By Emelia Fredlick
Arts & Entertainment Editor
& Maya Nair
It was refreshing to experience a biopic that, for once, wasn’t about a musician or an athlete, but rather an astrophysicist. In this way, “The Theory of Everything” had just enough formula to be familiar and just enough novelty to prevent it from being boring.
The Emory Wheel had the opportunity to sit in on a conference call with the film’s star, Eddie Redmayne (“Les MisÃ©rables“), and producer and writer Anthony McCarten (“Death of a Superhero“). Here’s what we talked about:
Redmayne is delightfully captivating as Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physics student who is diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He doesn’t fall into the trap of simply being an attractive actor who puts on glasses in an effort to look nerdy: he becomes Hawking, walking the walk and talking the talk. But the effects of his motor neurone disease quickly take hold: slurred speech, struggling to control his limbs, using a cane, then a wheelchair and eventually communicating only through a clicker device. And Redmayne takes on this extremely physical role like a champ – the transition never feels forced or unreal; he genuinely makes you feel for his physical deterioration and yet indomitable love of life.
Redmayne: “When I got cast, I had prepared for about four months before filming started … When you’re lucky enough to play someone as extraordinary as Stephen, I basically tried to immerse myself in all dimensions of his life. I tried to educate myself on the science in the one sense, but really learning about ALS was incredibly important. I went to a neurology clinic in London called the Queen Square Neurology Clinic, and they have a clinic there every week, and I would go every week or two over that period and meet with the specialist there. She would introduce me to people suffering from this really brutal disease. And some of them would invite me to their homes! So you could see not only the physical effects of ALS, but also the emotional ones. But also, the extraordinary humor and the amazing passion for life that many people who are suffering from this disease have … Then, finally it was meeting Stephen, Jane and Jonathan and Stephen and Jane’s children. That was the last element, which happened just before we started filming.”
The real crux of the story lies not in the physics, but in Stephen’s relationship with his wife, Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones, “Like Crazy”). “The Theory of Everything” excellently depicts the complexities of their relationship, from lovestruck college students to serious, slightly-jaded adults. Stephen and Jane were married for 30 years before eventually divorcing in 1995, and going into the film knowing this, the obvious question is: How could the film possibly depict a love story that ends in divorce? But “The Theory of Everything” succeeds. It follows the trajectory of their relationship, truly making you understand how hard it was for both of them to deal with this situation. Jane isn’t depicted as either of her two potential stereotypes: the dutiful wife whose only purpose in life was to care for her husband, or the villain who abandoned her husband in his time of need. Jones is truly charming in the role of Jane, a woman doing her best to care for her ill husband and family, while still wishing to pursue her own ambitions. Perhaps most refreshing is that the film doesn’t glorify one character and vilify the other. It shows how two people can do their very best, love one another and care for another, despite in the end, not being able to make the relationship work.
Redmayne: “The scene where [Stephen and Jane] part was probably the most intense and rigorous scene that we shot. We shot it in real time and in the film, the time it takes Stephen to speak is condensed slightly. When we were shooting, we were shooting as he would spell those sentences out, so those takes ended up being 10-15 minute takes. But by that point in the film, both Felicity and I were so caught up in it and deeply protective of our characters and cared a lot. So weirdly, it wasn’t a scene we talked about a huge amount at all; we knew it was a crux point, but we were at a pretty intense place. Felicity and I both started out in theater in London at a place called Donmar Warehouse, and something about having to do these quite long transitions night after night; I think we used some of what we learned from that and brought that to the scene. But Anthony had written a very layered scene, and what I love about that scene is that people react entirely differently to it.”
In “A Brief History of Time,” Hawking famously wrote that finding the theory of everything “would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” Indeed, religion plays a significant role in the lives of the Hawkings. Stephen proclaims himself an atheist, while Jane is a devout Christian. The pair clearly finds themselves at odds with one another’s beliefs, but it’s a nice change of pace to see a depiction of a couple that isn’t constantly trying to convert the other. Similarly, the film doesn’t take either side, saying, “See, he was clearly right and she was clearly wrong.” That’s where the movie really shines: in its ability to avoid preaching and just tell an honest story of two real people. In one particularly lovely scene, Jane picks up the sheet of paper where Stephen has written the quote about knowing the mind of God. She excitedly reads it to him, pleased that he has acknowledged her faith. He says, “It’s not published yet,” to which she responds, “Just let me have this one.” It’s a perfect conclusion to their religious debate: no one wins or loses, but he acknowledges that religion is important to her and accepts it, even if he doesn’t necessarily believe it himself.
McCarten: “It was absolutely incumbent upon me to include the question of the existence of God, mainly because of its impact on the marriage. Jane was definitely a God-fearing, church-going Anglican and religion was important to her. Stephen was either an atheist or agnostic, depending on the day of the week. He’s very mischievous, and it’s hard to pin him down on where he is on the God question. Within their marriage, they contained that debate that was going on in society, so this was part of their discourse in society and part of their marriage, so you can see it in the script. Secondly, Stephen’s ideas almost take us to the threshold of that question. He doesn’t really want to get into the God debate, but when he started coming up with theories that the universe had no beginning and therefore has no end, and the equations do not require a God, people jumped in and said, ‘So therefore, there is no God.’ His position was, ‘No, I’m just talking about that the equations do not require a God to balance.’ Stephen’s whole professional career has been dragged into the God arguments. So I thought that if there were to be any retelling of his life, we have to deal with it on some level.”
Redmayne: “The amazing thing about spending time with Stephen was that he was given three years to live at the age 21, and he describes that every moment or day beyond that is a gift for him. And how he pulled himself out of a melancholia and had managed to live every second of every minute of his life as passionately and as fully as possible has been a great inspiration for me. I feel like I certainly get caught up in the day to day banalities and worries and anxieties of life, and you can forget that we only have one shot at this … Really trying to live fully is what I’ve taken away.”
McCarten: “If you keep an active, curious and an open mind and a sense of humor, then you can overcome just about everything life throws at you.”
– By Emelia Fredlick, Arts & Entertainment Editor, & Maya Nair, Contributing Writer