An actor or actress can be on the periphery of stardom for what seems like an eternity before the right role comes along at the right time and transforms his or her career. Do you know how many times you probably saw Michael Fassbender on screen before he technically broke out four years ago? Did you know Benedict Cumberbatch had been a working actor for almost a decade before he finally got Hollywood's attention after “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Sherlock” (2011)? Enter the latest star on the verge of global recognition: Eddie Redmayne.
Ironically a good friend of Cumberbatch's, the London native has been a fixture in front of moviegoers since he earned his big break starring alongside Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie in Robert De Niro's “The Good Shepherd” (2006). And, he”s actually worked pretty consistently since, starting with “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007), starring as Kristen Stewart”s love interest in the Sundance indie “The Yellow Handkerchief” (2008) and landing a role in the studio period piece “The Other Boleyn Girl” (2008). He became the global face for Burberry in 2008, won a Tony Award in 2010 for the play “Red” and was the man Marilyn Monroe left behind in “My Week with Marilyn” (2011). Most moviegoers recognize him, however, from his beautiful singing voice in Tom Hopper”s Best Picture nominee “Les Misérables” (2012). The 32-year-old clearly hasn”t been hiding, but unless you”re a hardcore cinephile or movie musical fan, you've likely just recognized his face. You've heard this before and you'll hear it again, but in Mr. Redmayne's case, it's the absolute truth:
That's all about to change.
Redmayne is a sly charmer. He”s funny, candid, self-deprecating and he”s been doing this long enough to say the right things to perk up an interview. It's a few days following the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of “The Theory of Everything” and Redmayne is sitting comfortably in a nondescript hotel suite for what is only the beginning of a mountain of interviews he'll do for the James Marsh-directed biopic. But, again, he's done this before. He knows exactly what to say.
“The first time in my life I have sort of almost a six pack,” Redmayne says. “I didn't get my day of going to the beach.”
While it's hard to imagine the slight Redmayne never having achieved this feat without having to attempt just a few simple crunches, it's his way of poking fun at the dramatic turn he made from playing an otherworldly villain in the Wachowskis' “Jupiter Ascending” to one of the greatest cosmologists we've ever known, Stephen Hawking, in “The Theory of Everything.”
Based on Jane Hawking”s memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” “Theory” centers on the relationship between Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Given only two years to live following a diagnosis of motor neuron disease, the couple raised three children while Stephen continued to deteriorate physically and flourish professionally. Directed by James Marsh, an Oscar winner for the documentary “Man on Wire,” the film is an honest portrayal of a marriage that can only take so many obstacles before the core relationship begins to fracture. Not only is Redmayne superb as Stephen, but Felicity Jones is awards-worthy as Jane as well.
“I remember when I first read the script I was working on 'Jupiter Ascending' and I was having to go and attempt to get a six-pack [for that role],” Redmayne says. “I was working with this trainer and eating chicken and doing sit-ups, eight zillion sit-ups.”
What he soon discovered was that his trainer on “Jupiter” also had experience with patients who suffered from the same condition that changed Hawking's life. That was Redmayne's first “in” to the character and it was conveniently close. Soon after “Jupiter” wrapped, however, the actual physical transformation began. He had to lose all the muscle he'd gained for “Jupiter” (a stone, or 14 pounds) and begin to train his body to tighten up as he attempted to achieve what Hawking still goes through on a daily basis. Redmayne had the luxury of about five months to prepare for the film and he needed it.
“When this disease takes over, it's not just everything collapses,” Redmayne explains. “Some of the muscles become sort of rigid and some become soft. I worked with a dancer who helped me kind of sculpt, and that sounds really pretentious, but it's about pulling muscles. His face is never relaxed. It was never calm. It was always like fully flexing muscles that you've never used before. It was tense in places and then relaxed in others.”
Redmayne also had to train his eyes to blink and move in specific ways while the rest of his body was rigid, because as the disease shut down Hawking's body, that's how he learned to communicate with the world. Because the film also covers a huge chunk of Hawking's life, he had to play him in different stages of the disease. And, yes, that was even harder than it sounds.
Hawking, best known for his best-selling novel “A Brief History of Time,” was first diagnosed with his condition while studying at Cambridge in the early 1960s. Unfortunately for Redmayne, there is no footage of Hawking before the disease forced him into a wheelchair toward the end of that decade. That meant there were years of Hawking's gradual decline that Redmayne had no means to reference. Instead, he figured out what he could from photographs, but it was another hurdle to cross, considering the disease affects the body differently for each person who is diagnosed with it.
“[With] motor neuron disease you have these things called upper neurons and lower neurons, and if the upper neurons go then there's a rigidity, and if the lower ones go then there's this sort of wilting,” Redmayne says. “So I basically took all these photographs to the ALS specialist who, by looking at things like when Stephen is holding Jane's hand, [could make certain assumptions].”
