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How Eddie Redmayne did it

What does it take to play Stephen Hawking? We follow Redmayne through a process that earned him an Oscar

Clemency Burton-Hill | November/December 2014

September 2013. A young man lies in a Cambridge hotel room, wide awake. Dawn slips through the curtains as the clock ticks on. All through the night he has been watching that clock. As it reaches 4am, he is tempted to turn to the packet of sleeping pills in his washbag. In an hour’s time, a car will take him to a day’s work that will involve inhabiting one of the world’s most famous minds—and bodies. Over the next 12 hours, this man, who has never had a day’s acting training, will play the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. First, in the morning, as a healthy young man in 1963, before his diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease (MND); then, after lunch, walking with two sticks in the late 1960s; and finally, probably by late afternoon, in a wheelchair, in the late 1980s. The scenes all share the same location, St John’s College. Shooting them on the same day will save money, so never mind the chronology, or the leading man’s sanity.

Eddie Redmayne is all too aware of those concerns. His “currency”, he feels, is low, and the film-makers have taken a risk in hiring him. He decides against the sleeping pill.

Four months earlier, I had happened to see Redmayne a few hours after he received a phone call offering him the lead in “The Theory of Everything”, a feature film adapted from a memoir by Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane Wilde. We had been friends at university and our professional lives had collided over the years—I had interviewed him about his Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse and his Marius in the blockbuster film of “Les Misérables”. That evening, I watched as his euphoria subsided into a creeping sort of horror and his skin, always rather freckled and pale, took on a greenish tinge. At this point I asked, on a whim, if he would be open to the idea of my following him as he tackled the role. I knew he disliked  talking about himself, but perhaps the fear distracted him. He said yes.

A month later, we are in an unassuming patch of green near Redmayne’s flat in Bermondsey. To call it a park would be generous; though most Londoners would, and he does. This is where he comes to learn lines. Preparing to play Mark Rothko’s assistant in John Logan’s 2009 play “Red” (for which he won an Olivier, then a Tony on Broadway) and, two years later, as he worked on Shakespeare’s Richard II (a Critic’s Choice Award), he was here every day, “because it takes me forever to learn anything”. He likes to arrive early. “You come at 5am and there are a couple of people with their dogs. Gradually, around 7, a few people doing tai-chi might rock up. At 8.30 it’s mums and dads taking their kids to school. At 8.59 it’s the mums and dads that are late. And then there’s this nutter walking around all the while, muttering lines to himself.”

Why does he put himself through it? “My grandma was a great worrier and I think I inherited that from her. I worry that it takes me longer than most actors to really…  embed things.” As he often does when discussing his work, Redmayne slips into the second person. “So the thing that gets you out of bed at the crack of dawn is the knowledge that you’re going to be judged for it, in front of an audience. It is a great driving factor, the stakes being high.”

The stakes have never been higher, professionally, for Redmayne but at this stage, with the shoot a few months away, learning the lines is the least of his worries. Aware of the pitfalls of luvvieness, he shudders as he hears the word “process” tumble out of his mouth. But he’s about to play a living icon in the grip of a fierce degenerative disease, so some sort of process is required. At least he didn’t call it a journey.

“I didn’t train to be an actor,” he says, “I blagged my way into it, and I always feel I’m waiting to be found out. So whenever you get a job, there’s a moment of euphoria and then the realisation, ‘oh my God, you’ve got to do this’. And you feel there should be some scaffolding. I’ve worked with people who have their preferred way of rehearsing guaranteed by clause in their contract. But it’s not like I have a process, it’s a very formless thing, and there’s no one telling you, ‘this is what you’re going to do and this is how you’re going to do it.’”

To win the part (“I found the script a revelation and chased pretty hard for it”), Redmayne had sat in a Marylebone pub with the director James Marsh, who is best known for documentaries, including the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire”. “It was about four in the afternoon. James said, ‘What are you having?’ I was trying to judge whether to have a proper drink or not. I asked for a beer. He came back with a coffee. I drank about five beers. He drank a lot of coffee. By the time we left, I was drunk and he was wired.”

Somewhere between that first drink and the last, Redmayne had convinced Marsh he would tackle the part in such a way that “everything would be connected to everything. Because it is obviously the most extraordinary challenge and responsibility, to be trusted to tell the story of someone’s family, which is also a sensitive and complicated one. And to investigate all these aspects of this iconic human being: the physical, the vocal, the scientific, and then cohere it all in the emotional, because at its heart this is a very unusual love story. Young love, passionate love, family love, love of a subject, but also the failures of love and the boundaries of love.”

