Actors can engage in plenty of odd pre-performance rituals. But when it comes to moments you’d rather strangers not see, few compare to hanging out in a London park mimicking Stephen Hawking.
That was life for Eddie Redmayne in the months before he took on the scientist in the biopic “The Theory of Everything,” now playing in Wichita. Redmayne would practice Hawking’s movements at different stages in his life while a movement coach captured it all on camera. Then the actor would study the footage and go out and do it all over again.
“It was a little like shooting a love scene,” Redmayne said. “You knew it was good for the movie, but there was also a bit of ‘can we get out of here?’ ”
Redmayne makes the audience want to stay firmly in their seats through the James Marsh-directed “Theory,” which focuses on the relationship between Hawking and ex-wife Jane (Felicity Jones), based on the second and more gentle of two memoirs she wrote about their marriage. The film has received mostly glowing reviews (☆☆☆1/2 from The Eagle’s Rod Pocowatchit), especially for Redmayne and Jones, with considerable Oscar buzz around both performances.
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Redmayne, 32, plays Hawking with an air of both swagger and wry humor – and a distinct absence of self-pity – while also capturing the subtle but devastating encroachment of Hawking’s rare motor-neuron disease. It’s a part that evokes the extreme physicality of Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot.”
To play Hawking, Redmayne studied nuances like the difference between upper and lower neurons, trying to break down the role to a granular degree – at some point in Hawking’s degeneration, for example, the upper arm might be spastic while the lower half was rigid, and Redmayne wanted to capture that, an effort that required an unusually intense kind of mental split.
“When a scene ended, you’d hear this exhalation and realize just how much energy Eddie was consuming while barely moving,” Jones recalled.
Since Hawking’s condition was degenerative, Redmayne also needed to study the entire life of the scientist, now 72. In the years since the 1980s, video footage of Hawking was abundant, but the several decades before then produced only the occasional photograph. Redmayne consulted medical textbooks and talked to nurses who worked with Hawking to reconstruct how his condition evolved over the years. He would then break it down with movement coach Alex Reynolds, who also taught the zombies how to walk in “World War Z.”
As if all that weren’t challenging enough, “Theory” was, like most movies, shot out of sequence. That meant Redmayne could be skipping ahead to a latter-life level of degeneration in the morning, then winding the clock back to an early-disease moment in the afternoon. It grew so complicated that the actor kept a chart on set tracking where the film was relative to Hawking’s real-life condition; each point on the timeline would contain the movements he could and couldn’t do, and he would often consult it before jumping into a scene.
“I remember thinking when I started this ‘well, this is going to be interesting.’ And it was.” He paused. “Everything would affect everything else.”
Redmayne is a seasoned player on the theater circuit – he won Olivier and Tony awards for his supporting part in the art-world play “Red” and has done Richard II in London – but has had a less prominent film career. His best-known role was as Marius in Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” two years ago.
He says he worried that his Hawking performance could go too far. “It’s this very complicated challenge, where you want to get all the movement right, but you’re always thinking you don’t want to go too far and be rude to Stephen. It makes for a lot of trial and error.”
Then again, the ice may well have been broken with the scientist early on. When the two first met, Redmayne was so nervous he began babbling. He even mentioned his birth sign and asked Hawking what his was. There was a pause, and then Hawking quipped, “You know, Eddie, I’m an astronomer, not an astrologer.”