In The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn and Les Misérables) gives an impressively detailed performance as cosmologist Stephen Hawking. The biopic chronicles several decades in Hawking’s life – and his relationship with his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) – from his time as a Physics Ph.D. student at Cambridge, where they met and he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (ALS), up until the the publication of his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time, decades later, when he was wheelchair-bound.
Redmayne’s performance very precisely charts the decline in Hawking’s physique, while still finding a way to express deep emotion, even when he’s only able to move his eyebrows almost imperceptibly. I sat down with Redmayne to talk about how he prepared for the role, how he kept track of all the physical complexities and found a way to stay in the moment — all while shooting out of order.
The Seventh Row (TSR): Throughout the film, you have to show this very precise decline in Hawking’s physical mobility. Did you shoot in order? And even if you did, how did you track that?
Eddie Redmayne (ER): I wish we shot in order. It was something that I dreamt of and that James [Marsh], the director, sweetly tried to pursue. It became completely financially unviable. But he warned me of that very early.I wish we shot in order. It was something that I dreamt of.Click To Tweet
I spent four months going to a motor neuron clinic in London, a neurology clinic, and with a doctor called Dr Katie Sidle and a nurse called Jan Clarke. She would have the clinic each week, and people suffering from motor neuron disease would come in. At the end of their session, she’d say, “Look, there’s an actor here playing Stephen Hawking, would you be interested in meeting?” More often than not, they were incredibly generous. Often, they’d be with their families, so you’d get a sense of their lives and the emotional complications of the disease but also the physical [ones].
The extraordinary thing was seeing how different it is in different people. With motor neuron, you have these upper neurons and lower neurons. When the lower neurons go, there’s a sort of wilting, like a softness. When the upper neurons go, it’s a rigidity, like a kind of plasticity. ALS is a mix of those two things, but which part of you has what is different for every person.
Because there’s only documentary material of Stephen from the early ‘80s, when he’s wheelchair bound, what I did was find as much photography as I could, and then take that to Dr Sidle who, by looking at it, would go “OK, so in that wedding photo, when Stephen’s leaning into Jane, like here, you can see that this finger is wilting, so that would be lower neuron, and that probably went around so and so…”
There’s a great YouTube video of Stephen in zero gravity. You see him for the first time out of the chair, moving in the air. You can see there what is rigid and what is soft. Through these photos, with the help of this doctor, I charted what the decline was, [and I] took that back to the writer, Anthony [McCarten], who wove that specific decline into the film.I worked with a choreographer. She helped find that physicality in my body.Click To Tweet
Then, I worked with a choreographer, an amazing dancer called Alex Reynolds, who did World War Z, the film — the zombies in that, she helped. She’s an amazing dancer, and she helped find that physicality in my body. Other than that, it was an iPad with Hawking on documentary, in front of a mirror, learning to use muscles that I hadn’t done before. I wish there was a more glamorous way, but it was just quite a slow burn, but quite rigorous.
7R: If you’re shooting out of order, how do you keep track of the physicality for each age you’re depicting in the film?
ER: James Marsh, the director, gave me time, like four months. I tried to look at it almost like putting on a play.I tried to look at it almost like putting on a play.Click To Tweet
When you meet Stephen, the disease is so secondary to him. He has no interest in it. It’s a thing he was given when he was 21. He doesn’t enjoy seeing doctors. He’s someone that lives forward. Similarly, I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a film about a disease, that the disease, that the physicality, would be secondary, so that when I was playing opposite Felicity, or Charlie Cox, or Maxine, that you were just playing the human element of the story.I wanted to make sure this wasn’t a film about a disease, that the physicality would be secondary,Click To Tweet
I try to do all the work early, so that it was so embedded that when you would arrive on set, you would just do what we [as actors] do, which is just listen. But I ended up charting, as well — all the vocal [and] physical things. Because in one day, in our first day of filming, we started with that scene there [points at poster], so, healthy, and at lunchtime, I was on two walking sticks, and in the afternoon, [I was] in the third chair. So I had to be able to find a way of jumping in quickly.
7R: By the time you get to the point where there’s not much movement, the scenes are still deeply emotional. How do you do that, when some of your tools that you’re most used to using as an actor, just the subtleties of facial expressions, are, to some degree, limited because of the character’s mobility restrictions?
ER: What’s interesting is that the mobility restrictions sound passive, but actually it was reactive. The most exhausting part of the filming process was at the most physically immobile, because you’re not just sitting inactively. You’re pulling in. All of these muscles [points to face] are sort of tense. You’re activating muscles that you don’t normally use — things like breath, how quickly you’re breathing, how quickly you’re blinking [become very important]. So actually it becomes much more…
Because the camera is so close, all of that energy is coming out to here. On film, you’re always taught, when you’re starting out, do nothing — the camera sees. But if you actually take any of those shots, when he’s at his most immobile, you’ll see that it’s more physically extreme: more is happening than you’ll ever normally see on screen.When he’s at his most immobile, you’ll see that it’s more physically extreme.Click To Tweet
It looks sort of still, but actually, it’s the most…What it took me was really looking at Stephen in documentary, and in the mirror, and having, I suppose, the confidence to go, “No, you’ve got to go further here.” It’s not about pulling back. It’s about pushing forward.
7R: When you’re playing a role where it’s so inherently physical, does that change how you approach it? Does that get into an outside-in approach? To what degree does the performance of the physicality become the performance of the identity?
ER: Oh, wow, that’s a good question. I didn’t go to drama school, and really, I wish I could say I had a process — I don’t know whether drama school gives you a process or not, but it’s been a neurosis of mine that it does. So each job I take, I just try to fit myself to whatever that is. That’s something to do with circumstance and the time you have to prep. All I knew on this one was that I needed time, and James was generous enough to give me that.I don’t know whether drama school gives you a process, but it’s a neurosis of mine that it does.Click To Tweet
I wish it was as linear as that, as outside-in or inside-out; it was a bit of everything at the same time. It was doing all the ALS research, whilst doing the astronomy research, whilst at the same time reading all of Jane’s books, meeting Jane, meeting people that knew Stephen, meeting Stephen’s kids, trying to get an emotional sense of him, and then, finally, meeting Stephen. I’ve never been able to have something, or to work out a method, that is as specific as that. For me, it’s always about, like, throwing all these different bits of clay at a wall and, generally, trying to then, sort of, mould them together.It’s like throwing all these different bits of clay at a wall and trying to mould them together.Click To Tweet
The interesting thing about theatre is you go, and you have those four or five weeks, and it’s the director who will create the process. Of course, actors have their own process within that, but they all get “this is how I’m working” [from the director]. If it’s Max Stafford-Clark, you’re working with intentions, each line: “What are you doing to that person? How are you affecting them?” Versus other directors, Michael Grandage, who I worked with, wants you to get up very early, so that you use all your instincts, and you save those instincts.The interesting thing about theatre is it’s the director who will create the process.Click To Tweet
But on the screen, actors will often come in at the last minute – some actors will come in for two days. Time is valuable and expensive, and so the [director] will fit to how an actor works. It’s a real shift. You have to be one of those really strong, powerful directors to be able to really place your process on it.In film, actors often come in at the last minute, so the director will fit to how an actor works.Click To Tweet