“Maybe I suffer from Peter Pan syndrome”
Even after his masterful portrayal of Stephen Hawking, the 33-year-old British actor says his work feels like he’s playing. But his challenging roles are far from child’s play: in The Danish Girl, he’ll appear as one of the first men to undergo a transgender operation.
TEXT: Gabriel Lerman, from Toronto
There are so many reasons why Eddie Redmayne stands out among his peers: he’s charming and amiable, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and his special style makes him one of the best-dressed men in his profession.
Yet, the 33-year-old actor was never anxious to become a star, preferring to let his co-stars shine the brightest: Julianne Moore in Savage Grace, Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn and Hugh Jackman in Les Misérables. Things are different now. Redmayne’s amazing transformation into Stephen Hawking for James Marsh’s film, The Theory of Everything, has earned him critical praise and audience admiration.
A graduate of Eton with a degree in art history from Trinity College at Cambridge University, this veteran of the London theater scene is poised for super-stardom thanks to Marsh’s film, taking Best Actor (Drama) at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role. Fleshing out his résumé with work in adventure and science fiction movies, this busy actor is on the cast of Jupiter Ascending, the new film from the Wachowskis starring Channing Tatum, and he’s also preparing to portray one of the first men to get gender reassignment surgery in The Danish Girl, a bold film directed by Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for The King’s Speech. Redmayne is really in the thick of things.
How did it feel when you learned you’d gotten the role of Stephen Hawking?
“Whenever I get a job, particularly if it’s one that I worked hard for, there’s normally a moment of great elation, and then a few days later, you go, oh, now I’ve actually got to do it (laughs). On this job, the euphoria was extraordinary, and it lasted under a second. Then it was a punch in the stomach of the reality of how to go about doing it.”
How did you approach the transformation?
“[Hawking] is an icon, someone that everyone knows, but he allowed us into his life, as did Jane [his ex-wife], as did Jonathan [Hellyer Jones, Jane’s current husband who took care of Hawking as his illness developed]. I spent four or five months going to an ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] clinic in London, meeting the specialists there and also 30 or 40 people suffering from ALS. They let me into their lives, and so I feel a responsibility to portray the illness truthfully and authentically.”
¿Do you think the experience would’ve been a different if Hawking hadn’t been so involved in the project?
“Totally. It’s such an odd relationship to have someone else playing you, but he was very generous with me. Like when he allowed us to use the medal that he was given by the Queen, and when we made the film, we had a synthesized version of his voice, but after seeing the film, he gave us his voice. For me, that was the loveliest. So it’s his voice at the end of the film. When I saw the film with that, it was very emotional.”
What makes this film different from other biographies?
“This is not a story about an illness or a story about science: it’s an unconventional love story. It’s a story about love in all its guises: young love, passionate love, love of a subject matter, the foibles of love, the reality of love.”
One of the most interesting things about The Theory of Everything is how you capture Hawking’s sense of humor…
“It’s so important. I met Stephen five days before we started shooting, and although he can move very few muscles in his face now, his face and eyebrows were always very expressive.”
“He emanates this wit, this humor, but also this coolness. The thing I took away from the meeting was that. So every single moment in the film, even when he is trying to overcome incredibly brutal obstacles, always looking for a way to find the humor was important for me.”
Are you good at math?
“I gave up science when I was 12 (laughs). I really studied art history. Imagine trying to get my head around meeting lots of Hawking’s old students who kindly would explain all these theories to me. I told them, ‘Talk to me as if I were seven.’”
You’re 33, but you play Hawking at age 20…
“Maybe I suffer from Peter Pan Syndrome (laughs). That’s something weird about being an actor: you get to do that thing you’ve done since you were a kid, and it doesn’t feel like a real job. At moments, it’s intense, but it still feels like you’re playing. I feel like the older I get, the less grown up I am (laughs).”
Your family is in business. What happened when you told them you wanted to be an actor?
“I’d always acted at school, and they were really supportive. But when you hear all those statistics… I think they were pretty scared on my behalf. My older brother watched this film and sent me a letter. It was the most moving thing, because you care what your family thinks. When we were kids, like eight and ten years old, we’d go on holidays and listen to Les misérables in the car. He would sing Russell’s part, and I would sing Hugh’s part. And when I got that job, he was more excited than I was.”
So how do you top The Theory of Everything?
“I love telling stories, and that’s basically what actors are: storytellers. I’ve been lucky to tell some extraordinary stories. I know how privileged I was to be able to tell this one, and I try not to be competitive with myself, but the next story I am going to tell – or help tell – is really beautiful and complicated. It’s called The Danish Girl. It’s a love story, and it’s also about one of the first transgender operations. It’s a true story that took place in Copenhagen in the 1920s. I’ve already met so many extraordinary people from the trans community, and I’m just beginning to prepare for the role.” in