Today, in the park, he works with a choreographer, Alex Reynolds, who has come on board to help Redmayne (“riddled with fear”). Their aim, he says, is to “try to map out Stephen’s specific physical decline, fix it in the details and embed all of that, so that I can forget it, because the illness is the least important part of life, as far as he’s concerned. Fifty years ago he was given two or three years to live, and he’s always chosen to look forward despite the guillotine over his head. It’s important to have all the physical stuff down so that Felicity [Jones, as Jane] and I are free to play the human story.”

Redmayne was the first actor Marsh saw for the job. “Very quickly I was persuaded that Eddie was going to do something extraordinary with this role,” Marsh tells me later on the phone from his home in Copenhagen. “He’s part of a very interesting generation and there were half a dozen actors being discussed for the part.” He liked the passion Redmayne showed. “And the fact that he seemed properly scared. He must have drunk at least four pints in front of me, and that was a nice little indication he was human. There aren’t many American actors who would do that.”

Redmayne moves back and forth across the gravelly path that divides the park, minutely adjusting the already almost imperceptible movements of his right foot. The Monday morning after he got the job, he contacted the Queen Square Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases in London, and for the past few weeks he has been attending the Motor Neurone Disease clinic there, run by a consultant neurologist, Dr Katie Sidle. She and her clinical nurse, Jan Clarke, have been taking him through the various diagnoses and stages, helped by MND sufferers including Glenn, a former academic, and another Eddie, a former athlete and swimming teacher. There is no public footage of Hawking from before his diagnosis, so Redmayne has brought old photos from Hawking’s student days to get a sense of the state he will be in at the top of the film, when as a PHD student at Cambridge he meets Jane. Nobody can pinpoint the moment when MND takes hold; many sufferers are only diagnosed after a fall. By examining Hawking’s hands and feet in these photos, Sidle and Clarke have raised the possibility that Hawking, without knowing it, already has the disease. Redmayne likes this idea.

“Foot drop is often one of the first symptoms,” he tells me, demonstrating. He’s wearing jeans and scuffed grey Converse sneakers with thin black laces. “But it’s usually invisible for a long time. You don’t realise you’re doing it because your knee automatically compensates by lifting that foot slightly higher. But one day if you’re walking quickly or whatever, and the knee forgets to do that, your foot might catch and fall.”

He turns and jogs back to the end of the path, then walks it again, while Alex Reynolds films him on an iPad. They will analyse these sequences over and over, as if they were Novak Djokovic and his coach. “We were never just going to mimic shapes,” Reynolds says later. “Eddie is so profoundly interested in what these people are telling him. His desire is to have a real understanding of these bodies and to find that authentic language in a well body. His attention to detail is forensic.”

“It appeals to me, the idea of doing something again and again until you fucking get it right,” Redmayne says. “You keep pushing, but you never quite get to where you want to go.”

This is not the first time I’ve seen him hone a limp. In 2011, I interviewed him in North Carolina on the set of the indie film “Hick”, in which he plays a charismatic Texan cowboy with a damaged leg who happens to be a homicidal psychopath. He had been walking with a rock in his boot for weeks. The film had a limited release even in America and the people who saw it in Britain can probably be counted on one hand, but Redmayne is proud of it. It’s a quirk of his career that this seemingly untroubled Englishman has spent much of the past decade playing American misfits and outcasts, including an adopted Native Indian in “The Yellow Handkerchief” (2008) with William Hurt, and the troubled, gay, teenage son of Julianne Moore in “Savage Grace” (2007). In 2004 he had been Jonathan Pryce’s troubled, gay, teenage son in Edward Albee’s “The Goat” at the Almeida theatre (in which he memorably asked his stage father: “You’re fucking a goat?”). In 2008 he was the troubled, gay, teenage son of an American president in “Now or Later” by Christopher Shinn at the Royal Court. (Redmayne, by the way, is straight. To the distress of thousands of so-called Redmayniacs, of both sexes, he is soon to marry Hannah Bagshawe, an antiques dealer from Staffordshire. They have known each other since they were teenagers.)

