COVER STORY: Eddie Redmayne always knew that the toughest critic of “The Theory of Everything” would be the man he portrays onscreen — Stephen Hawking. The 72-year-old physicist recently made the trek from his home in Cambridge, England, to Working Title’s production offices in London to watch the biopic based on his life. Hawking’s longtime battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has left him a quadriplegic, and he speaks through a computer-generated voice amplifier. Before the screening, he met Redmayne. “He took a while to type something, then said, ‘I’ll let you know what I think — good or otherwise,’ ” Redmayne recalls. “I said, ‘Stephen, if it’s otherwise, you don’t need to go into details.’ ”
After the lights came up, a nurse wiped a tear from Hawking’s eye. He called the film “broadly true,” and even celebrated with the film’s director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten at a bar where he sipped champagne from a teaspoon. “He emailed us,” Marsh says, “and said there were certain points when he thought he was watching himself.”
Redmayne pulls off one of the most challenging — and bravest — transformations of the year in “The Theory of Everything,” which Focus Features releases on Nov. 7. It’s the first leading role for the 32-year-old actor, who won the Tony for the 2010 play “Red,” and appeared in 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn” as fly-on-the-wall Colin Clark, and 2012’s “Les Miserables” as the heartthrob Marius. In the Wachowski sibling’s upcoming space-opera “Jupiter Ascending” (slated for February), Redmayne plays an intergalactic tycoon, and he’ll take on Lili Elbe, a transgender woman born as the painter Einar Wegener, in Tom Hooper’s drama “The Danish Girl,” which starts shooting in January. But first, he’ll need to jump through the three-ring circus of awards season.
After “The Theory of Everything” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Redmayne earned raves and Oscar buzz. The blogosphere is salivating over the prospect of him competing with another classically trained British actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of World War II drama “The Imitation Game.” But Redmayne won’t campaign negatively against his friend, whom he met when the two were playing Scarlett Johansson’s husbands in 2008’s “The Other Boleyn Girl.”
“I totally see why people are (comparing us), because of the subject matter; we both play geniuses,” says Redmayne, sitting on the outdoor patio of his SoHo hotel on a recent New York afternoon. “But I won’t be engaged in that. I think he’s the most beautiful actor. I’ve long admired his work, and continue to do so. I hope there’s room for both our films.” Cumberbatch had played Hawking in a 2004 BBC TV movie, and the actor’s name even showed up on set one day, when “Theory of Everything” was filming at his old boarding school. “There was this hilarious moment when we were shooting a scene at Harrow School,” Redmayne says. “There was a wooden board with names engraved on it, and by my head was ‘B. Cumberbatch.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re haunting me!’ I took a selfie of me dressed as Stephen and sent it to Ben.”
Redmayne is part of the new British invasion in Hollywood — a group of actors that includes Cumberbatch, Andrew Garfield, Jack O’Connell (“300: Rise of an Empire”), Charlie Cox (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Tom Hiddleston (“The Avengers”). Many of these leading men have passionate fans on Twitter and Tumblr (“Redmayniacs” and “Cumberbitches,” for instance), though none is yet a giant global box office draw.
“What’s really interesting about Eddie is that what turns him on are really tough, tricky roles,” says Working Title co-chair Eric Fellner. “But he’s an incredibly good-looking man. So he can be a movie star too.” Redmayne won’t classify himself that way. “A movie star is someone who has to open a film to gazillions of dollars,” says the actor, who lives in London with his fiancee Hannah Bagshawe. “I’m just trying to pay my mortgage.”
Redmayne grew up in England, where one of his first roles was in a West End production of “Oliver!” at age 11. He had only one line, as “Workhouse Boy No. 40,” but he still remembers it: “Books you ordered from the bookseller, sir?” He enrolled in prestigious boarding school Eton College, studied art history at Cambridge and appeared in an all-male stage production of “Twelfth Night” as Viola that landed him a U.K. agent. One of his early screen roles was as Julianne Moore’s son in the 2007 indie “Savage Grace,” which deals with incest. “Eddie came in for the audition with Julianne, and the two of us looked at each other and said, ‘Why should we bother reading anyone else?’ ” notes the film’s director, Tom Kalin. Redmayne says that after Moore commented on how much they looked alike, he was never more grateful for his freckles and reddish hair.
