The British actor bursts into the spotlight — and the Oscar race — as renowned physicist Stephen Hawking

By Clark Collis
Updated October 24, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything
Credit: Liam Daniel

No one, it’s fair to say, was begging Eddie Redmayne to play famed physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, but he’s sort of used to that. ”I wish I could say this role landed in my lap,” says the actor, 32, best known as Marius in 2012’s Les Misérables. ”I’m one of those people — f—ing hell — it’s never landed in my lap. It’s always quite a fierce chase.”

This time, that chase included a call to Copenhagen-based director James Marsh. He argued that he could portray the ALS-stricken scientist from a healthy Cambridge University student to a wheelchair-bound middle-aged man. ”He asked me how I’d go about it,” says Redmayne. ”I pretended to be really confident and that I had some idea about how I’d go about it.” The only problem? Once he secured the role, for which he has earned raves and near-deafening Oscar buzz since the film’s debut at last month’s Toronto Film Festival, Redmayne had to work out exactly how he was going to do all that stuff. ”I hadn’t quite realized what I had bitten off.”

He threw himself into researching Hawking and the disease that has left him immobile and needing a voice synthesizer to communicate. The actor visited ALS patients and studied old photos to map Hawking’s physical decline. He also met with Hawking, his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), and Tim Hawking, one of the couple’s three kids. ”Tim would say things like ‘We used to get in Dad’s wheelchair and use it as a go-kart,”’ says Redmayne. ”Or ‘We used to go to his voice machine and put swearwords in and press play.”’ The grueling shoot left a physical mark. After the actor spent weeks contorting his facial muscles to imitate Hawking, he says, ”the makeup designer said that literally [the right] side of my face became more lined and muscular.”

Marsh sounds more than content with his casting choice. ”The illness isn’t stable, so the challenge Eddie faced was trying to capture and inhabit each stage,” says the filmmaker, an Oscar winner for the 2008 documentary Man on Wire. ”That’s an extraordinarily difficult task because we were shooting out of sequence. There was never any moment when Eddie wasn’t ready to give the performance that was required for that scene.”

Theory was shot partly at Cambridge, where Redmayne studied art history. He was still there when he was cast in an all-male London production of Twelfth Night. His career since then has had, in his words, ”ups and downs.” Firmly in the former camp are Les Miz and 2011’s My Life With Marilyn, while the latter includes 2009’s Powder Blue. ”I played a mortician who suffered from anxiety whenever he met women, yet somehow ends up with Jessica Biel,” he says.

He’s not the first actor to play Hawking on screen. Benedict Cumberbatch, who appeared with Redmayne in 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl, starred in the 2004 TV movie Hawking, which Redmayne says he deliberately didn’t watch. ”I realized I’d probably just steal his best bits,” he says. The two could see more of each other in the coming months; Cumberbatch’s turn in The Imitation Game is also generating Oscar heat. ”That would be amazing,” Redmayne says. And, if you happen to be British, quite genius.

The Theory of Everything

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 123 minutes
  • James Marsh