Interview: Eddie Redmayne talks about playing Stephen Hawking
Oscar voters have long had a love affair with actors who play characters that are emotionally or physically challenged. Nominations went to Sean Penn for “I Am Sam” and Tom Cruise for “Born on the Fourth of July.” Gold statues went to Daniel Day-Lewis for “My Left Foot” and Jon Voight for “Coming Home.”
Put your money on a nomination for British actor Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” as wheelchair-bound, muscle-ravaged Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who was afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease in his 20s, was given two years to live, became a husband and father, and is now 72. Redmayne, 32, who in recent years has starred in films as diverse as “Les Miserables” and “My Week with Marilyn,” spoke about playing Hawking at an interview session in New York.
Q. The role must have been physically demanding. How did you tackle it?
A. [The director] James Marsh was generous enough to give me about four months to prepare. I read everything I could. I read Stephen’s biography and then his autobiography “My Brief History” came out. And I read his book “A Brief History of Time.” How much I understood is another matter (laughs). I also met one of his old students, who’s now a professor, who tried to explain the intricacies of string theory. I said to him, “Explain it to me as if I’m 7 years old.” And I went to an ALS clinic in London every week or two, for four months. I saw photos of Stephen when he was younger (when doctors were) trying to work out what his specific physical decline had been.
Q. What was going in your mind when he showed up on the set?
A. It was pretty intimidating. I met him five days before we started filming, which was complicated because we weren’t shooting chronologically. I had to sort of keep track of a physical performance and get a sense of who he was from all the documentaries I’d seen. But I had this fear of “What if I meet him and he’s not who I think he is?” Fortunately, when I met him, he was just the most vibrant and witty man, and he had a razor-sharp humor. But he’s also a powerful man. He runs the room. Even though he can say very little, you get an absolute sense that he’s in control.
Q. Did you feel you had a lot of responsibility in playing such a historical figure?
A. I felt the weight of it every second of every day. I couldn’t help but think it was kind of an impossible task, but I knew that the story felt extraordinary. Certainly the responsibility felt huge, but it did drive me.
Q. What was your method for making yourself look like him?
A. There was a lot of sitting in front of a mirror, with an iPad, with Stephen in documentaries, trying to recreate that face.
Q. You had to stay in a wheelchair, with your head tilted, hardly moving, for quite a long time. Did that cause any injuries?
A. I worked with a choreographer/dancer beforehand who helped find that physicality in me. One of the things I did was go to an osteopath from the first day of rehearsal, and he mapped out my body and kept me in shape. That was the point of the rehearsal, as well. You don’t just jump into these positions. It was like making your muscles learn to get used to it. And the makeup designer said that this side of my face (points to the right side) got more muscular, because Stephen speaks out of this side. Of course, you’re also in these tricky, quite intense positions, but you get to get up at the end of the day. Having spent so much time with people suffering from this disease, you’re constantly aware of how lucky you are.
Q. So the making of the film has had an emotional impact on you?
A. I found it profoundly inspiring that these people had been given this many obstacles, and had managed to look at life, continuously with a positive attitude. Stephen describes how every day subsequent to that two-year period, when he was told he would be dead within those two years, has been a gift for him, and he lives every minute of his life as passionately as possible. It’s easy to get caught up in the banalities and worries of every day, but just to try and live your life as fully as you can is what I took from it.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.