Kristen Stewart, who co-starred with Redmayne in the 2008 indie “The Yellow Handkerchief,” says he thrives on taking risks. “We had a great time together,” Stewart says. “This is not a word I use a lot, but it describes him perfectly. He is a fucking lovely man. And he’s astounding as an actor. He’s the type of actor, and guy, you want to go on an adventure with.”
Redmayne recalls visiting Hollywood in his early 20s for auditions with other unknowns like Garfield, Tom Sturridge and Jamie Dornan. “You’d come over for a month,” Redmayne says. “We used to go to the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood, and split a sandwich between us because that meant we could get cheaper parking. We’d swim and play table tennis for hours.” It was, in many ways, a surreal existence trying to break into the business. “We were staying on friend’s agents’ floors, and renting places together,” Redmayne says. “I’d be driving the cheapest rental car. But then you’d get to turn up at the CAA party. All these huge limos would arrive. I’d be in this red blob.”
Redmayne says there was a comfort in his expat community, because even if he didn’t land roles, he’d be happy when one of his friends did. “When we started going out for the same parts, it never got in the way of our friendships,” says Cox, his co-star in “Theory,” who screen tested for “My Week With Marilyn.” Redmayne tells a story about how at the press junket for “Les Miserables,” a journalist asked him if he’d ever audition to play Christian Grey in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” After he said yes, the book’s author, E.L. James, dissed his candidacy. “She took to her Twitter feed to go, ‘Under no circumstances!’ ” Redmayne recalls. “I was like, all right, all right! Am I that bad? I can put a whip in my hand. I can get all kinky, can’t I?” He scrunches his face in a way that suggests more of an academic than an S&M expert. “Apparently not,” he concedes.
But he got into great shape for “Jupiter Ascending.” “The Wachowskis had encouraged me to develop a six-pack,” Redmayne says. “So I’d spent months basically doing sit-ups and eating chicken, and then the day that it finished, I started prepping for ‘The Theory of Everything.’ I was like, ‘Please, it’s the only time in my life that I’ve ever got close to abs! Can’t I just walk down a beach?’ ” He promptly started the process of losing 15 pounds to play Hawking. “I just didn’t eat dinner, basically,” he says. He also grew out his fingernails, despite protests from his fiancee, after reading that Hawking had that habit. “Mine were long enough to be pretty unattractive,” Redmayne says. “They were a bit scratchy and generally dirty.” But his appearance was the least of his worries — entering Hawking’s world would present far more formidable challenges.
It took a decade to get “The Theory of Everything” to the big screen. In 2004, McCarten read the book by Jane Hawking, Stephen’s first wife, about their life together, and traveled by train to Cambridge to meet her. “Will you let me in?” he recalls asking. “I had to convince her and her family it was a good idea.” He wrote several drafts of the script, and shared them with Jane. When she finally gave him permission to adapt her story, he optioned the rights independently. The project eventually landed at Working Title, with documentary filmmaker Marsh (“Man on Wire”) attached to direct. Universal, which picked up the biopic with a budget of less than $15 million, is releasing it via Focus Features.
The movie’s creative team had drawn up a list of high-profile British actors who could play Hawking — including Garfield and Michael Fassbender — but Redmayne wasn’t on it. With the help of his agent, CAA’s Josh Lieberman, he was able to book a meeting with Marsh in a London pub. “It was 3 in the afternoon,” says Redmayne. The actor asked for a beer, and instantly regretted his decision when Marsh ordered a coffee for himself instead of alcohol. “In the end,” Redmayne says, “he ended up drinking a ton of coffee and I ended up drinking a ton of beer, so I was pissed and he was high on caffeine.” But at least they could see they were creatively compatible. “We had a like-minded attitude of ‘We have no idea how we’re going to do this, but we trust in each other to be brave enough to make mistakes,’ ” Redmayne says.
He got the offer to play Hawking without an audition, which was a double-edged sword. “At least when you’ve auditioned, they’ve seen some sense of what you can do,” says Redmayne (he read three times before nabbing his role in “Les Miserables”). “I was thrilled and instantaneously nervous.” He was then asked to read with British actress Felicity Jones (“Like Crazy”), who was being considered to play Jane Hawking. “James kept calling me saying, ‘Eddie, by the way, this isn’t an audition for you.’ I was like, ‘Bullshit!’ Don’t pretend for a moment that Donna Langley isn’t seeing this,” he says of Universal’s chairman, who shepherded the project. Jones and Redmayne aced their scenes together, and she was offered the job on the spot.
