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Interview: Eddie Redmayne

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Eddie Redmayne has been on our screens (both big and small) for decades, but it is his roles of late that have propelled him into the limelight.

His work in Les Misérables, the Wachowskis Jupiter Ascending (delayed until next year) and now The Theory of Everything, creating an Oscar buzz for his turn as Stephen Hawking, he has been building up a diverse CV that many young actors would envy.

In the refined surrounds of Claridges, we spoke with Redmayne about taking on the character of an icon, how he feels about his growing celebrity and what the future holds.

When you were doing the press tour for Les Miserables did you know that you would be playing such a great role as Stephen Hawking?

No, it sort of happened when I was doing a film called Jupiter Ascending [released next year] and part of that job, playing a sci-fi baron out in space, I had to get a six pack and I had a trainer at Leaveson Studios. I’d spoken to James [Marsh, director] on the phone to try to get to meet him and what was amazing was that my trainer worked with motorneuron patients so he was the first person to start to work with me, so it started a bit after Les Mis.

How was the process of acting with, for example, only the use of one hand and limited facial expression?

When I met Stephen he can move so few muscles but it’s as if all of those energies – tone of voice, facial expressions – are channelled into the few muscles that he can. I’d watched all the documentaries that I could and I’d wait for everyone to leave the house then practice and sit by the mirror. What’s interesting is there are muscles we don’t use and they are the muscles that have become active for him.

What was it like to meet Stephen Hawking?

When I met him I spent four months researching him and I wanted to meet him earlier but he’s a busy man! Because we weren’t shooting chronologically I had started mapping out what I wanted the bulk of the performance to be and there was this great fear when I met him what if I had got it totally wrong. He had gone from this icon to idol status in my mind by the time I was introduced to him. It takes him a long time – there’s a unique rhythm when you speak to him and we’re used to seeing him on shows when he’s been given the questions in advance and almost presses play, so there was a very unique rhythm and a ton of silence – I hate silence! – and it was pretty catastrophic; I spent 45 mintues spewing information about Stephen Hawking to Stephen Hawking and sweating and he was looking at me probably thinking ‘Really? Are you going to tell me about myself?’ But he did tell me a few things that were very helpful, but said probably eight or nine sentences in three hours so what it was really about for me was getting the sense of the person; he’s a real force of charisma and wit and a bit of mischief!

Was there any of that humour when you were in conversation about him?

Well, part of my diatribe of just useless words when I was filling the silence was about his book – My Brief History – his autobiography which he had just published and in it he had made a big point that he was born on the 8th January, which was Galileo’s birthday and I was telling this to him for some reason and I told him I was born on the 6th so said ‘So we’re both Capricorns!’ and as soon as I said it I thought ‘Fuck! What did I just say?’ and he just looked at me and then looked at his screen as I just sat there for ten minutes stewing and then in his iconic voice he said: ‘I am an astronomer, not an astrologer.’ I was beetroot by this point, thinking Stephen Hawking thought I believed he was Mystic Meg. Although he asked me if I was playing him before the machine and I said I was and he told me his voice was very slurred and there’s one horizon documentary of Stephen speaking before the tracheotomy and he was completely incomprehensible. Jane [his first wife] would understand and she would translate for him. But the producers were a bit weary of having subtitles but it was difficult for me as all of the stuff I had prepared to play Stephen before that was an educated guess, there was little footage or anything, and that was the first bit of footage I could really use and the thought of not being able to use it, and then Stephen suggested having someone to translate him. I went back to James and Anthony and said this is the one thing he’s asked for, this authenticity, and Anthony actually wove in some scenes where Jane translates a bit and you don’t need subtitles but you get a sense of that moment.

What was it like to go to the set every morning and have to play him?

When you do something on stage if you screw it up one night you can go on again the next day and do it again. With something like film everyone always thinks you can just do it all again and again and the reality is that you can’t. You have a specific amount of time and it’s getting shorter and shorter as the years go on and you have limited time to get that scene down and there’s nothing more horrific than that feeling when you get in the car at the end of the day and think ‘That’s an idea! Oh, I can’t do it any more’. It’s a really mentally rigorous thing you do, having to think of new ideas, like coming up with things you want to try and you want to fail at. This whole project was a great mixture of astonishing privilege and fear. So I can’t say I was like ‘I can’t wait to get to work!’ but it was interesting.

What did you fear the most?

I think fear of Stephen and Jane and the family being disappointed.

Have you talked to them afterwards?

