The Theory of Everything is so much more than a biopic about famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. A love story at its heart, the film details the beautiful relationship between Stephen and his first wife Jane. It is not only one of the best movies of 2014, it also showcases the best acting performance of the year by Eddie Redmayne.
Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”, the film follows the relationship between Jane and Stephen from when they first meet at university, before symptoms of ALS arose, to much later, after the disease had taken full effect. Of course, the film also shows Stephen’s accomplishments. In fact, it shows the ways in which ALS provoked him to start thinking about many of his big theories. For example, one scene shows how Stephen, who can’t get his shirt over his head, uses this handicap to think about one of his most important theories, Hawking radiation. While the scientific discoveries are important, The Theory of Everything is about more than that. When the disease took over Stephen’s body, it was his strength of spirit, and more importantly, the immense support from Jane that helped him keep fighting. This film is the story about the strength of self, the strength of sacrifice, and more importantly, the strength of love.
Not only is the story fantastic, the acting in this film is Oscar caliber. Eddie Redmayne is easily the best performance of the year and a guaranteed lock for a Best Actor nomination. In fact, I am ready to say that if he doesn’t win, I will be the first in line to picket the Oscars. Redmayne’s ability to transform from Hawking pre-disease to the Stephen Hawking we all know today is mind-blowing. Just think, the movie was filmed out of order, meaning Eddie had to keep transitioning back and forth in his physicality (see more about this amazing feat in the interview below). In the best performance of her career, Felicity Jones was also phenomenal as Jane, bringing strength and determination to the role. Although Jane doesn’t have a physical transformation like Stephen, she has an enormous emotional arc that is carried throughout the entire movie. Another guaranteed lock for a Best Actress nomination.
I had the opportunity to conduct a roundtable interview with both Eddie Redmayne and screenwriter Anthony McCarten. Anthony was incredibly insightful about his writing process (and his love of fonts). Unsurprisingly, Eddie was very lovely and one of my favorite interviews to date! We spoke about his chemistry with Felicity Jones, the physicality of playing Stephen Hawking, what he, himself nerds out about, and much more! Check out the interview below and definitely go see this movie as soon as possible. Not only will you need it for your Oscar research, but you will be seeing the greatest acting performances this year!
WARNING MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
Lauren Bradshaw: Is this your first time in DC?
Eddie Redmayne: It’s actually my second. I did a play in New York, a couple of years ago, about Mark Rothko. It was called “Red” and it was about the Seagram Murals. In the National Gallery here, they have some of his sketches so Alfred Molina and I came and spent a couple days at the Phillips’ Collection and at the National Gallery. I don’t know it well, but it is such a beautiful city!
Lauren Veneziani (DCFilmGirl.com): I absolutely loved the movie! I’ve seen over 150 movies this year and your performance in this is the best I’ve seen from any actor this year.
Lauren B.: Hands down!
Eddie: Aw, thank you so much!
Lauren V.: You’ve played characters based off of fictional elements and obviously here your character is a real-life person who is still alive. Is there more pressure when it’s a real-life person or do you take on every role the same way?
Eddie: Well, the real answer is there is more pressure. I try to be as true when I’m playing anyone. If I’m Colin Clark in My Week With Marilyn or Tony Baekeland in Savage Grace, who are no longer alive, you do the research, but if they are not that famous you have more of a freedom so slightly embellish or change the story. But here, when you know that the person you are playing is actually going to watch the movie and review the film, you feel like you better stick with it. Especially since the public has a specific knowledge of him; that raises the stakes. But equally in that, Felicity [Jones] was amazing and could have done that because in some ways, Jane is less known. She could have done what I have done on other films, but when she met Jane, there is a unique quality of her voice, the way she moves and Felicity was so rigorous in her authenticity. But we knew the whole family and the kids would see the film. I try to be as meticulous with any part I am playing, but here the stakes felt higher and force you to work a bit harder.
Lauren B.: Speaking of Felicity, you two had such amazing chemistry in the movie, I was wondering how long you have known each other and how you met?