Only a few times has Redmayne played close to type, in “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, Sebastian Faulks’s “Birdsong” (both BBC2) and Stephen Poliakoff’s wartime drama “Glorious 39” (BBC Films). These performances were fine, with moments of brilliance, but they were not revelatory. James Marsh had seen him hold his own opposite Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) in “My Week with Marilyn” (2011): “It wasn’t a very epic film, but I could see there was a lot more to him than the character he was playing.” When Marsh watched “The Yellow Handkerchief” after the session in the pub, he was “astonished at how Eddie seemed to disappear”.

Marsh is echoed by Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of “The King’s Speech”, who cast Redmayne in the Channel 4 mini-series “Elizabeth I” (2005) and “Les Misérables” (2012). “His ability to disappear into the personalities he’s creating is very rare. There’s a type of film acting in which the audience want to see the actor they know and love, but Eddie seems to be drawn to these roles that require a lot of work to disappear into something that’s not him.”

“What I’ve worked out is that whenever I jump further from myself, I seem to have more success,” Redmayne says, using a favourite metaphor. It is a drab morning in August 2013 and we are in Borough Market in London. Surrounded by every kind of artisan foodstuff, we sit on cheap plastic chairs in Maria’s Café, which was here long before the baristas moved in. Redmayne, wearing a blue baseball cap, orders two mugs of frothy tea and one of Maria’s bacon, cheese and bubble baps. It’s for me. Naturally skinny, he now has to lose weight to play Hawking at his sickest, and then go back to the make-up designer, Jan Sewell, to be “made to look healthy”.

Since I saw him last, he has been gathering research on his iPad and in two ring-binders of notes. “Be curious,” Stephen Hawking impels us, and Redmayne is taking him at his word. “It is extraordinarily fascinating,” he says. “The second you start delving into this story, it’s so ripe, so complicated and full. And every piece of research I’ve done has value because it’s catalysed an idea about something else.”

He and Reynolds have been going to the MND clinic in Queen Square every fortnight. She tells me later she has been “amazed by people’s willingness to allow a stranger to hold their hand and watch it curl back in, to feel the weight of a leg.” It can’t be comfortable, for any of them. “At first, Eddie and I were pushing ourselves against the wall trying not to be there,” she says. “With one patient, I felt so moved and I thought, ‘it’s not your moment to cry’. But Eddie doesn’t bring any actoriness into the room. They can read that in his spirit. And it’s clear also that he’s not going to take any shortcuts. So it ends up being a very respectful exchange.”

Redmayne shows me some more videos of him trying to hone Hawking’s physicality, “learning to isolate muscles I wasn’t even aware of before”. There are clips of Katie Sidle demonstrating a condition called “simian hand” and talking about muscle spasms called “fasciculations” and the difference between “upper and lower neurons”; and of the nurse Jan Clarke showing Redmayne how to use an E-trans Board, a pers-pex sheet of colours and grouped letters with which MND sufferers often learn to communicate after undergoing tracheotomies. There are audio clips of him working with a vocal coach, Julia Wilson-Dixon, on Hawking’s voice, before he lost it. For much of the film, Redmayne will be wheelchair-bound. He’ll talk with his eyebrows, a few select muscles in his face, and the flat tones of a voice-box, primed to simulate the one Hawking uses.

Has he met Hawking, I ask? He has been pushing for a meeting since day one, but Hawking is “very busy”. Redmayne has had dinners with Jane and her second husband Jonathan Hellyer-Jones (also in the film, played by Charlie Cox) and has met two of the designer Steven Noble to try some of the outfits. He produces a series of photographs, so like the real Hawking that I almost choke on Maria’s excellent bubble-and-squeak. “Certain elements of his image are so recognisable, like his glasses, and his physical shape in clothing—I knew that would help a lot.”

His Photo Stream also contains a weirdly long series of nondescript rooms and hallways. “Shots from the location scouts,” he says. “I’ve never asked to see those before, but all of this will have ramifications on what a wheelchair can do. I don’t want to turn up on day one and for those details not to have been properly thought through.” Glenn, one of the MND patients, has invited Redmayne to his home in Watford, which has led to a lot of notes about corners and corridors. And penmanship: there’s a video of Glenn trying to pick up a biro and write his name. “That’s just absolutely exhausting, that is,” Glenn tells him on the video, with zero self-pity.

