The 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) presented the prestigious Cinema Vanguard Award to Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones for their work in The Theory of Everything. This particular tribute was created with the intention of honoring actors with the tenacity to forge new ground in their craft, and the memorable performances that the two gave, as Stephen and Jane Hawking, certainly qualify.
While there, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones talked about transitioning into film acting, handing complex characters, learning by observing, handling auditions, stand-out roles in their careers, what attracted them to The Theory of Everything, how terrifying it was to do Stephen and Jane Hawking justice, the importance of their rehearsal process, and how they kept track of the physical de-evolution. Here are the highlights of what they had to say during the Q&A.
EDDIE REDMAYNE: I come from a family of non-actors. They work in finance. They were incredibly supportive, but my dad had a friend who was a theater producer and he would tell me the statistics of actors who work and those who don’t work. My parents were incredibly encouraging, but did say to go to university first. Interestingly for me, while I was at university, it was the 400th anniversary of Twelfth Night and they wanted to do a production that was all male, as it had been done originally. So, they asked around schools and universities, and fortunately, my university let me go. I had always thought, “Perhaps I should have gone to drama school,” but if I hadn’t gone to university, perhaps it wouldn’t have worked out.
When you both made the transition to film, what was that like?
FELICITY JONES: The approach is always the same, whether it’s television, film or theater. It’s about character and being true to who they are. Maybe, deep down, you might feel a little bit more intimidated, if it’s a film. It’s in the day-to-day of doing it that I feel the approach is the same, no matter what the performance is shown in, and you always have to stay true to the character.
REDMAYNE: I found it genuinely frightening. I had done theater for a few years. I got into acting through theater. Suddenly, I got this extraordinary opportunity to be in a film (The Good Shepherd) that Robert DeNiro was directing. With the whole film world, suddenly you’re flying across the Atlantic, you’re staying at hotels in New York, you’re being taken to work in big SUVs with blacked-out windows, and you arrive at a studio and there’s Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon, so there are paparazzi outside. You get inside and there are these beautifully complicated sets that have been built, and everywhere you look, there’s a famous person. Suddenly, there’s a camera in your face and you’ve got Robert DeNiro behind it going, “And, act!” I was literally terrified. It’s interesting looking back on that experience, I’ve learned so much from it, but I was just so frightened of getting fired. If you watch the film, you can see me looking terrified. The character was meant to be a wee bit terrified, but not that terrified. I auditioned for many months for it, and in the end, I basically got the job because I have big lips and I was playing Angelina Jolie’s son.
Despite any fears you may have had, you both made quite an impression because you kept working. Eddie, what was it like to handle such a complex character, in Savage Grace?
REDMAYNE: When you look at an actor’s career, it looks like they go from one thing to another. The reality is that, after The Good Shepherd, I went back to London and worked in a pub. Savage Grace was a film that they had spent 10 years trying to get made. It’s a complicated and difficult film. I had auditioned and got the part, and then the film financing fell through and, a year later, I was back working in this pub. Actually, my manager in the pub was also an actor and he was like, “Oh, I’m auditioning tomorrow for this film with Julianne Moore that’s called Savage Grace.” I just remember literally feeling sick to the core. It was my first real indication of the economics of the film business, and that, if you’re not a name, you need to fight. So, what was extraordinary, in that particular circumstance, was that I auditioned a lot for it. I was going to play Julianne Moore’s son, and this time, freckles helped. In the end, the film financiers in Europe said, “We can’t make this film with this guy,” and Julianne fought for me. It’s something I will never forget because it was the most extraordinary experience. It was working with a director called Tom Kalin. He gave me a wonderful freedom to fail. Those directors who allow you the freedom to try things and fail, and then try things again, it’s where the most interesting work comes from.
Felicity, what was it like to make The Tempest with Julie Taymor?
JONES: When you’re first starting out, you spend so many films being absolutely petrified. You almost forget that there’s an editing process where you can try things out and make mistakes, and it won’t end up in the film. I remember doing this film Brideshead Revisited, and I did the first take. And then, the sound guy came up to me and said, “I’m going to have to move the mic because your heart is beating so loud that it’s getting in the way of your voice.” That’s because I was petrified. Those first few films, you’re finding your feet. With Julie Taymor, it was one of those films where I just had to jump into the deep end. From the very beginning, hearing the word Shakespeare is enough, but then Shakespeare on screen is just that idea of bringing something that you would think is intrinsically theatrical. You’re always taught, on screen, to keep everything really small and naturalistic, so there’s the challenge of bringing the beauty of the words of Shakespeare onto the screen, and conveying it in a naturalistic, truthful way. Julie Taymor was one of those first people who said, “Just take a risk and take a gamble, and try it out. You don’t have to always give a perfect take. The best thing you can do is try things out.”
What have you learned about film acting, over the years?
REDMAYNE: With acting, you learn, by observing and hopefully by osmosis, a bit about the craft and the actual work, but it’s also about behavior and how you treat people. The key to film acting, really, is that everything about the circumstance is entirely fake. You have thousands of people, money, cameras and technology, and you have to be at your most relaxed, and yet everything around is the least relaxing you could possibly imagine. Some actors will go stand in a corner to get themselves into the zone. Other actors will have devices or ways to force themselves into being relaxed.
