Leading Man | Eddie Redmayne
On the door of his trailer, during the filming The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne placed three pictures to help him take on the role of British physicist Stephen Hawking, who’s been confined to a wheelchair for most of his life.
The first, that famous image of Einstein with his tongue sticking out; the second, a Joker from a pack of cards, to remind him of the physicist’s witty sense of humour; and the third, James Dean. ‘You see pictures of younger Stephen Hawking on the punts in Cambridge, and he’s just effortlessly cool. He doesn’t try,’ says Redmayne. ‘He also has the innate confidence of someone who is brilliant and that is, when you meet him, very cool.’
Having become used to seeing images of Hawking in that wheelchair with its small computer and trademark voice – albeit an American-accented one – talking about scientific explorations, it’s easy to forget the other sides to hi, particularly his love life. The film, based on the memoirs of Hawking’s first wife Jane, played with superb skill by Felicity Jones, details their 25 year relationship. Redmayne brings a charm and a sexiness to Hawking that most won’t have seen past his physical disabilities and the theories he’s shared that have shaped what we know about the universe today.
The 32-year-old London actor, who was part of 2012’a all-star Les Miserables film, has been gaining much acclaim for humanising Hawking and the disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which got a lot of attention with the recent ice-bucket challenge. ‘I fought very hard for it,’ says the theatre-trained actor, about scoring the role, on a warm Autumn day in New York, where his green eyes appear visibly relieved with the response so far.
‘I read the script and I thought I was reading a biopic of Hawking. It subverted all my expectations as it was this extraordinary love story; almost an analysis of love – young love, passionate love, love of a subject matter, the boundaries of love, the failings of love. As actors, if our dream is to tell great stories, then this felt like a really interesting one to tell,’ he says.
Redmayne took four months to prepare for the part, not just researching and reading anything he could get on Hawking, but also learning how to use muscles in his face that he’d never used before, in order to illustrate how Hawking learnt to communicate.
When he met Hawking a few days before they began filming, Redmayne says he was ‘pretty terrified’ and couldn’t stop talking. ‘I spent the first half hour telling Stephen Hawking all about Stephen Hawking, and he had this smile on his face and a look that said, “Really? I do know about myself you know.”‘
While Hawking wasn’t able to say much during their first encounter – Redmayne says it takes him longer than in the film to speak – he still communicated a lot. ‘He uses one eye muscle,’ says Redmayne. ‘In two to three hours, he said maybe about eight sentences but still gained so much from him. He has a charismatic face, and still emanates humour, mischief, and great wit. He has a great power, and really controls a room.’ Hence the picture in the trailer door of the Joker, which is also has a puppet next to it.
For all the praise and award attention the film has attracted, Redmayne says he’s just happy to have received both Hawking and Jane’s nod of approval. ‘Any nice thing being said about it that gets people to go and see it, and learn more, is great,’ he says. And he did the ice-bucket challenge too.