Eddie Redmayne pulls off a tremendous feat in The Theory of Everything, playing Stephen Hawking from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. Not surprisingly, he's already getting a lot of Oscar buzz. We sat down with Redmayne for an exclusive interview and he told us what it was like to meet the real Hawking.
How does Stephen Hawking feel about this movie? Because it's based on a book by his ex-wife. What was it like talking to him about it?
First off, when I became attached to the film, I heard that he had read the script and had okayed it. But [during] the process of meeting him in prep, and the process of filming, he became incredibly generous and helpful. And then of course, the fear was, 'What will he think when he sees this?'
And when we made the film, we used this synthesized approximation of his voice. And after seeing the film, he gave us his voice. And for me, that was the most wonderful thing. He's been really generous. He has copyright to the "Hawking voice" that we know, so that was pretty moving.
The production had done a pretty close, really good approximation of the voice. But when they put his voice into the film, it just lifted it to somewhere else.
The thing that really sticks with me about this film is this smile that you have later in the film, when Hawking is losing his mobility and his ability to speak. You have this little smile. Did that come from meeting him? Or just your own idea of what he would be like?
That came from a mixture of things. It [partly] came from meeting him — because it takes him so long to communicate now, quite often he'll use a smile or a grimace to say yes or no. But also, he's funny. He's proper funny, and one of the most witty and energized people that I've ever met. And when he smiles, the room just kind of opens. And his mum and his first wife Jane talk about his smile a lot. So it was something that I spent a lot of time [looking at] my iPad, with all this footage on it, looking at the mirror, trying to replicate. I wish there was a more glamorous way of [doing that].
I read that you filmed this movie out of order, so you had to keep going back and forth between the young Hawking and the older, more disabled Hawking. Did you worry about overplaying his symptoms of ALS? Or doing a caricature?
I did. When I first got the part, that was absolutely something [I worried about]. And there was no way of getting over that worry, other than just doing as much research as possible. And meeting as many people with ALS [as possible], and being as specific as possible.
That's the thing: How ALS manifests itself is different in every single person, because you have upper neurons, which cause a kind of rigidity. And then lower neurons — when they go, there's a sort of wilting. So one patient will have a finger that's wilted and an arm that's rigid, and it will differ from person to person. So it was about taking all the photographs of Stephen younger, showing it to a specialist, and trying to work out what his decline would have been.
So the only way to get over [the danger of] parody was to learn as much as I possibly could, and to hope [that was enough]. But there was always that fear.
The film really conveys the scary idea of being trapped in your head with all these brilliant ideas, but being unable to express them at all.
Someone described it to me as being like, you're in a prison and the walls are just getting smaller every day. But I do think that the idea of being given that set of limitations — whilst these physical limitations were coming, his mind was going to new frontiers. It was like a weird sort of anti-symmetry going on.
There's a great scene where he gets a sweater trapped halfway over his head and has an insight that leads to the discovery of Hawking radiation.
It's true, that. That's absolutely true. And James [Marsh], our director, was taken by Jane to the room and the bed where that happened, that epiphany. [A lot of] people are like, 'Oh, you've made these great metaphors, these moments of great epiphany.' But that one was actually true.
So in the film, you not only have to capture the progression of Hawking's illness, but you also have to convey a lot of really complicated science. How much did you have to study the science to do that, and did you try different ways of handling it?
I did, I tried every way. I'm useless at science. I gave up when I was 12. I majored in history of art. So I went to every method possible. I went to Wikipedia, to reading all of Stephen's work, to reading all of Stephen's students. I remember Stephen's student starting to explain some of the specifics of space time. And I was like, 'No, no. Imagine I'm seven.' But also, the thing that I took comfort in was the fact that when I was at Cambridge, you meet some extraordinary minds. Those formidable minds tend not to shove it down your throat. And it's the same with Stephen. He doesn't have to demonstrate his intelligence, [because] it's so apparent in his work.
One of the fascinating things in the movie is the part where Stephen starts to drift away from his wife and fall in love with his new nurse — and that's dramatized by the fact that Jane takes a long time to try and communicate with him using a board where he has to blink when she says the correct letter of the alphabet. Whereas Elaine, his new nurse, assumes that he's already memorized the board, and thus no longer needs her to linger over every letter. So he's able to communicate much more quickly with Elaine. Where did that come from?
The idea of them falling in love through this board was something we created — that came from me being in these ALS clinics, where the nurse I spent time with, Jan Clark, would say 'The thing with these e-trans boards is, the nurses are always slower than the patients.' Because with the patients, these boards are their only way of communicating. And they get really quick at it. And they can't speak quick enough. Whereas the nurses don't have to live with it every day, so they don't [move as quickly through the alphabet.]
So I thought, 'God, this could be an interesting way' [to show their new bond]. But what was important was the fact that Elaine fell in love with Stephen at the level he was at — fell for him for who he was then rather than [who he'd been before he became disabled]. And so I think the idea of that flirtation was something we felt emboldened to use through the process — and through her strength, as well. From the documentaries I've seen, Elaine was so strong. And Stephen's an incredibly strong person as well. So I think there was this quite sexy sort of clash of [personalities].
Did you worry about Hawking being too unsympathetic, given that his wife sacrifices her career for him and then he leaves her for another woman?