“And that’s critical,” Redmayne tells me. He’s been mining the screenplay, rooting out scenes in which the thumbprint of Hollywood might show up. He “pushed and pushed at the script, inflected it with details that felt true based on his grasp of Stephen’s physicality,” Marsh says. “He did a huge amount of work on the script, he was absolutely determined to do justice to the disease.” One scene had Hawking, frustrated by his failing hand when trying to write down an equation, ripping through the paper in fury. “He wouldn’t have been able to grip the pen,” Redmayne says, coolly. “There is no way he would have torn through a page.” So the scene went.

To anchor himself against the chaos of non-chronological filming, he has created a vast, handwritten chart that tracks the scene number, the period, the content of the scene, and notes on physique, voice, make-up and costume. “It’s not normal for me to be so obsessively technical, but the second a muscle goes, it can’t come back again in a different scene,” he says. “It’s not something the director can fudge in the edit.”

Whether it’s normal for him seems debatable. Michael Grandage directed Redmayne in both “Red” and “Richard II” when he was artistic director of the Donmar. On the phone from his home in London, on the eve of his own film debut directing “Genius”, Grandage discusses Redmayne. “His ability to open himself up emotionally and let an audience in is second to none. He is a phenomenal talent. But he’s also collaborative, approachable, wonderful to work with.” In what way? “Well it’s possible, as an actor, just to turn up and say ‘what shall we do today?’ Eddie is not a passive actor. He researches—he comes to the rehearsal room brimming with stuff he wants to try out and then he comes back the next day with more. During the run, he hones that process and carries it through to the end. He’s always trying to better himself.” He sees my next question coming: “Please God, don’t ask me if there’s a negative about Eddie, because there isn’t.”

To Tom Hooper, “Eddie has this emotional transparency, and he gives you a direct window onto it, which is a rare thing, especially for an English male actor. But that’s combined with a fierce intellectual rigour.” He recently cast Redmayne for the third time, as the painter Einar Wegener, one of the first people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, in the forthcoming film “The Danish Girl”. “He’s spent months working with a movement director, meeting the transgender community in Britain and America, reading everything he can get his hands on. Most young actors in his position are doing far too many movies to do that. By the time we start he’ll have done six months of pure preparation. It’s very rare, this discipline, this conscientious, obsessional drive to get it right.”

All of which might come as a surprise to Redmayne’s tutors. Reading history of art at Cambridge, he did an average amount of work, ie, not much. He had applied to university rather than drama school to keep his parents happy, and was “passionate” about painting. “I always felt a guilt, because the engineering faculty is next to art history, so we’d walk down Fitzwilliam Street alongside these engineers, and their working hours were so long, while all these bohemian-looking people were floating in for a couple of hours’ lectures a week and going off to write about, say, Marxist art theory. And then we all leave university with a number, a degree, which doesn’t reflect the vastly different amount of hours that go into it.”

He was a choral scholar at Trinity (“useful preparation for ‘Les Mis’”) and acted in at least a play a term. His contemporaries included Rebecca Hall, Tom Hiddleston and Dan Stevens, all film stars now, so there was no shortage of competition. If my memory serves, he was not averse to sinking four pints in an afternoon. When I ask how intellectually confident he is, he fumbles about and then says, “Fair to middling? But I have to work hard at it.” He says he did work for finals, in which he took a solid 2:1, with a first for his thesis on Yves Klein, of the blues fame.

Beyond that sympathy for the engineers, he showed no interest in science. “I did physics GCSE and just about got away with it,” he told me soon after embarking on Hawking, “but I was utterly ignorant about the discoveries behind the icon. A huge part of this is: how do you play someone with a brain that big?” How is he getting on with the cosmology?” In his bag is “A Brief History of Time”, Hawking’s 1980s bestseller. Many copies of it are reckoned to have gone unread, but his is encouragingly ratty. He flips it open. “So he starts by talking about a tower of tortoises, and then moves into a discussion about Ancient Greece, and I was like, OK, I get this, I’m on to this, maybe there’s a chance I’m going to understand how the universe works!” He turns a few more pages. “And somewhere between page 21 and page 25 I completely lost it.”

He has been working with one of Hawking’s students, Professor Jerome Gauntlett, head of theoretical physics at Imperial College, London,  to grasp some of the theories that will be explored in the film—although “this is definitely not a story about physics. Anthony [McCarten, the screenwriter] has done a great job of distilling some of that, of trying to make things comprehensible to a general audience.” Progress has been slow. “Jerome will be trying to explain Hawking Radiation or singularities or string theory and I’ll have to say, no, no, I gave up physics at school: imagine I’m six years old.”

