A few days before the start of filming The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne visited Stephen Hawking at his home in Cambridge, England. “The reality of meeting him was pretty intimidating,” Redmayne told me. “You’ve done five months of work, you’ve watched everything, you’ve read everything, and you arrive to meet the man. I was left with him, the two of us. Because he can only move the one muscle in his face, now it takes him a wee while to reply in conversation. What he does now is, his eyes move, and his glasses have a sensor. He sees a cursor move across the alphabet, and he uses the muscle below his eye to stop it when it gets to the right letter. So, it can take a while for him to respond. And I’m someone who, as you can hear, suffers from
“There was a moment when he was taking some time responding to something. Here I was, filling the air, telling him about himself. I was a nervous wreck. He was laughing a lot. I couldn’t tell if it was with me or at me. Probably a bit of both. He makes a big point in his books that he was born on the eighth of January, which is the date of Galileo’s death. I said, ‘You’re the eighth, and I was actually born on the sixth of January, so we’re both Capricorns.’”
This story first appeared in the September 22, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Long pause, and then the famous computerized voice: “I’m an astronomer, not an astrologer,” Hawking said.
“I thought, Holy shit,” Redmayne said. “Stephen Hawking thinks the actor who’s playing him thinks he’s Mystic Meg or Shelley von Strunckel.”
Redmayne’s stars, meanwhile, seem to be aligning. The Theory of Everything is due out November 7, and Redmayne’s performance — inhabiting not just a famous character, but one who is subjected to a gradual and total disability—is the sort that has been known to earn an actor a statuette or two. February will see the release of Jupiter Ascending, a space opera by the Matrix auteurs Andy and Lana Wachowski. Redmayne stars as one of the villains opposite galactic saviors Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum.
At 32, Redmayne is engaged to longtime girlfriend Hannah Bagshawe, who is head of global public relations at Mergermarket Ltd., an international media company specializing in financial news, with headquarters in London, New York, and Hong Kong. He wouldn’t say if they have set a date and wouldn’t say much about her when asked directly, but she kept appearing in his anecdotes—dragging him to bookstores because of her obsession with the Bloomsbury Group; putting up with him when he comes home from movie sets and has a hard time getting out of character; counseling him through an embarrassing charity tennis match. Redmayne is boyish, thoroughly freckled, and unceasingly earnest when he talks about his work. Sitting down with him on the terrace café of the Young Vic theater, just south of the Thames and around the corner from the actor’s flat, in the part-Dickensian, part-pomo London neighborhood of Borough, I remarked that, from all I have heard about him, he seems not to have a dark side. I asked if he had ever been in a fight.
“Pathetically, I haven’t, other than the odd shove in the queue to a club when I was 18, 19.” That morning, I had watched him in Hick (2011), one of those train wrecks of a film with a cast so good (Chloë Grace Moretz, Blake Lively, Juliette Lewis, Alec Baldwin) that you can’t stop watching, if only to see which wrong move will come next. Redmayne plays a drifter who saves a teenage runaway, played by Moretz, from a rapist barfly by bludgeoning him to death with a sink he rips off the ladies’-room wall. (“That was my superhero moment,” he says.) But Redmayne’s character later rapes the girl himself and accidently kills Blake Lively’s character with a pistol he doesn’t know is loaded. “The hard thing about Hick,” he said, “was trying to play a character who’s hideously unlikable, but, for some reason, the kid keeps getting back in the car. So the challenge was, how do you make someone who’s hideously repugnant have a bit of charm, too? But, no, I don’t think I’m a particularly dark person.
“It’s often roles that are closer to home that I’m less successful at or that I find weirdly more difficult, because you don’t have to leap off the precipice. I don’t know about the success of it, but My Week With Marilyn”—the 2011 film in which Redmayne’s character looks after, goes skinny-dipping with, and smooches Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe—“I found really challenging, even though, on paper, it’s basically of who I am: someone who went to Eton and works in the film industry. That film I found really hard because he’s a cipher for the audience.” The role got him a nomination for BAFTA’s Rising Star Award.
Redmayne was born in London, in 1982, and his family still lives in Chelsea. It’s fair to say they’re well-placed in the English establishment: His father, Richard, is a banker in the City of London, and his half brother, Charlie, is the CEO of HarperCollins U.K. Redmayne went to Eton College, the alternately revered and resented incubator that turns pimply teenage boys into Britain’s ruling class. Those Old Etonians I’ve met tend to move through the world with the self-deprecating charm that can only be the handmaid of a steely inner confidence, and Redmayne is no exception. Nineteen have become prime ministers. David Cameron, class of 1984, has been repeatedly criticized for picking a Cabinet that could easily be mistaken for an Old Etonian cabal. The list of writers educated at Eton—Percy Shelley, George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Anthony Powell, Henry Green, Ian Fleming—is more recognizable than the roster of actors, at least to American eyes. The most famous of Redmayne’s classmates is Prince William, with whom he played a bit of rugby.
