On Sept. 7, the very day that James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the famed astrophysicist was in the news again, the headline in Britain’s Sunday Times trumpeting “Hawking: God particle could destroy universe.”
“I woke up late, so I didn’t see that,” says the film’s Hawking, Eddie Redmayne, the morning after walking the red carpet. “There we go! Apocalyptic! Good!
“I love that, because I had three images on my wall in the trailer when I was filming. One of them was Einstein with his tongue out, that sort of humor of the genius. Another was James Dean, because if you look at photos of young Stephen and Jane Hawking, they’re so effortlessly cool in their completely unique way, and he is clearly such a ladies’ man. The third one was the joker in a pack of cards, because I feel like he goes through the world like that. … There’s a sort of capricious quality to him.”
Redmayne has been working toward this moment. He is an award-winning stage actor who received Tony and Olivier awards for his role as Mark Rothko’s assistant in Red, and a Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for his turn as the titular king in the Donmar Warehouse production of Richard II.
He made the leap to the big screen in 2006 with roles in the drama Like Minds and Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd.
Since then, appearances in films as diverse as The Yellow Handkerchief, My Week With Marilyn and Les Misérables have charted his career’s upward trajectory. But playing fellow Cambridge graduate Hawking from the early 1960s when he was still healthy through middle age, long after motor neuron disease had robbed him of mobility and his voice, has taken the 32-year-old London native’s career to a new level.
The Oscar buzz surrounding his Theory of Everything performance is certainly raising his profile. (The film is playing in North Texas at the Angelika Dallas and Cinemark West Plano and opens wide across DFW on Nov. 28.)
“When I got the part, it was the most extraordinary moment of euphoria, because what a privilege! But that was followed about a second later with, ‘Oh, my God. Now I’ve got to do it!,’ ” Redmayne says. “I thought there were so many places in this film where I could mess up: the science … the disease … the truth of their relationship.”
Understanding Hawking’s world
The Theory of Everything is based on Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the memoir by Hawking’s first wife, Jane. Felicity Jones plays Jane in a romantic drama that portrays their courtship, the dark days when Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the progression of his disease, and the ups and downs of their married life.
But it also limns his career and rising fame as one of the world’s foremost cosmologists. Hawking’s bestseller A Brief History of Time was naturally part of Redmayne’s research.
“I started reading it, and it was about towers of tortoises, and I thought, ‘I kind of get this.’ And then suddenly it was about ancient Greece and classical science, and I was going, ‘God, I’m getting this! I think I’m about to understand how the universe exists,’ ” says Redmayne, who says he gave up science at age 12. “Then somewhere between pages 17 and 22, I suddenly realized that I was completely lost. I did stubbornly keep reading everything.”
But trying to wrap his mind around Hawking’s theories was only part of the research. Redmayne also had to get a handle on playing someone with ALS through the full range of its progression. He had five months to prepare, working with a choreographer, a vocal coach and a makeup designer to find his way into the role.
“My instinct was that everything would affect everything else,” Redmayne says. “There is no footage of Stephen when he’s younger, so I collected all these photographs. It was really an extraordinary investigation. I took them to this doctor, Dr. Katie Sidle, at the neurology clinic in London, and looking at all the tiny details, she was able to help me find what his progression may have been, because with motor neuron disease, you have upper neurons, and when they stop working, there’s a spasticity, like a rigid quality.
“Then the lower ones stop, and that’s a wilting. ALS is a mixture of those two, but how that finds itself in each individual’s body is completely unique.”
Looking at the Hawkings’ wedding photo, he says, “It looks like they’re holding hands, but if you look closely, you can see that he’s actually leaning on her and you can see that (the hand) is wilted.”
Redmayne also visited an ALS clinic, getting to know the patients there. One, Glen, took the actor to his house to show him how it had been adapted for his illness. Redmayne was struck by the fly screens and Glen’s pleas to take care not to let any insects in through the door.
“ALS doesn’t affect how you feel,” Redmayne says. “You can feel everything, so the idea of a fly or wasp landing and you can’t do anything about it was pretty terrifying for Glen, because he lived by himself.”
Meeting the man
Five days before The Theory of Everything began filming, Redmayne finally got to meet the person he’d spent so many months researching.
“When I actually met (Hawking), I was terrified and I suffered from verbal diarrhea,” Redmayne says. “I basically ended up telling him about himself for about the first half-hour or 45 minutes. Then I began to relax a bit.’
“What I gleaned — first, there were very specific things he told me that were incredibly helpful, but also, even though he can move so little in his face now, it is incredibly expressive. His mum always described him as having very expressive eyebrows. And now, for someone who can move so little, it’s one of the most charismatic faces, and he emanates this humor and wit.
“That’s what I took away, this kind of optimism. There are so many scenes in this film in which there are gigantic obstacles being put in his way, yet clearly this man always finds the funny.
“He lives forward,” Redmayne adds. “He has been since the day he was diagnosed. He has no interest in the disease. That was the most important thing.”