“You’re Marilyn!” – an interview with Eddie Redmayne

the-theory-of-everything-eddie-redmayne-2-600x399By Tony Sheppard – SacPress film columnist and guest contributor to The E Street Film Society

British actor Eddie Redmayne has been seen in such films as The Other Boleyn Girl, My Week with Marilyn, and Les Misérables, and has appeared in several television mini-series, including Birdsong and The Pillars of the Earth. His latest film is The Theory of Everything, in which he plays the role of famed physicist Stephen Hawking, and it is likely to be a source of awards and nominations. Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease at the age of 21, and was initially given just two years to live. He defied that prediction, and fifty years later he is one of the world’s most renowned scientists, still living his life physically confined to a wheelchair, and communicating through a computer and voice synthesizer. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Redmayne at San Francisco’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, where we discussed the difficulties associated with the physicality of the role, and the preparation needed to understand and depict this particular condition.

Eddie Redmayne: I spent four months going to a motor neuron clinic in London, a neurology clinic. At the end of [the doctor’s] session she would say, ‘There’s an actor here playing Stephen Hawking, would you be interested in meeting him?’ More often than not they’d be incredibly generous, and often they’d be with their families and you would get a sense of their lives and the emotional complications of the disease, as well as the physical. The extraordinary thing was seeing how different it is in different people.

Based on his own learning, Redmayne explained that the disease affects different neurons in the body in different areas and different ways, such that certain body parts might become limp while others become rigid or spastic.

x170ER: Because there’s only documentary material of Stephen from the early 80’s, when he’s wheelchair bound, what I did was I found as much photography as I could….There’s a great YouTube video of Stephen in zero gravity, and so you see him for the first time out of the chair but moving in the air, and you can see there what is rigid and what is soft. Through these photos, with the help of the doctor, we charted what the decline was, took that back to the writer who wrote that specific decline into the film, and then I worked with the choreographer…and she helped find that physicality in my body.

What’s noteworthy here is Redmayne’s immersion in researching the part, not just for his own sake but as part of ensuring the authenticity of the film. The charts that were produced cataloged Hawking’s physical decline, which allowed Redmayne to cross-reference Hawking’s physical state with any given point in the story. This was important because, as with most film productions, scenes were not shot in sequence.

ER: I wish we had shot in order! I basically tried to do all the work early so that it was so embedded when we arrived on set, but I ended up charting all the vocal and physical things….[I]n our first day of filming, I started in a scene where I was healthy, and at lunchtime I was on two sticks, and in the afternoon in the third [wheel]chair. So I had to be able to find a way of jumping in quickly.

He went on to describe other unique aspects of the role.

ER: I’ve never played somebody who is living and who has such iconic status. Often when you play somebody who has lived you have bit of free reign. In My Week with Marilyn, I was playing Colin Clark – but it was his essence that you felt you had to capture rather than his exact appearance. To Felicity Jones’ credit in this, Jane [Hawking] is less well known than Stephen obviously, but she was entirely authentic to Jane’s voices, to her physicality – she was equally as strict with her depiction. It’s rare that you’re playing somebody who’s going to watch the film eventually.

the.theory.of_.everything.weddingMany viewers will walk into The Theory of Everything thinking they are going to watch Stephen Hawking’s personal story. But the film is actually based on Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, written by Jane Hawking, his first wife. This is very much Jane’s story, and more of a traditional love story than a treatise on astrophysics and time. I asked him about this dynamic, and about the differences between this new film and My Week with Marilyn.

Tony Sheppard: In My Week with Marilyn, you played the smaller part of the character in orbit around the bright star – and Michelle Williams has to carry that movie in the sense that she has to be convincing as Marilyn Monroe while your character’s story is being told. In The Theory of Everything, you’re Marilyn – you’re the bright star.

ER: Can that be the headline? ‘You’re Marilyn!’

TS: So what is it like to go into a project like this with a lead character and lead performance when it’s not that character’s story? Does that affect what you do?

ER: You know what, that’s a really interesting question. But I probably never would approach with that amount of scrutiny of status, in the same way that in My Week with Marilyn, you never judge your characters that way – you just play the through line of who you’re playing.

TS: But, for example, we’re never getting Stephen’s view of his physics. We’re never getting that level of explanation; we’re getting a level of explanation that Jane understands.

ER: Absolutely. Totally. But I suppose that was the script that I read. It was also helpful to me as that was the level of understanding that I could muster.

Stephen and Jane had met at Cambridge, prior to his diagnosis, where Jane had been an arts student, in contrast to Stephen’s scientific studies. Redmayne himself studied History of Art, also at Cambridge.

TS: Ironically, you’re closer to Jane in terms of your education.

