Santa Barbara Film Fest: 'Theory' Stars Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones Feted as Vanguards

Eddie_Redmayne_Felicity_Jones_Santa_Barbara_Film_Fest - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Eddie_Redmayne_Felicity_Jones_Santa_Barbara_Film_Fest - H 2015

On Thursday night, the 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival honored The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones with its Cinema Vanguard Award at the culmination of the first of the two-hour tributes — conversations with top talent, interspersed with clips of their work — that serve as the spine of the annual event. (SBIFF attracts dozens of contenders each year who hope to curry favor with the 100 or so Academy members believed to live in and around the area just as final Oscar balloting begins.)

I had the pleasure of serving as the moderator for this particular evening and sensed from the stage that Redmayne and Jones — truly charming actors who can make it seem like they are answering a question for the first time even if it's really the 90th — really won over the 2,000-strong crowd. Though much of the audience was unfamiliar with most of their prior work, when they took the stage they were greeted with polite applause. It was striking to me that just a couple of hours later, after seeing clips of their distinguished prior and current work and hearing them talk so insightfully about it, the audience rose to their feet when Theory producer/screenwriter Anthony McCarten came out to present them with their actual awards.

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Redmayne, 33, and Jones, 31, knew each other before Theory from auditioning for some of the same projects and participating in a charity theatrical production back in their native England. So there was a great comfort level when Jones auditioned for Theory opposite Redmayne, who had already been cast — in fact, she ended up being cast as soon as the audition was over. The two spoke of the nerves that they felt when, after months of preparation and just a month before production began, they first met Stephen Hawking and Jane Hawking. They spoke of how surreal it was to be in the middle of scenes on the set and look up and see one or both of them visiting. Stephen, in fact, showed up one night as fireworks were going off above them for a scene, which Redmayne jokingly described as "the greatest rock star entrance of all time."

Both thesps described their characters' interactions on this film as a "dance," for which they prepared together by studying ALS patients and charting out the most specific details about how and why their physical conditions deteriorate. That enabled them to do what most film actors must do for budgetary reasons, but which was going to be especially challenging on this project: shoot out-of-sequence. Jones, meanwhile, spoke about the devolution of the Hawkings' relationship, noting that the three clips from the film that were shown during the evening — the Hawkings politely but firmly differing on the existence of God, then Stephen losing the ability to talk post-tracheotomy and then Stephen terminating their relationship — were each key turning points.

The duo clearly felt very gratified that the Hawkings strongly approved of their work. After seeing the finished film, Stephen allowed Theory director James Marsh to use his copyrighted, computerized "voice" in the film, and said, "I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well. At times I thought he was me." Jane, for her part, said of Felicity's work, "When I saw her on screen in those first shots when she arrives at the party I was just astounded. I thought, 'She's stolen my personality!' because she had my mannerisms, she had my speech patterns. It was a very weird experience."

Before focusing on Theory, we also spoke, at length, about some of the actors' earlier work. Both found valuable mentors and champions on early projects — Redmayne said he learned a great deal from Julianne Moore on the set of Savage Grace (2007), while Jones spoke highly of the example set by Helen Mirren on The Tempest (2010). Both spoke of 2011 being a transformative year for them, with Redmayne starring in My Week with Marilyn opposite Michelle Williams, who received an Oscar nom for her performance, and Jones co-anchoring the indie Like Crazy, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, where she was also awarded a special jury prize for her performance. And then both did some of their most widely-acclaimed work shortly before Theory, Redmayne in Les Miserables (2012) with Tom Hooper, a filmmaker with whom he had collaborated before and has again since, and Jones in The Invisible Woman (2013), under the very precise direction of her costar, Ralph Fiennes.

Over the remaining 10 days of the SBIFF, the fest will present its Montecito Award to Cake's Jennifer Aniston (tonight, in fact); Modern Master Award to Birdman's Michael Keaton; Outstanding Performer of the Year Award to Foxcatcher's Steve Carell; American Riviera Award to Boyhood's Ethan Hawke and Patricia ArquetteVirtuosos Award to Obvious Child's Jenny SlateFury's Logan Lerman, Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane, Get On Up's Chadwick Boseman, Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike, Whiplash's J.K. Simmons and Selma's David Oyelowo; and Directors of the Year Award to Whiplash's Damien Chazelle, Boyhood's Richard Linklater, Foxcatcher's Bennett Miller, Citizenfour's Laura Poitras and The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum.

The fest also announced on Friday that its popular panel "Creative Forces:  Women in the Biz," which is moderated each year by Madelyn Hammond, will take place this year on Feb. 7 and feature Bonnie Arnold (producer of the Academy Award-nominated animated feature How to Train Your Dragon 2 and newly-crowned co-President of DreamWorks Animation), Carolyn Blackwood (executive producer of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies), Kristin Hahn (executive producer of Cake), Rory Kennedy (director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary feature Last Days in Vietnam), Aneta Kopacz (director and writer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary short film Joanna), Joanna Natasegara (producer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Virunga) and Kristina Reed (producer of the Academy Award-nominated animated short film Feast).

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg