Biopics often live and die by how well their leads nail the subject's nature. For The Theory of Everything, which hits theaters this Friday, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones' portrayals of Stephen and Jane Hawking get it just right in performances that are stunning in their physical detail. Redmayne, as the ALS-inflicted genius, is a marvel to watch as he illustrates Stephen's body and motor functions worsen, while his mind continues to move at hyper-speed. And as able-bodied as Stephen's would-be wife may be, portraying Jane Hawking was no walk in the park for Jones.
Theory is the tale of the Hawkings' buoyant romance, and the film more than suggests that, if it had not been for Jane's fierce commitment, sturdiness, and love, Stephen may have never regained the will to continue his brilliant research. Complex sat down with Redmayne and Jones to talk studying up on the Hawkings, the finer points of body movement, and whether they know what the hell Stephen's theories mean.
One of the things that struck me in the film was Stephen’s sense of humor and the good nature that he tried to keep up. Eddie, is that something that you got from meeting him or of accounts of him?
Eddie Redmayne: It was a bit of everything. From reading all the biographies and autobiographies, even in his science paper there’s some humor woven in there. When you meet him, he’s genuinely one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, he has this capacity of extraordinary timing. Killer timing. But there’s also a sort of glint in his eye. I find him properly funny so I tried to replicate that.
Something else you replicated was his motor functions, and its deterioration. What went into that process, preparing for it and then conveying it?
Redmayne: I basically spent four months going to an ALS clinic in London and there was a specialist there named Dr. Katie Sidle. She introduced me to people who are suffering from this disease, and they were incredibly generous. Some people even took me into their homes and introduced me to their families. So, you’re trying to see the physical ramifications but also the emotional ramifications of the disease. Then, it was about taking photos of Stephen from when he was younger—because there isn’t any footage—and showing that to the specialist and working out what his decline would’ve been. I worked with a dancer to try and find a way of putting that into my body, and learning to teach my muscles how to hold some of those positions, because when you’re shooting it’s over quite extended periods. Also, how to go in and out of different physicalities on the same day, because we weren’t shooting chronologically.
Felicity, what were the challenges you faced portraying Jane Hawking?
Felicity Jones: Initially it's daunting and intimidating because you’re playing a real person, that comes with a lot of responsibility. Immediately I wanted to do a thorough job, I wanted to research her life as much as possible, so I read her book which became my bible throughout the film. I’d refer back to it and it would remind me of different moments throughout her life and how she was feeling at the time.
Meeting Jane was incredible because I’d watched documentary footage of her, read the script a million times, but it’s not until you meet the person that you really get their full nature, their essence. There was something about her—the way she moved—that I loved and I wanted to recreate that. She loves dancing so she has this very elegant way of moving. Then her voice is very particular, so I worked with a dialect coach on making that as accurate as possible. You just do as much homework as you can, really, it’s quite geeky. Then when you come to set you feel relaxed and see what happens on the day.
Eddie, you’re gaining so much praise for your work in the film, especially for your portrayal of Stephen's disease. What are both of your favorite physical roles in film?
Redmayne: I always go back to Andy Serkis and those extraordinary films. Or Zoe Saldana in Avatar. I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes of it and assuming it’s computer generated, but a lot of it was all of her extraordinary physical work. My Left Foot is obviously an extraordinary example, Daniel Day-Lewis. God there are hundreds, I wish I had known [you were going to ask that] beforehand, I would’ve prepped that answer better. [Laughs.]
Jones: Well I love—even though its subtly physical—Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. It isn’t the thing you’d think of straightaway, but she’s someone who also works in the theater, and you can see that she brings a lot of the techniques from theater into her film acting. And Meryl Streep, the beginning of The Iron Lady, when she’s playing Margaret Thatcher, you believe instantly that she’s a woman in her 80s or 90s. But it’s always done in a way that's believable. As Eddie does in this film. It’s not showy. It’s based on truth and research and authenticity.
And since this is a film about Stephen Hawking, I have to ask, are you mathematically or scientifically inclined in real life?
Jones: I actually studied literature at university so I’m much more of an arts-based person, but I remember I actually did enjoy physics because you got to do weird experiments. I remember we did this thing with static where we all had to put our hands on this static ball to see that your hair would all stand on end. So I liked that side of it at school, and with this film you try to understand the theories that are talked about, but you get so far and then it just escapes you.
Redmayne: Absolutely not. I’m useless at both of those things. So the biggest acting job for me on this was trying to persuade people that I actually knew what I was talking about. It took a lot of work, working with scientists to explain these things to me as if I were a 7-year-old.
Frazier Tharpe is a Staff Writer at Complex. Tweet him here.