REDMAYNE: It was an amazing opportunity. It was actually an actor’s dream. Every day, a great bastian of the British theatre and film industry would come in to do a day. So, I got to work with Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh, not to mention Michelle Williams. As far as an education was concerned, that was the moment with which I tried to keep my ears open. I saw, quite up close and personal, what Michelle and Kenneth had to go through, in playing an icon. It was interesting to me that Michelle chose to approach it by going back to this old Hollywood model of surrounding herself with a team. She worked with a movement coach and a vocal coach. When it came to trying to get cast in The Theory of Everything, I had a phone call with James [Marsh], the director. He said, “How would you approach it?,” and I basically spewed forth that information. Watching her negotiate that was a real eye-opener.
Felicity, how was the unique experience of making Like Crazy?
JONES: It was a completely new process to me. I didn’t realize that you could make a film through improvisation. You have a template, and comedy often works like that. I understand that Curb Your Enthusiasm is a very similar process, where you have an idea of what needs to happen in the scene and where the characters need to go, emotionally, but you bring the dialogue on the day, so there’s a real freshness and spontaneity. I think the idea is to try not to panic too much. I really felt such a true collaboration, on that film, with what the relationship between the actor and director can mean. Drake Doremus had been working that way for a few years, making films like that. I remember when I first met him, I was like, “I think you’re insane! Is this possible? Can you just turn up on the day and see what happens?” And from the very beginning he was like, “Just trust me. It’s gonna be fine.” That was actually so helpful for doing The Theory of Everything and just trying things out, doing lots and lots of takes, and doing long takes. We were trying to get rid of the self-consciousness and hopefully find something very, very fresh on the day.
What’s it like to live in that and not really go out of character?
JONES: What starts to happen is that you just find, for that time that you’re filming, even without meaning to do it, you start walking a bit like the character and taking on their mannerisms. After the end of Theory, it was a couple months afterwards that we said to each other, “Oh, it’s really nice to be getting my life back and remembering who I am.” For that time that you’re shooting, it definitely takes over, a little bit.
REDMAYNE: I’ve never worked in that method way where you inhabit that world. I’ve never worked in that totally comprehensive way.
Eddie, you’re best known for your work in Les Misérables, but you first worked with (director) Tom Hooper a few years earlier on the TV mini-series Elizabeth I, and you’re working together a third time on The Danish Girl. How did that relationship start off?
REDMAYNE: I went back to London and they were making this mini-series, Elizabeth I, with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. They called me in for an audition and [Tom Hooper] asked me, “Eddie, have you ever been on a horse?” I said, “Yes.” I had been on a horse when I was four. Cut to about three weeks later, we shot Elizabeth I in Lithuania and there was this gigantic scene of a coup being staged. There were 14 Lithuanians stumbling behind me, and at the end of this road, Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons were on a balcony dressed in full regalia. Tom Hooper was behind the camera, and there were wind machines. I was like, “At what point do I make it known that I’ve never been on a horse?” They called, “Action!,” I gave the horse a gentle nudge, and I went off, 100 mph. I just heard, “Cut!” Tom Hooper arrived and said, “You’re a fucking liar!” When you’re an actor, you’re taught that, if in doubt at auditions, say yes. What I hadn’t been taught was that, if you say yes and it’s a lie, in those couple of weeks before you start filming, make sure you at least get elementary training. So, that was how my relationship with Tom started.
REDMAYNE: In those few years, Tom had become a friend. He’d been to see every single play that I’d done. Every time I finished a play, we’d go for dinner. He wouldn’t want a friend chat, but he would talk rigorously about the piece, what he thought and his take. I wish I could tell you that he came to be, but I definitely pursued him. I was doing a film in North Carolina, playing a Texas meth addict cowboy, and I heard that they were making Les Misérables. It’s the cliche story of having loved it as a kid. So, I recorded myself singing on my iPhone and sent it to my agent who sent it to the producers. That started the process. I didn’t want to approach Tom to try to get a job. And then, it became an American Idol style audition process that went on for months. On day one of our rehearsals for Les Misérables, all of the Revolutionaries were rehearsing together and Tom announced that my particular Revolutionary was going to have to leap onto a horse while brandishing a flag. That was my payback for that lie.
Had you done any singing before that?
REDMAYNE: I’d sung a bit as a kid, and it was something I’d always enjoyed, but I stopped when I started acting. The great thing about this is that, when you get an opportunity like this, you get the greatest people in the world to help you. I had three months of working with a vocal coach on that. A lot of the other actors in it had come from a musical theatre background, but they were used to doing two shows a day. Because you were doing hundreds and hundreds of takes of things, it was about training your vocal muscles to have the stamina, so even for them, it was a new thing. It felt like we were all embarking on a journey of uncharted territory.
Felicity, how did you like working with and for Ralph Fiennes on The Invisible Woman?