Eddie: We’ve known each other for about ten years. I think we first met in a screen test for a film she was attached to that actually never ended up happening. So, we had a screen test there and then there was a period about 6-7 years ago when a director called Michael Grandage, an amazing theater director who directed Red, actually… he ran a theater in London called the Domnar Warehouse, which was an amazing little theater. He was hugely supportive of both Felicity and I, and our early career. [Felicity and I] both did plays in the same season there, but we weren’t in the same play. So, we were pals and I admired her work hugely from a distance, so when she got cast it in this, it was one of those great things where she is a friend and so you already have a certain trust and that friendship, which is so important because it was a pretty rigorous shoot. Also, we were both fiercely protective of our characters and it was quite difficult at times, and complicated, but our friendship was the thing that pummeled it through.
John Hanlon (JohnHanlonReviews.com): In a lot of other movies like My Week with Marilyn or Les Mis, you’re on the outside looking in and sometimes a bit naive. Here you’re the smartest guy whatever room you walk into so what’s the difference for you as an actor?
Eddie: Well, I definitely had sleepless nights about playing a genius, basically. How do you play someone [like that]? I’ve been to Cambridge. When I was there, really bright people– like uber- bright people– that I met what was so extraordinary about them was they had such confidence. Their confidence and their intellect meant that they didn’t feel the need to demonstrate it. That make sense? They don’t condescend. They don’t talk down to you. It’s only people who are slightly more intellectually insecure who feel the need to show– to be ostentatious– so I basically used that as my get out of jail free card. If I can pretend to really know what I’m talking about, maybe it will look like that. It was interesting because I look at the challenges. I actually found My Week with Marilyn quite a tough gig even though on paper it was like “I went to the same school…” Some people say, “you just play yourself,” but I find that pretty hard to do! Quite a lot of people say that an actor only plays himself… If I play myself, maybe it’s a really complicated thing to do because in that film– in My Week with Marilyn, it was about not getting in the way of the audience. The audience was seeing the experience almost through my eyes, so it was that thing of trying not to get in the way but also not necessarily that could be irritating as well if someone was being sort of gentle and nice. It’s a weird balance but definitely in this, what I loved was his strength of character. It was lovely to be able to play someone who has this fantastic confidence in his own.
Lauren V.: Clearly, this role is a very transformative one for you, so can you talk about the movements and voice training you had to do? I’m sure when you are filming out of order, there are some days where you are walking and in a wheelchair at the same time.
Eddie: I basically just submersed myself in it. When you are playing someone who has a disease, and there are many people who are suffering from the reality of that, you have no choice but to educate yourself. The day after I got cast, I went to a neurology clinic in London and was educated by the specialists there and they introduced me to people suffering from ALS and their families and [I saw] the physical and emotional ramifications. Stephen’s specific timeline was complicated because there isn’t any documentary footage that I could find before the 1980s. And in the ‘80s, he’s in a wheelchair already… what steps [in the progress of the disease] there were before the wheelchair were intriguing because I based it off of photographs and working with a specialist on working [out] what the decline was. Then I had to find that in my body. I’d work every few days over those four months with a dancer called Alexandra Reynolds. She worked on World War Z and how the zombies moved. She’s a dancer and artist and was very helpful. She had been through all of the minutia of that experience with me. Also, when you are doing something, you can feel that its right, but unless someone can see it from the outside, its good to have another set of eyes.
Lauren B.: Obviously Stephen is a nerd about space, so I was wondering what you’re a nerd about in your everyday life?
Eddie: What am I a nerd about? Oh my God! That’s a really good question. I feel like I should have a much better answer for this. Well, I play the piano. I don’t know if it’s a nerd, but I’m still that kid that goes and does piano practice when I’m home. I find it takes me out of my head and it’s like you’re purely focused. As a kid, I hated practicing and you just want to play stuff you knew. Whereas now, I find it quite good because you can only focus on the task at hand because I’m not very good. It’s quite therapeutic in some ways. It takes you out of your own head.
Lauren B.: Yeah, I have these things called fangirl freakouts when I get really excited about something, so I have it about movies… are you a big movie fan? I know some actors don’t go to movies.