Redmayne continues, “There's a video of him in zero gravity. He went in NASA's [zero gravity plane] and it's on YouTube and you see him floating. And from that you can investigate what was lower and what was upper neuron. And basically I then, with this specialist, charted what we thought the physical decline was.”
Taking all Redmayne”s meticulous research into account, there is one aspect of the production that makes most actors' jaws drop and why the performance is already so respected by his peers. Even in films based on true events, filmmakers usually have the luxury of moving some scenes around in the edit to create the best possible narrative. That wasn't possible for Marsh because every time one of Hawking's muscles stops working, it never works again. Move a scene around and not only does it become historically inaccurate but it might not make sense to the audience. This forced Marsh and Redmayne to map out every scene so they knew where “their” Hawking was exactly at that time in his life.
But wait, there's more.
Because it was such a short shoot there was no luxury of filming sequentially. That's usually the case for most films, but “Theory” had absolutely no wiggle room. That meant if the production was shooting at Cambridge, Redmayne might shoot three different set-ups in one day, one where he's playing Hawkings as a slightly symptomatic doctoral student, another where his speech is slightly slurred and he's using crutches and, finally, a scene that features the familiar visage of Hawking in his electric wheelchair. Redmayne admits it was the most difficult part of his performance.
“On our first day of filming I was so nervous,” Redmayne recalls. “Like 4:00 in the morning I still wasn't asleep and I was being picked up at 5:00 and I was like, 'I can't start my first day of this film after [not being able to sleep at all for the first time in my life].' And I didn't. I arrived on set and the first scene that morning that we did was that scene when we spin around when we're young and healthy. And then lunchtime I was on the two walking sticks. And then in the afternoon I was in the second wheelchair. It was quite a trial by fire.”
He credits Marsh and his choreographer, noting, “It was good to have several eyes really tracking that.”
Not only did Redmayne meet Hawking before the shoot began, but the entire family visited the set a number of times during filming. While that could be daunting for any actor, in this case the legendary physicist's presence helped Redmayne fight for an important aspect of his performance: Hawking's slurred voice.
Many people around the globe only know Hawking's “voice” from the computer that allows him to communicate independently. Before he had an emergency tracheotomy in 1985, Hawking could still speak, but it was only decipherable to his family and friends who would often translate for him. Hawking's specific note to Redmayne about how he sounded spurred the actor to make sure he was historically accurate as possible.
“I had sort of been appealing to James and the producers if I can take it that far,” Redmayne says in regards to playing Hawking's slurred speech. “And James [was fine with it], but the producers had been a bit hesitant. When Steven said that to me it made me go back and fight harder and go, 'Look, we can't sugarcoat this disease.' We actually ended up not taking it to the full level of incompetence ability because they didn't want subtitles to be used. And that was important to me because he's lived with this brutal thing and it was important given that he had literally said this is what happened.”
Since “The Theory of Everything” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, Redmayne has seen it with audiences a number of times. In the past two weeks alone he's probably lost track of all the Q&As and social events he's participated in (Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson hosted separate events in New York just this week). And while audiences continue to be won over by the drama, any actor is going to want the approval of the real life figures they portrayed.
“From the day that I got cast it was this amazing kind of euphoria followed by basically nine months of like gut-wrenching fear,” Redmayne says. “And that was slightly relieved a few weeks ago when Steven and then Jane and Jonathan and then the kids saw the film and wrote such lovely things. Because for us, when you're playing not only an icon but living people, that is the ultimate judge.”
Hawking has given his thumbs up saying the film is “broadly true,” and Redmayne is clearly relieved.
This will be a momentous few months for Redmayne. He won't get much rest. He's getting married later this month and then will segue to even more awards campaigning for “Theory” as the film continues its trajectory toward the Academy Awards at the end of February. And Redmayne is going to be making a number of acceptance speeches this season. In fact, he's going to win a number of the big awards. Could his buddy Benedict Cumberbatch possibly steal the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama from him? Yes. Could Michael Keaton win the SAG Award for Best Actor? Absolutely. Should Redmayne win the equivalent BAFTA honor? I”d bet on it. And Oscar? Well, that”s where stars are born.
In this mix, surprisingly, Redmayne isn't getting ready to make another big studio flick. He's not joining the Avengers or the Justice League (not yet, anyway). He's not the new James Bond villain or on board the new Bourne movie. Redmayne is taking on perhaps an even more challenging role than Hawking: that of Lili Elbe, one of the first male-to-female transsexuals who had sexual reassignment surgery. He'll reunite with his “Les Misérables” helmer Tom Hooper for the project, titled “The Danish Girl,” which should start shooting early next year. And who knows? Perhaps he'll find himself in the same Oscar spotlight next year.
Make no mistake, though. Like Cumberbatch and Fassbender before him, Eddie Redmayne has made the jump and he's here to stay.
“The Theory of Everything” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 7.
[For more from Redmayne watch a brand new video interview at the top of this post or check out the individual embeds through out the feature.]