, the sort of wizened parenting side of things was more complicated, because it was such a unique experience. That was about talking to Tim Hawking, the youngest son, and Jane, obviously, and Lucy Hawking. The thing that freed me up so much was Tim telling me that he would get in the electric wheelchair and use it as a cart or he’d put swear words into his Dad’s voice machine and press play. We had to go back to James and say, “The kids need to jump up on me. It needs to be a toy for them and all of that sort of thing.” So it really allowed us to have permission to play it truthfully, rather than being all respectful to something.

CS: That’s amazing to have all that access. Obviously, you’ve played real people before and you will again, but to be able to have the access to talk to the real people must be amazing.
Totally. Our first day of filming, Jane, who’s such a wonderful human being, we were in Cambridge and I was doing one of my first scenes. She came running up. She’s like, “No, no, no.” She started messing up my head. “His hair would be much messier.” Jane Hawking literally styled (my) Stephen Hawking’s hair. That was an amazing moment. It was wonderful to feel that it was going to hopefully be that real.

CS: The crew must’ve loved that, her running on the set and messing with things.
No, they loved it. Everyone was very embracing of it.

CS: I want to talk about the physicality, which I’m sure you’re going to be asked about a lot, but were there prosthetics involved? Was it just figuring out exactly how to position your body?
No, the lecture at the end, there was prosthetic stuff there, but before that, no. Because there’s no footage of Stephen before he was in the wheelchair. There are photographs, but no footage. I basically went to a motor neuron disease clinic in London. Met a specialist called Dr. Katie Sidle, and I spent four months going to the clinic every week and meeting people with the disease and their families and talking to them. They were incredibly generous with their time, going to some of their homes. Felicity went to some of the carers. But, I took these photos to Katie Sidle. Basically with motor neuron disease or ALS, you have upper neurons and lower neurons. If your upper neurons go, there’s a spasticity, some kind of rigid quality. If the lower ones go, then there’s a wilting. Now, ALS is a mixture of those two things, but how it manifests itself in all the different parts of your body is completely unique to each person. I’d basically take these photos, and it was like solving a puzzle. The specialist, she would go, “Okay, so from that photo, the way he’s holding her hand means this is wilting, so that probably would’ve gone first, maybe the foot would’ve gone second.” It meant that I would then chart through what the decline would’ve been. Then I worked with a choreographer, a dancer, who actually worked on “World War Z” with all the zombies. She helped find that in my body, because we had to do all of that work, so that when it came to filming, we weren’t shooting chronologically. We were jumping around. For me, I wanted all that physicality to be embedded in me, so when it actually came to playing opposite Felicity and Charlie, I didn’t even have to think about it. It was much more about the emotional story, because that’s the core in the film.

CS: I spoke to John Hawkes for “The Sessions” and he really put himself through a lot of pain to play that character. Did you have to do that?
Yeah, well, I had osteopath every day, but at the same point, every day I got to get out of the wheelchair and a lot of the people that I was privileged enough to meet don’t have that opportunity. So I was constantly aware of how lucky you are really.

The Theory of Everything opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 7, with expansions over the next few months. Look for interviews with Redmayne’s co-star Felicity Jones and director James Marsh shortly.