To watch the British actor Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (opening Friday in Tampa Bay) is to watch his star ignite.
Filmmakers have frequently had an irrepressible urge to hire good-looking people to portray intellectual giants: see Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, Russell Crowe as Nobel mathematician John Nash, Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II codebreaker Alan Turing in the upcoming The Imitation Game. Add to that list Redmayne as Hawking, arguably the world's most beloved theoretical physicist and best-known person with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
His performance in Theory has given Redmayne the reviews of his career, ranging from "brilliant" to "knockout," with comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot.
"I tried to educate myself on the science, which was complicated for someone who is pretty inept," said Redmayne, who is 32. "I'd really given up at 14 years old on science."
Redmayne attended Cambridge, studying art history, French and English at Trinity College, when Hawking, who is now director of research in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics was a faculty member. To prepare for the role, Redmayne read many of Hawking's writings, although "understanding them is another matter," he admitted. Used to playing romantic leads, he found it a switch to play the smartest person in the room, "something I had never felt before."
An acclaimed stage actor, Redmayne has won a Tony and an Olivier. And he won a few million adolescent female hearts for his role as Marius, the impassioned revolutionary in Les Misérables, which was all grand gesture, singing and marching in the streets. The opposite, in other words, of playing Hawking.
The challenge was to portray the world's most recognizable genius — possibly the only cosmologist with his own Simpsons action figure — who is still very much alive, his ALS-ravaged body recognizable to a mass audience through YouTube videos. For four months, Redmayne studied hours of those videos, imitating Hawking with a mirror and an iPad. He shed 15 pounds, worked with a choreographer and regularly visited a London neurology clinic, meeting with ALS patients.
"I would feel their hands and talk to their partners, trying to get a sense of the physical and emotional ramifications," Redmayne said. "I had to figure out Stephen's unique decline. With the upper neurons, there's a rigidity of the muscles, whereas with the lower neurons, there's a wilting. ALS is a mixture of those things."
Like an athlete, Redmayne was in training, only in this case, to portray atrophy. "When Stephen is at his most seemingly still, your muscles are not just sitting there relaxed," he said. "All your muscles are contorted."
A onetime Burberry model, Redmayne possesses a face of exquisite geometry, a confluence of sharp angles softened by a grove of freckles and eyes the color of English peas, with a pale rose of a mouth. His lithe body is ideal for hanging clothes, which placed him on Vanity Fair's international best-dressed list (even though he's color-blind). But for much of Theory, he contorted that body like so much tissue.
The movie, co-starring Felicity Jones as Hawking's first wife, Jane (and based on her memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen), is a love story. It portrays Hawking from age 21 — when he is given the diagnosis of ALS and two years to live — to age 45. For much of the movie, Redmayne is pale and largely immobile, seated in a wheelchair.
"When you meet (Stephen), you can see he can move so few muscles yet has the most charismatic of faces," Redmayne said. "From our meeting, I took this force of character. When he smiles, the world feels a great place."
It is a remarkable performance, all the more so for denying Redmayne the use of many of his natural talents: beauty, agility and a gift for gab. Or, as he put it: "I suffer from a fear of silence."
It was that fear that had Redmayne prattling during a three-hour meeting with Hawking days before the start of filming. Hawking, now 72, uses his cheek muscles to communicate with a sensor on his glasses that prompts a computer screen with an alphabet and a cursor. "It takes a long time for him to communicate, and one's instinct is to start a conversation," said Redmayne. "Maybe Stephen said eight or nine sentences. So I spilled forth about Stephen Hawking to Stephen Hawking."
He shook his head at the absurdity. Hawking had just published his memoir, My Brief History, in which he mentioned being born on Jan. 8, 1942, three centuries to the day after Galileo's death. "And I told him my birthday was Jan. 6 so we're both Capricorns," Redmayne said, "and as I said that I thought, 'What am I saying?' ''
Indeed, what was he? "There was this excruciating pause," he recalled. Hawking, a man of few words but considerable wit, replied, "I'm an astronomer, not an astrologer." In response to which, Redmayne said, "I died a hundred deaths."
To Hawking, "the disease is entirely secondary," Redmayne said. "When you meet him, he has absolutely no interest in it. He decided to live very passionately. Similarly, he wanted to make sure this wasn't a story of a disease."
Redmayne's performance won Hawking's ultimate gesture of approval, permission to use the scientist's trademarked computer-generated voice in the film (instead of going for a studio attempt at verisimilitude). "So, yes, I nailed his voice," Redmayne said wryly.
Before seeing the movie, Hawking told the actor, "I will let you know what I think, good or otherwise." Redmayne responded: "Stephen, if it's otherwise, perhaps you can just stick to 'otherwise.' We don't need to know all the things I got wrong." Apparently, Hawking was pleased, although Redmayne demurred on the specifics with a wave of his hand.