NEW YORK—His performance is already generating Oscar rumors. In "The Theory of Everything," Eddie Redmayne is legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, embodying not only Hawking's razor-sharp wit, humor, and love of life, but also the physical brittleness brought on by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
ALS is a rare but incurable disease that slowly shuts down control of all muscles. Although it typically manifests in patients' 50s, Hawking developed symptoms when he was only 20. The disease has left him in a wheelchair and unable to speak, except through a computer program. Yet he has still managed to become a leader in his field.
"The Theory of Everything" begins at the start of Hawking's career, and as he meets his future wife and caretaker-to-be Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), without whom none of his science would have been possible.
To prepare for the transformation, Redmayne spent four months studying ALS patients in a London clinic, speaking with specialists, watching Hawking's BBC documentary, and reading Hawking's books. He met with Hawking's previous students and talked science with them.
But depicting a living physicist involved another challenge—meeting the man himself.
Redmayne described that encounter in an exclusive interview on Oct. 17.
Meeting the Man Himself
The first time Redmayne and the team met with Hawking was five days before the shooting began.
"When I went to meet him, he went from like icon status to idol status," Redmayne said.
Because Hawking speaks through a computer, it took him a long time to respond, filling the conversation with long, awkward silences.
Hawking repeatedly made it known that he was born on Galileo's birthday, exactly 300 years after Galileo.
"Well, Stephen, you were born on the 8th of January, which is Galileo's birthday, and I was born on the 6th of January, so we're both Capricorns," Redmayne recalled saying. Then Hawking would look at the actor, smile, and spend what seemed like an eternity writing a reply:
"I'm an astronomer, not an astrologer."
"It was so humiliating that I still wake up with hot sweats about it," Redmayne said.
When he wasn't busy embarrassing himself, Redmayne observed Hawking for any details that the documentaries may have missed.
"Even though it's difficult for him to communicate, he controls the room," Redmayne said. "He has a formidable presence."
"He was very funny, and he let me in, and he was incredibly generous."
Hawking told Redmayne that his speech was slurred even before ALS. Redmayne took this tip onto the set and insisted that the film stays true to reality, even using subtitles if need be.
Redmayne said the challenge in playing actual people is that everyone knows them and has their own interpretation already.
"The stakes are high when you're playing someone who's lived," he said. Next, Redmayne wants to play an imagined character.
To his relief, Redmayne has a role in the upcoming epic space opera "Jupiter Ascending" as a fictional character named Balem, starring alongside Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum.
Although his career is rapidly soaring, Redmayne tries to keep a simple philosophy in life:
"Take life step by step, pace by pace, slowly, slowly and leave the competition to others," he said, quoting Russian writer Anton Chekhov.
"The Theory of Everything" opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, Nov. 14.
'The Theory of Everything'
Director: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Release date: Nov. 7, 2014