I haven’t talked to them. I’m seeing them tonight. They have been incredibly generous. Stephen has the copyright to his voice and when we shot the film we used a synthesised version of his voice and after he saw the film he gave us his voice. And I had the documentaries on the iPad and after shooting James would send me the dailies so that I could chart what the work was doing and the make-up department and the costume department kept me looking so great. But after making it he offered us his voice and that took it that step further and it was profoundly moving for me.

What did you learn through making the film? 

One of the things I found most extraordinary were that Jane and Stephen were two people who had a really complicated set of obstacles put in front of them and they were defined by how they tried to overcome them. And I feel like that although in this specific scenario they are very unique to their circumstances I feel that in life we are all given limitations and confines and the way we approach those is what defines us.

It’s interested that as we approach awards season, both you and Benedict Cumberbatch are being focused on as likely candidates for the Best Actor nomination, and the coincidence is that he has also played Stephen Hawking in a 2004 film for the BBC. Did you watch that version or did you not go near it?

Ben is an old pal and a formidable actor and I knew about it because it was directed by Philip Martin who directed Birdsong and I thought long and hard about it and I’d heard it was breathtaking and I knew myself well enough to know that if I saw it I would steal bits from it, so I haven’t watched it even after filming because I knew I would be talking about it and I wanted to be talking about an experience close to the one I had. Ben and I have spoken recently and it’s been wonderful to exchange stories about what it was like for him when he first met him.

As a young male actor you are frequently, by the media, put into a kind of gorgeous-heartthrob cookie-cutter mould. Do you think that celebrity-ising (if that’s a word!) of actors is helpful and gets people into the cinemas or do you think it can detract from the serious work they do, such as what you have done with this film.

I have no idea, that’s a very good question. It’s odd – I have good friends who are actors and you can be Joe-public to them and you look at other actors and think about how their interview reads or what their image is, but when you’re in it and there are only some friends and family that can give you some sense of it but they are probably seeing it from a warped point of view. When my friends see a film I don’t think they could entirely get lost in it because they’re probably thinking ‘Look, there’s Eddie! He’s doing that thing again’, so I really don’t know. We buy into the notion that if there is some recognisability then someone will come and see the film, hence you turn up to premieres and red carpet events to try and encourage people to do that, but I tend to only do that around when the film is coming out.   

What do you think this film says about marriage?

Wowser! [Laughs] If I can sway that question away from marriage to perhaps love, when I read the script it was like a scrutiny of love but love in all its guises. Whether it was young and passionate love to love of subject matter, such as science, to love of family and the failings of love. I don’t know it answers any of those questions, but I was constantly in awe. They [Stephen and Jane] didn’t have much money. It’s like, in the film, when Stephen’s dad says he is world famous, Stephen says ‘Yeah, for black holes, not rock concerts’. At the time the financial aspect wasn’t there and Jane had to do all the literal and mental heavy lifting. It was profound the amount of love they had for each other.

What is next for you, now you have achieved so much when you are still so young?

I know what I am doing next specifically, which is a film called The Danish Girl. But if our dream is to play interesting people and interesting stories they don’t come much more extraordinary as playing Stephen Hawking. What’s so weird about are world is that you can’t control it. You can’t go ‘This is my plan of action’. It’s about waiting to see what comes. What I love is the variety, also just retaining employment. If you start out as a kid going into acting and at some point you are just waiting to be found out and just getting to do what you are passionate about as a living is incredibly rare, so I’m very fortunate.

Your chemistry with you co-star Felicity Jones is very convincing, and it reminded me of the passionate chemistry you had with Gemma Arterton in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Did you talk to her and rehearse much beforehand?

Well she was an old pal. I hadn’t filmed with her before but I’d worked with her at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. We’d worked in the same season. When she got cast it was wonderful. We had a similar way of working which can be complicated with actors on films. If an actor comes in for a certain amount of days the director has to accommodate their way of acting to get the best out of them for those few days. So it’s lovely to work with someone who has the same process. We’re quite rigorous but we like to be playful and throw each other off-guard. We worked [researching] independently for a few months then worked a few weeks together.

Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials. Is it your biggest role to date? Are you all prepared? 

Thank-you! [Laughs] Yes, biggest role to date! Prepared? Are you ever all prepared? These things to be getting on with but instead I am talking to you guys! But no, I’m really looking forward to it. 

The Theory of Everything (2014), directed by James Marsh, is released in UK cinemas on 1st January, Certificate 12A.

Watch the trailer below:  




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