Before Eddie Redmayne stepped in front of the cameras to portray scientist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” he spent four months rehearsing — much of the time with a dance instructor. His new film isn’t some strange musical about the life of the genius. Redmayne just wanted to make the physicality of his performance as real looking as possible.
Hawking was diagnosed in college with a motor neurone disease that was supposed to kill him in two years. The film by director James Marsh shows how Hawking, now 72, not only defied the diagnosis but went on to a full life as husband, father and genius.
Redmayne plays Hawking from a young twenty-something in the throes of passion for his studies and fellow University of Oxford student, Jane (Felicity Jones), to his contorted confinement in a wheelchair.
“The first thing I did was get my hands on every piece of documentary footage I could find. The problem was that there wasn’t much video before he was in the wheelchair,” Redmayne says.
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He relied on medical experts to help him understand the physical decline of Hawking, and he used the dance instructor to help him turn that information into the way he moved.
The London native has been a professional actor since his debut in the TV series “Animal Ark.” Since then, he has appeared in the films “The Other Boleyn Girl,” “My Week with Marilyn” and “Les Misérables.”
Redmayne stresses he would never equate the reduced perimeters of an acting job to the disease that permanently has taken away a man’s movements.
He wants the movie to spark the audience to think about what it would be like to have so many huge obstacles put in their way. Would they be inclined to act like Hawking and forge ahead against all odds or give up the fight?
One thing Redmayne can relate to is the scientist’s wicked sense of humor.
“The only way to deal with the emotional ramifications of his disease is to have a sense of humor. During my research, I met a man with a similar condition who almost choked to death the night before we met,” Redmayne says. “The next day, he said, ‘I wonder what death defying act I’ll do today?’ Stephen has that kind of sense of humor in abundance. He has this glint of mischief in his eyes. He’s such fun to be around.”
Redmayne got to spend three hours with Hawking five days before filming started. The meeting gave him a better understanding of Hawking, and it also magnified the pressure of playing a role based on a real person.
And, Redmayne’s not just playing an average living person. He had to get across the intelligence that’s made Hawking one of the greatest minds in history, his relationship with his family (both good and bad), and his legacy.
One way Redmayne was able to handle the pressure was through his meetings with Hawking’s children. The way they so openly allowed him into their lives helped him deal with the responsibility of playing the role.
It also helped his co-star, Jones, is a longtime friend. They started their careers at the same theater in London. That friendship helped them deal with the intimacy of the relationship between Hawking and Jane.
Because the movie covers Hawking’s life from the 1960s, the physical deterioration could unfold slowly. The scene that worried Redmayne the most is one where a wheelchair bound Hawking imagines what it would be like to stand up and walk.
“That moment made me very nervous,” Redmayne says. “It’s the scene where even though he was doing remarkable things, he was still dreaming of doing the smallest task.”
If Redmayne is dreaming of the next small acting task, it probably includes a contemporary setting. His career has been filled with roles that have taken him to the past or the future, as with his next movie, “Jupiter Ascending.”
Redmayne jokes, “It would be great to get a role where I can wear a pair of jeans.”