Last night at the 87th Academy Awards, Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Back in October, I was invited to attend the New York premiere of the film, which follows Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane Wilde, as he rises to scientific stardom and becomes progressively more disabled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). At the after-party, I had a chance to speak briefly with Redmayne about his role; a transcript of our conversation follows.

How much science did you have to learn in preparation for this role?

As far as the science is concerned, I genuinely gave up the science when I was 14. I have one of those brains that can’t seem to comprehend the logic and I suppose the intricacies of that. So I met with one of Hawking’s old students who is now a professor at Imperial College London and he started talking to me about the intricacies of string theory and Hawking radiation, and I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa – imagine I’m seven years old; talk to me like I’m a seven-year-old.’ And he sweetly talked me through the minutiae of it and I got to a level that a level I could comprehend.

But what I found most riveting about studying Stephen and all those people around Stephen—particularly studying science in a specific period, and realizing that things have changed, been proven, been proven wrong subsequently—is the idea of this international dialogue that happens between someone presenting a paper, an academic presenting a paper in London, and then someone in Russia responding ,and then someone in the States responding to that. It’s an extraordinary chess game and one that I found riveting just to get a sense of.

In terms that reevaluation; do you see any parallels between acting and science?

I think you’ve said it there. I didn’t go to drama school; I don’t have a sense of process really. So every job that I approach, I try to approach it fresh really, and take all the knowledge I’ve accumulated, or hopefully by osmosis taken from other actors I’ve worked with, and see what fits to that specific thing. And certainly what I love about Stephen is there’s something in his joy in life, but also he doesn’t have to people-please anyone, including himself, so he lives for the moment and specifically moving forward, and so if he believed something and then proves it wrong, he has no shame in that; in fact he has great interest and sees great rigor in it.

Was there a science to your portrayal of Hawking?

I tried to understand as much of the science as possible, read everything I could, understood as much as I could and sought advice from his old student. And then with the physicality, I went to a clinic in London called the Queen’s Square Centre of Neuromuscular Diseases, and there’s a doctor there called Dr. Katie Sidle and she would introduce me to people suffering from this horrific disease and their families, and through showing her photographs of Stephen when he was younger we tried to track what his specific physical decline would have been, and then I worked with a dancer to try to find a way of training my muscles to be able to stay in those positions for extended periods because when you’re filming, you don’t film chronologically, but you also film for long periods of time, so that I was how I approached it. And finally I met Stephen and Jane and Jonathan [Jane’s second husband] and the family and that was the last element I suppose.

What did you learn from Hawking directly?

Very specific things, like he spoke about the fact that his voice was very slurred before the tracheotomy [that would ultimately take away his ability to speak] and he specifically wanted to have someone translate him, because that was that reality, and that was something which I had seen and wanted to do, but the film company wasn’t so sure about it because they didn’t like the idea of subtitles. But I was able to go back and say, ‘Look, this is something that’s important to Stephen; let’s find a way.’ So [screenwriter] Anthony McCarten rewrote some scenes to have Jane translate certain unintelligible parts of his speech.

Further reading

“The Human Cost of Science: Stephen Hawking and The Theory of Everything by Clara Moskowitz (November 2014)

“The Elusive Theory of Everything: Physicists have long sought to find one final theory that would unify all of physics. Instead they may have to settle for several” by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (October 2010)

“How Has Stephen Hawking Lived Past 70 with ALS? An expert on Lou Gehrig's disease explains what we know about this debilitating condition and how Hawking has beaten the odds” by Katherine Harmon (January 2012)

“A Meta-Law to Rule Them All: Physicists Devise a ‘Theory of Everything’: ‘Constructor theory’ unites in one framework how information is processed in the classical and quantum realms” by Zeeya Merali (May 2014)