In “The Theory of Everything,” actor Eddie Redmayne portrays noted theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking opposite Felicity Jones, who plays his first wife Jane Hawking.
Among his many accomplishments, Hawking was the first to connect the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. He also is a supporter of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Radiation emitted from black holes has become known as Hawking radiation. Among his many awards is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.
Redmayne, 32, is an actor best known for his role as the young revolutionary Marius Pontmercy in the big screen adaptation of the musical “Les Miserables.”
Beyond his acting experience, Redmayne also bears a strong likeness to the world-famous theoretical physicist before a neurological disease started to rob him of his motor skills more than 50 years ago. Diagnosed at 21 with Motor Neuron Disease (MND), related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Hawking was given just two years to live. (Learn more about MND and ALS at this link from the Oxford MND Centre.)
The film tells the story of how, despite the disease, he and Jane married, had three children and pursued their dreams. Though they eventually split, their story of determination and “love conquers all” attitude is an inspiring one. At 72, Hawking continues to work as the director of research at Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University in England.
Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” “The Theory of Everything” examines the trials and tribulations he and his first wife experienced early on and how they overcame those challenges.
Redmayne plays Hawking as he goes from an athletic and active college student to requiring crutches to walk and ultimately his confinement to a wheelchair. In preparation for the role, the actor gathered a team of advisers, including a dance/movement instructor, a vocal coach and an osteopath. To gain a better understanding of people afflicted with MND, he spent time with them and their families in London.
During the 48-day shoot, Redmayne created a climbing-numbers chart that gauged how advanced his character’s MND was in each scene — a method which proved invaluable since, like most feature films, “The Theory of Everything” was shot out of sequence. He worked with Dr. Katie Sidle, a MND specialist at the University College London Hospitals, to track the stages of the disease for his character.
Redmayne spoke with Not Impossible Now and other media outlets at a roundtable press event for “The Theory of Everything,” which opened in limited release on November 7 and will expand to more markets over the next few weeks.
As an actor, how do you prepare physically to play someone who is so well known? What did your research entail?
Redmayne: I spent four months in an ALS clinic in London and had a meeting with a specialist there who introduced me to people suffering from this brutal disease and their families. They were incredibly generous and many of them invited me to their homes, so I got to see not only the physical effects but also the emotional effects ALS has on families. Then I decided to work with a dancer to try to find that physicality in me. The last thing was meeting Stephen and Jane just before we started filming.
What did you think when you met Stephen Hawking?
Redmayne: It was scary because I was only meeting Stephen four or five days before I started filming. After researching the role for a long time, he was now idol-like in my mind. It was like meeting a complete rock star, and I got completely tongue-tied. It takes him a while to speak now so there were lots of pauses, and I hate silence so I basically spewed forth the information about Stephen Hawking to Stephen Hawking. It was pretty embarrassing. After about 40 minutes I calmed down. He was wonderful. He was funny. He has a razor wit (and) this kind of mischievous glint but also great power. He really does control the room. So I tried to combine all that in my performance.
What was the most surprising thing about him?
Redmayne: I knew he was a funny man but I didn’t know quite how funny he was. The humor and the mischief were the most revealing aspects of that meeting. He also has this odd idiosyncratic thing by which he can move so few muscles in his face and yet it’s the most charismatic face I’ve ever seen. That was very interesting for me. When you can move such few muscles, every facility we normally have — tone of voice, gestures, all of that energy — is channeled into these muscles that you can still use. So that was really cool.
Tell me about developing your chart?
Redmayne: Sure. What is interesting with MND, you have upper neurons and lower neurons. So if your upper neurons go there is rigidness in the muscles. They tighten. If your lower neurons go there is wilting. ALS is a mixture of those two things and how it manifests itself in each person is completely unique. There is no documentary material of Stephen before he was in the wheelchair. Working out his progression to the chair was complicated. I basically gathered all the photos I could get my hands on and showed them to Dr. Sidle. She would say, “From the wedding photo you can see that his hand is on top of Jane’s hand and it’s wilted, so by this year that was gone.”
So I then did a chart on a couple of pages of every muscle and where it went. I outlined where he was vocally, whether he was on one (cane), two (canes) or which wheelchair he was in.
As an actor you normally use your whole body for roles. In some of the scenes where you are in the wheelchair and you can only use your face or eyebrows to express yourself, was it difficult at the end of the day to relax and not keep those muscles tight?
Redmayne: From the day that I started rehearsals, I had four months by myself and then with Alex (Reynolds), the movement director. Beforehand, I went to an osteopath because part of the process was getting those muscles used to being able to sustain those positions. It’s one thing to get in an uncomfortable position for a second, but it’s different if you are doing take after take. You have to teach your muscles to be comfortable in confined position.
This osteopath found it interesting, and I became a case study for him. He said, “Oh wow, I can write an essay on your spine.” I said, “Please do.” So I saw him and occasionally there would be days where something would tweak, so an acupuncturist would come in at lunchtime and fix me.
Generally, I would have a good bath at the end of the day but, at the end of the day, I could get up out of the wheelchair without a problem. Stephen cannot. Having met 30 or 40 other people who suffer from the reality of the disease, I was constantly conscious of how lucky I was.
You played a man where his passions for theoretical physics and cosmology gave him reasons to go forward. Has he inspired your passion for acting?
Redmayne: Stephen has this beautiful little book, “My Brief History,” his autobiography. It’s an amazing read because it’s short. It takes him so long to speak now. The thing with Stephen is he distills every word. He just joined Facebook, and the first thing he wrote when he joined was “Be curious.” How can two words be so powerful? He talks about how he always finds the positive.
One of the great joys of his life is he is one of the rare people who gets to do what he is passionate about. It constantly reaffirmed to me how lucky I am. I get to do something and I know that it’s rare to be able to do a job that is actually your passion. So yes, he spurred me on a bit.
View a trailer of “The Theory of Everything” below.
Top photo credit: Liam Daniel/Focus Features
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