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For playing a debilitating theoretical physicist who is confined to a wheelchair and must use a computer to speak in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne was nothing short of animated, jumpy and incredibly chatty at the film’s New York City premiere on Monday night. The Gucci-suited star of the Stephen Hawking biopic waved to friends as they walked behind the line of reporters to the Museum of Modern Art’s theater, and even paused during an interview on the red carpet to greet Uma Thurman, who enthusiastically introduced him to her daughter, Maya.
“The overriding thing when you meet him is this wit,” Redmayne, attending with fiancée Hannah Bagshawe, told The Hollywood Reporter of Hawking. “There’s a glint in his eye, a mischief or a Lord of Misrule quality, which is extraordinary. That’s the one thing I tried to capture.”
To further portray the professor with a motor neuron disease, the actor trained with a dancer for four months — “trying to teach your body to do things it’s not used to doing; it’s a bit like training for a marathon” — and meticulously tracked the degeneration process: a necessity, as scenes were shot out of order. “I ended up literally doing a chart of every muscle that was going and where the voice was, things like whether he was on one stick, two sticks, which chair he was in, what glasses he was wearing, so I would have a way to jump in and out,” Redmayne said.
Felicity Jones told reporters that she underwent her own transformation to become devout wife Jane Hawking, which included working with coaches on dialect and movement to emulate mannerisms picked up after meeting with her, looking through her personal photos and even borrowing her clothes. But some things can’t be learned beforehand. “One of the things I realized is how physically strong Jane must have been,” Jones told THR. “She’s only a slight woman, but pushing wheelchairs and the heavy lifting involved, I had a newfound respect for her when I was shooting.”
“What these two people overcame and continue to overcome, how this love story flourished in the face of such adversity, is miraculous,” noted Charlie Cox, who plays Jonathan Hellyer Jones. “That, I think, is the heart of the story, and it’s why this film about Stephen Hawking may reach other people and have an impact over a film about Stephen Hawking.” What inaccuracy did the real Jones point out in the screenplay? “He said, ‘I had a beard at this point in my life,’ which I didn’t!”
The Focus Features limited release is based on Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen — an adaptation process spanning ten years for screenwriter-producer Anthony McCarten, who presented the sensitive project to her as three movies harmoniously woven into one: a persevering love story, a tribute to Stephen’s physics contributions and a peek at a devastating disease. “There was the seed of Jane’s anxiety about this being a film: Would it be handled with the delicacy it required? I promised her that it would, and that I’d assemble a team who would honor the spirit of their lives,” McCarten explained.
He was also intrigued to “depict a relationship where half of it has almost no words, and it’s gotta come through a computer. I was a huge fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey — the death of [HAL 9000] is the greatest death scene in all of cinema. So a machine voice being one half of a relationship, that’s what I couldn’t wait to write…. The freight of all that emotion had to be carried by only two or three words. I tried to create little haikus for Stephen — just the odd word like, ‘Be happy,’ which are clichés, but that’s all he has time to write. So his eyes had to say more than that.” (McCarten’s favorite scene is one without many words at all, as Stephen and Jane trade tragic looks while learning to use a spelling board.)
Despite its inherent despair, the story shines with optimism because of its two characters, said the filmmakers. “Though this illness destroys Stephen’s life in one respect, he has an amazing career — he’s not trapped in the wheelchair; his mind goes elsewhere, his mind can soar,” director James Marsh explained. Producer Lisa Bruce added, “Jane loved him for 25 years and had children — to me, their love story is really inspirational. I don’t think there are many love stories that are that powerful.” Additionally, director of photography Benoit Delhomme wanted “to make the film as sunny as possible” and “have the energy of the sun. Even in very intimate close-ups, I wanted it to be hopeful.”
It’s a take that may not be entirely accurate, but that wasn’t necessarily the goal. “We explained to him, ‘This isn’t your life, this is an imagining of your life. We’ve done our best to honor the known facts, but like stars and space, there’s a lot of void in between them, and you gotta fill that out,’ ” McCarten told THR of recently screening the film for Hawking. “I didn’t even know if we were gonna get his blessing, so I was carrying, for a decade, a sense of trespass…. He sat there and watched it, the lights came up, his nurse wiped a tear from his cheek, and then he composed his verdict. Two words: ‘Broadly true.’ I let out a sigh that I had been carrying for ten years.”
After the screening, which wrapped to resounding applause, guests walked a block to Midtown hotspot The Wayfarer, which was decked out with vases of white flowers and tray-passed tuna tartare and hanger-steak hors d’oeuvres. The actors celebrated the film’s upcoming release in the very crowded venue with Thurman, Frances McDormand, Danny Strong, Megan Boone, Mozhan Marno, Ray Fisher and David Magee, among others.
The Theory of Everything hits theaters Nov. 7.
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