A powerful film that is part biopic and part love story, The Theory of Everything tells the story of the marriage between Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Wilde (Felcity Jones) and Stephen’s timeline with ALS. Director James Marsh’s film documents the scientific breakthroughs Stephen discovered through his work and his journey up until writing his bestseller titled “A Brief History of Time.”
I, along with fellow Washington DC Film Critics Association members Lauren Bradshaw and John Hanlon sat down with our lead star Eddie Redmayne and the film’s screenwriter Anthony McCarten. Eddie and Stephen talk about how much they knew about the story before production started, what the Hawking family reaction was to the movie and what they “nerd out” about in their day-to-day lives. Eddie also talked about his filming his other fantastic roles in My Week With Marilyn and Les Miserables.
Lauren B.: Is this your first time in DC?
Eddie: 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 V.: I absolutely loved the movie and 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 you’re 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 met… 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: 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 brighth 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 cause 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 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 wat but also not necessarily that could be irritiating 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. They 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 seeing 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 and what steps there was before the wheelchair were intriguing because I based it off of photographs and working with a specialist on working on 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 Alexandra Reynolds. She worked on World War Z and how the zombies moved. She’s a dancer and artist and was very helpful and 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 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 he’s 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 see 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 sustained to 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 prdie 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: 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 trivails of their married life. Stephen’s enormous bravery and his brilliance, her determination for Stephen not to be silences by AL. 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 get Jane’s trust to get the right 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.
John: This movie has a mixture of different elements. There’s a love story in there and there’s a story about Hawking’s disease and then there’s a religious debate in there. I’m wondering why was that religious debate important for you to keep in the screenplay?
Anthony: It is a factor in their lives. Jane is a religious person. She’s a Church-going Anglican and religion’s important to her. Stephen is a famous atheist– if not an atheist, an agnostic. He’s quite mischievous. It’s quite hard to pin him down on where he is on the whole God question. So that debate’s implicit in their marriage. They are at polar opposites on that and were but also Stephen’s ideas oblige us to consider is God possible in this formula. For example, if you state that the universe had a definite beginning, then the specter of God looms very large and he doesn’t speak about God but everyone else does so that when he published a Brief History, people said ‘Ah, he’s allowed room for God.’ The last word in that book is the word God and people seized upon that but then Stephen spent a good part of his 30s and 40s disproving that very theory– that the universe had a beginning and embraced a concept of what he called the no boundary model of the universe. No beginning. No end and then of course the religious people came in and said ‘oh where does God fit in there? How do you insinuate God into that and he said well, there’s no need for a God, which is different from saying there is no God but that was his sort of statement. He said the calculations [in] the formula don’t require a God for this thing to work. The divine mechanism will work on its own.
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.
John: What was the most important element for you to get right in terms of writing the screenplay?
Anthony: I knew that critics would be out to chip on the science but that’s relatively easy to get right and we actually engaged a physicist, who was an ex-pupil of Stephen’s actually.
John: When you were writing the screenplay?
Anthony: After. Professor Jerome Gauntlett, chair of theoretical physics at Imperial College London and he went over everything. Yeah that’s all kosher. So you had to get those things right. You have to get the details of someone’s life right. You had to observe history but the most challenging thing would’ve been the emotional texture of this unorthodox relationship. They make unorthodox decisions in their lives and they do so in the context of quite rarified Englishness. This is a very English milieu…. [they make some decisions] that are by the standards of the day controversial and doing justice to all the parties involved. Not judging any of them and hoping that an audience will go on their journey and sympathize and understand why everyone’s doing what they’re doing… If I didn’t get that right, the whole design of the movie would’ve collapsed.
Lauren V.: Were you on set while they were filming?
Anthony: Everyday. 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.”
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]