Legendary physicist Stephen Hawking has given us some of our greatest understanding of life, the universe and everything, and leaves behind a formidable scientific legacy following his death aged 76. But while his grand theories are well known, the world got a greater insight into Hawking himself through the movies – particularly Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning portrayal in 2014 biopic The Theory of Everything. Tracing Hawking’s young academic life, his diagnosis with motor neurone disease, and his relationship with his first wife Jane, the role led to Redmayne meeting Hawking and his family.
Empire sat down with Redmayne in 2014 ahead of the film’s release (and awards success) to talk about the role and his meetings with the Hawking clan. Even long after the shoot was complete the character seemed to stay with Redmayne, who would subtly slip into Hawking’s voice and facial movements when talking about him. Here’s what he had to say about one of the sharpest minds in human history.
On his early knowledge of Stephen Hawking
“I thought I'd grown up with an icon, thought I had some knowledge of who he was but realised I knew nothing. There was this extraordinary other story. Weirdly, I was at Cambridge University and occasionally you'd see this iconic silhouette going across, but it never occurred to me to read around his story.”
On meeting Hawking for the first time
“It was terrifying. I'd spent six months reading and watching everything, and then you get to meet him and I just basically ended up vomiting forth information about him, to him.
“It takes a long, long time for him to say anything, maybe 10 minutes if you're having live conversation. And I suffer from verbal diarrhoea. So I ended up telling him about himself a lot.
“He makes a point in his books that he was born on the 8th of January, which was Galileo's birthday. So he was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo, and I was just talking complete bollocks at him. I was like, 'And of course Stephen you were born on the 8th of January and of course that's Galileo's birthday, I was born on the 6th of January, so we're both Capricorns...' At which point there was this long silence for about nine minutes, and then he said, 'I am an astronomer, not an astrologer.' I was like, 'Holy shit, Stephen Hawking thinks that the actor that is playing him thinks he's Shelley Von Strunckel or Mystic Meg.'”
On Hawking’s physicality
“[Hawking’s] mother and Jane both say that he had the most expressive eyebrows in the world. As he lost his speech, when he starts using that [language] board, most people do it through blinking, but he always did it through his eyebrows.”
On Hawking’s reaction to the film
“When he then went to see the film I saw him beforehand and I said, 'Stephen, I'm very nervous about you seeing it, let me know what you think.' And he said, 'Yeah I'll let you know what I think, good or otherwise.' I was like, if it's otherwise, will you just say 'Otherwise.'
“We'd been using this synthetic version of his voice which this company had drawn up for us. And at the end [of the early screening] he gave us the copyright to use his actual voice. It was amazing because I'd seen a rough cut, and just seeing how it shifted the film […] I thought that our assimilated voice was totally fine, but actually when you hear it... so that meant a huge amount.”
On the joy of the Hawking family
“Getting to hang out with Stephen and Jane and Tim, their son who works at Lego, they're the loveliest people. To spend time with Hawking and to see that humour and the vivacity that comes from now even more limited movement than we had in the film is really uplifting. When you've been dealt such an intense set of cards, to still be living with such vibrancy...”
On Stephen Hawking’s lively personality
“Basically, he's a complete player. I kid you not, there's a really sexy quality to him. He has this troop of women around him and he's a virile and funny man. In my trailer I ended up having three images that I referred to. One was Einstein with his tongue out, because there's that similar humour with Hawking. Another was The Joker on a pack of cards who's a puppeteer, because I feel Steven has people in the palm of his hand. And the third was James Dean. And that was what I gained from seeing him: the glint and the humour.”
Interview: Alex Godfrey / Photo shoot: Steve Neaves / Illustration: Justin Metz