School was Eton, always a red rag to the media. Every few months, there’s a story about how much harder it is getting to succeed in acting without an affluent background. Redmayne doesn’t deny that his has helped.  “I had an incredibly privileged upbringing,” he says. “When I was working in a pub and going to endless unsuccessful auditions, I could live at home rent-free in London. That was the really great privilege.”

And Eton? “The facilities are exceptional, and if you have an interest in anything—art, design, drama, sport, music—that school will support you.” For him, though, the great gift of That School was something very ordinary: a single teacher, lighting the way. “The year after I started, a drama teacher arrived called Simon Dormandy, and he treated us like professional actors. He had high expectations—you played women, you played old men, you were pushed outside your comfort zone. Everything you see about Eton from the outside is very structured: it’s hierarchy and order, all uniforms and collars. But Simon encouraged freedom and playfulness and allowed you the room to make mistakes. Most importantly, for me, he taught us how to speak verse. I did ‘Henry VI’ and ‘Richard III’ there, and I suppose that’s where it all began.”

Dormandy was also instrumental in launching Redmayne’s professional career. “In 2002, when I was still at Cambridge and Mark Rylance was putting on the 400th anniversary of ‘Twelfth Night’ at Middle Temple Hall, the casting director from the Globe asked Simon if he knew any young actors who might play Viola. I auditioned and got the part.” As he downs the rest of his tea, I notice three girls standing by a tower of funghi, surreptitiously trying to take his photograph. “In this world, the first break is the one that matters. Because from that came everything—my agent, the whole thing.”

“Whatever Eddie’s got, that’s what you spend your life looking for,” says the agent in question, Dallas Smith, who saw him in “Twelfth Night” and signed him on the spot. “He had a unique presence, even completely untrained, the sort of magnetism that only great actors have. The fact he had gone to Eton and Cambridge was meaningless. He had the most astonishing natural acting ability. You can’t teach that.”

“Eddie has the most prodigious gift, and it’s got to a point where his talent transcends the whole discussion,” says Tom Hooper, dismissively. “There are plenty of people who went to Eton. There is only one actor like him.”

Redmayne is, in many ways, an unlikely actor. “I’ve no idea where any of it comes from,” Michael Grandage says. “I’m not sure he does. Ask him!” Redmayne was born in London in 1982 into a family that had never dipped a toe into the performing arts. His mother Patricia runs a relocation business and loves golf; his father Richard is a banker. His half-brother Charlie is the CEO of the publisher HarperCollins; his half-sister Eugenie works for Prudential. His elder brother James is in private equity and his younger brother Tom has recently qualified as a chartered surveyor. While at Cambridge, Redmayne himself did internships at Cazenoves (“the greatest acting job of my life, trying to pretend I knew what a share was”) and on the Evening Standard business pages (“I wrote a piece about tax self-assessment schemes, all of about seven lines, but I did get a byline. My mum’s probably kept it somewhere”). Then, one afternoon, his shift in the pub was interrupted by a call from Smith. He had landed a part in “Doctors”, the daytime-TV show. “Probably the most exciting day of my life.”

So where does it come from? “I have no idea either. I’m someone who likes clarity, some sense of structure, and yet I’ve ended up in this peripatetic and crazy existence, in which you’re at the beck and call of everyone else. I think that’s why family is so important to me. In the rest of my life I’m trying to create something as rooted as possible.”

Just before “The Theory of Everything” begins shooting, we meet in the bar of the Young Vic theatre in London. It’s September 2013 and Redmayne, who has been working with Reynolds all summer in the Jerwood Space nearby, is fresh from a movement session. Or rather frazzled. He orders a Diet Coke and a chicken salad. A few days ago he got his audience with Hawking. He paints a toe-curling picture of the two of them sitting at Hawking’s house in Cambridge for an hour and a half—one “vomiting forth into the void”, the other silent, motionless, amused. “I was terrified, because I’d made choices, in terms of his physical decline and his character, that I couldn’t now go back on. So I was thinking ‘oh God, what if I meet him and it changes everything, is this going to undermine all the work I’ve done?’ Then his carers, who are lovely, took me in to meet him, and the first thing I do is over-apologise for the fact that someone who’d studied art history is playing this great scientific mind.”