JONES: Being directed by Voldemort? I thought, “This is going to be my director?! This is insane!” I haven’t been to drama school. I studied English at university, so I’ve always felt that I haven’t been trained properly. It’s been learning on the job. So, working with Ralph was almost like being at drama school. It was like being at university because he has such a precise way of performing. Everything is very beautifully charted, and there’s absolute discipline. There’s something that I just love watching him on screen. You can’t help but watch him, and you feel you’re in such safe hands. He’s talked about everything, and it’s very methodically done. So, going into that film, I knew I was in for a challenge.
REDMAYNE: For me, the way it first arrived was as a script. I read it thinking it was going to be a biography of Stephen’s life, and what I read was this incredibly complicated and passionate love story about two formidable people. It completely subverted my expectations. And then, when I heard that James Marsh was directing it, who directed one of my favorite films, Man on Wire, that was too tantalizing and intoxicating a temptation, so I pursued it. I’d actually been to university where Stephen teaches, and I’d seen him from across campus and heard his voice.
JONES: Similarly, it was great to read it and realize that it wasn’t a straightforward biopic. There was this extraordinary male character, but there was also an extraordinary female character. I just immediately thought, “There’s a lot to get my teeth into here.” There was a depth to the characterization in Anthony McCarten’s script, but it was also a love story about two people falling in love, and it was asking these broader questions and had this broader idea of understanding the world through science versus understanding the world through religion. I liked that in the script. It moved between the small things and the big things.
Did you guys know each other before The Theory of Everything?
JONES: We’ve commiserated together. The first time we actually worked together was for a poetry evening. We met actually reading the American poets, and it was a fundraiser evening for a woman who had died of cancer. We were on the stage doing a rehearsal, and that’s when we started working together and trying things out.
Felicity, with Eddie Redmayne on board before you, did it help you to read opposite him, since you had a prior familiarity?
JONES: I remember writing to Eddie on G-mail chat, trying to get into his good books. I was like, “Remember that time we did that poetry reading.” There were three actresses they were looking at for the part. And then, I went and auditioned, which is always petrifying and terrifying, but in that room, it felt like there was a really good collaborative spirit between all of us. Straight afterwards, James said, “I really would love you to do it.” It was so nice to hear that ‘cause usually you have to wait for two weeks. You know that the longer the time goes before your agent calls you that you haven’t got the part. It was lovely that he was so instinctive about it.
REDMAYNE: Whenever you get a part, there is that extraordinary amount of excitement. It’s such an extraordinary feeling. Normally, for me, it lasts about a week, and then it begins to ooze into you that you actually have to do the thing now. Here, the euphoria lasted under a second, and then there was a sucker punch of terror that lasted for nine months. When Stephen and Jane came to set, it was an extraordinary day for us. It was one of our first days of filming, and it was intimidating because it was early on. It was a night shoot and there were big fireworks in the scene. They had three sets of fireworks. Fireworks are pretty pricey, so we had to get these firework reaction shots in three takes. On cue, Stephen arrived, flanked by his nurses, spot-lit by his computer screen, as the first fireworks display went off, and it was greatest rock star entrance. And then, Jane and her second husband and the children arrived. In one eyeline, we saw Jane, and in the other eyeline we saw Stephen, and nothing was more bonding for us.
JONES: When we both went to meet Stephen, and we both went to meet Jane, it was literally like we were auditioning all over again. We were totally petrified and seeking their approval, from the very beginning. Jane, Eddie and I met very early on in Copenhagen, where James, the director, lives. That was five or six months before we’d started shooting. We’d already started our preparation and getting our heads around it, but it wasn’t until a week before that we’d met Jane and Stephen and their families. It was a little bit intimidating. You hope that you’ve been preparing in the right direction, and that your ideas are consistent with the person that you actually meet. They’ve got this very dry sense of humor and an unsentimentality. There’s absolutely no self-pity from either of them, for what they’ve been through. Immediately, there were a ton of ideas for us to put into the film.
REDMAYNE: What was amazing is that the film is about these two people. Felicity and I went to an ALS clinic in London for many months. The great gift is that we had time. And what we saw there was the symbiosis and closeness of the care-giver and the patient was unlike anything either of us had ever seen. This process was a dance for both of us. What’s interesting is that both characters age over 25 years, and as Stephen’s physicality declines, Jane’s relationship to him changes and shifts. What was wonderful for us was that we were able to work together through all of that. It was literally like a dance. Whatever I was doing physically, we worked with a choreographer to work out how we could do that dance. For me, it was about tracing the muscles that stopped working and when. Once Stephen wrote A Brief History of Time, he became so famous that lots of documentaries were made. But what was more complicated was working out how become confined to a wheelchair unraveled. I took as many photographs as I could to the specialist in London. There’s one photo of Stephen holding Jane’s hand on their wedding day. It looks fine when you look at it, but then you actually see that he’s pouring all of his weight into her, and his hand is soft and wilted. We charted all of those muscles into one big chart, and that became the thing that we referenced. I had to learn how to jump in and out of the different stages of physicality while we were shooting.
JONES: A lot of it was just building up trust and being able to push each other. Both Eddie and I said to the other person, “Behind the camera, feel free to do things that are going to provoke my performance.” That tone of frankness and openness and trying things out was very much set in that early rehearsal process.