The Transformation of Eddie Redmayne
In The Theory of Everything, the 32-year-old actor went through a rigorous, painful process to take on the physicality and emotional life of famed scientist Stephen Hawking. It’s a performance that could catapult Redmayne to an Oscar.
NEW YORK — Eddie Redmayne can barely contain himself. The gangly, boyish, and eminently charming actor, best known for playing Marius in 2012's Les Misérables, is meant to be seated on a plush couch in his inordinately posh Manhattan hotel suite, but he seems incapable of staying put. He frequently springs up to further demonstrate whatever point he's in the middle of making, and even when he is seated, his deep, throaty voice races headlong out of him, his mouth often tripping over his words.
"I had spaghetti bolognese for lunch, which felt amazing at the time, and then I hit a wall," he tells BuzzFeed News at the outset of his interview last month. "I have a vat of coffee here, which is propelling me back into form. So hopefully my chat will not stink."
Redmayne's infectious verve is, ironically, in service of explaining how he learned to keep his body resolutely stiff and static. With the new film The Theory of Everything, the 32-year-old Redmayne has been winning the best reviews of his young career, as well as considerable Oscar buzz, for his performance as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who has famously spent the vast majority of his career in a wheelchair due to a physically debilitating motor neuron disease similar to ALS. (One typical rave, from Entertainment Weekly: “Redmayne's astonishing transformation lends a touch of magic to the material.”)
The film, which is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles and expands into more theaters on Nov. 14, tracks Hawking's physical decline from his early days as a doctoral candidate at Cambridge. Its main emotional focus, however, is how the disease affected his romance with and eventual marriage to Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones), whose memoir served as the basis for the film. Playing Hawking proposed one of the most intimidating challenges imaginable for an actor: Faithfully portraying the physical specificity of Hawking's disease meant bottling up virtually every tool available to capture his emotional inner life.
But according to The Theory of Everything's director, James Marsh (Man on Wire), it was a challenge that Redmayne was up to from the moment the two first met to discuss the role. "Eddie's a very intelligent actor," Marsh says a few weeks later on the phone. "I was struck by how much he understood the nature of the psychology of the role, and what he had to do is to physically prepare for what then would become an emotional performance. The physicality needed to be in place and embedded, essentially, into his preparation. Once that was in place, then the real work began to bring this character to life emotionally. He understood all that from the get-go."
Back in his hotel suite, however, Redmayne often says, almost contritely, that he had not gone through formal training as an actor. (Instead, he studied the history of art at Cambridge.) "I've always wondered if at drama school you get given [a] process," he says. "Every single job I do, whether it's theater or film, I'm still grappling to find a process. But interestingly, when I got cast in [Theory of Everything], my instinct was to make it quite a formal one."
Part of that instinct stemmed from his understanding that the practical demands of film production — shooting the film out of sequence — would add yet another layer of complication to the job of capturing Hawking's physical deterioration. "I had to absolutely map what his physical decline was going to be," he says. "I wanted to do that with a dancer. … Quite particularly on film, people are a bit scared to ask actors to do [a scene] again. But with dancers, they're extraordinary artists, and it's like" — he began clapping his hands — "do it again, do it again, do it again until you get it right. That was the rigor in which I wanted to work — not to compromise. … For Stephen, the disease couldn't be less important. Like, he has no interest in it,” he continues. “I wanted to make sure that this is not a story of a disease. It's an unconventional love story. I wanted to be totally free of thinking about what my little finger's doing to play whatever the emotion was."
To get to that immersive place, Redmayne — as well as his co-star Jones, who also had to discover how best to play a living person — had to become something of a detective mixed with an investigative reporter mixed with a movement artist. "In some ways, it's being like Sherlock Holmes," says Jones, sitting in her own nearby hotel suite. "It's trying to interrogate who this person is and then inhabit them in a truthful way." After teaming up with dancer-choreographer Alexandra Reynolds (who also worked on World War Z), Redmayne met with doctors, nurses, and patients at the Queen Square Centre for Neuromuscular Disease in London. "They have an ALS clinic every week, and at the end [the doctor] would say, 'There's an actor here trying to play Stephen Hawking, would you be interested in meeting him?'” says Redmayne. “And across the board, people were sensationally generous. … Some people would allow me to feel their hands, to feel the weight of their bodies."
