'He's a very funny man, he emanates such vitality and humour'
Eddie Redmayne tells Kaleem Aftab about his acclaimed portrayal of Stephen Hawking
Eddie Redmayne speaks in commas. The response to a question will start, be amended by a clarification, never an aside, and then another. It's clear he wants to get every comment exactly right - a trait that he brings into his work as an actor. But there is another, less fortunate, by-product of this mannerism, something that he says afflicted him when he first met cosmologist Stephen Hawking: "I had verbal diarrhoea and basically just spewed forth information about him, to him, for the first half an hour."
It was five days before shooting was to begin on The Theory of Everything, in which the 32-year-old actor plays Hawking during his university years at Cambridge in the early Sixties, when he fell in love with Jane Wilde, who became his first wife. It was the period when he became afflicted by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a form of motor neurone disease, which led to him being in a wheelchair. In typically segmented fashion, Redmayne says of the first meeting: "When I met him, I'd done the first six months of research, in that process, having known very little about him, other than what I suppose is the voice icon, black hole something, that I became quite, the more I read about him, the more idol-like he became."
The research was extensive. The actor spent time with Hawking's family. He also visited patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and asked their families questions about coping with the disability. He watched footage of Hawking and read A Brief History of Time, without grasping all the intricacies of Hawking's classic 1988 text. Meeting the physicist was one of the last things Redmayne did before the shoot and he was worried that the person he was about to meet was not the character that he had prepared: "There were so many things in that first meeting, specific things that were so useful, such as he asked me if I was playing him before the voice machine.
"He told me that his voice had been very slurry, but we hadn't taken that on board so much. We'd watched some of the documentary material where his voice was almost incomprehensible. So I could go back to the producers, and more importantly director James Marsh, and say we need to take this on board, but we still didn't go quite so far because they didn't want to use subtitles."
The other thing that he noted, and something which is central to the love story that glues the movie together, is that Hawking is a very funny man. The actor points out: "Although he can move only a few muscles, he sort of emanates this vitality and humour, this wit and flirtatiousness."
The film is based on the book Travelling to Infinity - My Life with Stephen by Hawking's first wife, Jane. She is played by Felicity Jones, an actress Redmayne has long respected. "How I know Felicity is through the Donmar Warehouse. Michael Grandage, who used to run the theatre, he was our great supporter, he gave Felicity and me, both individually, great roles. It was so lovely to have someone who is a friend and whose work I admired, and who I never got to work with, to jump into this with because the stakes felt pretty high."
It has been quite a year for the Londoner, who was in the same year at Eton as Prince William before going on to study history of art at Cambridge. He got married to his long-term partner Hannah Bagshawe on December 15 at a candlelit ceremony at Babington House in Somerset.
It was in theatre that Redmayne got his big breaks. In 2002 he made his debut in Twelfth Night. He won the Outstanding Newcomer award at the 50th Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2004 for his performance in Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Redmayne twice appeared in Grandage productions at the Donmar to much critical acclaim. The first time was in 2009 in Red, a play about Mark Rothko in which he played the artist's fictional assistant Ken. After its transfer to Broadway, Redmayne won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play. He followed this by playing Richard II in 2011. It was a performance described as "brilliant" by The Independent's theatre critic Paul Taylor.
It's almost par for the course that if an actor performs well essaying a character with a disability or someone famous, they'll be mentioned as an Oscar candidate. It's no different here, with Redmayne leading a British charge for Oscar glory. The others are Benedict Cumberbatch, for his portrayal of British mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. All three have already been nominated for Golden Globes.
Nonetheless, Redmayne avoided watching some of the great performances of actors playing people with disabilities: "I'd seen My Left Foot and I'd seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which people talk about, but I didn't watch them again."
Yet there was also an acknowledgement that working on the film would have some career ramifications. "I fought hard to try and get it, so there must have been something in me that said this is a dream part. The second I got it, there was an instant euphoria, followed by, like, a punch in the stomach, a fear: it felt like a part that was such an amazing opportunity but could also cause so much offence."
Other scientists on screen
Nikola Tesla (The Prestige, 2006) - Christopher Nolan's tale of two warring magicians was given an unexpected lift by the appearance of pop icon David Bowie
Alan Turing (The Imitation Game, 2014) - Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch has been tipped as a possible Oscar contender for his compelling portrayal of the Bletchley Park codebreaker who helped win the Second World War for the Allies
Charles Darwin (Creation, 2009) - Paul Bettany brought the human side out in this biopic of the founder of the theory of evolution and natural selection
John Nash (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) - not long after his swaggeringly physical role in the epic Gladiator, Russell Crowe delivered a moving and sensitive turn as the American mathematician tormented by paranoid schizophrenia