Looking past the physical to play Stephen Hawking

British scientist Stephen Hawking (front) at the UK premiere of The Theory Of Everything with (back row from left) actress Felicity Jones, his ex-wife Jane Wilde and the actor who plays him, Eddie Redmayne. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
British scientist Stephen Hawking (front) at the UK premiere of The Theory Of Everything with (back row from left) actress Felicity Jones, his ex-wife Jane Wilde and the actor who plays him, Eddie Redmayne. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Skinny, English and witty were the three words makers of The Theory Of Everything lived by when they were casting for the role of real-life physicist Stephen Hawking.

Eddie Redmayne, last seen belting his heart out as Marius in Les Miserables (2012), fit the stereotype to a T, if he also had to lose 8kg for the part.

Tomorrow, the actor's career-changing portrayal of the world's most lauded expert on black holes opens in Singapore cinemas.

But for the role of a character already well known to the world through books, TV appearances and the tearjerker of a life-long struggle with motor-neuron disease, Redmayne was adamant about not playing Hawking-in-a- wheelchair as a cliche.

"You have a moment of excitement followed by the crushing fear of responsibility," he tells Life! during an interview in London, recalling the moment when he found out that he had gotten the job.

"And so much of it was daunting. Every day you felt that you were on a knife edge."

Redmayne, 32, is the latest face in an emerging cabal of public-school bred and Oxbridge-educated British actors making their presence felt in Hollywood.

He follows hot on the heels of Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki in The Avengers).

Unconventionally good-looking, these actors charm viewers with Version 3.1 of that slightly awkward brand of English poshness, first brought to screens 30 years ago by Hugh Grant and now given a debating-society makeover that instrumentalises wit and manners for more than foppy trifles.

Redmayne, for example, muses on the complex failures and possibilities of the human condition by way of not trivialising Hawking's condition and overplaying his disease.

"That was going to be the challenge - firstly, to not make the piece about physicality," he says.

"When you meet Stephen, he couldn't be less interested in his physicality. And so it was about how I make sure all the stages of physicality were embedded in me, so that when it comes to playing the story with Felicity, we could be free and playful and just have a human story."

In some ways, the actor is more of an earthy and regular guy than his highly exposed peers. He discusses his insecurities with surprising honesty, referring to his two favourite sounding boards.

His mother is "pretty honest", he says.

"She'll give me a hug after a play and exactly 23 and a half minutes later, she will say 'Do you think you had your hands in your pockets a bit too much?'"

The love of his life, his publicist and fiancee Hannah Bagshawe, "is pretty bang-on with feedback too".

Whereas Cumberbatch has ranted about posh-bashing, Redmayne speaks of his class privilege in simple, undefensive terms - that he was lucky enough to have "friends who can empathise with this and who are going through with it too, who can relate to the absurdity of the experience... it's such a crazy world, you otherwise feel that you're working in a vacuum".

Raised in Eton (alongside Prince William) and the son of a business-owning couple, Redmayne majored in art history at Cambridge, earning second upper honours before making his way to the floorboards of London's West End via Olivier Awardwinning performances at the Donmar Warehouse.

The actor's university experiences proved useful to the film and helped him tap the joie de vivre of Hawking's early days as a PhD student in the same exclusive institution.

But Redmayne confesses to never having been "a science person" himself. This made his encounter with Hawking - five days before his first day of shooting - slightly awkward.

"I made a complete fool of myself, spewing forth information about Stephen Hawking to Stephen Hawking," he says.

"Eventually I calmed down… He said a few specific things, but really, what I took away was his charisma, his incisive wit, his mischief - that twinkle in his eye."

This seminal meeting was not just a tick in the box for gaining audience with and permission of the great professor for the project.

"I'd done all this research and I had to start projecting the arc of who he was… what if I'd got it wrong?" he recalls.

"And I'd only got three days to completely shift the whole thing."

The night before his first shoot, Redmayne was racked with anxiety and insomnia.

On Day One, he had to jump around several different time arcs of the script that required him to be immobilised in a wheelchair, then up on his feet in an awkward walk, then on a bicycle.

"That first day was just an extraordinary trial… you prepare for the role in a vacuum and suddenly you start the story, the temptation is in that one tiny little random scene, to put everything down, to show you can do it… that's where you fail.

"Chronology is the complicated thing, but it's rare that you get a film with a budget which allows for this way of shooting. The great thing is that we had about four months to get together and rehearse."

Now, a year down the road on the afternoon of the movie's premiere in Leicester Square, London, Redmayne says he tries not to take for granted impending success and laughs off the idea of developing a sudden horde of female fans a la Benedict Cumberbatch's Cumberb****es.

"I've been at this 10 or 12 years now," he says.

"You're completely out of control, anyone can judge you. Part of it is wonderful because you have a nomadic circus-like existence. But you just keep putting one foot forward in front of the other and hope people enjoy your work."

Tan Shzr Ee