At the clinic, Redmayne also learned about the differences between the loss of "upper" neurons — which causes the affected areas to fix into a rigid shape — and "lower" neurons — which causes the opposite, the body to go loose and limp. But those losses are specific to each person, which meant Redmayne had to sort out — based mostly on archival photos and whatever he could find on YouTube — how Hawking's motor neuron disease uniquely manifested itself, and when. He then showed those images to the doctors at Queen Square so they could render a loose sort of diagnosis.
After filling an iPad with every scrap of visual and documentary material he collected, Redmayne then created a single, double-sided master list, which charted out the details he'd need to know for every single scene. That list, he says, included "what muscles had gone, where vocally he was at, and then what glasses he was wearing, whether he was on one stick or two sticks, or which wheelchair he was in."
Throughout this process, Redmayne was also working with Reynolds, three days a week, three to four hours a day, in a rehearsal space, to teach his body how to render each stage of Hawking's decline. "Rather than just replicating positions, it was about when you're holding these positions," Redmayne says, as he starts to shrug up his shoulders, and twist and stiffen his hands. "It was almost like internally learning to squash my body, or to be able to manipulate [my] hands in ways that it hadn't done before."
One of the trickier elements was mastering an early stage of ALS-related diseases, a phenomenon called "dropped foot," where the patient's foot essentially goes limp at the ankle. Redmayne jumps up from the couch to demonstrate. "What happens is you're not aware it's happening — your knee just compromises by lifting up a bit more," he says, lifting up his leg as his foot flops down like a loose flipper. "And that's all totally fine until one day you're rushing, and the knee forgets to do that, and you fall."
Most audiences, however, only know of Hawking after he could only get around in a wheelchair, his body fixed in a kind of crumpled shrug, with his neck permanently tilted to his right shoulder, and his face often stuck in a kind of Cheshire grin. "That was just a lot of me with an iPad, in front of a mirror, trying to learn how to access muscles [in my face] that I hadn't used before," says Redmayne. "Feeling like a bit of a fool at times, going, Am I just— Do I look like a— Is this, like, rude?" He chuckled, abashed still about walking the tightrope between authenticity and caricature. "I absolutely had to get through that stage and commit fully to it. It was complicated."
Redmayne's commitment had some consequences — one can hold one's body in an unnatural position for only so long before the body cries out for relief. "I'm not a sadist," says Marsh. "I didn't love it. I could see, of course, what this was doing to him. I would hear so often him breaking out of character. There was this painful kind of moan. And he would let it all out and then get ready for the next take. He never complained."
When asked if he had a good massage therapist, Redmayne just chuckles. "I had an amazing osteopath, someone who works with hardcore dancers," he says. "It was a constant thing. And occasionally it was middle-of-the-day emergency acupuncture sessions, a bit of [pain reliever] Nurofen. At moments, it was pretty intense, but the absolute reality was you got to get up every day, out of the chair, and so many of the people that I met couldn't. And you're constantly reminded of basically how lucky you are."
The role didn't just affect his body, either. Redmayne contorted his face so frequently that the film's makeup artist noticed the right side of his face began to change — a facial transformation that his co-star believes remains to this day. "I feel like I can still see Stephen in his face, even now," Jones says. "I can see the character had a profound effect on him. But he's a true actor. He was obsessive about it. He wanted to play this man with respect, and with absolute truthfulness."
That dedication was most evident in Redmayne's determination to capture Hawking's voice — his actual voice, before a tracheotomy forced him to speak through a computer. "When I met Stephen, he asked if I was playing him before the voice machine, and I said yes," says Redmayne. "And he said, 'Well, my voice was very slurred.' At that point in the script, it didn't go to the point of incomprehensibility. But the only documentary footage there is of him speaking, he is completely incomprehensible. His students would have to come and spend two weeks learning to lip-read him and understand him."
Redmayne pressed Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten to include Hawking's completely slurred speech in the film — but the film's producers balked at having one of their lead actors be totally unintelligible to the audience.
"We couldn't subtitle it," says Marsh. "That felt somehow wrong. So Eddie very graciously took a step back from the truth of what he found out, and we found a kind compromise for the film. I don't think he ever was very comfortable with it, nor was I. But I could see why the producers were wanting something that was just a bit more comprehensible. That's an example where we did end up compromising, I think, against my nature and I think against Eddie's nature. But I don't regret that; I think the film still feels very truthful in the realm of the illness."
