On a boiling day in London, Eddie Redmayne scoots into the bar of the Young Vic theater, spots me, shakes hands, and runs to the counter. He turns to ask: “And you? Anything? Sure? OK,” all in a kind of sign language. When I hold out my hand to him for the check (Vogue’s check), he raises an eyebrow, signifying “as if,” and crumples it. Very few men are heart-stoppingly beautiful, in the way glorious women or racehorses or specimen roses unarguably are, so meeting a bona fide male dazzler, with fan sites sprawled across the Web, is interesting. The huge buzz about his new film, The Theory of Everything, in which he plays the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from the debilitating neurological disease ALS, is also interesting: The noise coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered in September, was clamorous.
He’s as pretty as a piece of porcelain. Green eyes, gorgeous russet hair, freckles. I’m not the first person to notice this, of course. At university, Redmayne was scouted by a model agent. “The most success I think I had was doing a knitting magazine that was sent to grannies,” he says, “but after my huge, heady days in the knitting books, I left it behind.” (A handful of years later, Christopher Bailey brought Redmayne out of modeling retirement to appear in his character-driven ensemble campaigns for Burberry.)
Today he is dressed downbeat for a sticky day in a sage-green T-shirt and chinos of an uncommonly bright blue. Maybe they don’t seem so in-your-face to Redmayne, who is red-green color-blind: His world, on the surface at least, is all a bit burgundy and gray.
The great thing about actors is that when they tell you a story, they act it out in front of you, so it feels like you were there. When Eddie met Hawking to watch the movie’s May Ball scene at Cambridge (coincidentally, also Redmayne’s alma mater), where Hawking’s younger self had danced with Jane Wilde, the woman who was to be his wife of 30 years, “It was like stepping back in time,” says Redmayne. “Everyone was dressed, and we were waiting for the fireworks display. As if on cue, Stephen came in in his wheelchair with his caregivers—it was nighttime, and his face was uplit by his computer screen—and just as he arrived, the fireworks went off. It was the most rock-star entrance I’ve ever seen.”
Before breakout roles in the 2011 indie My Week with Marilyn and the following year in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables film, the 32-year-old Redmayne was best known in the U.K. for a number of costume dramas and as a stage actor. In 2002 he played Viola in a Globe Theatre production of Twelfth Night; his performance as Mark Rothko’s assistant in John Logan’s 2009 play Red won him an Olivier and a Tony; and his Richard II under the direction of Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse three years ago was widely hailed as masterful. The Theory of Everything, though, was like nothing he had done before. Based on a memoir by Hawking’s former wife, Jane, the film follows the scientist from his bicycling student days and through both the flowering of his genius and the depredations of his condition. “Stephen, when I saw him, could only use this muscle,” Redmayne says, tapping his right cheekbone. “So he now has the computer screen, his glasses, and a sensor on the glasses [that displays] a cursor going across the alphabet. And when he does that”—his cheek twitches minutely—“it stops on a letter.”
The film’s director, James Marsh (who made Man on Wire), thought Redmayne had “a nice physical resemblance to Stephen.” Calling from Copenhagen, where he has a home, Marsh said, “Then it became a question of how he pulls this off. What he does in the film is inhabit a very progressive degeneration of muscular activity—he goes from able-bodied Stephen Hawking to the Stephen Hawking of the public imagination.”
Redmayne told Marsh he would need to have a kind of old-school way of working. “Back in the day you’d have a movement coach, a makeup artist, a costume designer, a vocal coach,” he says, “and these people would work as a team. The one instinct I had is that the way in which I moved was going to affect what my face was doing, so that was going to need to be a dialogue between me and the camera—but that was going to affect the costume.” The last thing Redmayne filmed before The Theory of Everything was the science-fiction fantasy Jupiter Ascending for the Wachowski siblings, which required him to get pretty buff and muscled up. He put on 22 pounds, which had to be shifted before he played Hawking, but he knew that “as I got smaller it was all about proportion: things like collars getting bigger, working with the propmakers to make the chairs bigger, so proportionally I’d look smaller in them.”
