Theory of Everything, The: Eddie Redmayne—Playing and Being Stephen Hawking

the_theory_of_everything_1_marsh_redmayneTheory of Everything world premiered at the Toronto Film Fest and will be released by Focus Features this fall.

“For any actor, playing Stephen Hawking was going to be intimidating,” admits screenwriter and producer Anthony McCarten. “He’s a well-known public figure, an icon. My script called for an actor who could show the audience a man evolving over 25 years, going from being fully functional to having the use of only a few muscles – mainly one hand and some limited facial movement – and having his voice be superseded by a machine’s.”

Director James Marsh adds, “Whomever would play this part would have to do a lot of preparation. He would also have to convince as the Stephen only those close to the man knew, the shy university student.”

Eddie Redmayne

Producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner had recently worked with one of England’s rising stars, Eddie Redmayne, on the smash Les Misérables, and the actor was already aware of McCarten’s script. Marsh comments, “I was enthusiastic when Eddie’s name came up, and knew he was a great choice. The level of his commitment to the role was extraordinary, as he was fully onboard for not only the physical preparation but also the psychological preparation.”

Producer Lisa Bruce notes, “Eddie had a relentless intensity from day one. It was truly amazing to watch his evolution as he captured the many layers of both the Stephen we think we know as well as the man behind the image.”

the_theory_of_everything_4_marsh_redmayne_jonesRedmayne remarks, “When I read the script I was astonished at what this man has experienced, and done, since 1963. It was one of the most inspiring things I’d ever read. Stephen Hawking is an icon of hope.

“But this movie is also about the human being behind the icon. When we meet him in this story, he is 21, and so vibrant and athletic. He goes on to live a full life with a twinkle in his eye, and continues to do so. There are different sides to him: the wit, the brilliance, the stubbornness…I got the impression that he had a rock-star personality.”

Jane Wilde: Brave Woman

In further researching the subjects’ lives, Redmayne learned that the professor came from a solidly intellectual family, while Jane Wilde’s decision to pursue an academic career was still considered a brave choice for a woman back in the 1960s. “They were very different people, both extraordinary yet polar opposites,” he says. “The idea of two human beings completing one another and defying all the odds I found compelling – and oh, was it romantic!”

The challenge of the physical demands required to play Stephen Hawking loomed large. As Redmayne’s friend and fellow actor – and, soon, The Theory of Everything cast member – Charlie Cox said when Redmayne told him about the role, “You have no option but to give it 3,000%.”

Accordingly, Redmayne parsed even the smallest details on the man he would be portraying. He notes, “Jane discusses in her book how Stephen had incredibly expressive eyebrows. That was something I spent months in front of a mirror working on.

“When I met Stephen, I noticed how ‘yes’ is sort of a smile and ‘no’ is almost a grimace, yet they only manifest in a couple of the facial muscles for him, so I learned how to isolate those.”

Redmayne adds, “The production surrounded me with an extraordinary team. James Marsh encouraged everyone to collaborate, and gave me the freedom to work closely with the different departments.

“One of the great thrills of doing this role was working with people who are at the top of their game. We were all of us taking on something we’d never done before which was quite special.”

Vocal and Movement Coaches

the_theory_of_everything_3_marsh_redmayne_jonesVocal coach Julia Wilson-Dickson and movement director Alex Reynolds were brought in early on by the filmmakers to work with Redmayne. Reynolds coordinated with the actor just how the various degenerative stages of motor neuron disease would be fully expressed on-screen as called for in the script.

Redmayne obtained permission to visit MND patients both at a clinic and at home. He explains, “I felt I had the responsibility of portraying this as a real condition.” The actor counted himself as fortunate to be able to meet with Stephen as well, and straight away “apologized to Professor Hawking for having chosen to study art history.”

Since there is no existing documentation of Stephen in the early stages of deterioration, Redmayne and Reynolds consulted with a doctor who specialized in motor neuron disease to more precisely chart the progression. Redmayne also shared the  research with Wilson-Dickson. To carry the findings over for the 48-day shoot, Redmayne created a climbing-numbers chart that would gauge how advanced the MND was in a particular scene, a method which proved invaluable since, like most feature films, The Theory of Everything was not shot in sequence.

“Eddie prepared for months, to be ready to give multiple levels of performance,” marvels McCarten. “He had to be aware on any given day for a scene, ‘Is this stage four of my voice?’ ‘Does this mean stage three of my body?’

“He would go from ‘a 4.3 day’ for one day’s work to, for a scene set 10 years earlier and filming the next day, ‘a 2.7 day.’ Each day required all of his talent, discipline, and intelligence.”

Marsh availed himself of the chart as “a sacred text, because it demonstrated what was possible and not possible for Stephen at a moment in time. This had a big impact on how director of photography Benoît Delhomme shot a scene, and on how we framed it.

“We were sensitive to Eddie’s ability to engage the audience with no more than just a cast of his eyes and a small shift of the body. This is not easy for an actor to pull off, and it came at a physical cost to him. Every day he was in some sort of stress position that he had to maintain for hours at a stretch, while still projecting and making the character emerge out of the disability.”

McCarten states, “Watching Eddie day after day on the shoot, I would see not him but rather Stephen Hawking.”

Marsh concludes, “As impressive as the technical elements of Eddie’s performance are, that he brings it all to emotional life is even more so.”