I happen to know several of Redmayne’s classmates and spent a weekend in Spain (a “stag do,” as the English call their bachelor parties) with quite a few of them, days that involved a high degree of tipsy laddishness (toreador outfit, go-karts, cheese, not a little vomiting into trash cans). “What did those Judases tell you?” Redmayne asked. But my efforts to uncover embarrassing, or at least interesting, details about Redmayne’s time at school were met with a sort of Old Etonian omertà. “Sorry, mate, can’t help you,” was the standard reply. Others responded as if they had internalized the discipline of a flack at the onset of puberty. “He was clearly brilliant from the start, the star of the school play as soon as he got there, at age 13”; “I think he’s got a real respect for the craft of acting. And he didn’t go to drama school.” So much for my contacts. One Old Etonian, a few years Redmayne’s junior, said he was “prefecty,” adding, “He was the sort of prefect you were meant to hate, but you couldn’t, because he was so nice. Really good actor and singer.”
Redmayne considered drama school after Eton but, instead, decided to go to Trinity College, Cambridge—alumni: Newton, Byron, Tennyson, Wittgenstein, Nabokov, Niels Bohr—and study art history. He wrote a thesis on nouveau réalisme painter Yves Klein, but, in 2002, he had the opportunity to play Viola in Twelfth Night, opposite Mark Rylance. “I was doing what I did at school, which is boys playing girls,” he said. “And then I went up to Liverpool and did Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”…and the Boys. I was living in a bedsit in Liverpool, doing this play, and no one particularly well-known was in it, and no one was coming to see it.” But he was enjoying the work. “I realized this was what I wanted.
“And then I did a play in London”—Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, in its first U.K. production, in 2004—“and Albee came and hung out, and he was pretty inspiring. And that whetted my appetite for doing new plays and working with writers.” (It was also the start of a minor theme of sexual deviancy in Redmayne’s work: His character, Billy, falls in love with a goat; he has gone on to play a pedophile in Hick and the object of Julianne Moore’s motherly lust in 2007’s Savage Grace.) A review in Variety caught the attention of the casting director for the CIA morality tale The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert De Niro. “She said, ‘I want you to come back and meet Bob this afternoon.’ I was like, Who? ‘Bob De Niro.’ Fuck.
“When I came back, the casting couch was full of the best actors in Britain, all in their fifties and sixties; people who never audition for anything were lined. I was the only kid there. I went in and met De Niro.” Here, he assumed a hunch, squinted, and pointed his finger: his Bob impression. “Iwanyataparyerhair.” What? “Iwanyataparyerhair.” The casting director told him to come back in three hours with his hair in a part. When he returned, there was someone else in the room, Leonardo DiCaprio, who had originally been slated to play the part later taken by Matt Damon, and Redmayne read as his son. “I was absolutely wetting myself. I looked down at the scene, from the ceiling, and said to myself, ‘Redmayne, if you die now, you’ve had it pretty good.’ From there, I just turned up and tried not to get fired.”
Redmayne’s film roles over the past eight years tend to split into two categories. He has played a series of eccentric roles in American films, like the drifter in Hick; a road-tripping Native American opposite Kristen Stewart in The Yellow Handkerchief (2008); and a young mortician awed by Jessica Biel’s candle-wax-enhanced striptease in Powder Blue (2009). The other strain has been a march through history. He has made two forays into Elizabethan England, once opposite Cate Blanchett, in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). He has been a provincial Victorian hunk, in the 2008 BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles; a soldier in the Great War trenches, in Birdsong; and an aristocrat in a family with Nazi sympathies, in Glorious 39 (2009). He has also played the role of avenging monk, in both Black Death and The Pillars of the Earth; he explained that the difference between the two productions—the first a British film, the second a U.S. miniseries—is that, for the first, he used zinc to give himself bad teeth, while American television prefers its medieval monks to have perfect smiles.
On the set of The Other Boleyn Girl (2009), Scarlett Johansson discovered that Redmayne had never seen The Big Lebowski or The Godfather. He had hardly seen anything. He had come to acting inspired by a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream he saw at the National Theatre when he was eight, and, from there, it had been theater all the way. Johansson had the other members of the cast each draw up a list of favorite films, to serve as a syllabus. He made a study of James Dean, unaware that his legend had sprung from only three movies. He drew on the Dean sense of menace for Hick, but he also learned a lot from Giant, in which the decades take their toll on Dean’s Jett Rink.
You could say that time itself is the villain in The Theory of Everything.