“Eddie created this massive chart, which he had to internalize, that itemized Stephen’s stages of illness,” says Marsh. “But you shoot a film out of sequence, so we were putting enormous burdens on him—we stuck him in a wheelchair, got that to work, and next thing he was up and running about. That’s a pretty hard task for an actor. It was physically difficult to be doing what he was doing. He was quite stoical.”
He was also painstaking in his preparation, visiting ALS patients and caregivers, who were asked if they were interested in meeting “an actor playing Stephen Hawking.” Me: I bet they were? “Yes—he is their great hope because he has lived so long.” Redmayne tells the story of the wife of a totally immobilized patient who was asked, on film, what the worst thing was about her husband having ALS. “And she says, ‘Oh my God, d’you know what? I don’t know where to start,’ ” Redmayne says, “and she just stands there and then breaks down, and you watch her husband try to move his body to hug her, and he can’t do anything, and so she has to come and hold him.”
Though his performance has already garnered some early chatter about an Oscar nomination, Redmayne didn’t even start out wanting to be an actor (as a kid, however, he did occasionally go to a drama class on Saturdays in High Wycombe with James Corden). He is an Etonian, one of those mannerly golden boys who provided Britain with diplomats and prime ministers for centuries before they realized that being stars of stage and screen was likely much more fun. At Eton he enjoyed the exceptional training of the drama teacher Simon Dormandy, now a theater director in his own right. But at Cambridge, Redmayne studied history of art.
“I come from a totally unmusical, untheatrical family,” he says. His father, Richard, is a London banker, and his mother ran a relocation business. “But when I was younger, Mum and Dad quite enjoyed musicals, so we would be taken to see Les Mis, and I saw the little kid in it—Gavroche—and kind of slightly hero-worshipped him. And so I sort of dreamed of that.” The temptation to observe that he dreamed a dream must be resisted, but he threw himself into the ring to land the role of Marius Pontmercy in Hooper’s Oscar-winning Les Mis adaptation. Hugh Jackman, who played the role of Jean Valjean, remarks on Redmayne’s endurance. “A man who can pretend to be unconscious as I accidentally dipped his head in a sewer many times can truly do anything!”
“Anything” includes pushing out expectations by taking on a virtual action movie as “an evil tyrant from outer space” in Jupiter Ascending, for which he swung about on wires 100 feet in the air and was “flung around like a trapeze artist,” as well as the physically transformative role of Hawking. “He’s a very bright man, but he wears his intelligence and his talent very, very lightly,” observes Alfred Molina, who played Rothko opposite Redmayne in Red in both London and New York.
“What I’ve always loved is variety,” says Redmayne cheerfully. “There’s a wonderful phrase in My Week with Marilyn”—in which Redmayne played an assistant at a film-production company whom Marilyn Monroe takes under her wing during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl—“where Kenneth Branagh, playing Laurence Olivier, turns to my character and says, ‘Glad you ran away to the circus?’ ”
In his free time, Redmayne is a fanatical theatergoer—he recently saw Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge and Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire, both British productions—and draws and practices his piano. “I have very erratic tastes,” he says, “but basically I go back to things I learned as a kid when I actually practiced—I butcher a bit of Mozart and Chopin.”
“Eddie has an incredible zest for life,” says his friend the actress Felicity Jones, who plays Jane Hawking in Theory. “He’s very switched on, a true optimist. It’s his energy, I think, that I find so captivating.”
Now he’s back on his bike, to go see “my wife-to-be,” Hannah Bagshawe, at the antiques dealership where she works in Chelsea. They’ve been together a couple of years, though he couldn’t find any way to check her ring size before he proposed—other than waiting until “the middle of the night, taking her hand, and putting her finger next to my finger.” Just before he leaves, he asks when I’m going to write the piece about him. “Do you do it tomorrow or do you do it later?” My lying mouth tells him I’ll do it tomorrow. “Do you know what it’s going to be? As in. . . .” I put on a blank face, so he presses on: “Because normally it’s just like a little thingy. Is it bigger than that?” Me: Yes, probably. Though not as big as if you were a hard-to-get cover girl wearing new-season clothes. “No, no,” he says, giggling. “Wonderful. It’s been so lovely to meet you. See you again and do let me know if you need anything else.” Like I said—lovely manners.