He sips his Diet Coke. “These days, Stephen has glasses with a sensor under them. On the screen, rather than the predictive text software he used to have, there’s an alphabet with a cursor. When he does this movement [Redmayne makes a sort of blink] it stops on a letter. So if you’re speaking to him live, it takes him a long time to respond. You don’t see that on telly, because he’s usually been sent questions in advance. And because it’s hard for him to speak and because I hate silence, I just spew forth information about Stephen Hawking to Stephen Hawking for the next 40 minutes. The first thing he eventually says, after all that time, is ‘please, call me Stephen’, because I’ve been calling him Professor Hawking all the way through. So I massively apologise for that.

“And then, for some reason, I hear myself informing him he was born on January 8th, because I’ve been talking about science and religion in our film and he makes this point in his book ‘My Brief History’ about how he was born 300 years to the day after Galileo, and then I tell him I was born on January 6th, I don’t know why I say it, but I do, ‘so we’re both Capricorns’, and then the second it comes out of my mouth I’m like, ‘Fuck. What did I just say to Stephen Hawking?’ And there is this punishing four or five minutes as he blinks away. Finally, the voice says, with killer timing: ‘I am an astronomer, not an astrologer.’ And it’s just, the idea that he might think the guy playing him in a biopic thinks he’s Mystic Meg…” Redmayne rubs his hands furiously through his hair. “I don’t think I ever will get over it.”

I ask what he was hoping to take from the meeting, besides a chat about their shared horoscope. “I suppose I wanted some sense of approval. That he was OK with me taking on his life. Obviously he hasn’t yet seen what I’m going to do, but I felt very supported.” It was also a revelation, he suggests, to see at first hand “how Stephen runs a room. He’s in complete control. Not only is he clearly adored by all the people around him, it’s amazing to see how flirtatious he is, but also he emanated wit and humour and this sort of energy. Even though he can use very few muscles now, it’s one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen. He’s very funny. With his voice machine, there’s no intonation, no way of delivering something with nuance, so all he has is the capacity to press play. Watching how he navigates that is amazing; his timing is magnificent. He is the king of the one-liner. He’s cool.” Redmayne’s eyes glitter. “He’s fucking cool.”

As we leave, I wish him luck and ask if he’s planning any more preparation. He says he is going to stick three pictures up in his trailer: Einstein with his tongue out, James Dean leaning against a wall, and the joker from a pack of cards.

A few days after the shoot wraps, on a drizzly Wednesday in December 2013, we meet at a Pizza Express near Oxford Circus. Redmayne is a lifelong devotee of their salad dressing and orders extra on the side. He looks physically shattered, if pleased to be eating pizza again. When I ask about the shoot, he can barely muster the energy to talk about it, although he raves about his co-star, Jones, describing her as “exquisite in the film. She has this amazing fragility but also a backbone. She never made the easy choices. Jane is not a well-known figure, it’s not like Stephen, so she could have taken liberties but she was authentic right down to the voice, to the manner, to the look. It’s a beautifully judged performance.”

As Redmayne tears into his pizza I notice that his face looks different, in a way that’s hard to quite pinpoint. He reaches a freckled hand up to his right cheek and explains there are now muscles there that have developed since he started working on Hawking’s facial movements and tics, his lopsided grin and his gurn.

“In nine weeks there was no let-up for him,” James Marsh tells me. “We had to keep going until the very last minute. Eddie was stretching himself, elongating himself, collapsing himself in different ways every day. He was cracking his voice, doing these violent throat clearings in a way that would allow his voice to be ruined afterwards. And every day he was reckoning with mortality and decline, and there’s a psychological element to that too. As an actor his repertoire is almost non-existent by the end: it’s eyebrows, cheeks, a bit of a smile, nothing else. But he is so alive from start to finish. What Eddie did, not only physically and mentally but emotionally, is at the far end of what an actor can achieve in a performance.”

The Academy loves a biopic, and all the more so when the protagonist is ill or injured. Seven of the past ten Best Actor Oscars have gone to portrayals of real people. Within days of the news breaking that Redmayne had been cast as Hawking, the website Deadline Hollywood suggested “this opens the opportunity for the kind of work Daniel Day-Lewis turned in in ‘My Left Foot’…” Certain roles, it has to be said, seem to have Oscar written all over them.

But roles are not performances. In July 2014 Redmayne and I meet at Tate Modern to see the Matisse cut-outs, and he hits back hard when I suggest the Hawking film fulfils a certain Oscar formula. “All I can do is fail, then,” he counters, as we take in the joyous abstractions of Matisse’s paper shapes. He has been honouring his degree, as we move around the exhibition, with an informal commentary that is engaging and illuminating, if short on Marxist theory. “It’s impossible. If the first thing that is mentioned, before you’ve even done a day’s work, is a comparison with the person who, as far as I’m concerned, is the greatest living screen actor [Day-Lewis]—then whatever you do, you’ve fallen short.”