At the start, Redmayne’s Hawking is antic, cycling a bit recklessly around Cambridge. As a physics student, he’s the sort of absent-minded, Wagner-listening genius who scrawls the answers to impossible physics problems on the backs of train schedules. At a cocktail party, he meets Jane, played by Felicity Jones, and tells her of his dream to capture the universe in one simple, perfect equation, and she gives him her number. The only trouble, at first, is that she’s a churchgoer and he doesn’t believe in God.
Then, the fall: You deny the existence of God, and He pulls your legs out from under you. Stephen tumbles hard on his way to class, is diagnosed with motor-neuron disease, and is given two years to live. It’s this sequence of the film that’s devastatingly affecting. At first, he is in a rage against the world. During these scenes, Redmayne says he and Jones drew on their friendship—both were mentored by the London theater director and producer Michael Grandage; she yelled personal insults (edited from the soundtrack) at him as, in one scene, he smashes a croquet ball in frustration.
Jane convinces Stephen that he has got more life to live, and they marry and quickly have two children. (In a comic scene after one of his scientific triumphs, he confirms to his friends that his reproductive organs aren’t affected by MND: “It’s automatic.”) Redmayne learned a lot about motor-neuron disease for the film, but, as for Hawking’s theories, he said, “Oh, mate, I gave that up.”
A biopic spanning three decades necessarily involves some measure of telescoping and dramatic crunching, but the form also allowed Redmayne the chance to play Hawking from his youthful days to the time of his wheelchair-bound celebrity. Theory is, most of all, a portrait of Hawking’s unusual first marriage, during which Stephen—in a very English, non-explicit way—allows his wife to take up with a choirmaster named Jonathan. “It’s an unconventional love story,” Redmayne said. “Love in all its guises.”
“Imagine if you were breaking up with someone,” he said, “and you can’t intonate—you can only press play. All he can do is nudge.” Much of the dramatic burden falls on Jones at this point in the film. “This job on her was incredibly difficult,” Redmayne said. “She had so many confines. She was a complete support, in the way that Jane was to Stephen.”
The film brought Redmayne back to Cambridge. He didn’t at first realize he was returning to part of his own life. “I was in such a myopic bubble,” he said. “About three days into filming in Cambridge, I got a text message from my mum, to the effect of how amazing that, ten years on, you’re back where you were lucky enough to go to university. In Cambridge, all the place’s history is on display. It’s a staggeringly romantic place.” Hawking himself spent a few days on set. “He entirely holds the room in the most extraordinary way. And he’s fucking funny. He really is genuinely funny. And a ladies’ man. People just flock to him.”
Just before he began prepping for The Theory of Everything, Redmayne wrapped Jupiter Ascending. “There, I was dressed in some extraordinary outfits,” he said. “I was made to go and spend six months eating chicken in an attempt to get a six-pack on my pallid body. I was endlessly doing these scenes, tensing my tummy muscles. Then, the worst thing was, I was hoping I’d get to go on one holiday where I’d, for once, have something resembling a six-pack, but then the day it finished, I immediately had to begin starving myself for Hawking.”
Because of budget constraints, Theory was shot non-chronologically.
On the first day of shooting exteriors, Redmayne went from playing a healthy Hawking, to using a pair of canes, to sitting in the wheelchair. Continuity was a challenge, he said. “I needed the script to be absolutely airtight, because once that figure stops working, it doesn’t start again. With motor-neuron disease, you have upper neurons and lower neurons. The upper neurons are rigid, and the lower neurons are soft. So, you could have a rigid shoulder and a soft wrist. There was a detective-work aspect to the job of finding pictures of Stephen at the different stages of his illness and re-creating them on-screen.
“I don’t know whether I’d call it fun. I do normally quite enjoy what I do, but I’m also riddled with fear. Particularly on that job, when you’re playing an extraordinary man, a living icon, you’re representing a disease that people I’ve met—I spent three or four months visiting a motor-neuron clinic and meeting families—have suffered. And then you feel a responsibility to the science and a need to find the emotional truth of what happened between these people. All of these things were pretty challenging, and I was fueled with fear from the word go. Before I read the script, I had no idea there was this beautiful love story behind this iconic figure who, when I was at university, I’d occasionally see going by on campus.”
After the film was finished, Redmayne returned to art history, working on a British TV documentary about art from World War One. In London, his hobby is playing the piano. He bought himself a baby grand with the money he made on Les Misérables (2012), then held his breath and left the room as it was hoisted from the street and through his flat’s window. His next project will reunite him with Les Misérables director Tom Hooper, playing the artist Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe—another challenge that has plunged Redmayne into lots of reading, this time in gender theory.
On the notepad I brought along, there was one compromising phrase I had gotten from the Old Etonian Judases: “frog voice.” I pointed it out to Redmayne. “Oh, that I sound like a frog when I sing? Who said that?” he said. “Yup, good. Thanks, Judases. Well, the Muppets did a parody of Les Mis, and Kermit the Frog sang my part. It was pretty much bang-on.”