“I didn’t think I had much of a shot of getting the [part],” said Eddie Redmayne of playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, which centers on the famous astrophysicist’s life with his first wife, Jane Wilde (but played by Felicity Jones). Not only did Redmayne win the role, but he also turned in such a brilliant performance he’s been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. (He’s already won the SAG and Golden Globe award in that same category.) It’s well-earned praise — Redmayne deftly portrayed the ravaging physical effects of motor neuron disease and conveyed the charm and spirit of Hawking using limited facial expressions.
Redmayne and costar Jones will be in Santa Barbara to accept the SBIFF’s Cinema Vanguard Award for their work in Theory this Thursday, January 29. In anticipation of his appearance, I spoke with Redmayne about how he prepared for the role, actors he admires, and his love of his craft.
I heard you trained with a dancer to help you with the physical contortions for the role, but I’m curious how you were able to express emotions with so little movement? How did you prepare for that? Well, [I read] as much as I could; Jane’s book was pretty extraordinary, and then Stephen came out with an autobiography called My Brief History just before we started filming. Also, getting to spend time with Jane and Stephen and Jonathan Jones, and their children. Tim Hawking, who is Stephen and Jane’s youngest son, said something to me. I was so worried about being authentic [concerning] the specifics of ALS and being true to that. He said, “Yeah, Eddie, you absolutely must be true to it, but at the same time, remember that we did used to get into dad’s wheelchair and use it as a go-cart. We used to put swear words into his voice machine and press play.” … Finding humor, but also the emotional side of it, really came from spending time with people living with ALS and their families and hearing their stories and trying to listen and find somewhere for it in me.
You were able to get so much across — compassion, humor, tenderness, anger — using such little physicality. It’s quite impressive. The interesting thing about spending time with Stephen is that even though he can move so few muscles — and even in his face he can just move a few — but it’s like all of the facilities that able-bodied people have of gesture, of tone of voice; it’s like all of those energies channeled into those few muscles. He has an incredibly charismatic face, even though it’s very little that he can move.
Was there anything particularly surprising about making The Theory? The whole thing was pretty surprising. I didn’t think I had much of a shot of getting it when I was trying to get the job. The whole process was a mixture of wondrous privilege and great trepidation, and every day it was a surprise. Every day you were having to navigate new territory, and it kept Felicity and I on our toes, but it was really a great treat.
I imagine that’s why you are an actor, to have experiences like that. Absolutely. I think so. I don’t think you realize that going into it, but after a few years, you realize that the nomadic circus-like quality of it is part of [the reason].
Have you made any other films since Theory? No, I haven’t actually made any films since. I’m about to start work on a film called The Danish Girl, which Tom Hooper is directing. We start that in a couple of weeks’ time. But I haven’t done anything in between. I’ve been having some down time.
That sounds good because you tend to stay pretty busy — you overlap stage and television and film. Yes. I love it because they are such different experiences; they really are. They are different media that inform each other. Does that make sense? I feel like one thing is always informing the next.
Do you have a favorite? I love the variety.
Do you think you’d ever do a television series? Yeah, and I have done one in the past. In fact, a few years ago I did a pilot for an HBO show which John Logan [Rango, Skyfall] wrote, and I really enjoyed it. I think television is a great medium, and I love watching it. I’m about 10 years behind [laughs], but I quite like watching long-form television.
Speaking of television, I saw your interview with Graham Norton … Oh, god. [Laughs.]
… which was quite delightful. I feel you should play a lead in a comedy. You’re quite funny. Thank you. [Laughs.] Maybe I should tell my agent that. I think it would be good after all these quite intense things I’m doing — a rom-com maybe.
Not that the dancing bit that you did for Oliver was funny… How dare you. [Laughs.] It was all a blur. I definitely didn’t watch it. All I remember is that it was wondrously humiliating.
Who are your acting heroes? Really it’s people I’ve been lucky enough to work with — like Alfred Molina I respect so much as an actor, as a man. Jonathan Pryce. And then Julianne Moore. She was very generous with me. We did a film together called Savage Grace, and I just love watching everything she does. You know there will always be something riveting and intriguing. Who else? Let me think. I think Ed Norton is pretty formidable. I love watching him. God, I could list hundreds of actors that I love.
Have you worked with Ed Norton? No, but I’m also getting to work at the moment with an actor called Ben Whishaw [Layer Cake, Skyfall, Cloud Atlas]. I don’t know if you know his work, but he’s a British actor who is absolutely extraordinary. So that’s a bit of a dream.
You got a degree in art history from Cambridge. How did you get into acting? I’d always sort of done acting in school and enjoyed it, but my other passion was art and art history. So when I applied to university, I applied knowing that [Cambridge] had really good drama, so I got to do that sort of alongside, and I enjoyed it.
You were a student at Cambridge while Hawking was a professor. Did you ever encounter him? I’d never met him, but I’d seen him across a distance, his famous silhouette, and I would occasionally overhear his voice. You’d see him surrounded by people. There was definitely a sort of rock-star quality to him.
I’ll bet you couldn’t imagine then you’d actually be playing him in a film. Never. [Laughs.] I still can’t really imagine it.
Do you have any ambitions to write or direct or produce? I would definitely never say never. I love the collaborative quality of filmmaking, but I’m still learning so much. I knew very little about film before I started. I’ve worked as an actor for about 14 years, but maybe in film only about 10. I feel like I still have such a vast amount to learn, but definitely never say never.
What do you feel like you still need to learn? Just the intricacies of even the technical side. … As an actor, you come on at the last minute, whereas both films — The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl — that I’m starting now have taken 10 years for people to put together, so it’s that sort of long commitment.
How do you balance your life with all the work? I think, I … I don’t know. [Laughs.] I have an incredibly wonderful wife who is supportive, and I try and … I don’t really know. Well, after this film, I did need a wee while to take a bit of time out because it is all-consuming when you’re working, you know. And you try to have a normal life by the side of it.
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones will be presented with SBIFF’s Cinema Vanguard Award Thursday, January 29, at 8 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). For info, visit sbiff.org.