Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in ‘The Theory of Everything’
For The Theory of Everything, what was originally the greatest physical challenge of Eddie Redmayne’s career became second nature. He trained long and hard to be able to contort his facial muscles into the unmistakable grimace of Stephen Hawking, the famed cosmologist Redmayne plays in the biopic which opens in select theaters on Nov. 7. Now the 32-year old actor can do it on command, even turning the New York hotel room where Yahoo Movies talked to him before the movie’s premiere into a stage.
“You’re not relaxed, everything is [twisted] and you’re sustaining these things and trying to activate these muscles here and control your breathing pattern and make sure your blinking is slower,” says Redmayne as he shrinks his cheeks and coils his eyebrows and lips. “What ended up happening was that those scenes were the most physically exhausting scenes, the scenes where he can move the least.“
Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking begins in the early 1960s. The film opens with the charmingly brilliant but unfocused Cambridge physics student falling in love with his future wife, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Shaky hands and bowed legs hint at the devastation to come: Hawking is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1963. For the rest of the movie, Redmayne recreates the rapid physical deterioration that left Hawking all but paralyzed and totally reliant on the loyal Wilde.
It’s a revelatory performance and also a somewhat unexpected one from the actor best known for his role as Marius in the big screen adaptation of Les Misérables. Even Theory’s director James Marsh (an Oscar-winner for the documentary Man on Wire) was uncertain Redmayne could pull it off.
"When James and I were speaking on the phone, he had only seen the period dramas that I had done,” Redmayne recalls, “and he said is there anything you’ve done that is physically unlike yourself?” In fact, he had: The Yellow Handkerchief, a tiny indie from 2008 that co-starred Kristen Stewart. In an unlikely bit of casting, Redmayne played an adopted Native American who had, as he puts it, “an odd physicality.” Few people saw that film, but it was enough to convince Marsh that Redmayne could take on a unique physical challenge.
Redmayne spent months studying videos of Hawking and meeting patients suffering with ALS. He worked with a dancer named Alex Reynolds to help his body achieve the extreme flexibility required to contort his muscles and hold them that way for hours on end. “Dancers are not only emotional artists, but they do it again, do it again until they get it right. So in the prep for these months, Alex would have me sustain these positions and stretch into places, access places that my body hadn’t accessed before.” Redmayne says.
The pair would set up in the park across from Redmayne’s London apartment working on his muscles and practicing the different stages of Hawking’s walk, which degenerated from a confident stride to a leg-dragging struggle. “Alex would come film it on the iPad and we’d go and scrutinize it and try again,” he explains. “I got all the location photos sent, so I could see what terrain I was going to have to navigate… I got sent parts of the costume in prep so that I could walk with the shoes.”
Because he would have to portray the many stages of Hawking’s deterioration during a nonchronological shoot, Redmayne kept a chart that detailed the decline of the scientist’s body, encompassing everything from his walk to his facial muscles. “I remember one of the producers coming up to me and being like, ‘I think you’re going too far there,’” Redmayne says, “and me going, ‘Please don’t say that, because I’ve tracked this so specifically.’… When you’re depicting an illness, you don’t want to parody or embarrass yourself, or more importantly, make a joke of the illness, so I had to stick to my guns and say, ‘No, I’ve done this: I know it’s right.’”
Redmayne also had a pretty good ally in the detail department: Hawking himself, the renowned author of A Brief History of Time. The two met on multiple occasions, talking for hours about everything from science to the particulars of Hawking’s paralysis.
Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde on their wedding day; Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in ‘The Theory of Everything’
”Stephen asked me if I was playing him before the voice machine, and when I said yes, he said, ‘My voice was very slurred,’” Redmayne says. “At that time, the producers were a bit scared of getting to a place of incomprehensibility, because they didn’t want subtitles. But when Stephen said that, it re-invigorated me to go back and say ‘Look, we have to be true to what this disease is.’” That led to screenwriter Anthony McCarten re-writing elements of the script to feature Jane half-translating for her struggling husband, a compromise that kept everyone happy.
The actual shoot was a challenging one for Redmayne. Marsh describes the actor performing “a kind of appalling ‘ughhh’ sound to get his voice ready for the next scene,” and Redmayne would try to hold particular poses even after Marsh yelled “cut” on a scene. “Stephen can’t move, so if you saw that there was a slight shift [in his body], that’d be bad,” the actor says. Redmayne saw an osteopath at least twice a week during production to sort out his aching back, and an acupuncturist was periodically called to set for quick sessions in between takes.
Though the physical accomplishments will be the fuel of the inevitable Oscar campaign, Redmayne does his best to turn the focus away from that aspect of the project. “I didn’t want it to be a disease film,” he says, both because Hawking focuses so little on his own disability in real life, and because the film truly is about Hawking and Wilde’s remarkable (and troubled) marriage.
Theory is based on Wilde’s second memoir, Travelling to Infinity, which detailed the highs and lows of their life together. (The couple divorced in 1995.) In reality, Wilde’s life and career were consumed by the care of Hawking, especially as he became more famous. Also, remarkably, they were able to have three children together.
Because her husband refused to hire professional help for years, Wilde’s entire existence was devoted to serving her family. “How can you retain your pride and sense of self when everything is being done for you?” Redmayne — who is about to get married himself — asks rhetorically, deflecting inquiries about how he would handle such a difficult situation. “Stephen wouldn’t for a long time say ‘thank you,’ and I can absolutely understand why, because you’re like, ‘If I let in that guilt, then it’s too much.’ So you live proud and strong. But no, I think it was formidable what Jane did.”
Stephen Hawking in 2013
Redmayne has an emotional investment in defending both Hawking and Wilde, given the time he spent with them both before and during the production. He dismisses any notion that Hawking was a particularly difficult husband, allowing only that he’s “complicated and doesn’t set out to please people,” and offers Wilde’s participation as proof that they told a story that’s faithful to both people. “On day one of shooting, I was dressed as young Stephen Hawking, and Jane comes running out and says, ‘No, no, no, no, no, his hair would be much messier!’” he recalls. “And she literally styled my hair.”
Redmayne is still in touch with the family — Hawking and Wilde have buried the hatchet in recent years — and looks forward to reuniting with them at the London premiere. “They’re amazing,” he says. “They’ve been so generous. Stephen even gave us his voice to use in the film, and for me, that was pretty special.”
See Redmayne as Hawking in a trailer for The Theory of Everything: