“Pretty well-endowed,” Eddie Redmayne says emphatically, sliding his iPhone across the tabletop. It’s late morning at Colbert, a café-bistro in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, and, latte orders placed, it seems we’ve reached the dick-pic-sharing portion of the conversation. He points down at his screen, and there it is in all its glory: the chiseled, shimmering torso—of his Oscar statuette. And it’s wearing tighty-whities. The mini briefs were a gift from Jimmy Kimmel given to Redmayne in February after he won Best Actor for his portrayal of the ALS-afflicted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. “The Velcro is coming off,” Redmayne says, laughing. “So, occasionally, he’s buck-naked.”
Redmayne, like his little gold man, prefers modesty—he’s bashful about discussing his well-heeled upbringing in London, his education at Eton (where Prince William was a classmate) and then Cambridge, where, as an undergrad, he landed his first big break in a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, opposite the theater legend Mark Rylance. But nowhere was his almost-pathological humility more apparent than during his Oscar-acceptance speech, when he practically begged the Academy’s forgiveness for his short yet amazingly ascendant career arc: “I’m fully aware that I am a lucky, lucky man.”
He’s also kind of fucked. Redmayne, who turns 34 in January, realizes this too, which is why his typically British stiff upper lip is quivering a bit today. The source of his agita: The Danish Girl, the ripely timed story of Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener, the first person to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, in Dresden, Germany, in 1931—and a role that brings with it more potential pitfalls than Redmayne can count. “You don’t want to let people down,” he explains, nervously fidgeting with a sugar dispenser. “And you know you will—you can’t please everyone.”
Since the first images of a lithe, ruby-lipped, bewigged Redmayne surfaced online in February, The Danish Girl has produced buzz and scrutiny in equal measure. After all, the difference between a subtle, nuanced portrayal of an iconic transgender pioneer and Mrs. Doubtfire–esque bad drag can be as thin as a pair of panty hose. And Redmayne—unlike Caitlyn Jenner or Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox—is cisgender, leading some to accuse the filmmakers of having wasted the rare opportunity to cast a transgender actor. Redmayne can offer only so much to counter that criticism, but the responsibility he feels to the community weighs heavily on him. As one transgender friend told him during his research, the decision to transition boils down to a willingness to “give anything and everything to live a life authentic.”
So, yeah—no pressure.
And then, of course, there’s the cynical industry view that it’s a good old-fashioned awards grab—Hollywood loves a risky reinvention—and that the transgender-identifying bandwagon has room for one more alongside Dallas Buyers Club’s Jared Leto and Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor.
“Quite a few people have said, ‘You did Stephen Hawking, a physical transformation, and now you’re doing another one,’ ” Redmayne says. “But as an actor, you never go, ‘Oh, I need to do this.’ You ask yourself, ‘Is this story worth telling? Does it hit me?'”
For anyone willing to wager, several betting sites were, at press time, giving Redmayne 6:1 odds of a repeat, behind only Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs and Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, a role for which the actor reportedly ate raw bison liver and slept in a carcass (so who’s really making the Oscar grab here?). Redmayne isn’t much for calculating odds, but he does know that his greatest gamble lies ahead. He is one of the youngest ever to win the Oscars’ ultimate old-man game—Best Actor—which puts him in both illustrious and cautionary company. For every Daniel Day-Lewis (who won his first of three at 32), there is an Adrien Brody, who followed his winning turn in The Pianist at 29 with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and hasn’t been a contender since. “I had a moment of, ‘Oh fuck, I might retire tomorrow. I’m never going to do anything again,’ ” Redmayne admits. “The thought that it happened too early came in for a second. But then I thought, No, I want this.”
“I’m going to have a croque monsieur,” Redmayne says decisively. “They have a plethora of croque things here.” Dressed in a blue-and-burgundy-striped sweater, jeans, and a pair of worn Converse, Redmayne looks at home. And he is. “My parents live just down the road,” he says, gesturing behind him. He’s headed that way later for lunch.
He can still move through London mostly unmolested, though each new tabloid story inches him closer to legitimate paparazzi target. He was recently photographed while reportedly house hunting with his wife, Hannah Bagshawe, an antiques dealer; they like to “pack on the PDA,” which in reality was a pretty chaste kiss, even by married people’s standards. The worst disruption came when he and Bagshawe arrived at Heathrow after his Oscar win and a horde of photographers, dozens strong, backpedaled through the terminal, a foot in front of the couple, popping flashes and tripping over each other. “You still have to exit the airport the normal way,” Redmayne says, chuckling at another newly unlocked secret of movie stardom. “It’s really awkward! You get into the lift, they’re at the door. The lift closes, the lift opens, they’re there again!” Until they tire of your utterly normal life. “For another day or two, there were shots of me dropping off my dry cleaning or shopping.” He exhales and the sudden-onset PTSD dissipates. “Eventually everyone got bored and pissed off.”
He also caused a small blog-quake this fall for divulging that—gasp—he doesn’t have a personal stylist, essentially crediting his universally applauded red-carpet skills to, well, his taste. This admission seems both fair and completely nauseating to Redmayne. “What I absolutely loathed about that is the world going, ‘Uggghhh . . .’ ” he says, cackling. “I felt like a dick, but I was asked the question!”
Today—a day off—is a rarity for Redmayne, following a week’s worth of long night shoots on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the shrouded-in-secrecy prequel to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, in which he stars as Newt Scamander. “My last two films were eight-week shoots,” he says. “We’ve done nine on this one and have barely scratched the surface. It’s about pacing yourself in a different way.”
Redmayne can plot the origins of his career from his corner banquette. Colbert is adjacent to the Royal Court Theatre, where he portrayed the gay son of a U.S. president in a 2008 production of Now or Later, and it’s only two miles from the London Palladium, where it all began at age 12, with his role as Workhouse Boy No. 46 in a 1994 production of Oliver! directed by Sam Mendes. His parents—his father is in banking and his mother worked at a firm that helped white-collar expats with relocation—were cautious but supportive of his newfound obsession. “They had no knowledge of the world,” Redmayne recalls, “but my dad is pretty good with numbers, so he just knew the statistics of unemployment.”
However, the work kept coming, through school and after. In 2005, he was nominated for an Olivier Award for his role in the Edward Albee drama The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Five years later, he’d win one for his portrayal of the artist Mark Rothko’s assistant in Red, which eventually transferred to Broadway, where Redmayne also took home a Tony.
In many ways, Redmayne is an old-school stage actor, only with better bone structure. He still craves the energy and camaraderie of the theater. “What I love about Broadway is that you have all the theaters backing into each other, so the sense of community is stronger than in the West End,” he says. “When I was doing Red there, you’d have Alfred Molina playing Rothko, the Phantom of the Opera was outside having a cigarette, there’s Lucy Liu . . .”
Redmayne might have been satisfied walking the boards for the rest of his career, but the thing about that bone structure is you can’t fully appreciate it from loge-level seating. In 2005, Redmayne landed his first miniseries, Elizabeth I, directed by Tom Hooper, and was handpicked by Robert De Niro to play Angelina Jolie’s son in the CIA thriller The Good Shepherd. Soon he found himself cast in a Burberry campaign, a gig that still causes some to erroneously label him a model turned actor. But Redmayne doesn’t sweat it. “Christopher Bailey comes and sees young actors and musicians,” he says of being “discovered” by the brand’s chief creative officer. “If you’re going to model clothes, you can’t complain when people think you’re a model.”
Redmayne’s breakout performance—and most natural connection to his character—came in 2011, when he starred opposite Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, as a wide-eyed young man with filmmaking aspirations who develops an unlikely relationship with Marilyn Monroe while she’s in England making a movie. Though Williams got the critical nods, Redmayne got much-needed exposure—and some insight into his own chosen career. “There’s a line in that one,” he recalls, “where Kenneth Branagh, who plays Laurence Olivier, says to my character, ‘Are you pleased you joined the circus?'”
There will be no croque for Eddie Redmayne today. The waitress has informed him that, while there is indeed a plethora of croque things on offer, it’s too early for any of them. Now seems like the time for him to play the Do you know who I am? card. In a different universe, he would slowly slip a gold statuette out from under the table and ask, “Would you cook one for my friend Oscar?” Instead, ever modest and humble, Redmayne requests a bacon sandwich, looking only the faintest bit crestfallen. “It’s a delicious bacon sandwich,” he offers in consolation, mostly to himself. “We’ll need ketchup—lots of ketchup.”
This is Redmayne at his best—flustered and flappable, exercising the type of affable, bumbling British-ness that Hugh Grant has made a career of. It’s easy to imagine Redmayne starring in a remake of the Grant–Julia Roberts vehicle Notting Hill, playing the charming yet painfully normal guy turned inside out by someone far more famous than he. Maybe a lighthearted romantic comedy would lessen Redmayne’s nagging professional anxieties. Maybe.
“It’s not as if I have got talent enough to not work hard with it,” Redmayne says of his approach to acting, which is, basically: Prepare until your eyes bleed, then prepare some more. It served him well for The Theory of Everything, and he hopes it will again. “With Theory, I was so scared by it that it forced me to step up and request the things I needed—vocal coaches, movement coaches, specialists. I had four months to prepare. For The Danish Girl I had three years.”
The director Tom Hooper introduced Redmayne to the story on the set of their second collaboration, 2012’s Les Misérables. The Danish Girl had been kicking around Hollywood for years—at one time it was a passion project of Nicole Kidman’s—but it was a screenplay without a star when it came to Hooper. “Sometimes when you read a script, you find yourself picturing an actor. Eddie was that actor from the first read,” Hooper recalls. “I had a very strong instinct about him, and that instinct stayed with me. I literally slipped him a script in an unmarked envelope on the barricades. He read it and came back to me and said he’d fallen in love with it the same way I had. I have fitting memories of the barricades—of revolution.”
Hugh Jackman, who played Jean Valjean in Les Mis and spent a fair amount of time lugging Redmayne’s unconscious Marius over his shoulder, saw early on that he wouldn’t have to carry his young costar through the performance. “Eddie is one of the few actors I’ve worked with who, during rehearsals, when we’re reading through the script, his delivery was so natural that, not once but three times, I thought he’d stopped reading and was just talking,” Jackman says. “He fooled the entire cast at the table read. He’s one of the best I’ve ever worked with.”
Owing to his Shakespearean pedigree, Redmayne had played female characters before—most notably Viola in Twelfth Night—but portraying Lili Elbe required much more than a trip to a wardrobe trailer or a makeup chair. “I fell into all the clichés of ignorance,” Redmayne admits. “I didn’t realize that gender and sexuality weren’t related. I confused the terms transvestitism and transgender. But what’s lovely is, the second you understand the difference, you see how gigantic it is and how important it is that we educate ourselves.”
And that he did: Redmayne spent hours conducting interviews with transgender women and exhaustively researched Man Into Woman, an account of Elbe and her partner, Gerda Wegener, that was first published in 1933. “I could immediately see that he dared to go places where he felt unsafe,” says Alicia Vikander, who plays the conflicted yet ultimately supportive Gerda. “He dared to go into deep water.”
On the advice of the director Lana Wachowski—whom Redmayne had worked with on the sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending—he also read the trans author Jan Morris’ seminal 1974 memoir, Conundrum. “I am always nervous about LGBT stories’ being portrayed as inherently tragic, that our ‘otherness’ is somehow a curse, whereas many of us experience it as one of life’s great blessings,” says Wachowski, one half of the sibling directorial team behind the Matrix trilogy, who quietly transitioned and introduced herself as Lana in 2012. “I told Eddie that Lili and Gerda made my existence possible. Without the imagination and courage of these two women, LGBT history might have evolved from a much later starting point. And Eddie’s process is so compassionate, always striving to inhabit a character’s vulnerability. He wanted to understand Lili in this way, and I believe he did.”
A piece of advice Redmayne’s theater pal Alfred Molina once gave him stuck with him during his research—which ranged from observing the manner in which his wife applied lipstick or the way his makeup artist positioned herself as she sat to manipulating his posture to create the illusion of feminine hips: Immersive preparation, Molina advised, succeeds only when it is invisible. “He told me the worst thing an actor can do is show his homework,” Redmayne recalls. “You do all of the work in order for it not to be visible. That’s what I hoped for.”
Redmayne’s Elbe is, above all, subtle—he conveys the character’s fledgling femininity with demure half-smiles and wispy fingers brushed over Gerda’s silken slip. But the film also required Redmayne to bare himself in a more literal way—massacring his modesty in a full-frontal scene in which he stands before a mirror, tucking his penis between his legs to simulate a vagina—and he knows the usual questions will follow. “Any time you get naked in front of a crew, it’s embarrassing,” he says. “It’s not as if we as actors have some way of becoming comfortable with it. It would be exactly like you getting naked in front of 30 people.” Redmayne pauses and smiles, perhaps aware that he’s executed the most notable onscreen tuck since Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. “I have a fear of the talk shows on this one. They always say, ‘Tell me a funny story,’ but this film was so intense. We won’t be putting out a gag reel.”
Hooper believes his leading man succeeds in overcoming his self-doubt. “What’s worth saying about Eddie is that he has the mark of the truly gifted,” he says. “It’s essential to acting that, in the moment, when the cameras roll, he’s not defined by his anxiety. However anxious he might be in the lead-up to it, in the moment, Eddie’s free.”
Of course, freedom is a relative term when, after being held captive by a series of all-consuming roles, you’ve consigned your every waking hour to the wizarding world. “I’ve always wanted a watch mark, but it never happened,” Redmayne says, gesturing at his freckly wrist. It’s an admission of hopeless pastiness, a tan-challenged dream deferred, but it’s also an indication that the man really needs a vacation. Luckily, there’s a calendar date circled in February, after Fantastic Beasts wraps and before the Oscars, where Redmayne is assured at least one trip to the stage—to announce the Best Actress category, per Academy tradition. He’ll go someplace warm to ponder the next project but mostly to turn his brain off and rid himself of the anxieties about the reception—positive or negative—The Danish Girl will inevitably bring.
For now, Redmayne can only rely on the feeling he got during early dress rehearsals to gauge the success of his transformation. “Just walking onto a set filled with men, watching the difference in how you’re treated, or the scrutiny . . . the gaze was overwhelming,” he says. “A lot of the women I worked with said, ‘Yeah . . . welcome to our world.'” [Source]