Eddie Redmayne’s physical transformation for his role in The Theory of Everything is so accomplished that Prof Stephen Hawking said on seeing the film: “At times, I thought he was me.”
This is how he did it:
Understanding the science:
"So once I got the part, which was a pretty daunting prospect, it was a case of just trying to educate myself on everything. I’d given up science when I was young so I took my copy of A Brief History of Time, which I tried to read when I was younger, and started all over again. Many of the words Stephen had written crossed my retinas but how much I understood was another question. I met one of Stephen’s old students, who is now a professor at Imperial College, and I remember him teaching me the intricacies of string theory and I had to say, ‘Please, we have to go right back to the beginning, imagine I’m 12’. And through that process I began to learn about science and the specifics of what Stephen had achieved because I was incredibly ignorant prior to that. Has it made a smarter person? No. But has it taught me a lot? Yes."
"Then it was about understanding motor neurone disease [MND]. There is a formidable clinic in London [part of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery] and I went there for four months and worked with the specialists and tried to educate myself on the reality of what MND is. I was introduced to many people suffering from it and their families and got to see not only the physical ramifications but also the emotional cost. I learned that you have upper neurons and lower neurons; when your upper neurons stop working there is a rigid quality and when your lower neurons stop working there is more of a wilting, a softness. Motor neurone disease is a combination of those two things but how it manifests itself in each person’s suffering is unique. So whilst trying to work out what Stephen’s specific decline was, I took as much source material as I could.”
"Unfortunately, nowadays with film you don’t really get the opportunity to shoot chronologically - unless you’re Boyhood. So I did know from the outset that we weren’t going to have that luxury. So the important thing for me was trying to educate myself on the specifics of the disease, and then I worked with a dancer, a woman called Alex Reynolds, who helped train my body to be able to sustain specific positions for extended periods. The reason I did that all in the four months before filming was so when it came to working with Felicity Jones, who was playing Jane, we could actually just play the human story, the emotional story, and I wasn’t thinking about the specifics and ramifications of motor neurone disease."
"And beyond that it was watching as many documentaries as I could of Stephen’s life, of which there are some extraordinary ones and a lot of footage. But they are from the 1980s, when Stephen was first in a wheelchair, and it was then about trying to work out what his life had been prior to that both in a physical way and in an emotional way. For that I read a biography of Stephen, Stephen’s autobiography and then [his former wife] Jane’s book, and it was about trying to collate all this information. Then I finally got to meet him and I learnt a huge amount from that experience."
"One of the things that was interesting for me when I first met Stephen, and meeting many other people with MND as well, is that as the body declines all those facilities you have if you don’t have MND - of tone of voice, of gestures, of expression - all those energies channel into those few muscles that you can use. Stephen he has an incredibly expressive face despite the fact he can’t move a huge amount. And so that was something I worked on. I had an iPad filled with pretty much every piece of footage that I could find of Stephen, and I would sit in front of the mirror trying to learn to isolate muscles that we don’t usually use. Stephen’s mum and Jane both described how as a young man he had incredibly expressive eyebrows, and as the disease took hold that became incredibly important. And the extraordinary thing about playing Stephen on film is that film can get close and it can capture that. So it was a lot of work filming myself beforehand, trying to work out what was right and comparing it to those documentaries that Stephen had made."
"I met Stephen a few days before filming began. The reason I call Stephen ‘Stephen’ was because when I first met Stephen I was very nervous. I came in, I’d spent months researching him and I basically just started spewing forth information about Stephen to Stephen for about 45 minutes. I was calling him Professor Hawking and the first thing he said to me was, 'Call me Stephen'. And with Stephen’s voice there’s that unique intonation, and I couldn’t work out whether he was telling me to stop being a sycophant and calm down or whether he was just saying, 'No, no, no, call me Stephen'."