He just missed out an Oscar nod for his work as Marius in Les Misérables, but 32-year-old Eddie Redmayne may be the Best Actor frontrunner this year for his difficult, spirited role as Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, opening this weekend. The movie is more unusual than its biopic trimmings might suggest: While we meet Hawking as a talented young physicist in love with the beautiful Jane (Felicity Jones) and then follow the couple as they deal with his devastating diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS), the drama then takes on new contours as Jane falls for an able-bodied choir director (Charlie Cox), leading Stephen and Jane to explore the boundaries not just of the universe but of their own marriage. At a recent lunch hosted by Peggy Siegal, Vulture chatted with Redmayne about what he learned from playing Hawking.
The producers have said they had their eyes on you for a while. Did they have to sell you on the part?
Oh God, I love that that’s the way it’s been sold. The reality is, there was a group of people that they were interested in. I read the script and I thought I was reading a traditional biopic of Stephen, and when I read it, it subverted all of that: It was this extraordinarily complicated, uplifting, passionate love story, and so I really chased it hard. James, the director, lives in Copenhagen. He and I spoke on the phone, and he came over to London, and we went to the pub, and it was about 3 in the afternoon, and he said, “What are you going to drink?” And was like, Do I go beer or coffee, beer or coffee? And I went, “Beer.” And he went “Okay, he’ll have a beer, I’ll have a coffee.” He then had about five coffees and got wired, and I had five pints and got quite pissed, and somehow I think we realized there was enough anxiety between us to try to make this thing happen.
Did you understand much of Stephen Hawking’s work when you first came onboard?
Absolutely not. I gave up science when I was, like, 14 years old. I could just about wrap my head around what a black hole was, but I was lucky enough to be introduced to one of his old students who is now a professor at Imperial in London. He would be trying to read me the intricacies of Hawking radiation, and the string theory, and I would be like, “No, imagine I was 7 years old. Start at the very beginning: What is a black hole?” But I eventually got my head around it as much as I could.
Do you know what a black hole is now?
I do. By the time I was filming, I was pretty good on the aspects of astronomy in the film I needed to talk about.
You studied at Cambridge. Was Professor Hawking around when you were there?
When I was at Cambridge, I would see Professor Hawking from a distance, so his silhouette was familiar to me — Stephen in his chair. I had even overheard his iconic voice, and I knew he had done things with black holes, but I suppose that was all I knew.
Was it hard to get him to meet with you?
It wasn’t hard to get him to meet with me, but he was also incredibly busy, and he had a documentary called Hawking that was out last year, so I only met [him] about five days before we started filming.
What was the most embarrassing interaction you had with him?
I think the most embarrassing interaction was being so nervous. Being someone that hates silence, I basically spent the first half an hour telling Stephen Hawking about Stephen Hawking, and he would just look at me with this kind of, Really, you are going to tell me about myself?
Tell me about doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge after having played this character afflicted with the disease.
In preparation for this part, I spent maybe three or four months going to a motor neuron disease clinic in London and meeting people suffering from this, and it is the most brutal disease. It has been around for many, many years, but they are still struggling to find a cure, and so for me, bringing awareness to a disease that doesn’t have a huge amount of investment was just the most wonderful thing. Some people were cynical, going, “Oh, celebrities were jumping on the bandwagon,” but to me, if it raises anything, then that’s brilliant. I did it with my pal Jamie Dornan, and we got very cold. It was quite a lot of fun.
What did you and Felicity do off-set? Did you hit the pubs?
We celebrated her 30th birthday while we were filming, and Charlie Cox and I had dinner with Felicity. Her two husbands!
Did you come up with a theory of everything from making this film?
Oh God, I wish.
Any simple truths?
I suppose the only simple truth I took from the film is the idea of living forward, basically, like you want to fill every minute of your life as fully as possible. Because who knows how many moments we have on this planet? That seems like something Stephen seems to know extraordinarily well.
You’re about to get married. Have you taken any notes from Stephen Hawking on relationships?
No, I’m trying pave my own way there. But my God, the love that he and Jane had and what they went through and their capacity to overcome obstacles is pretty extraordinary, so I have maybe taken inspiration from that.