Eddie Redmayne’s Time Has Come: On His Heartrending Turn as Stephen Hawking and Benedict Bromance

The charming Brit won accolades for his turn in Les Miserables, but his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything has pundits screaming Oscar.

Liam Daniel/Focus Features

His gravity-defying hair, tousled-yet-elaborately coiffed, falls squarely into that special Ferngully category occupied by Andrew Garfield and Robert Pattinson, while his searing intellect—graduating with 2:1 Honours from Cambridge—recalls that of his pal Benedict Cumberbatch. He can even hold a tune, as his scene-stealing turn in Les Miserables proved. And yet, unlike his aforementioned dashing-Brit contemporaries, Eddie Redmayne hasn’t achieved global superstardom. Perhaps you can chalk it up to the lack of a franchise film, or his knack for deferring the spotlight to his more seasoned (and typically female) stars, as in Savage Grace or My Week with Marilyn. Whatever the reason, that’s all about to change.

In The Theory of Everything, directed by Oscar winning filmmaker James Marsh (Man on Wire), Redmayne delivers arguably the most meticulously crafted performance of the year. He fully embodies acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking, from his days as a lovesick Cambridge student courting future wife Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) to his neurodegeneration due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to achieving science immortality with the publication of his tome, A Brief History of Time. Redmayne captures Hawking’s physical deterioration vividly, mirroring his slurred speech and facial tics and never drifting into caricature.

“It looks like he’s not moving, but he is,” says Redmayne. “So you’re doing these long takes where you’re looking still, but what you’re doing is your breathing patterns are changing, as are your blinking patterns. What was interesting, for me, was trying to isolate those muscles because he exploits everything he can, and as a consequence, for someone that can move so little, he has perhaps the most expressive and charismatic face I’ve ever seen.”

Redmayne’s career-best performance has earned critical raves ever since the movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, with the Oscar prediction site Gold Derby recently running the headline, “Is Eddie Redmayne unbeatable for Best Actor?”

Even Hawking was impressed. Redmayne ran into Hawking right before he was screened the film in London. “I said, ‘Stephen, I’m really nervous to know what you think, so please let me know what you make of it,’” recalls Redmayne.

Since he’s almost entirely paralyzed, to speak, Hawking uses an infrared sensor that picks up twitches from a muscle in his cheek and corresponds them to a screen with scrolling letters that stops at each desired letter. He averages about a word a minute, so it took Hawking a few minutes to respond.

“In his iconic voice he said, ‘I’ll let you know what I think—good… or otherwise.’ And I said, ‘Stephen, if it’s ‘otherwise’ could you just say ‘otherwise?’”

The two Cambridge alums haven’t spoken since, but when the lights went up at that London screening, a nurse was seen wiping a tear from Hawking’s cheek. After seeing the film, he also agreed to lend his synthesized voice to the latter portion.

How Redmayne landed the role of his career was, he says, “quite odd.” First, his agent sent him the script two years ago. He’d spotted Hawking on campus while attending Cambridge, but wasn’t that familiar with the theoretical physicist.

“I studied art history and gave up science when I was a kid, so I knew he’d done some interesting investigations into black holes, but that was it,” says Redmayne. “When I read the story I thought it was revelatory and completely the opposite of what I thought the script to be.”

Following a conversation with Marsh, the two met at a pub in London. It was 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, and when the waiter came by, the filmmaker asked the actor what he’d like to drink. Nervous, Redmayne replied, “A beer?” “OK, one beer and one coffee,” Marsh told the waiter.

“James had three coffees and was wired, and I had about six beers and was pissed, but through our shared anxiety of going, ‘Are we really going to do this? The stakes are so high…’ he saw in me fear which he thought would be good for the part,” says Redmayne.

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Preparing to play Hawking took Redmayne four months. During that time, the 32-year-old studied hundreds of hours of documentary and news footage, read Hawking’s biography and Jane’s book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, upon which the film is based, and had dinner with Jane and her son with Hawking, Timothy.