However taxing depicting Hawking's illness was — and it also included everything from mastering driving Hawking's different wheelchairs, to subtly changing his wardrobe to make his body seem slighter as he grew older — it was still only half the job. To grasp the man's formidable intellectual life, Redmayne also studied Hawking's contributions to the field of general relativity and theoretical physics, especially his best-selling book A Brief History of Time, turning to one of Hawking's former students for guidance. "I would go on websites from hardcore analytic websites to the astronomy for 7-year-olds," he says, sheepishly dropping his head.
But the hardest job, in a way, was communicating what was happening to Hawking's (metaphorical) heart as his body was failing him. For that, he relied especially on Marsh and Jones. The Theory of Everything spends just as much time exploring Jane Hawking's life as it does Stephen's, and how all-consuming it became for her to care for her husband. "I remember being in a rehearsal room with Eddie, and Eddie's in the chair, and then suddenly you feel as the person playing the carer you have this enormous responsibility," Jones says. "At a certain point, Stephen couldn't just lift up a spoon. So Jane's got to be there doing it for him. So suddenly, I was like, Gosh, I've got to be the responsible one in this situation! She was Stephen's movement in the world."
Indeed, the circumstances of their characters put a great deal of literal and figurative weight on Jones' shoulders. "Normally, when you arrive on a film set each morning, you're like, 'OK, we're going to shoot the scene here,'" says Redmayne. "James will have an opinion. Then maybe Felicity will say, 'Actually, maybe I'll try it in this seat.' You're playing with ideas. But virtually every single day on this, I'd be like, 'I can't do that. I can't move from here.' She has to do all the heavy lifting — a lot of it, as far as keeping the energy in scenes. It was really complicated. She was a sensational friend throughout it."
Before filming, Jones and Redmayne knew each other from their earlier work during Michael Grandage's tenure overseeing the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, but they only really became "great friends," as Redmayne puts it, while making the film. That friendship was sealed very early in the production during a scene in which, after learning of his diagnosis, Jane pushes a deeply depressed Stephen to play croquet with her — only to be quietly devastated when she sees just how physically debilitated he'd already become. "He's setting up a challenge, isn't he?" says Jones. "He's saying, 'This isn't going to be easy.' It's totally a test. And he's saying if you can get through this, then maybe we can spend our lives together."
It became a kind of test for Jones and Redmayne, as well, after Redmayne asked Jones to tease him off camera when it was time for him to shoot Stephen struggling to play croquet. "That takes great trust, because she basically sort of started in," he says, laughing. "And she knew where to hit me. I think the crew were all going, 'This is day two, and they hate each other!'"
Marsh, for his part, was delighted. "Stephen is really angry at this point," he says. "He's angry at himself, he's angry at the illness, he's angry at Jane. He's angry at this totally fucked up situation he's in. He has to show that. Felicity began to taunt him, and he began to respond to it, and it just got very interesting. It was one those important moments in the film where you knew the actors were going to work for each other and off of each other and help each other, even though it felt like it was kind of cruel to be mocking someone as she was doing. But it was very helpful to the performance. They began to do this several times in the film. There would be off-camera provocations — or encouragements. That's a very good example of actors trusting their instincts and doing things that aren't in the script or aren't being asked for."
Roughly halfway through his interview, the door to Redmayne's suite flings open and Jones glides in, somehow managing to carry two plates of cake and three flutes of champagne. It’s her birthday — she’s leaving for the evening, and wants to say good-bye to her co-star and friend. Immediately, Redmayne leaps up, grabs a glass, and bursts into a boisterous rendition of "Happy Birthday." (The second plate of cake and third glass of champagne, by the way, is for the BuzzFeed News reporter in the room, which is both enormously kind and incredibly savvy PR.)
"When will I see you?" says Redmayne, swaying back and forth and sipping his champagne. "Tomorrow? What are you doing for your birthday tonight? Are you having fun?"
After Jones has left ("I decided to go really low-key and just see one of my best friends," she says of her birthday plans), Redmayne returns to his couch, champagne in hand. Asked what it was like to learn that Stephen Hawking had enjoyed the film — and the profound effort that went into his performance — for the first time that afternoon he grows quiet, his words coming slowly, his body still. "It means everything, really," he says, his voice heavy with emotion. "The weight of those high stakes had been sitting on my shoulders for an age, and — that's why we're telling the story, because he's an extraordinary human being, as is Jane. They allowed us into their orbit for a few months, and that was one of the great privileges of my life. It's an experience I will never, ever forget."