He rails, too, against the idea that “disability is a ‘thing’; that what a disease does to a person isn’t unique to them. What’s extraordinary as I started to investigate MND is how varied it is. It ends up being one thing in some of the people I met and something completely different in others.” We stop in front of “The Snail”, because how can you not, and he tells me that Eddie, the swimming teacher who helped with his research, died not long after filming finished. “He engaged with me in an incredibly generous way. If that is what people view it as, just ‘a disability film’, that feels a bit insensitive to those living with the reality of this disease.”

James Marsh is equally robust when I raise the Oscar question with him. “You don’t embark on a project like this with those kinds of thoughts in your mind,” he maintains, gracious but unyielding. “That would be to somewhat miss the point of why anyone makes films. It’s not in anyone’s thinking. Our job was to do the best with this story; and you do that, and you put it in front of an audience. And that then completes the film: when an audience sees it. What then happens is what then happens, and we have no control or influence over that.”

On September 9th, “The Theory of Everything” goes in front of an audience for the first time, at the Toronto Film Festival. Redmayne is given a standing ovation. Hooper tells me he “wept” repeatedly. “Redmayne towers,” Catherine Shoard writes in the Guardian. “This is an astonishing, genuinely visceral performance which bears comparison with”—you’ve guessed it—“Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘My Left Foot’.”

“At times I thought Eddie was me,” is what Stephen Hawking has to say. “To my surprise, I was very impressed with the film.” His “only regret” is that there isn’t more physics. Just before Marsh locks the cut, Hawking decides to give the film his voice. It is this gesture that has quite undone Redmayne when I see him next, after he gets back to Bermondsey. “That for me is the most moving thing of all.”

He seems a little dazed. The selfies at Borough Market, the iPhone photos people grab on the Tube every day, the paparazzi shots of him and Hannah walking down the street, the offers from glossy magazines to “exclusively cover” their wedding (“no thank you!”): all this is the tip of the iceberg, surely. Does he have a sense that his life is about to change? Grinning, he points out that he’s getting married: of course his life is going to change. “I feel very lucky,” he ventures, when I press him. “Nothing has happened overnight, it’s the smallest of shifts. I’ve just put one foot in front of the other over the past decade and managed to keep working, and working with great people. So yeah, gradually, there’s being photographed surreptitiously on the Tube and it ending up online. But that’s a very small price to get to do what you’re passionate about.”

Hawking once said: “While physics and mathematics may tell us how the universe began, they are not much use in predicting human behaviour…I’m no [good] at understanding what makes people tick.” There is always a danger, as awards season beckons and we hear of the “risks” actors take, their “challenges” and “vulnerability”, their “courage”, that we lose sight of the fact that a grown person is being paid rather a lot of money to dress up and pretend to be someone else. Over the 18 months I’ve been following him, I have lost track of the number of times Redmayne has apologised for the fact that acting isn’t surgery. “It isn’t theoretical physics,” he says at one point. “It’s not solving the secrets of the universe. Solving a degenerative disease. Solving anything.”

And yet. We all know that, at their best, theatre and cinema do matter. “When approached honestly and simply, the craft of acting has the ability to change lives,” Michael Grandage says. “Eddie is someone who would never say that out loud, but he is up there with a very few actors who understand the power of simplicity and trust themselves to be that honest and that simple. Where others are making all sorts of complicated choices, he will cut through everything and give you a moment of honesty that can take your breath away.”

Grandage recalls a line that comes near the end of Shakespeare’s “Richard II”: “grief makes one hour ten”. I’m reminded of the way Redmayne described MND to me, right at the beginning of his journey—because we may as well call it that. “Like being in a prison, with the prison walls getting smaller every day,” he said. “Every hour is a day, every day is a week, every week is a month and every month is a year. Your notion of time changes. Your notion of everything changes.” Grief makes one hour ten. “He manages to find a deep emotional well from which to be able to say a line,” Grandage goes on, “and by showing so much of himself, makes us learn something about ourselves. Then he just says it. And it is in that, in the just saying it, that the alchemy occurs.” 

The Theory of Everything out now in Britain and America

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