I hope our film shows the complications of that. And that it wasn't as simple. Jonathan [Jane's second husband] was already in Jane's life at the time. And I think [Stephen and Jane] were so symbiotically entwined at that point that I never thought of it as a breakup, I thought of it as letting each other go. And I think that, above and beyond that, my absolute modus operandi was to not judge the character — because you can't be present playing a character while also judging them. So I hope we found a balance. What I really wanted people to do was leave the cinema going, 'What would you do in that situation?' Because each character is extraordinary and flawed, and that's what we were kind of aiming for.
One thing I love in the film is the way Stephen Hawking comes across as a bomb-thrower, who just constantly wants to overthrow people's expectations. If he's convinced everyone of one thing, then he has to go and convince them of the opposite. Sort of a mischievous figure.
Definitely! Mischievous is the right word. I had three images in my trailer, which I distilled everything down to. One of them was Einstein with his tongue out — that sort of playful [quality], plus obviously the gravitational stuff that [came with] General Relativity. But then one was James Dean, because looking at young photos of Stephen at Cambridge, he's like properly cool — effortlessly cool, in a kind of disheveled way. And there is something icon about that him. And he's also a complete ladies' man, Stephen. When [Jane Hawking actor] Felicity [Jones] met him, sparks were flying. But then the third [image] was a Joker in a pack of cards, with a puppet. Because he absolutely controls a room. And the mischievous quality is something that's so present now, and even in some of the anecdotes his nurses were telling us — he is the lord of misrule. [Laughs].
Your version of the younger Hawking is a ladies man but also sort of a wild figure, who seems consciously playing to the archetype of the quirky, oddball scientist.
Yeah. It's interesting as far as the physicality is concerned. By looking at photos [of] when he was younger, you see that awkward gait. And what's interesting to me is with motor neuron disease, you never know when it starts. That's the problem. People go and get diagnosed after having fallen, and by that point the disease has already manifested. So what was interesting to me was playing this idea that at the beginning of the film, he already had [ALS] in some capacity. So some of the physicality, that awkwardness of gait, came through [the idea of] little parts of it already being in his body.
But having his disability, he uses his eyes and his voice to control the room without physically dominating it.
And when you meet him now, he absolutely runs the room. There's great power [in that], and I would say a huge amount of Stephen's success is the fact that he has to distill things down to [a few things]. He has to make great choice with what words [to use] and when he uses those words, so language becomes incredibly important.
And once he becomes a celebrity in the late 80s, do you see him using that on a larger scale?
Yes, but also, nowadays when Stephen does interviews, because it takes him so long spontaneously to respond, every interview gets sent to him. So he then works the questions, and what comes with that is that you can articulate precisely what you want to say. And that control is very interesting to me — that idea of always being able to show the best side of yourself in some ways.
And there's an amazing [episode of the radio show] Desert Island Discs with Stephen, where Sue Lawley questions him on that. Because she's had to send all her questions to him. She says, 'You can so overtly mold your image because you get time to think about how you're going to respond.' And he says, there's some truth to that.
Does the film downplay how hard it is for him to communicate spontaneously?
Definitely, because of the time that it would take. We shot some of those scenes, particularly the breakup scene [between Stephen and Jane] in real time. And the scene was 20 minutes long, as far as typing out each letter-word. And now it's even more difficult because he just uses this [one] eye muscle. He has this sensor on his glasses, and on the computer screen, rather than the autotext thing he had back then. It's just the cursor going across the alphabet, and when he does that [blinks] it stops on one letter.
I spent maybe two or three hours with him [when I first met him]. But he probably said twelve sentences in those three hours. So it's really, really hard. So we certainly, for film time, compressed that, because otherwise it would have been really really slow.
But that's why I think that scene of when they part is such an interesting [one.] It was the most interesting scene to shoot, because you can't use your voice. You can't break news gently, you can't manipulate with tone or sound, you just literally press play, and it's all about when you choose to do that, where you're looking when you do that, [and] what your face is giving off. And that was very interesting.
Was Jane Hawking on set the whole time?
Our first day of shooting, Jane was on set, and she said, 'No, no, no, no. His hair would be much messier!' So being able to stand there with Jane Hawking literally styling my hair was the most amazing thing. It was really special. [But] she was there a wee bit. Neither Jane nor Stephen were on every day. Mostly they were there that first week in Cambridge.
There was an amazing moment [shooting] the May Ball — we had three goes at the fireworks display, because obviously fireworks are expensive. And there was this amazing moment when, on cue, just before the fireworks went off, there was a drumroll and Stephen arrived — flanked by his carers, uplit by his screen. And the fireworks went off. It was amazing.
I wasn't sure about whether we should see them kiss then — whether that should happen so early [in the film]. But Jane writes about how that was the most romantic moment of their life together. Even though he did genuinely talk to her about [the science of] fluorescence and Tide [detergent].
But that's sexy, because he's explaining stuff. There's a lot in this film about the sexiness of explaining and geeking out.
And I find, the sexiness of passion. Of being passionate about anything — when people have a passion about things, it's instantly attractive.
At the start of the film, Hawking is surrounded by men, and as he becomes more ill, he starts to be more surrounded by women. Does that change his persona?
I think that's absolutely right. And I also think the period of the film shows it was an extraordinary time of change in the relationship between men and women. I remember there was one documentary about Stephen [from the early 1980s] that I found very useful called Horizon from the BBC. There's one part where Jane goes to visit Stephen with Robert, their eldest son. And this student of Stephen's, who had voiced the documentary, was made to do some dubbing afterwards, and it was like, "Jane and Robert go to visit Stephen after lunch, but they have no interest, so we don't talk to them." And Jane was furious, because Jane has a PhD in her own right — she's a sensationally bright woman. And when you see the documentary, you see it as being the state of the period.