ON the eve of the Oscars, nominees Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones tell Sarah Lyall about preparing for their roles in The Theory of Everything and why they owe so much to the real stars of the film
Eddie Redmayne, 32, and Felicity Jones, 30, became friends several years ago when both worked for theatre director Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Now they are starring together in The Theory of Everything, a movie that charts the brave, unconventional relationship between brilliant cosmologist Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time, and his steely wife, Jane.
Jane and Stephen fell in love at Cambridge, where both were studying. At the age of 21, he was given a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the form of motor neurone disease known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and told he had two years to live. She married him anyway, and they proved the prediction wrong, bringing up three children together while he poured himself into his work and grew increasingly physically impaired. Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), based on Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, and produced and written by Anthony McCarten, the film traces the couple’s unusual relationship, in which Jane served as Stephen’s carer, champion, motivator and bridge to as normal a family life as they could hope for. Along the way, a third person entered their relationship – their friend Jonathan Hellyer Jones, a choirmaster. After 26 years of marriage, Jane and Stephen divorced, and Jane married Jonathan, but it is a testament to their practicality and also to their resilience that all three remain close. (Meanwhile, Stephen married and later divorced Elaine Mason, his nurse.)
Redmayne has scooped up every best actor gong going this awards season, barring the Oscar. He will find out if he has won tomorrow night. Jones is also nominated in the best actress category.
The actors chatted about the film over tea at the Crosby Street Hotel in Manhattan. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Q How hard is it to play people who are still alive, one of whom is perhaps the world’s most famous scientist?
Felicity Jones It’s very intimidating. The stakes were very high from the beginning. But with Stephen and Jane, they’re both such wonderful, interesting, fascinating and complicated people, and there was so much material for us to delve into.
Eddie Redmayne I felt I had a great responsibility to the story, and I wanted to be as true to Stephen as I could.
Q Stephen Hawking is such a familiar figure, in part because of the ubiquitous photograph on the cover of A Brief History of Time. What was surprising about the script?
Redmayne What was embarrassing was how little I knew. I’d been to Cambridge, I’d seen Stephen in the street, I’d heard his famous voice, and I knew he had something to do with black hole theory. But for me, what was exciting was this extraordinary love story and the presence of this extraordinary woman, who had invigorated him and been the fuel behind his early success.
Jones It wasn’t a straightforward biopic. There was something more unusual at the heart of it, in that it was a true exploration of Stephen’s private life and of the unconventional situation they found themselves in.
Q Playing these characters over the course of many years presents great challenges. How did you go about that?
Redmayne My instinct was to go back to an old-school model of working, in which you surround yourself with a team, and everything affects everything else. So the physicality would affect the make-up would affect the costuming would affect the cinematography. James was on the same page. He was like a conductor on this, allowing everyone a voice.
Jones Both of us like to prepare in depth. James said to us, “I want you to be able to give the best performances you can, and whatever you need to be able to do that I’ll fully support you.”
Q You had four months to prepare. What kind of preparation did you do?
Redmayne We went to the Queen Square neurology clinic in London and met people with motor neurone disease, and they were incredibly generous in letting us observe the stages of the disease and their interactions with their carers.
Jones You see how instinctive the interaction becomes. One woman could see that her husband’s leg had dropped off the bottom of the chair, and she went straightaway and put it back while she was talking to someone else. That’s what we wanted to capture, that very instinctive, automatic response.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
Q How did you reflect the stages of Stephen’s deteriorating physical condition over time?
Redmayne I wanted all the physicality to be so embedded, so automatic, that we could focus on the human story, and I wouldn’t be thinking, “Oh, no, my finger shouldn’t be doing that right now.”
Jones We were constantly scouring old photographs and documentary footage for clues: the details in the characters but also in how they related to each other.
Redmayne Anthony, our writer, had written a broad physical decline, but as I got more information, I wanted to make it more specific. I had a big piece of paper, and I would map out, scene by scene, what was going on in the muscles and what order they were going in, what the vocalism was like at each point. That’s something we had to be really rigorous about. Because we couldn’t film chronologically, we were jumping into three or four physicalities a day, and the second a muscle stops working, it’s not going to start again. And then it was working with Alex (Reynolds, the movement director) to try to find all that in my body.
For the facial movements, I spent a lot of time looking at documentary footage and then looking at myself in the mirror next to an iPad of Stephen doing it.
Q What was it like meeting Stephen?
Redmayne We could only meet him five days before filming. By that point, I’d kind of structured a performance, and I thought, “What if this actual meeting undermines everything I’ve done?”
He only has use of one muscle now, in his right eye, so as you can imagine it takes him a long time in conversation to spell out a sentence on his screen. I hate silence, and I was so tongue-tied. In A Brief History of Time, he makes a point of the fact that he was born exactly 300 years after Galileo died, which is the 8th of January. I was going, “Of course, Stephen, you were born on the 8th – Galileo – and I was born on the 6th of January, so we’re both Capricorns.” And as I said that, this kind of gut-wrenching, nausea-inducing feeling went over me. And he looked at me, and he looked back at his screen, and he spent about eight minutes typing something out, and I just started sweating. And then he said in his iconic voice, “I am an astronomer, not an astrologer.”
Q What surprised you about Stephen and Jane?
Redmayne When we met Stephen, the thing we both took away was how witty and positive he was. He talks about how lazy he was prior to getting the diagnosis and how that kick-started him into realising he had to achieve something. And he says: The fact I had the disease meant I couldn’t give lectures so much and didn’t have to teach so much, so I had more time for my own research.
Jones They both have an incredibly dry sense of humour and a way with words. They both use language in such interesting ways.
Q This is not a traditional love story, in that the couple does not stay together. How did you convey their unconventional arrangement while making them sympathetic?
Jones That was a huge challenge. It was a very nuanced situation they were in. Jane needed support in looking after Stephen and the children, and he didn’t want help, didn’t want nurses. But that put a lot of pressure on Jane. Jonathan became a part of their lives, and their romance grew from that friendship. For a few years, they all lived together. In the morning, Jane would help Stephen and feed him, and Jonathan would be taking the children to school. It was almost like a company, having a strong family and making sure everyone was supported and nourished.
Redmayne When you meet Jonathan, he’s just an incredibly gentle, kind man. There’s a softness and humility to him. We wanted to make sure that nobody judged anything.
Jones They got Stephen’s blessing, which was a very French idea of a relationship. That is why I love Jane and Stephen, because they seem like very English, uptight, repressed people from afar. But as you get closer, they’re these extraordinary bohemians, these people who have adapted and changed and lived a very unusual life.
Q Were there any moments in the filming that particularly resonated with you?
Redmayne The last scene we filmed. Feliss had been a superhero the whole way through. On a normal film, it’s completely collaborative, but in this film, she had to constantly navigate around how my physical limitations affected the filming. So we got to this scene where we’re meant to be sitting in bed, and there was no dialogue on the page, and so we improvised the whole thing. There was a moment Feliss was looking at me and I said, “Thank you.” And she said, “Did you just say something?” And I go, “Thank you.” It was one of those weird moments when life and art meet.
Jones We had just had a McDonald’s beforehand, a cold McDonald’s, and there was a pervading smell of filet of fish.
Redmayne It did kind of kill the romance of the moment.
• The Theory of Everything (12A) is nominated for five Oscars. The 87th Academy Awards ceremony, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles tomorrow night.
© NYT 2015