To accurately convey his physical decline, Redmayne took all the photos he could find of Hawking and brought them to Dr. Katie Sidle, an ALS specialist at the UCL Institute of Neurology. “You have upper neurons and lower neurons, so if the upper ones go, you have a rigidity, and if the lower ones go, there’s a wilting. ALS is a mixture of those two things, but which part of your body goes is different for every person,” says Redmayne. Dr. Sidle’s job was to look at the dated pictures and observe what neurons were affected at a given time based on his appearance. Redmayne then created a detailed chart with dates and corresponding physical traits, before consulting with a choreographer and speech therapist.

“People keep comparing it to My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and whilst they’re formidable films featuring tremendous actors, for me, it generalizes disease,” says Redmayne. “ALS is a very specific disease, and how it manifests itself in each individual is very unique.”

One thing Redmayne didn’t do is watch his mate Benedict Cumberbatch play Hawking in a self-titled 2004 TV film helmed by Philip Martin, who’d also directed Redmayne in Birdsong.

“Ben’s an old friend and I think he’s staggeringly talented,” says Redmayne. “We did The Other Boleyn Girl together and played Scarlett Johansson’s husbands. I had to make the choice when I got cast in this whether or not I’d watch it, and I thought, ‘Knowing me, if I watch this I’ll probably steal the best bits,’ so I didn’t.”

What Redmayne did do, however, was text Cumberbatch a fun photo from the set while they were filming a scene from The Theory of Everything at Harrow School—Cumberbatch’s alma mater.

“Ben was busy filming The Imitation Game, and there’s this board with prize names carved into it,” says Redmayne. “I’m dressed as Hawking and I look and it says, ‘B. Cumberbatch’ at my eye-level, so I took a picture of me posing under it and texted it to him. He got a real kick out of it.”

By mid-2013, Redmayne had put in about four months of prep to play Hawking, but still hadn’t met the man. He’d been too busy promoting his documentary, Hawking, and it’s a real effort for him to sit down and have a conversation with someone. The two finally met a few days before the cameras started rolling. During the three-hour talk, Redmayne says Hawking said “maybe seven or eight sentences.”

“The first sentence I’ll never forget, because I’d studied and prepped for four months at that point, and he’d gone from icon to idol status in my mind,” recalls Redmayne. “I was so nervous I spent the first 25 minutes telling Stephen Hawking about Stephen Hawking, and he just looked at me. I was addressing him as ‘Professor’ and the first thing he said was, ‘Please, call me Stephen.’ Then, he said, ‘Are you playing me before the voice machine?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ He replied, ‘My voice was very slurred.’”

The rest of their talk consisted of anecdotes, including Hawking’s memory of hiring a nurse straight out of nursing school after asking her just one question: “Can you make poached eggs?” Hawking later visited the set while the cast and crew shot scenes at Cambridge.

Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, and given just two years to live. He's now lived over 51 years with the disease when most only last 3-5 years. This summer, just as Marsh was busy putting the finishing touches on The Theory of Everything, the ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’ went viral, encouraging people to pour a bucket of ice over their heads and then donate to ALS research. Lots of celebrities got onboard, and the campaign raised over $100 million.

“This disease has been around for a long time and they’re not any closer to finding a cure. I think it has a lot to do with branding as the problem,” says Redmayne. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but ALS, MND, Lou Gehrig’s Disease—it has several names, and I don’t think people quite know whether they’re the same thing. But also, there hasn’t been a huge investment in finding a cure because compared to other illnesses, not that many people suffer.”

He adds, “But when the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ came, I was so thrilled because it raised awareness and donations. People went, ‘Oh, it’s just all these celebrities jumping on the bandwagon.’ Frankly, if it’s making money for the disease in any way, shape, or form, then it’s beneficial. And I hope this film will show the cost it has on the victims and their families and help clarify what the disease is.”