ER: Absolutely. And that was something that I said to Stephen: ‘I’m sorry that I’m playing you, as an art historian.’ I read as much as I could and understood as much as I could of Stephen’s work. But I’ll be totally honest – there was a pretty low ceiling for what I could understand.

maxresdefaultEven as he said this, it was clear that he was diminishing his own accomplishments – this is one bright guy, for all of his self-deprecation. He went on to describe how difficult it had been to play Colin Clark in My Week with Marilyn, precisely because they had so many personal similarities.

ER: I found My Week With Marilyn really hard because I found it weird playing somebody who went to the school I went to, who went to the university I went to – someone so close to yourself and I found that really tricky. But of course you had to be slightly silent as to how complicated you found it. But I also found it difficult because the character was a cipher. The way it was written was absolutely as you say, he was in the orbit of these extraordinary stars, but you’re not allowed to get in the way of the audience’s view. You’ve got to be interesting enough not to piss an audience off and I found that really complicated. But what’s interesting is Stephen Hawking is obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, and he always says that if he could time travel he would go back to see Marilyn.

GetAttachment.aspxI asked him what he thought about the nature of Hawking’s disability, and how he might have made less of an impact if he had a minor cognitive disability rather than an extreme physical one. I wondered if they had spoken about it.

ER: That’s a really good point and I’ve not had the conversation with him, but I’ve read and listened to him talk about that. And the amazing thing about Stephen is that he finds the positive. So he says, ‘You know what, I had this debilitating disease but it meant that I couldn’t speak so much, so it meant that it was more of an effort to speak, so it meant that I didn’t have to teach so much, which meant that I had more time to think and to work and do my own work.’ Stephen is the one to listen to on this – he will find the positive but very rationally as well. And I get it – a lot of the professors at Cambridge have spent so much time teaching stupid undergraduates like me!

And there was that self-deprecation again. However much he tries to downplay his abilities, Eddie Redmayne is obviously a smart and charming guy, as well as a talented actor, and that talent shines through in the wonderful The Theory of Everything.

Read Tony’s review of The Theory of Everything on SacPress HERE.

Filmmaker Interview – Tobias Tobbell

4590664371_259x328Although he has just recently directed his first feature film, British filmmaker Tobias Tobbell is a veteran of theater and video.  His London-based production company, Two Bells Productions, has created hundreds of videos and commercials, and Tobbell himself produced the independent feature The Drummond Will (2010).

His debut effort as a feature director, Confine, concerns an agoraphobic former model, Pippa, who is taken hostage in her apartment by a volatile thief, Kayleigh, after a botched robbery.  The film takes place in real time, almost all of it featuring only three characters.  Starring British supermodel Daisy Lowe, Eliza Bennett (Inkheart), and Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones), the film releases theatrically  in North America this week, and is also available today on DVD and VOD.

Mike Dub recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tobbell about making the film, working with a first-time actress, and the constraints of working in micro-budget filmmaking.

Mike Dub: Though you have created hundreds of short films and videos, Confine is your debut feature.  Have you been trying to get a feature made for a long time?  Was this film an idea that you had been carrying around, or was it just more good timing to have the idea for the story at a time when you were able to make the film?

Tobias Tobbell: Making a feature was the goal and my dream for a long time. Confine was one of many projects I’d developed over the past 12 years, but because of the limited cast and locations (it didn’t start as just set in the one flat) it was the most feasible. So when the time came I reworked the story slightly to suit a single setting and we had a nice controllable budget to work from.

MD: In addition to being your first feature, your film also features the acting debut of Daisy Lowe.  It must have been quite a new experience for both of you.  How did you manage the challenges of directing your first feature with a first-time actor as your lead?

4608321520_556x802TT: As a first feature it was probably the most comfortable way to start off: we didn’t have weather to contend with, or big unit changes every day (we shot in one studio for the entire shoot), no big SFX or cast numbers. So in many ways it was a great feature project for me to kick off with. I’d also recently completed producing another feature film, The Drummond Will, which had a smaller budget, bigger cast, a 30 day shoot and a whole multitude of difficult locations. I was on set most days (there was no production office so I tended to work from that days set!) so that experience set me up well. But directing a feature’s a different type of pressure of course, and this is where working with a new actress came into play. I’m looking at every shot in meticulous detail, thinking ahead to the edit, continuity (a relatively real-time story set in one location makes continuity much more noticeable) and all the other elements that kept me busy that meant I didn’t spend nearly as much time with the actors as I wanted to. Daisy’s also a very undemanding person. She was very happy to watch and listen rather than asking a ton of questions. At the time I really appreciated that, since then I’ve remembered the value of an actors constant enquiring of the whys and hows! Fortunately Daisy comes from the right world, so working on backstory took less time. She can also (openly) be a little obsessive about things like tidying, so was able to empathise with character traits pretty quickly.

MD: You spent quite a lot of time in theater, which must have helped you in crafting a film that takes place in real time at a single location.  What kind of impact did your theater experience have on this film?

TT: Confine was pretty much the first screenplay I wrote after finishing up with theatre so it had a huge impact on the script. The film definitely has a theatrical edge to it, from thicker dialogue to some stage-like blocking. In many ways Confine could work better as a theatrical production than a film. It would be cool to adapt it (which wouldn’t take much) and see how it worked on the stage!

MD: Confine feels like it was influenced strongly by the work of Roman Polanski: the single interior setting, the emotionally fractured female in distress, the way the apartment itself becomes a character in the film.  You also hide certain images from the audience at times.  For instance, in the opening shots we hear Pippa repeatedly locking her doors, but we only see her from the waist down so we don’t really know what’s happening right away.  That reminds me of the way Polanski would sometimes keep things just out of our vision.  Were you conscious of the connections to Polanski when you were shooting, or am I just totally off-base?

TT: You’re not off-base, but I didn’t feel the influence quite that heavily. In fact, it was almost the other way around. I wrote this, and I wrote a psych thriller set on a yacht, another 3-hander, and people started telling me that these felt influenced by Polanski. Obviously I’d seen most of his films but the cross-over was, as far as I could tell, a coincidence. That said he’s a bloody great director and if something’s slipping through from his work into the way I approach films then I’d be pleased to embrace that.

c1MD: With Pippa a former model (played by a real-life model) who is scarred and Kayleigh as this changeling who constantly switches appearances, there seem to be some undertones in this film about body image, or, in the case of Pippa, body shame.  Having spent so many years in theater and film, is Pippa a type of person you’ve come across?

TT: These are two extremes of types of people I’ve met and still meet all the time in all walks of life. Now, even more than when I was at school or university, many girls (and many guys too) are wildly obsessive about the way they look. The pressure from peers, from media and eventually from themselves, is mounting. Hearing about suicides because of the way they felt about their looks seem to be going up year on year. This film’s more about identity than straight good or bad looks. Kayleigh isn’t happy about hers, she’s got a series of go-to characters she can play at any given time that gives her confidence in that situation. Pippa is happy about her looks and identity on her own terms, whilst locked away. But the moment she’s put in front of someone that melts away into fear and paranoia.

MD: Confine was made on a micro-budget.  Even though it doesn’t look like a micro-budget film, I’m curious if there were issues you ran into where if you had just a little bit more money, you could have done something the way you wanted to do instead of how you had to do it because of budget constraints.

ConfineTT: Time. That’s what I could really have done with more of. There are always a lot of things you could change or have thrown more money at. With more time I could have workshopped the script through the development process, modifying the story and the dialogue. More time with the cast before the shoot workshopping character backstories. More time on set to take and retake, not to mention get more coverage, a better variety of shots to work from in the edit (in some cases we only had one shot from a scene, so in the edit we either kept the entire thing or cut it completely, because there wasn’t time that day to get close-ups of the actors!). On the positive side though; for a micro-budget I’m really proud of the beautiful set we built (the guys built that in 6 days, including dressing, painting etc). It looks fantastic too, DP Eben Bolter, and I spent a couple of weeks going through shots, looking at reference films and discussing the look – which certainly paid off. There aren’t many micro-budget films that look as pretty. I love the score too. Paul Lawler starting knocking around ideas before we starting even shooting. So not everything would have benefitted from more money, we made a lot of things work. More money, more time, would have been nice though.

MD: That being said, do you now have ambitions to make a big-budget, Hollywood-style blockbuster some day?  Do those movies appeal to you as either a viewer or filmmaker?

TT: I don’t know about blockbusters exactly, but the kinds of films I enjoy most tend of have healthy budgets. I love my production design, creating and building worlds. Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan are David Fincher are amongst directors I’m most inspired by (though the list is long). Sci-fi thrillers are probably the genre I enjoy the most as a viewer and eventually the kind of thing I’d like to shoot.

MD: Given that Confine is being released in North America, things seem to be going well with the movie.  Do you have any plans yet to make another feature?

TT: I’ve been plotting since the day we wrapped on Confine. Waiting for the right script, the right opportunity (and for Confine to be released in more than just the UK), has taken a while but there are now a couple of projects that are getting some traction. One’s a great, reasonably contained thriller, the other a post apocalyptic survival story. But there’s a pretty long list of films I want to make and I guess for every film I get off the ground that list will change.