Portraying the Emotion, Humor and Intellect of Stephen Hawking
A Q-and-A with Eddie Redmayne
(Editor's note: This interview originally ran in the November 2014, Volume 1 edition of Academy Art U News.)
Known for playing a starring role in My Week with Marilyn alongside Michelle Williams and singing his way through Les Misérables as rebel student Marius, English actor Eddie Redmayne is rising quickly through the acting ranks.
His new role as world-renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything was both physically demanding, as he portrays Mr. Hawking’s battle with motor neuron disease, and emotionally challenging, as the film centers on his love story with first wife Jane.
In order to better understand the techniques through which Redmayne carried out the monumental feat of portraying Mr. Hawking’s physical limitations, as well as his disarming sense of humor, we sat down with the actor himself.
How did you prepare for the physical and emotional demands of this role?
What’s interesting about doing film is no one tells you how to do it. So when I had been speaking to the director on the phone, trying to persuade him to hire me, he had asked exactly the same question, “How are you going to do it?” I suddenly had this slightly sick moment on the phone, where I was going, “Why didn’t I think about my response to that before picking up the phone?”
What I decided to do was to go back to an old school Hollywood method, which is where you would surround yourself with an amazing team. I worked with an amazing make up designer, a costumier, a vocal coach and a choreographer; a dancer.
This dancer, Alex Reynolds, had worked on World War Z and she and I went to an ALS clinic in London and met with a specialist there, who was amazing, called Dr. Katie Sidle. We would go every week to the clinic and meet patients, if they were willing to see us after her sessions with them and hear their stories, and they would even be generous enough to invite us to their homes to meet their families. That was one aspect of it, seeing the emotional effect and also the physical effect of the disease.
But specifically then, because there’s no documentary footage of Stephen before the 1980s, it was about taking photos. I found as many photos as I could, all of them on an iPad. Then I would take it to Dr. Sidle and by looking at those photos, she’d say, “Okay, so his hand in that photo, you can see that by 1967 for example, maybe his fingers were gone and that was lower neuron, so they would be wilting.” With Alex the choreographer, we tracked through what his decline may have been, and we would tell director James [Marsh] and the writer Anthony [McCarten] about that and they would feed that into the script.
Then there was a lot of sitting in front of a mirror with the iPad and literally trying to work out what muscles Stephen was isolating and using and trying to learn to use muscles that we don’t normally use on our faces. There was a lot of trial and error, but James gave me four months to prep that.
Jane provided such a positive impact on Stephen’s life. How did you and Felicity Jones work together to bring their love affair to the screen?
I think Felicity is a truly extraordinary actress. We have known each other for maybe eight, nine years. This director called Michael Grandage, who is a great theatre director in England and ran a place called Donmar Warehouse, he was a great supporter of both of ours, early doors, and so we knew each other through that. We’d never worked together but I had always admired her work so much.
When we got the opportunity to work on this together, it was like a dream come true, because it is a film about an incredibly intense romantic relationship, but almost like a symbiosis. For much of the story, he is entirely dependent on her, but also there is a sort of [trust], so working with someone I really trusted [was great] and she was formidable.
Felicity describes it as at times it’s like Jane is an extension of him. As the physicality declines, she’s like an extension of his body. I couldn’t have been luckier. I really loved it.
Why was this romantic element the angle to take for The Theory of Everything?
I think it was the angle to take, firstly because it wasn’t a take on Stephen Hawking. That’s the important thing. This was based on Jane’s book. This is an adaptation of it.
Secondly, there are extraordinary documentaries made about Stephen. In fact, he made one just last year that described the science, the intricacies of what he’s discovered.
I don’t think of [The Theory of Everything] as a Stephen Hawking biopic. I think of it as an investigation of love really, in extraordinary circumstances. So for me, it’s a film about young love, passionate love, love of a subject, the failings of love. I think that was probably why.
You portrayed Stephen Hawking as having a great sense of humor. When you met him, what was he like?
He is properly funny, genuinely. He’s super sharp, as far as his timing and his wit is unlike anything that I’ve seen. He also has this extraordinary smile. But he also controls a room. His capacity for timing is unlike anything I’ve seen.
What I really took away from my meeting with him was firstly positivity, but also this sharpness of humor. It was a last reminder, because I only met him a few days before we started filming, to take that into every scene if you could find a way to either subvert or bring humor to it.
How much did he and Jane contribute to the movie?
Jane a lot, because it was her book, but both. Felicity and I met Stephen for the first time just before we started filming and then he came to set to the big firework display, the May Ball scene.
I remember going with Jane, Jonathan and Tim, Stephen and Jane’s youngest son, and I’m walking into the house and Felicity had already been there for an hour and finding Jane and Felicity in Jane’s cupboard with Jane showing her clothes from back in the day.
Our first day of filming, Jane was on set and she comes running up. She said “No, no Eddie, your hair. His hair would be much messier.” What a dream for the actor to get your hair styled by the actual person. They were a big part of it.
What was it like acting without really moving?
It was amazing, because although it sounds inactive, the most genuinely physically exhausting part was the bit where he’s moving the least, because it’s not that you’re just doing nothing. In fact, all the muscles, they’re not relaxed. Some of them are fully in use, so you have to keep them still whilst trying to isolate other places. It was almost the most physically exhausting.
You’re doing things like shifting your breathing pattern, shifting your blinking speed. The irony is, it’s like you’re taking all of your energy that you’d use for being up and moving and trying to focus it in on this small space. It was intense, but it was such a unique challenge. It was quite exciting as well.