Eddie: Yeah! I love going and seeing really good films. When I was younger, though, I got into acting to do theater and I thought the idea of sitting home and watching a load of DVDs… my family work in business… so the idea of when I was starting out of them being like, “What did you do today?” “I watched three DVDs,” was not cool! It came to a point when I was working with Scarlett Johansson and she said to me… we were having some chat where she was talking about The Big Lebowski and I said I hadn’t seen it. She did this whole thing like, “WHAT?!” Then she was like, “Well, you know in The Godfather…” I was like, “Haven’t seen it,” and she said “WHAT?!” So she basically went around the crew of this film and they wrote a list, so I started watching. I said to her, “I feel like I can’t watch DVDs.” She said, “It’s your JOB,” and it’s true! I love going to the cinema. I don’t know if you guys have seen Two Days One Night with Marion Cotillard? It’s an amazing movie and Birdman is so beautiful!
Lauren B.: We just saw Interstellar and I was like, “I wish I had Stephen Hawking here to help me figure out some parts of the movie.” [everyone laughs] It’s a great movie, though they definitely don’t try to dumb it down for the audience!
Eddie: Yeah, I’ve heard it’s a great movie. I’ll be calling Stephen Hawking. [laughs] I heard Kip Thorne [was a consultant on Interstellar]. He and Stephen have done a lot of work together. I love the idea of the two films being complementary pieces!
John: I read some interviews where [you said] you were nervous about this becoming a caricature. How do you get over that fear and do you ever get over that fear?
Eddie: Every day. James, the director, wrote an interesting e-mail recently where he was talking about how when we were shooting, it felt like you were on this tightrope of being that close to failure. And failure meaning over-exaggerating– being inauthentic… So the way you get over that fear is to educate yourself; just to keep doing the work. You’ve got to be so confident in your knowledge, in what the reality of the disease is, and the work that you’ve done… but you never get over that [fear]. You never really do and I watch the film now and I still see the bits where I– I see the days where, and it’s always a random scene, when I was in a physicality for the first time in the film even though I prepped beforehand, I’d been doing a few weeks of not having done that physicality and then suddenly I can see that I’m not entirely inhabiting it…
Lauren B.: Well, we couldn’t tell at all! [everyone laughs]
John: Did you get to shoot a lot of scenes over and over again just to make sure?
Eddie: Felicity and I both wanted [to] because we love…People talk about how David Fincher makes his movies. That’s our dream. You never get it right. The weird thing is, what people say about theater, “How can you do a play months on end?” And the answer’s cause you never get a line right, let alone a whole sort of scene or play right. The wonderful thing in theater is that you can come back the next night and try to sort it out and you never get there. You never reach it. The thing about film is, you have that– I remember one particular [scene] in Les Miserables— the big song that my character has. You really only have like four hours and you’ve done months and months and months of work and you know that once you leave after that four hours, there’s nothing you can do to sort it. You just have to wait nine months and then see the things, the mistakes that you made, so you want to just do it again and again and again– even if that’s just so you know that by the end it hurt, so that when you then see the film and you’re not happy with it, you know you gave it everything because you’re never gonna be content with it.
Lauren B.: And your voice must have been going out during all of the takes of Les Miserables. Was that an issue?
Eddie: It was an issue, but similarly in the way we trained here physically, we had trained vocally for months. But, as your voice was going out, what was interesting was we could use that in emotional scenes. You could play with the brittleness of the voice and the fragility.
Lauren V.: I particularly loved the scene in the movie where you and Felicity were spinning and I know you said you shot that on the first day. When you were reading the screenplay, was there a particular scene that you were excited about seeing transition to film?
Eddie: You know what’s odd, is that it is a scene that didn’t make it into the film! Randomly, it makes it into a bit of the trailer, but it is a scene in which Stephen comes out of the hospital and he’s by himself and he is standing there on this path and he tries to run. He basically goes from a walk into a run and his body has shifted and changed and he ends up collapsing on a tree. Often when you are making a film, you’re playing the character, but you don’t see it how the director or cinematographer sees it. In the end, it wasn’t put in the film because it was this raw and absolute anger and that moment needed to be [held] until the croquet match [between Stephen and Jane].
Lauren B.: I really liked in the film that they didn’t make Stephen this saint, he did have his flaws. Jane dedicated her life to him, well I hate to say dedicated her life, but she kind of did, and then he left her for the nurse. Can you talk about that?
