It’s an understatement to say that renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has had a few challenges to overcome. Diagnosed at age 21 with ALS, a debilitating motor neuron disease that limits nearly all physical function, his muscles quickly weakened and atrophied, and his speech grew nearly unintelligible. When he was just beginning graduate school — on track for a brilliant career in the sciences — he was told he had two years to live.
The film “The Theory of Everything,” which came out in limited release on Nov. 7, portrays a young Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, “Les Misérables”) as he first learns of his diagnosis and then struggles through the repercussions with the support of his girlfriend and (later on) wife Jane, played by Felicity Jones (“The Amazing Spiderman.”) Though given his diagnosis over 50 years ago, Hawking is still alive today and continues to revolutionize the fields of cosmology and theoretical physics.
Though Redmayne readily admits that his life has had a fraction of the challenges that Hawking has faced, he advocated and fought for his role within this film with a tenacity reminiscent of Hawking’s own. In a conference call with The Michigan Daily, he said with a wry laugh, “I chased the film pretty hard. Because I had been at university at Cambridge, and I had seen Stephen and heard his voice and caught glimpses of him, I thought it would be the most amazing privilege to be able to play him.”
Similarly, screenwriter and producer Anthony McCarten (“Show of Hands”) was propelled to develop this project; his inspiration first sparked when he read Hawking’s best-selling book A Brief History of Time in 1991, and he spent nearly eight years trying to convince Hawking’s ex-wife (and subject of the film) Jane to option the rights to her own story.
“(Jane) was cautious,” McCarten said, “I think she viewed me with the correct level of circumspection that you should have with anybody showing up at your door saying they want to make a movie about your life … And when I sat in her living room and I pitched this movie to her in 2004 — I had just read her memoir — just one of those moments in my creative life where I thought ‘This project just won’t come to me, I’ll have to go and get it.’”
And get it he did. Nearly 10 years after that initial proposal, and many drafts later, McCarten describes the James Marsh-directed film as a coalescence of three thematic threads: Hawking’s ALS, his scientific accomplishments, and most significantly, his clarifying relationship with Jane.
“I also didn’t want to overdo the physics because I wanted to serve the ALS story, his incredible battle with that disease, his and Jane’s refusal to let the disease silence him.”
Similarly, Redmayne says that while the physical demands of the role most immediately arrest the audience — in the film he embodies Hawking’s rapid deterioration from healthy youth to near immobility with deft precision — what he found most complex about the role was expressing the psychological grace with which Hawking and Jane handled their immense burdens.
“(Stephen) was given two years to live when he was 21 years old, and he describes every moment of each day beyond that as a gift to him,” Redmayne said. “He pulled himself out of a melancholia and has managed to live every second of every minute of his life as fully and as passionately as possible. He’s been a great inspiration to 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 get one shot of this.”
This investment in the script and the roles is paying off with critics and audiences alike. Redmayne is already receiving Oscar buzz. (Though this may in part be because he portrays a disabled historical figure in a period piece, catnip for the Academy.) Despite this praise, Redmayne sidesteps any questions about his Oscar potential, saying that his real motivation was winning the praise of the Hawkings and their children, all of whom were involved in the creation of the film.
“When both Felicity and I were cast in the film, there was kind of an amazing millisecond of euphoria that you should be lucky enough to get to play this part. But it was also followed by a deep-set responsibility,” he said. “Because ultimately we knew that Jane and Stephen and the children were going to see the film, and that it’s their life so they would be the ultimate reviewers … When finally Jane saw it and Stephen saw it, and were generous about the movie, that was a pretty wonderful reward, and our shoulders could sink and relax a bit.”
McCarten echoes these sentiments, saying that ultimately this story was for the Hawkings and that their perceptions mattered most.
“When we finished making the film Stephen Hawking came to see it, and when the film finished he had tears coming down his cheeks,” he said. “I was sitting very close to him and I watched the nurse wipe tears from his cheeks.”
It’s a powerful emotion to illicit in someone who probably is the film’s worst critic, and a testament to the work done to accurately depict this legend’s life.