Before Stephen fell and was taken to hospital in the film, did he know that something wasn’t quite right?
One of the most riveting things, or I suppose the complicated things, about ALS is that people tend to find out that they’ve got it because they’ve fallen. But often the first thing that will happen is that they will get something called “foot drop.” [A muscle in your foot] will stop working. But you’re not even conscious that it’s stopped working because your knee will just compensate by picking it up a bit more.
The first thing that will happen is that one day your knee will forget to do that and you’ll fall. You’ll go to ER and most doctors will just go, “Oh, you’ve fallen, bruise bruise, off you go again.” It takes a really perceptive doctor to go, “Actually let’s check something else here.”
One of the things they find really complicated is when does it start? When does the disease actually manifest? The choice I made in this film was that it was already there. At the top of the film, you see photos of him at that time and he has an awkward gait and some people go, “Oh, he’s just a scientist.” But actually, what does that mean?
For me, when we dance at the ball, his hand is already slightly [altered], and I was hoping that an audience would read that probably as just [him being awkward], but in retrospect, you get a slight sense. That’s how you introduce those little elements.
So I think he was conscious of it. He describes actually that one of the first things that happened is that he fell at Cambridge and actually his voice had already started slurring a bit and people thought he was drunk. When he went to the doctor after falling, they were like, “We suggest you stay off the booze, mate.”
How did you film that scene when Stephen falls?
One of the things that ALS does is, when you fall, those people that I’d met who suffer from it said that you fall like a tree.
We worked on that and basically, in the wide shot, I would fall and then just put my hands down to stop myself. But then in the close up one, what happened is they knew where they were going to shoot it and they found that pavement stone and they recreated it in foam. In the close up, they tied my hands behind my back because human instinct is always to stop yourself. Basically, the camera was there and I went down onto the thing. It did hurt a wee bit, but they then added a vicious sound effect.
What do you hope people take away from watching the film?
I would love people to take away what I took away from the experience. When you have that sentence given to you, it makes you look at time in a different way, being able to live as Stephen has done, despite all the obstacles, squeezing everything out of every minute of every day, living positively and living forward and living a full life. It’s a reminder of that really. We have all these foibles and stuff, but if you can just live and remind yourself of that all the time, I think that’s what I’ve tried to take away from it.
How do you decide what roles you want to take on? Is there an ultimate role you want to take on in the future?
Do you know, there’s no ultimate role really, other than Bananaman—I’m joking. I wish I could say I had all these scripts laid out and I go, “Hmm, I might do that one, I might do that one.” The reality is if it’s a part you care about, inevitably you’ve had to chase for it.
This one for example, I had to really persuade a lot of people that it was worth taking a risk. At different points in your life, you take jobs for different reasons. Sometimes it’s because you need money to keep food on the table, others it’s because you feel like taking an artistic risk. But the idea that it’s choices, as in it’s as easy as “I want to do this one,” is, for me, unreal. You go and you chase those things that you would like.
Do you have any future projects in the pipeline?
Yeah, I’m starting preparing for a film that Tom Hooper, who directed Les Misérables is doing called The Danish Girl, which is a true story about this couple who are artists in Copenhagen in the 1920s and the husband, Einar Wegener, became one of the first people to transition to becoming a woman and it’s an amazing story about identity and love and so yes that’s the next job.
Do you think you will ever go back to stage acting?
Damn right. I love the mixture of it; it’s so different. The thing with acting is you never ever get it right. You never get one word right, let along a line right, let alone a whole script right. What’s lovely with theatre is you get to go and try it again the following night. Unfortunately with film what often happens is you only have your two hours to do that scene and once it’s done, that’s it. You have to wait seven months just to see yourself mess it up.
Do you have any advice for students at the Academy of Art University?
My tip would be, this has taken me a long time to work out, the most interesting work happens when you’re brave enough to make mistakes. In myself, that’s what I’ve discovered. And for many years in my career, particularly on films where you see money everywhere, you see the amount of technology, everything costs so much that suddenly when there’s a camera in your face, I’ve found it like too much pressure.
Actually, you try not to get fired. You try to be safe. You try to do anything you can to not rock the boat. And from that, I saw a lot of bad work that I did and realized that. To actors, I would say try and find partners to work with, whether it’s directors who allow you the freedom to go, “Okay this could be a disaster, but can I just try this?” And if you try it and it fails, it’s finding those directors who then go, “Try again. Try something else.”
For directors, I would say my dream when working with a director is that you do a version of the scene and they’re like, “Great, we’ve got it,” and then they go, “try one more. Try something totally different,” because it gives you the freedom. That’s where really interesting work happens. Otherwise it’s all just a bit generic.
What did you take away from the whole experience of making this film?
I took away from it firstly, each person that I met, or each family had an extraordinary story, and the brutality of the fact that this disease has been around for a long time and they’re barely closer to finding a reason for it or a cure for it.
Whilst I was making the film, [I was] in the chair and I would stay in the chair whilst in a specific physicality, and it was quite uncomfortable, but you always knew that you could get up at the end of the day. Having met so many people, it was a constant reminder of how lucky we are. That’s what I took away from the script.
Stephen was given this death sentence [at age] 21. That was the most gigantic of obstacles and he refused to let that get in his way. In fact, that catalyzed him to work harder, live fuller, and for me, that’s what I take away from the film. I wish I could say that’s what I do. In our own daily lives there are always these foibles and irritations that are frustrating, but I try and take it as a reminder to make sure you squeeze every minute out of every day.