Eddie: What was so important to us, to all of us… Charlie Cox, Felicity, Maxine Peake, and I was who are we to judge these people? What I hope an audience leaves thinking is what would you do? So many obstacles were put in front of these two people’s way and how they chose to overcome them was particularly extraordinary and unique to them. There are various sides to it and Anthony described it last night as being layered. For me, there is… if you are unable to move and from the age of 23 or 24 you’re entirely physically dependent on someone else, think of what the guilt must be. And the idea of how often do you say thank you? Do you say thank you every time something is done for you? How do you retain your sense of self and pride when you’re entirely reliant on someone? I feel like Stephen chose to go, “I’m going to close myself off. I’m not going to feel that.”
I don’t want to speak for him. That’s very important because I don’t know. Jane and Stephen became perfectly symbiotically linked. As you said, she gave up everything for him and caring for him was the day-to-day, every hour of every day and he became completely reliant on her. I don’t think either of them could see a way out. But, then there was also the moment where Jonathan Birch literally came to live with them and you are seeing a fully-functional, physical alpha male around your wife and you’re constantly reminded of the things you cannot do. I think that when Stephen met and saw the spark between Jonathan and Jane, and when he met Elaine, who fell for who he was then and there, he realized there way a way out for both of them, I think. Whilst it was brutally hard for Jane, and I think probably not even for Stephen as well… it’s so complicated because I don’t want to speak for them… but I feel it was a letting go.
Lauren B.: And it’s also about the way you played Stephen. I saw it in the performance. Lauren and I were talking after the movie and we were saying that we thought Stephen was letting Jane go. Again, I don’t want to speak for him.
Eddie: That’s what’s interesting. Some people come out and say, “How could he have done that?!” and some people go, “How could she have done that?!”
Lauren V.: Well congratulations on the movie, I thought it was fantastic. Can you talk about how much you knew about the story before you started writing the screenplay?
Anthony McCarten: I knew about Stephen’s story. I read “A Brief History of Time” back in 1988, so I knew a little bit about him and he was just a fascinating as his ideas. Just this idea of this guy in a wheelchair who couldn’t talk and was communicating through a computer. [Stephen is] the recognizable face of science. I had done my best to comprehend some of his ideas and he had done me a great service. He had woken me up to these big universal questions that we ask ourselves. “Why are we here?” “What is the nature of time?” “How did the universe begin?” “When is it going to end?” It was just one of those really mind-expanding books and I thought someone was going to make an incredible movie about it one day, but I didn’t know I would have a role to play in that. Then it was 2004, when I read Jane Hawking’s book, a really emotional and moving memoir, which in many ways is unflinching in it portrayal of the ups and downs, triumphs and travails of their married life… Stephen’s enormous bravery and his brilliance, her determination for Stephen not to be silenced by ALS. I thought if I could marry this one-of-a-kind love story with the incredible tale of Stephen and his ideas, then we would have something very special.
Lauren B.: It took you awhile to gain Jane’s trust to get the rights to her memoir, right? Can you talk about the process of that?
Anthony: Yeah, it was a relationship, a trust-building exercise, that needed years. She wasn’t ready immediately to give permission or grant the rights to her book to me. She had to grow into the idea. Her children had to grow into the idea. And eventually Stephen had to grow into the idea. That wasn’t going to be done overnight. I, perhaps, thought maybe it could be done overnight. I think when I [first] went down there I was hopeful that she would just sign over the rights, but in actual fact it took eight years.
Lauren B.: And how do you even get a meeting with Jane Hawking?
Anthony: I had reached out to her by her publisher at the time, so she had agreed to meet me if I went there. But, she didn’t know me so I was basically a stranger appearing at her door. But she invited me in and was gracious. She allowed me to sort of pitch this movie to her and at the end of that, she said, “We’ll do this. Go ahead, write a draft, bring it back, I’ll read it and then we’ll talk again.” That was sort of the process that went on is that I would do a draft and she would report. I was very grateful of the fact that she never tried to whitewash the script, never tried to get me to take aspects out. The candor that she had used in her book, she was still confident enough to see in my screenplay. Some things can’t be hurried and this was one of those projects.
Lauren B.: How much more difficult is it to write a screenplay about someone that is still alive as opposed to someone who is deceased?
