After three outings in the Potterverse, the Oscar-winning actor – and one of Hollywood’s nicest guys – is ready for his villain phase
Last summer, after he had wrapped his latest movie, The Good Nurse, and just before he began rehearsals for his Olivier-winning West End revival of Cabaret, Eddie Redmayne went back to school. Not university, or some kind of brush-up-on-the-classics adult education class, but rather, a very specific and very renowned academic institute – the École Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq. Or, as it is more colloquially known, clown school.
For two weeks, in a converted 19th-century gymnasium in Paris, Redmayne took a course in the Theatre of the Absurd, where he spent his time, as he puts it, “improvising and playing.” But clown school is no funny business. The course was demanding, and his instructors, who’d studied with the legendary Lecoq themselves, were brutally honest, even withering. “There was none of this kiddie glove stuff,” Redmayne tells me as he does his impression of them. “Non, je ne marche pas!” he says, menacingly wagging a finger in front of his nose. No, I’m not buying it.
Redmayne’s classmates ranged in age from 18 to 60, all professional performers of some stripe or other. But Redmayne was the only one there who had won an Academy Award for Best Actor. He was the only one who had starred in a billion-dollar-grossing movie franchise. And yet, he felt like a complete amateur. That was the whole point. He wanted to start over, in a way, to expose himself, to really try and shed any of the actorly tics or patterns that had accrued over his 20-year career. “It was everything I needed,” he says of Lecoq. “To remind myself that you need to keep learning.”
We’re sitting in a hotel suite in Toronto, a couple of days after his 4-year-old son, Luke, has just started school himself for the first time back home in London. Redmayne’s an attentive and proud parent – he wouldn’t have missed Luke’s first day for anything – but he nevertheless had to fly out shortly after for the global premiere of The Good Nurse at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Redmayne’s family (which also includes his wife Hannah Bagshawe, a publicist, and their six-year-old daughter, Iris) had in fact lived with him in New York while he shot the film, but there was no way he was taking the kids out of school for the festival. “I didn’t think it was ideal for us all to up and leave on day two,” he says, smiling broadly.
Redmayne is notoriously, absurdly nice – George Clooney-level nice, Hugh Jackman nice, Tom Hanks nice. He’s been doing press all morning, and our hour-long interview runs right through lunch, but he receives me with such enthusiasm that I fear he’s mistaken me for room service. He laughs frequently, swears frequently, pauses frequently – all the better to gather his thoughts into cogent, paragraph-long responses. He’s dressed comfortably: an S.S. Daley tea-towel shirt, billowy navy Dior trousers. Redmayne has been to TIFF five times before, but after two years of pandemic purgatory, all the familiar festival trappings – obligatory red carpets, throngs of selfie-seeking fans, reporters and their repetitive questions – have taken on, for him at least, a fresh lustre. He is genuinely excited to be back, genuinely excited even to engage in this particular chat. “I haven’t done anything that’s a proper conversation,” he says, curling up in an armchair with a Diet Coke. “Getting to talk about a film that you genuinely believe in is quite a rare thing.”
The film in question is, in some ways, a departure for Redmayne. For one thing, he plays a villain, the notorious real-life American nurse Charles Cullen, who murdered as many as 400 patients in the 1990s and early 2000s. Cullen killed by poisoning his victims with routine drugs like insulin; his slow-motion rampage was quiet, insidious, and above all, incomprehensible – Cullen was an experienced healthcare professional, entrusted with the lives of the ill and infirm, but also someone who many regarded as deeply empathetic, hardworking, even funny. He remains, nevertheless, the most prolific serial killer in American history. (Cullen is also still alive, serving 18 consecutive life sentences in a New Jersey prison.)
Cullen was a suicidal, alcoholic psychopath, the product of a lonely and abusive childhood. In the film, elements of his background are sketched in but never dwelt upon, and, for much of it, Redmayne plays him as an avuncular cypher in a Mister Rogers cardigan. A nice guy, as it were. As the film progresses, however, a far more malevolent side emerges. “Charlie was really two different people,” Redmayne says. People have described him as “dissociating,” and when he did, his eyes would go in different directions. “I spent about three days in the mirror trying to do that,” Redmayne says, laughing. “I finally said, ‘Fuck that,’ and did my own version.”
In photos and video, Cullen appears hang-dog and dead-eyed, his ash-coloured hair closely clipped. The 40-year-old Redmayne, meanwhile, is stupefyingly handsome, with cheekbones you could slalom down, full lips, an architectural marvel of a jawline. And yet, in person, his features can seem somehow both delicate and exaggerated all at once. This gives him a vaguely alien countenance, and in the shadowy light of the film – most of it takes place in the dim halls of a hospital at night – his resemblance to Cullen is uncanny.
The titular character of The Good Nurse, however, is Amy Loughren, a trusted friend and co-worker of Cullen’s who gradually discovered his crimes and then helped police to ensnare him. In the film, Loughren is played by fellow Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain, her character a beguiling blend of tenderness and flint. While the film is a character study – or, to a certain extent, twin character studies – it’s also a portrait of a broken health care system, one in which a damaged monster can wreak havoc for many years, his actions covered up by a sclerotic medical establishment more afraid of losing lawsuits than losing patients. Despite its ghastly subject, the film is strenuously subdued, with most of its horror taking place off-camera. At its finest moments, it can feel like an episode of American Crime Story directed by Robert Bresson.
For Redmayne, The Good Nurse couldn’t have come at a better time. He’d just come off his third turn as Newt Scamander, the gentle, socially-awkward “magizoologist” of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, and he longed to make a movie on a smaller scale. “It was so freeing for me,” he says, “having done so many big, symphonic films – which can be joyful and pleasurable, but you lose touch of the notion of company, or the notion of intimacy of process.”