Redmayne spent four months studying Hawking’s life, a process that required so much research, it was like writing a doctoral dissertation. He watched every documentary and YouTube video he could find on the man. “I tried to read literally everything I could get my hands on,” says the actor, who pored over all of Hawking’s books. “It became hilarious, because I would get 40 pages in, and I was like — ‘Eddie, none of these words make any sense to you.’ ” He contacted a physics teacher at Imperial College London who proved to be a good translator. He also worked with a choreographer, Alexandra Reynolds (she made the zombies twitch in “World War Z”). “We put what we knew into picking up a pen, drinking, walking, existing,” says Reynolds, who labored with Redmayne for four hours a day, and filmed his movements on an iPad for them to study. She’d pose questions to him like, “What’s happening in your pelvis? Are you holding your head right?”
Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease when he was 21, and wasn’t expected to live past 25. Doctors now know there are many forms of ALS, an illness that has sprung to the public’s attention with the Ice Bucket Challenge. Every two weeks, Redmayne would visit a neurology clinic in London, where he’d interview patients. He met with more than 30, and even went to some of their homes. Since the film wouldn’t be shot chronologically, he had to understand how the disease affected Hawking at different stages of his life, and had a doctor consult with him on vintage photographs to see how Hawking’s body deteriorated.
Redmayne compiled his findings on a sheet of paper he carried with him everywhere. “It was like the Magna Carta,” says Marsh, who made him scan it in case it got lost. “It became the most important document beyond the script.” Redmayne knew that after the cameras started rolling, he’d have no room for error. “The thing about motor neuron disease, once a muscle stops working, it doesn’t start again,” he says. “So often in the edit, directors and editors will shift things around. James and I were absolutely adamant that Anthony’s script would have to be pretty solid from the get-go.”
Just days before shooting began, Redmayne finally got word that Hawking had agreed to see him in Cambridge. He was so nervous, he spent the first part of the conversation telling Hawking about the physicist’s own life. He called him “professor,” but Hawking wanted to be referred to by his first name. “It was complicated when I met him, because by that point, I’d spent so much time researching him,” Redmayne says. “It was the trepidation of not only meeting someone with an extraordinary brain and iconic status, but also — what if I got it wrong?”
Not only were Redmayne’s instincts correct about Hawking, but the meeting proved invaluable in sketching out some final details. Hawking asked Redmayne if he would be playing him before he was forced to rely on his voice machine, and he told the actor, “My voice was very slurred.” Says Redmayne: “He has one of the most expressive faces. You’re never playing relaxed. The irony I found was that everything you’ve been taught about film acting is to reduce. The weird thing here is you are doing the absolute opposite. Your face is in these huge extreme positions and expressions.”
Redmayne was so on edge the night before the shoot, he couldn’t sleep. “It’s the only all-nighter I’ve done in my life,” he says. “One of the first scenes was an intense, emotional one. I think it helped.” When he played Hawking in the later years of his life, Redmayne would sit in a wheelchair with his legs crossed and his head tipped over, in a position that affected his breathing. It was at times physically painful to contort his body for that long. “He was really suffering, but he never complained,” Marsh says. And there was this other trick: prosthetic ears. “When we wanted to get him thinner and smaller, do you know what we did?” reveals McCarten. “You make the ears bigger and the whole body seems smaller.”
Hawking made one more notable appearance before the film wrapped. He and Jane visited the set during the scene where their characters dance with each other at a Cambridge party. The physicist lived up to his reputation as a flirt. “When Felicity came in, sparks flew,” Redmayne jokes. Hawking asked her for a peck on the cheek, and the actress was more than willing to oblige. “I was flattered,” Jones says. “I got to kiss an icon.”
Judgment day came, with the nerve-wracking screening. But Redmayne had nothing to worry about. Hawking was so pleased with the movie, he even responded with a generous gift — that the filmmakers swap the synthetic voice they had to create and replace it with his own, trademarked computerized version. “We spent a lot of time and money trying to reproduce the voice, but we never got it,” McCarten says.
Redmayne was moved when he heard of Hawking’s offer. He was never quite sure he was landing the performance, which he watched every night on the dailies — the first time he’s ever done that. “You’re just hoping to get there,” Redmayne says. “Yet there’s this constant frustration — it’s always underwhelming, because you never quite make it. But with his specific voice, it’s an actor’s dream. You’re one step closer to the truth.”