From Academy Awards to a Harry Potter franchise, is Redmayne the world’s most versatile actor?
However, this month he leads an all-star cast in Netflix’s most important film of the year, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and starts filming the next installment of the world’s most popular franchise…
In Kettle’s Yard Art Gallery in Cambridge, sat on top of a dark mahogany piano is a marble sculpture called Prometheus made by Constantin Brâncusi. It is the one piece of art that Eddie Redmayne would save in the case of ultimate catastrophe.
The actor who studied Art History at Cambridge University tells me about it as we leave the film set of the third installment of Fantastic Beasts in the early days of an autumn that, we suspect, we will never forget.
Eddie Redmayne loves the arts. Not only is he knowledgeable about sculptures, painters and artists, but in his downtime he sketches and even plays the piano. It’s no surprise then that he started his career on theatre boards, despite several people warning him that he would not survive in it.
“Many people took it upon themselves to tell me that it would never work, that only extraordinary cases achieve it and that I could not make a living from this professionally.” Even his father came home one day with a list of statistics on unemployed young actors and gave it to him.
Redmayne comes across as modest, polite and with a dry (but sharp) sense of humour. He adds: “But I enjoyed theatre so much that I got to the point of thinking that if I could only do one play a year for the rest of my life… I would do it. And that would completely fulfil me.”
To date, he has performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Donmar, the Royal Court Theatre and the Everyman Theatre—his debut performance in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night won over critics and audiences alike, and would open up doors to roles in films that would crescendo into global recognition.
His first major film role would be opposite Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn (2011), followed almost immediately by one of the roles of his life, playing Marius in Les Misérables. It was the character that originally made him want to become an actor “I found out about the Les Misérables auditions when I was dressed like a cowboy. I was shooting a movie in the US and I immediately picked up my phone and recorded myself singing Marius’ song. I have always wanted to be him.”
Flashforward from the dancing cowboy video and Redmayne is now an Oscar winner—thanks to his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014)—and is the current protagonist of one of the most famous fictional sagas in cinema history, J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts playing the ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander.
When asked how he feels to have to shoulder the responsibility of a character that means so much to millions of people around the world he sighs and gathers himself for a few seconds before answering. “I have always loved the Harry Potter universe. Some people like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars…but, for me, the idea that there is a magical world that happens right in front of you, that happens without going any further than the streets of London, that exploded my imagination in another way.”
During quarantine, J. K. Rowling, who is in charge of the script of the film, sparked a controversy through a series of tweets about transgender women. Redmayne assures that he does not agree with these statements, but that he also does not approve of the attacks against her from some people on social media networks. The actor was one of the first to position himself against Rowling along with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and other protagonists of her films. “Trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary identities are valid.”
Redmayne confesses that he has never been a great at goalsetting, refusing to speak about specific objectives so not to end up unfairly disappointing himself or others. However, one of his goals was fulfilled just a few weeks ago with the premiere of The Trial of the Chicago 7 —a film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and available on Netflix.
“I was on vacation with my wife in Morocco and the script arrived. I think I called my agent before I even read it and said ‘yes’ to it. She probably thought that I was being stupid. After that, of course I read the script, which is about a specific moment in history that I knew very little about. I found it exciting and a very relevant drama in today’s times.”
Having your hands on a script by Aaron Sorkin is no small thing. Eddie Redmayne has been an admirer of his work ever since he first watched The West Wing. “His scripts have delicious language and dialogue. As an actor, it’s fun to play characters that are much smarter than you are in real life!
That virtuosity is hard to come by. I really hope that the public will enjoy this film and feel that there is always hope.”
Since The Theory of Everything a large extent of Redmayne’s work has been in period dramas, so he points out that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a welcome change of pace. “Although the new film is not strictly contemporary,” explains Redmayne, “to be able to wear jeans and shirts and sweaters instead of so much tweed is a welcome relief!”
A curious fact about Eddie Redmayne is that he is colour blind. However, there is one colour that everyone can distinguish anywhere and on any surface: klein blue. When he was a student Redmayne wrote his thesis on the French artist Yves Klein, who was famous for only using one shade of blue in his works. Redmayne wrote around 30,000 words discussing the colour with which he became obsessed. “I just found it so surprising that a colour can be so emotional. I can only hope to achieve that level of intensity in acting.”
Like his taste in art, which encompasses the refined and the compact, Redmayne seems to apply a similar process when it comes to the choosing roles. When asked what aspects of a character he wants to play should have, he again takes a few seconds again before answering: “I wish I had a cleverer answer, but I often go with my gut instinct. I’ve learnt to trust in that feeling. In my mind
I imagine myself playing that character. When I read a script I have to really enjoy it. If you make
a decision based on your gut, it’s never one that you ever fully regret it because it is something that you connected with emotionally.”
Perhaps that is the common link between his roles, his characters—from Marius to Newt Scamander to Stephen Hawking—all register with the actor on an emotional level. “I do believe that there is a parallel between Marius in Les Misérables trying to be a revolutionary, someone who is quite prone to being distracted by love but is also willing to die for his cause, and Tom Hayden of the Chicago Seven, a man who had integrity and was passionate and fought for the things he believed in. Now I think about it, I suppose there may also be similarities between a young Stephen Hawking and Newt Scamander. There are traits in common in all of them, but I don’t really know where they come from. If I’m being honest, I never really look back.”
Sadly, any conversation had this year comes framed within the context of the global pandemic and its impact. When we talk about the year and how it is increasingly difficult to find bright spots, we both let out nervous laughs. “There is always hope,” says Redmayne.
“The real life version of my character Tom Hayden once said something very nice to his former wife, Jane Fonda, the day before she passed away. He told her that watching people die for their beliefs changed his life forever. In that sense, I also think about what Robert Kennedy Jr. wrote about how democracy is messy, hard and never easy … but so is anything worth fighting for. I look at history and how both of them were willing to live their lives with the integrity to change the world and I realize that that spirit still remains with us.”
We fall silent for a few seconds contemplating that thought, before he reaffirms: “There must be hope.”
In the rather ingenious blog by Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files, the musician recently wrote about how his response to a crisis is to turn to his creative side. A counterbalance that he explains has emotionally saved him many times before. It is something that Redmayne relates to explaining that his preferred methods of escapism are drawing and playing the piano.
“When you play the piano your concentration is so consumed with trying to hit the right notes that you can’t think of anything else. Similarly, when you draw something the focus is between the paper and what you are trying to create. It is within that silence that I am able to calm my mind.”
Before saying goodbye, I try to catch him off guard with a random question: What one work of art would you save from mass destruction? “Oh, how difficult! I could real off my favourite artists but couldn’t choose a singular work. Only one piece? Let me think. I am very obsessed with Yves Klein, but I would have to choose a small sculpture by Constantin Brâncusi called Prometheus. It sits on a dark mahogany piano in Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge. I find it very…beautiful.” [Source]