STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For 21st Century Media
The more challenging role is for Eddie Redmayne, the more likely he is to chase it down.
This is, after all, an actor who sang live alongside Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried in “Les Miserables” and who played a schizophrenic involved in an incestuous relationship with his mother (Julianne Moore) in “Savage Grace.”
But “The Theory of Everything” made even those tough projects seem like a piece of cake. In the movie, Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking, the famous British physicist who wrote the surprise best-seller “A Brief History of Time.”
The action begins in 1963 when Hawking meets future wife Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party at Cambridge. In short order, they fall in love and he’s diagnosed with a motor neuron disease related to ALS (the condition that prompted the ice-bucket challenges).
Even though he’s given only two years to live by his doctors, Hawking marries Jane. The rest of the film chronicles the struggles Stephen and Jane face as they deal with his degenerative illness as well as raising three children.
Five decades after his diagnosis, Hawking is still alive. Now 72, he is almost entirely paralyzed and communicates through a speech-generating device.
“What’s scary to me is that this was a passion project,” relates Redmayne, 32. “This family was so generous to us, to allow us to tell their story and they’re pretty exalted people.
“As an actor, you dream of being able to tell stories of exalted people, but the stakes felt so high.
“It was one of those jobs where I went bull-headed into it, trying to get it, and once I got it, I had this sort of moment of euphoria and then I felt like I was hit by a sledgehammer.”
Redmayne needn’t have worried so much. When “The Theory of Everything” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this autumn, it received rave reviews, with critics singling out the actor’s performance for praise.
Almost instantly, Redmayne became a contender in this year’s Best Actor Oscar race. Even though he’s rarely generated quite so much buzz before, he’s taken all of the Oscar talk in stride.
“One of the first film jobs I got was [‘The Good Shepherd’] which was directed by Robert De Niro, and I was playing Angelia Jolie and Matt Damon’s son,” recalls the actor who’ s engaged to Hannah Bagshawe. “Everyone was, like, “Oh my God, this is going [to launch your career].’”
In fact, the movie came and went so quickly, it did little to boost Redmayne’s profile.
“You just gently try and keep working, put one foot in front of another, and keep doing varied jobs. I love theater and film. I try and keep that nomadic balance. But if [‘The Theory of Everything’] does go differently than anything I’ve done before, and if it surprises people, then that’s [great].”
From the get-go, Redmayne knew that “The Theory of Everything” was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The actor landed the role nearly a year before filming began so he had plenty of time to prepare.
He consulted videos and photos of Stephen when he was younger, and visited patients suffering from ALS and the physicians who treat them. One of Redmayne’s goals was to “be real about the brutality of the illness, and not sugar coat it.”
Redmayne was also determined to be precise in depicting the progression of Hawking’s degeneration. It was an enormous challenge given that filmmaker James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), working on a tight budget, was forced to shoot the movie out of sequence.
“The first sequence we shot was where we spin around, Felicity and I,” he says. “We’re totally healthy, young … and then after lunchtime, [we shot a sequence] where Stephen was on two sticks. And then, later in the afternoon, he was on his third wheelchair. That was day one.”
Before it came time for Redmayne to shoot the scenes of Hawking twisted up by the disease he got himself as ripped as possible in hopes of increasing his strength.
“I did about eight zillion sit-ups a day,” he recalls.
The actor also consulted both an osteopath and a choreographer to make sure he wouldn’t damage himself by stretching his body so awkwardly for hours on end.
“When you’re playing Stephen when all the muscles stop working, they can still be spastic. So it’s not like you just stop seeing anything [moving]. In fact, he’s contorting all of these muscles. And so it’s a lot of time in front of a mirror, learning to use muscles I had never used before.”
Five days into the shoot, Redmayne met Hawking for the first time – and came away wowed by his “effervescence.”
Says the actor, “even now, when you meet Stephen, even though he’s unable to move most of his muscles, he’s able to emanate this kind of charisma … He has one of the most charismatic faces ever.
“When you’re in a room with him, he’s genuinely funny, flirtatious. He emanates this kind of wit and humor … and whatever obstacles are thrown at him, he is a fighter, and he finds hope in the darkest of places. And Jane was his sort of catalyst, I suppose, or his backbone. So that was the thing that I took from meeting him.”
As far as Redmayne is concerned, Hawking’s disease, while an enormous element of the movie, is not the whole story.
“I think the most important thing [about the movie] is this idea of living life to the fullest. He describes how he was lazy and complacent and then he was given this sentence, and it meant that he lived every minute of his life to the fullest.
“And when you speak to his nurses now, they’ll tell you how he’ll be at home and suddenly decide to go to a theater in Cambridge. It’s a big ordeal to get Stephen to the theater. But it sort of happens, and he’s spontaneous.
“So, the idea of living life to the fullest is the message that I’ve taken from [the movie].”
In his own life, Redmayne follows a similar philosophy. The son of business execs, he once imagined he’d become an art historian. But when the acting bug bit, he decided to follow his dream.
“The lovely thing is that when you start acting, you never think you should be allowed to do it,” says the London native who made his stage debut in “Twelfth Night” in 2002. “Then you think you’ll never get a job. Then you think it will only last for the one year.”
Redmayne has gotten though a lot of tough times thanks to his friends, including Andrew Garfield, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Sturridge, Jack Dornan and Tom Wilson.
“What’s lovely is we’ve all been doing it for a while now,” says Redmayne. “And we win some and we lose some. And the films you think will be good are sometimes rubbish, and the films that you think will be bad sometimes end up being so interesting. And what’s lovely is seeing your pals do extraordinary work.”
Redmayne will next pop up in the Wachowski’s ambitious sci-fi yarn “Jupiter Ascending,” which is due in early 2015.
After that comes “The Danish Girl” which is sure to present the actor with yet another mammoth challenge. Directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), the movie tells the true story of artist Einer Wegener, who was one of the first men to become a woman.
“It’s one of the first transgender stories, but it is also an extraordinary story about love,” says Redmayne. “I found the script breathtaking, and the more research I’ve done, the more extraordinary it seems.
“I’m really excited, and mildly terrified.”