TORONTO — There’s something of a British invasion shaping up this awards season, led by Eddie Redmayne in his first leading-man role as iconic astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”
As the votes start tallying, Redmayne likely will be competing against friend and fellow classically trained actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays another real-life British historical figure (Alan Turing) in the World War II drama “The Imitation Game.” There’s a reason that both are being mentioned in the same Oscar buzz-heavy breath.
“We both play geniuses,” smiles Redmayne, 32, in an interview after “The Theory of Everything” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September (it opens in Boston on Friday). “It’s lovely for me because I keep bumping into Ben [on the festival circuit]. When it’s so crazy, it’s nice to see old friends.”
The two first met when both had minor roles in 2008’s “The Other Boleyn Girl.” In true six degrees fashion, Cumberbatch played Hawking in a 2004 BBC-TV movie (Redmayne elected not to see it so it wouldn’t influence his own performance). It was directed by Philip Martin, who directed Redmayne in the BBC miniseries “Birdsong” (2012).
Redmayne’s oeuvre — he won a Tony for the 2010 play “Red,” starred opposite Michelle Williams in 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn,” and didn’t embarrass himself singing as heartthrob Marius in 2012’s “Les Miserables” — has earned him praise and a teen following (Redmayniacs, in Internet parlance). Still, it didn’t indicate he’d be able to deliver a tour de force performance as Hawking, which recalls Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot.” Redmayne plays Hawking from his days as a Cambridge grad student who woos and marries Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). It’s a portrait that changes dramatically, of course, when Hawking develops motor neuron disease due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that leaves him paralyzed and unable to speak. And eventually that portrait includes triumph, with the publishing of Hawking’s landmark book, “A Brief History of Time,” which leads to international acclaim.
Redmayne studied art history at Cambridge, and recalls glimpsing professor Hawking there.
“I was lucky enough to go to Cambridge so I’d actually seen Stephen from a distance — the silhouette in a wheelchair — and I’d heard his voice,” he says. “But I gave up science when I was 12 or 13. Then I read this script, about this extraordinary woman [Wilde] and an unconventional love story behind the icon. Every page was a revelation, so I fought hard to get the part. It was a privilege; I mean, a real privilege.”
“The Theory of Everything” is based on Jane (Wilde) Hawking’s 2008 memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” which details the joys and complexities of their 25-year marriage. “I didn’t audition,” says Redmayne. “But I had many conversations with [director James Marsh] on the phone. Finally we met for lunch in a pub. I had several pints and I got the part. When Felicity auditioned, he wanted me to be there and I knew all the executives were going to see it. So even though he said I had the part, the audition with Felicity felt like an audition for me.”
When did panic set in? “It was a millisecond of euphoria followed by nine months of fear,” says Redmayne. “The stakes were high.”
He prepared for five months, working with a team that included a vocal coach, choreographer, makeup artist, and Dr. Katie Sidle, an ALS specialist. Without film footage of young Hawking, who was stricken at 21, Redmayne brought vintage photos to Dr. Sidle and she explained the pace of Hawking’s deterioration.
“There’s both wilting and rigidity with ALS, and it varies from person to person,” Redmayne says. “So she would look at the photos and ascertain where [Hawking] was by the way he was holding his hand or his foot. I charted my way through, and I also met others suffering from the disease and saw the reality of their day-to-day lives. ... Stephen has the most expressive face, even though there’s loss of muscle. I spent a lot of time in front of the mirror next to the iPad trying to access muscles I haven’t used before. So the memory of Stephen is now in my face.”
Marsh, director of the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” says he never considered making a Hawking documentary.
“This isn’t a biopic of Stephen Hawking; it’s actually about a marriage. Jane gets the same amount of screen time and a point of view. It’s a portrait of two people and an interesting relationship, that’s the focus. I was intrigued by the emotional lives of the characters. Most of us think we know Hawking — the iconic image of the man in the wheelchair with the strange, robotic voice. But I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know he had children. That’s rich territory for drama.”
For both director and star, one of the most daunting moments of the shoot came when Hawking, 72, visited the set in England. “We sought his approval before we started and, tacitly but not effusively, he wasn’t going to get in our way. But it was conditional,” says Marsh. “He came to the set on day two, which raised the stakes for Eddie. He was already dealing with difficult stuff and then Stephen shows up like a spaceship coming down to land, his face lit by this strong LED monitor. But I think [Hawking] enjoyed the spectacle of it and when we showed him [footage], I know he was moved. He may say he wasn’t, but you could see it had an impact. And he let us use his [computer-generated] voice. He said the film was ‘broadly true.’ I’ll take that.”
For Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything” remains, above all, a love story.
“It’s about passionate love, love of science, love of family, but at same time the cost, the foibles, the complications of love. It’s uplifting but it’s not glossed over. That was important to me,” he says. “When Jane and Stephen saw it and approved and were so generous to us, that meant the world.”
Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.