Eddie Redmayne is a very well read English actor and Oscar winner for his amazing interpretation in the movie The Theory of Everything. He plays Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who was afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease in his 20s, was given two years to live, became a husband and father, and is now 72. Redmayne, 33, who in recent years has starred in films as diverse as Les Miserables and My Week with Marilyn, both movies based on books that he read. We spoke with Redmayne in New York about his role in The Theory of Everything and his passion for reading.
Eddie Redmayne: “I’m willing to learn Spanish in the future”
Q: How it is your Spanish?
A: Is very poor. I’m afraid I can barely understand a few words but I’m willing to learn in the future.
Q: Have you ever read any Spanish authors?
A: Oh yes, from García Márquez to Lorca. I love theater and Federico García Lorca has written amazing plays.
Q: Lately you have play characters based on books...
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: I recently read a beautiful book by Julian Barnes called Levels of Life. Also, a book I go back to is by Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
Q: Do you keep quotes of books?
A: Yes. I read a great quote many years ago which was a letter from Chekhov to his wife and it goes something like “Take life step by step, pace by pace, slowly, and leave the competition to others.”
Q. The role of Hawking must have been physically demanding. How did you tackle it?
A. James Marsh, the director, was generous enough to give me about four months to prepare. I read everything I could. I read Stephen’s biography and then his autobiography My Brief History came out. And I read his book A Brief History of Time. How much I understood is another matter (laughs). I also met one of his old students, who is now a professor, who tried to explain the intricacies of string theory. I said to him, “Explain it to me as if I’m 7 years old.” And I went to an ALS clinic in London every week or two, for four months. I saw photos of Stephen when he was younger trying to work out what his specific physical decline had been.
Q. How it was when you meet with him?
A. It was pretty intimidating. I met him five days before we started filming, which was complicated because we weren’t shooting chronologically. I had to sort of keep track of a physical performance and get a sense of who he was from all the documentaries I’d seen. But I had this fear of “What if I meet him and he’s not who I think he is?” Fortunately, when I met him, he was just the most vibrant and witty man, and he had a razor-sharp humor. But he’s also a powerful man. He runs the room. Even though he can say very little, you get an absolute sense that he’s in control.
Q. Did you feel you had a lot of responsibility in playing such a historical figure?
A: I felt the weight of it every second of every day. I couldn’t help but think it was kind of an impossible task, but I knew that the story felt extraordinary. Certainly the responsibility felt huge, but it did drive me.
Q. What was your method for making yourself look like him?
A. There was a lot of sitting in front of a mirror, with an iPad, with Stephen in documentaries, trying to recreate that face.
Q. You had to stay in a wheelchair, with your head tilted, hardly moving, for quite a long time. Did that cause any injuries?
A. I worked with a choreographer/dancer beforehand who helped find that physicality in me. One of the things I did was go to an osteopath from the first day of rehearsal, and he mapped out my body and kept me in shape. That was the point of the rehearsal, as well. You don’t just jump into these positions. It was like making your muscles learn to get used to it.
Q. So the making of the film has had an emotional impact on you?
A. I found it profoundly inspiring that these people had been given this many obstacles, and had managed to look at life, continuously with a positive attitude. Stephen describes how every day subsequent to that two-year period, when he was told he would be dead within those two years, has been a gift for him, and he lives every minute of his life as passionately as possible. It’s easy to get caught up in the banalities and worries of every day, but just to try and live your life as fully as you can is what I took from it.
Q: What was it about this character that you were passionate about, and what was your preparation process like for the role?
A: The passion came from reading Anthony McCarten’s unique script, as I originally thought it was going to be a straight Stephen Hawking biopic. I know Stephen as a science icon, as well as for his voice. But I studied art history in school, so I had no idea what he discovered in his career. So when I read the script, it exceeded my expectations. It seemed to me to be an extraordinary investigation into an unconventional love story. It’s about young love, love of subject matter and the failings and boundaries of love. So that excited me.
Then I fought pretty hard to get the job. From there, James was generous enough to give me time. He understood what the process for me, as an actor would be. He also gave me complete freedom to work with many interesting people who aided me.
Q: Did you watch the 2004 BBC film, Hawking, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen, before you began filming your movie?
A: Benedict and I are actually old friends. We actually both played husbands of Scarlett Johansson in The Other Boleyn Girl. (Laughs) I heard his version is extraordinary. An old friend of mine, Philip Martin, also directed it. I thought long and hard about watching it when I was in preparation for The Theory of Everything. But I would probably try to steal all the best bits, so I decided not to watch it, and I still haven’t seen it. But it’s only because I want to get through talking about this film before I watch their movie.
Q: Another challenge to this role had to portray Stephen when he wasn’t able to use his voice later in life. What was that experience like?
A: The thing about meeting Stephen was that for someone who can make very few movements, he has the most charismatic face. So the complication was that everything you’ve been taught about screen acting is that the camera sees everything, so you have to do less. In playing Stephen, I actually did more than I’ve ever done before. My face couldn’t be relaxed; I had to put it into these extraordinary positions.
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