For Eddie Redmayne, meticulous preparation proved key to mastering his take on famed British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in what well may have been the toughest acting assignment of the year. Any conversation in the coming weeks concerning Academy Award nominations seems certain to include his performance as the scientist diagnosed with amyotrophyic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig’s disease — some fifty years ago.
Redmayne possesses one of those impossible-to-forget faces, and — due in no small measure to a steady ascent in Oscar-caliber films — his rather on-the-nose name is becoming more and more familiar to movie audiences. In three years, the actor has made the leap from supporting player to leading man in such features as My Week with Marilyn (2011), Les Miserables (2012) and now, in the year-ending The Theory of Everything.
The Hawking biopic may prove to be Redmayne’s role of a lifetime. How many chances does an actor find to play the part of a person acknowledged to be at the forefront explaining the origins of the Universe?
Hawking had yet to acquire either fame or fortune when his doctor gave the then-college student a bleak prognosis: He could expect to live another two years. Hawking not only proved the doctor wrong, he completed his doctoral studies before embarking on a career as one of the preeminent minds of the day.
“The astounding thing was that Stephen Hawking was given two years to live at age 21, and he’s now 71 or 72,” the actor remarked in an interview to promote the film.
“I mean, it’s against all odds and it’s a staggering thing and whether it’s to do with his passion, his drive, his outlook on life, his humor, the specific strain of what the disease is – no one knows. But it’s a staggering thing. And he is a great icon of hope.”
To suggest Redmayne had his work cut out for him amounts to all manner of understatement. At the outset, he needed to find his way around two major hurdles, not the least of which was tackling the nearly-incomprehensible nature of Hawking’s work.
“The process for me started with, okay, how am I going to go about this? How am I going to even begin to understand not only in what it is, what the illness is, what the science is, but also how to take that — the emotion and all the physicality and all that, and place it in me to find the place for it in me. I went about it by hiring a sensational team.”
Redmayne’s team included not only the standard support — make-up, costume, dialect coach — but Redmayne also worked with a movement coach and choreographer. They visited a clinic specializing in motor neuron disorders. The experience provided Redmayne a more nuanced appreciation for what the role would demand of him.
Over the course of Hawking’s life, his ability to communicate underwent a metamorphosis. Eventually, the scientist turned to a computer-generated voice, something he was introduced to following a life-saving tracheotomy. The film’s depiction of this development provides one of several humorous moments throughout the feature, as Redmayne explains.
” It had never occurred to me when I got this part – why has Stephen Hawking got an American voice? And the answer was that was the first technology that came and then because his voice became so related — or his icon became so related to that voice he’s never wanted to change it because that’s what we know as his new identity or his vocal identity, and my God, is identity important.”
The screenplay for The Theory of Everything directed by James Marsh (Shadow Dancer, 2012) was adapted from a memoir written by Hawking’s first wife, Jane. She published their story initially under the title Music to the Stars in 1999. Eight years later, a revised version arrived in bookstores under the new title,Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.
Jane is portrayed on screen by the young British actress Felicity Jones. Both Jones and Redmayne seem assured of Oscar nominations for this picture, and the reception the film has thus far received will no doubt provide meteoric career boost to both of them. More to the point, the broad market appeal of a film of this nature so close to the holidays attracts a wider audience than it would competing with the large action films typically flooding theaters in the late spring and summer.
Famous in his own right many times over, Hawking, too, seems certain to benefit from the big screen exposure. Already a best-selling author for his ironically-titled tome A Brief History of Time, the man whose scientific work cemented his place in history will likely see book sales jump as the film goes into wider release.
Redmayne thinks moviegoers who’ve known of Hawking’s work may still find themselves gleaning a greater appreciation both for what makes him a genius and a man with the same goals and aspirations as anyone else.
“We all know what his image is, what his look is,” Redmayne considered regarding the subject of so much notoriety for his research, teachings and discoveries.
“I hope this film will surprise people in the way that when I read it, it surprised me – about his character, about his life, about his family, about this extraordinary woman who was the fuel behind a lot of his success. And I hope that you see signs of his personality, his humor, his wit, his complications, his stubbornness, his – you know, all these things that make someone live a full life. And, my God, Stephen Hawking, age 21, was given two years to live. My God, has he lived a full life and continues to, so. I hope it will be a story that’s as inspiring to audiences to watch as it was for me to play.”
Critics weighing in on Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a well-above-average rating of 73 as of this writing. Naysayers among them still found reason to lavish praise on Redmayne and singled-out Jones as well. The film, which runs two hours and three minutes, is rated PG-13.