The film is Jane and Stephen’s story, and even though it smooths out some of their domestic unease and eventual divorce, there’s still a painful strain below the surface, from playful sparring over religion to the tougher realities of ambitions put on ice.
The first time Professor Stephen Hawking saw ‘The Theory of Everything’, he emailed the director to say that there were moments where he thought he was watching himself. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Hawking, must have heard this story a hundred times, but when I mention it his face lights up. ‘That was the greatest review ever,’ he says, smiling ear to ear. ‘I want to retire.’
No chance. The 32-year-old Londoner (currently best known for ‘Les Mis’) is about to join his mate Benedict Cumberbatch in the big league of Brit Actors Hollywood Would Most Like to Watch. Not only has he had the Hawking seal of approval, his performance in ‘The Theory of Everything’ is generating some serious Oscar heat.
The film is more love story than straight biopic. It’s based on the memoir by Hawking’s first wife Jane (played in the film by Felicity Jones). The couple divorced in 1995 after 30 years and three kids, and while you might expect the film to be ‘team Jane’, it’s much more grown-up and honest about marriage than that. It’s also very funny. When a mate asks Hawking if everything ‘down there’ is still in working order, he replies: ‘That part is automatic.’
Redmayne plays the professor from slacker student at Cambridge (before his motor neurone disease was diagnosed at the age of 21) to rock-star theoretical physicist. In the later scenes, when Hawking is unable to move or talk, Redmayne is beautiful to watch, radiating warmth and cheekiness – if you can call the most famous scientist since Albert Einstein cheeky...
The biggest surprise in the film is how hilarious Stephen Hawking is. What’s he like in real life?
‘So funny. When I met him it was proper belly laughs, I came out with sore tummy muscles. He has this mischief: a “lord of misrule” quality is how I describe it. In my trailer I had an image of a joker from a pack of cards. Even though it is difficult for Stephen to communicate, he’s very forceful in a room. He absolutely draws everyone in and because of the unique rhythm when he speaks, his silence is very powerful.’
What was it like the first time you met him?
‘Embarrassing. I filled the room with hot air – I struggle with silence. The most random thing I said was so bad. He was born on January 8, 300 years to the day after Galileo, and I said: “It’s funny because I was born on January 6, so we’re both Capricorns.” He looked at me and then he spent a few minutes typing. This was the second thing he said to me, in his iconic voice: “I’m an astronomer not an astrologer.” Which is hilarious but excruciating – he’s not Mystic Meg!’
How scared were you when you were making the film?
‘Terrified. I’d met Stephen and he was never going to say: “I’m thrilled you’re doing this, you’re going to be amazing.” It was nine months of sleepless nights, thinking: Will he like it?’
For a science thicko like me, ‘Theory’ goes easy on the astrophysics. You’ve an art history degree. How did you cope?
‘Well, I started “A Brief History of Time”, which I had, untouched, on my shelf. And to begin with, reading this gentle history of astronomy, I was thinking: I get this; I’m about to understand how the universe works! Then somewhere between about page 17 and page 24, I realised I didn’t have a clue what was going on. So I worked with one of Stephen’s old students, a professor at Imperial College. He taught me about string theory, and I was going: “Imagine I’m seven...”’
When I saw the trailer at the cinema, the entire audience gasped at the moment – before Hawking is diagnosed – when he falls and smacks his head on the pavement.
‘It’s an incredibly powerful scene because you know immediately it’s serious. When you fall you have an instinct to put your hands out. I’ve met a lot of people with ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the motor neurone disease Stephen Hawking has], and they describe falling “like a log”. It’s so unexpected.
‘In the stunt world, getting the job as the stunt director on the Stephen Hawking biopic is not that exciting. It’s not quite “Avengers”. But he did a brilliant job. He basically tied up my hands and started dropping me. This was in a Cambridge quad: all these tourists were taking photos.’
How did you physically prepare yourself to play someone with motor neurone disease?
‘I worked with a dancer, which was about training the muscles – like preparing for a marathon. It was about being able to stay in those positions for long periods of time, looking relaxed.’
Often films about geniuses suggest that having a family gets in the way of greatness. Here it’s the opposite, having to provide for his family spurred Hawking.
‘I think so. Lucy Hawking and Tim Hawking, the two younger children (I’ve never met Robert, who lives in America) were very generous. Having gone to the neurology clinic I was being very respectful of the disease. Then one day Tim said: “Yeah, but we did get in Dad’s wheelchair and use it as a go-cart. And we did put swearwords into his voice machine and press play.”’
What life lessons did you learn making ‘Theory’?
‘Number one: Stephen and Jane had these obstacles put in their way, but refused to be defined by them. They’ve been defined by how they’ve overcome them. How we overcome limitations is what’s important. And two: the notion of time. Stephen was given two years to live and every day beyond that he sees as a gift. He lives every minute of every day as passionately as possible. I’m one of those people who gets caught up in the anxieties of daily bollocks. He is a great reminder that we only have one shot at life, and we have to live it as fully as possible.’
‘The Theory of Everything’ opens in UK cinemas on Thu Jan 1.
Watch ‘The Theory of Everything’ trailer