By 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.
ER: 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.
Many 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.
Even 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.
I 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.