It is always difficult for an actor to portray an actual person from history, more so if that person is still alive and is as iconic as renowned scientist Stephen Hawking, but Eddie Redmayne manages to do so without missing a beat.
From his time as a student in Cambridge and 25 years since, Redmayne takes the audience through a brief moment of time in Hawking’s life as he struggles with not only the debilitating disease of ALS but also overcoming the obstacles in his life to become one of the greatest scientific minds in our history. Beside him throughout all this, was his wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones) who, with her love, dedication and determination, became an uplifting force for Hawking. At the same time, she managed not only to care for him but also pursue her own dreams.
At a recent press conference for his latest film ‘The Theory of Everything,’ Redmayne talked about his experience playing the role of Hawking, what it was like to have met someone that prestigious, and how this movie has changed his perspective on life.
How did you prepare as an actor for the role of Stephen Hawking?
That’s a very good question. Basically the moment I got the job, it was a mixture of formidable privilege and great trepidation. All I knew was that I just had to immerse myself in that world of Stephen, which is a pretty gripping world to orbit for a while. I read as much of his works as I could, I tried to understand as much as I could, which was not very much, and I’d speak to one of his old students who would talk to me about the intricacies of string theory and I would go “Imagine that I am 7 years old. Talk to me like that.”
And then there is the physical side. I spent four months meeting with a specialist in London who introduced me to people suffering from this brutal disease and their families. They were incredibly generous and many invited me to their homes so I got to see not only the physical effects on the person but also the emotional effects on families. Then I worked with a dancer to find that physicality in me. And finally I met Stephen and Jane just before we started filming and they were both formidable people.
The movie wasn’t filmed in chronological order, so did you have to chart out Hawking’s ALS progression so you know what to hit at each point of his life in the film?
I did. I did. What is interesting with a muscular-neuro disease like ALS is you have upper neurons and lower neurons. If your upper neurons go, there is rigidity and if your lower neurons go, there is a wilting. ALS is a mixture of those two things and how it manifests themselves in each person is different. There’s no documentary material of Stephen before the 80s, before he’s in the chair, so working out what his progression was towards the chair was complicated. So I basically got all the photos I could get my hands on and showed them to the specialist, Dr. Sidle, and she would go, “Okay, from that wedding photo you see that his hand is on top of Jane’s hand and is wilted so by this year, that’s gone and this year that’s gone.” So basically I was able to chart on a couple pages of every muscle and when it went and where he was vocally, whether he was on one stick or two sticks, which wheelchair he was in…
What was it like to meet Stephen Hawking for the first time?
To me meeting was Stephen was scary because I was only meeting him 4-5 days before we starting filming and by that point, I had to create some sense of an arc. He was idol-like in my mind and it was like meeting a rock star. I just got completely tongue tied. It takes him a while to speak now so there were a lot of pauses and I hate silence. So I was basically spewing out information about Stephen Hawking to Stephen Hawking. It was pretty embarrassing and after 40 minutes I calmed down and he was wonderful. He was funny. He has a razor wit and a mischievous glint. But also great power and he really controls a room.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about him?
I suppose it was… I knew he was a funny man, but didn’t know quite how funny he was. The humor and the mischief was the most revealing in that meeting as well as this basically odd syncretic thing that he can move so few muscles in his face and it is the most charismatic face I’ve ever seen. That was a very interesting thing for me to work out.
Did he mess with you with his wit?
How has playing Hawking changed you?
For me, what was extraordinary was the idea that [Jane and Stephen] were given these obstacles and how they chose to overcome those obstacles was pretty dumbfounding. I don’t want to use the work inspirational lightly as it sounds rather glib, but the fact that he was given only 2 years to live, every day beyond that he says is a gift. With her extraordinary support, he and she have lived their lives, every minute fully, passionately, living forward. I’m someone who gets caught up in the foibles and anxieties of the everyday and I think it’s a bit seeing how they’ve lived and chose to fill their time on this planet is pretty great. They are a model of… I don’t want to use the word inspiration again, but I have to.
What one take away did you get from this role?
Stephen talks about… he has this beautiful little book that came out last year called “My Brief History” which is his autobiography. It is an amazing read actually because it’s short because it takes him so long to speak now. The thing with Stephen is that he distills every word and if you saw, he just joined Facebook and he wrote “Be Curious.” How can 2 words be so powerful? Be curious. Of course!
What do you hope movie goers will get from this film?
I hope the film, though it is obviously about a very specific group of people and very specific set of circumstances, I feel that everyone in life has limitations forced upon them by other people, or by circumstances, or by fate, or whatever, but it is how one chooses to overcome them or to deal with them that defines us really.
‘The Theory of Everything’ opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 7 with more theater locations added over the next few months.