Eddie Redmayne has won wide acclaim for his role in Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything (12A), but he tells Keeley Bolger how meeting the great man was ‘terrifying’.
Nine years can be a long time in an actor’s life – particularly for one who’s gone from just starting out to being a household name in that time – but Eddie Redmayne is still pinching himself about filming scenes for a movie that came out almost a decade ago.
“I’ll never forget arriving on set on the first day, for the  film The Good Shepherd, where I played Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon’s son,” says the boyish-looking 32-year-old. “Going, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here! When are they going to find me out? Get me out of here!’”
These days, of course, Redmayne is just as likely to pull in flocks of film fans as his one-time screen parents.
Redmayne, who grew up in London, is going from strength to strength.
He attended the Eton College and studied the history of art at Cambridge before really setting his sights on an acting career.
Following the Jolie film, his breakthrough came in the 2008 BBC adaptation of Tess Of The D’Urbervilles. Then his portrayal of a lowly film set worker in My Week With Marilyn further cemented his position as a promising talent.
But it’s now, with his performance as Stephen Hawking in moving new drama The Theory Of Everything, that Redmayne is really coming into his own.
He’s already been nominated for the London Film Critics’ Circle and Golden Globe gongs for best actor, and there’s talk of an Oscar nod too.
Spanning Hawking’s life from his days as an able-bodied Cambridge graduate, being diagnosed at the age of 21 with ALS, a form of Motor Neurone Disease, and given just two years to live, to the revered scientist he is today, The Theory Of Everything isn’t a straightforward biopic.
It shows the incredible budding relationship – and later marriage – between Hawking and his fellow student Jane Wilde, played by Felicity Jones.
Sacrificing her own career, Jane, whose memoir inspired the movie, devoted her life to supporting Hawking and caring for their children.
Discovering more about this unique and entirely universal love story left a lasting impression on Redmayne.
“What I see is that Stephen and Jane had these incredible hardcore obstacles put in front of them, and rather than letting the obstacles or limitations define them, it was how they overcame them that defined them,” says the actor.
“I took that as a message we can learn from. Even though it’s a specific scenario for them, in life, we always have limitations and things put on us, and how we choose to overcome them is what defines us.”
While the film could be saccharine, it doesn’t gloss over the friendship the physicist and his wife had with widowed choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones, portrayed by Charlie Cox, who Jane later wed. Hawking also remarried, to his carer Elaine Mason, played by Maxine Peake.
To prepare himself for the role, Redmayne met people who have ALS, watched countless clips of Hawking and learnt to isolate muscles in his face, indicating ‘yes’ with a “sort of smile” and ‘no’ as an “almost grimace”.
“It was intense, but it was also quite riveting,” he says of the rehearsal process.
He also met Hawking to discuss the role, which he admits was ‘terrifying’.
“He had gone from iconic to idol status in my mind,” Redmayne explains. “So when I met him, I was pretty terrified. I suffer from verbal diarrhoea. I hate silence, so I basically spent the first half hour telling Stephen Hawking about Stephen Hawking.”
Leaving with a sense of the acclaimed scientist’s ‘humour, wit and his sense of mischief’, the burden of expectation started to dawn on the actor.
“From the day I got the part, the weight of it, the responsibility, was unlike anything I had ever felt before,” he says.