Anthony: It’s an enormous privilege and I’m so grateful for the trust that was placed in me by Jane, initially, and Stephen. It’s also a little nerve-wrecking because whether you like it or not, you know the ultimate reviewer for this film will be Jane and Stephen and when that day approaches, a certain level of anxiety starts to build. “Oh my God, have we got it wrong? Will it feel emotionally false to them?” I wasn’t wanting them to say, “That’s exactly what happened,” because that’s not what the film is. I wasn’t in the room. I don’t know what he said to her at any given moment or what she said to him. That’s speculation on the part of the writer. That’s where artistic license comes in. What you do want is to be emotionally authentic, and the true judge of that is the parties themselves. When Stephen saw it, he didn’t have a single note on the movie. In fact, he cried at the end of the movie. Tears ran down his cheeks and Jane said she felt like she was floating on air. Lucy said, “That was my childhood.”
Lauren B.: You can’t get a better review than that!
Anthony: That’s two top reviews right there, yeah.
Lauren V.: Were you on set while they were filming?
Anthony: Every day. I wasn’t going to miss a moment of production.
Lauren V.: Did the actors come and consult with you if they had questions? What was your time like on set?
Anthony: I only gave guidance to the director, James Marsh. I’ve directed a couple of films myself and you don’t want to feel like someone is watching or looking over your shoulder, so I kept a very small footprint on the set. There were moments when I had ideas that I thought were too good not to put forward, so I would just take James aside for a second.
Lauren B.: Stephen Hawking is a nerd about space. I was wondering what you’re a nerd about in your daily life.
Anthony: Font size and fonts.
Lauren V.: What about movies?
Anthony: No, font size. You know, you send an e-mail and think, “God, that looks boring in Courier or Helvetica. What’s this one? Seraphin.” [everyone laughs]
Lauren B.: What’s your go-to [font] right now?
Anthony: Um, Pelentine [Palantino?] or something.
Lauren B.: What are your feelings on Comic Sans then? That’s a very divisive font.
Anthony: Comic Sans? That is a very divisive thing. I don’t really want to go there. If this is going public, I don’t want to express myself. [laughing]
John: What was your process like in writing this screenplay?
Anthony: I don’t spend months and months just doing research. I like it to be organic and so I read Jane’s memoir and then I have enough information but I don’t want too much information. I like to then build it up and then I get to a point and then I go ‘I need to know what happened here’ and then I go and do research as I need it for that moment but I let the dramatist drive the car, not the research wonk drive the car.
John: Do you take the elements-
Anthony: I take the elements I need.
John: And then you go back.
Anthony: Yeah. I start building the story and I get to the point where I need to know exactly what happened here. What is available? What do we know? So I need to talk to Jane or go on the internet and see if there’s anything known about it.
John: Did you just call her up when you were writing it?
Anthony: No, not so much. I’d make a note for when I saw her and then sometimes nothing was known about it or not much more was known, just the barest detail, and then you say, “Okay. We’re gonna have to make this work.” I mean there’s a long section in the early stages of the movie– the May ball when they go on a first date. I know a couple of things happened there. They went into a UV tent and UV light came on and there were fireworks but we don’t know what was said to each other.
Lauren B.: That must be hard– maybe not so much cause then you’re not constrained to certain dialogue.
Anthony: I call it emotional ventriloquism where you… put your words in for what feels right for that person… so I was speculative. But [I know] she’s this type of person. She’s religious and she’s literary and he’s scientific so he’s gonna say this kind of thing and she’s gonna say this kind of thing and then they’re standing on the bridge like on any date and it goes really well and you think, well we’re probably gonna kiss at some point. [Laughter] And what are you gonna say before that moment? Before the kiss? And I thought well they’re standing there. What would be happening? Well imagine a blue sky– it’s a beautiful blue sky– and the stars are really bright. They’re gonna be looking up so he will say, “Isn’t it extraordinary?” And what would she say when she’s looking up? So she quotes the first lines of the Bible, about the creations of the heavens and the Earth, and that just felt apt for a woman of her background. Then he, who is a bit of a poet himself, would use that as the justification to kiss her. Now, none of that happened but something like that must’ve happened….