Redmayne loved the script because it didn’t seem to fit obviously or comfortably into any genre – it was partly a true-crime thriller, partly a detective story, partly an off-kilter romance – and he loved it even more when he learned that Tobias Lindholm was attached to direct. Redmayne had long wanted to work with the Danish filmmaker, best known for tense, naturalistic dramas like A War and the recent true-crime TV series, The Investigation. “He has an extraordinary moral core,” Redmayne says. Lindholm, in turn, found Redmayne a great ally, as concerned with the broader atmosphere of the film as with his own performance. “I think of making a film like being the coach of a football team,” Lindholm says. “Eddie’s definitely one of those guys you want in your locker room. Definitely also on the pitch, but his qualities in the locker room are second to none.”
When Redmayne heard that the director had Chastain in mind as Loughren, he was also overjoyed. The two actors knew each other in the strange way that actors know each other – bumping into each other on talk-show couches, co-presenting at awards ceremonies – but they had never collaborated on a movie together. “It can be a bit scary working with friends,” Redmayne says. “A workplace is a different space. You can get along great when it’s family time and then really come up against it in the work.” But the two instantly bonded, partly because they both have children the same age and partly because they both work so hard. “Not only is he an incredibly talented actor,” says Chastain, who first noticed him in the 2007 film Savage Grace, “but he’s just so kind and respectful as a person. It’s a beautiful thing to be around.”
To Redmayne’s relief, he and Chastain also shared a process. “You do as much detective work as you can,” he says, “and then you throw all that away and then just try to play opposite someone.” In Redmayne’s case, that detective work meant reading and re-reading the film’s source material, Charles Graeber’s 2013 book of the same name, but also tapping Graeber for his source material – interviews, court documents, and the like. It meant studying all the video footage of Cullen that he could dig up. It didn’t mean talking to Cullen, alas, but it did mean Zooming with the actual Amy Loughren (now a grandmother, living in Florida).
For Redmayne, ever the eager student, it also meant more school. When he played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything – for which he won the aforementioned Oscar – he went to heroic lengths to ensure the accuracy of his portrayal. There were four months spent studying Hawking’s life, which included long lessons in mind-bending physics, and a meeting with the man himself. There were weeks at a London neurology clinic, where Redmayne interviewed dozens of patients, and several sessions with Alexandra Reynolds, a choreographer who helped Redmayne to perfectly capture Hawking’s physical deterioration from ALS.
To play Cullen, Redmayne hired Reynolds again, who helped him analyse and then impersonate the nurse’s distinctive shuffle and posture (“like a question mark,” Redmayne says). He worked with a voice coach to hone a flat New Jersey accent. With Chastain, he attended nursing school, where they spent two weeks learning how to effortlessly insert PICC lines and hang saline bags. “I was totally shit at it,” he says. “You never want me in a crisis.” On set, Redmayne would arrive early so he could keep practising.
All this painstaking preparation is obviously laborious and lengthy, and not necessarily what every actor indulges in. For Redmayne, though, it signifies a seriousness of purpose. It also acts as a life raft or security blanket. “Some need a short runway to take off,” he says. “and others need a long runway. I need quite a long runway.” In Graeber’s book, the author calls Cullen “self-deprecatingly vulnerable,” and, oddly, that description fits Redmayne as well. He often mentions that he didn’t go to drama school, and he tends to characterise his entire career as a kind of happy accident. “I have no grand plan,” he says, “I’m just winging it.”
And yet, this can also seem like a weird humblebrag. Redmayne started, as it were, at the top, with a small role in a Jonathan Pryce-starring, Sam Mendes-directed production of Oliver! when he was just 11 years old. Then, while still at Eton, he played Viola in an all-male Globe anniversary production of Twelfth Night, starring and directed by Mark Rylance. His best-known early film parts – Hawking, and a year later, the transgender artist Lili Elbe, in The Danish Girl – earned him, in his early 30s, oodles of award nominations (The Theory of Everything snagged him a BAFTA and Golden Globe too). After those two films, in particular, he appeared fast on his way to becoming his generation’s answer to Daniel Day-Lewis or Ralph Fiennes.
But then 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, to a certain degree, took him off that path. Suddenly, Eddie Redmayne was thrust into the big-budget, big-FX Harry Potter franchise, surrounded by larger-than-life talents like Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Mads Mikkelsen. What kind of preparation can you do for that? You can’t really sign up for a crash course at Hogwarts. Redmayne doesn’t put it quite that way, of course. When he talks about the series, he is nothing but generous. “When I entered that world,” he says, “I knew I was joining a machine that was so much bigger than me. It’s given me a huge amount and I’ve loved working with some of the best, most joyful actors in the world. Being able to come back to that every couple of years – in an industry that is nomadic and circus-like – that continuity has been wonderful.” But that continuity was on a human level, he says, not necessarily on an acting level. It was a fun ride, but perhaps not a place where he was going to keep learning. “What’s become clear to me is that comfort and I don’t go very well together,” Redmayne says. “So I’m always looking for ways to push myself outside my comfort zone.” Fantastic Beasts has also been dogged by extracurricular controversies – J.K. Rowling’s scandalous views on gender identity, Depp’s libel case, Ezra Miller’s recent arrests – and diminishing box office returns. While Redmayne isn’t keen to talk about any of that, it can’t help but make his decision to focus on more intimate films like The Good Nurse easier.
Throughout our conversation, Redmayne has mused a bit on his own creative ambivalence, his “cynicism” and “pessimism.” When I ask him where that feeling comes from, he’s careful not to attribute it to any particular project, but struggles to locate its actual source. “Acting is a weird mix of control and freedom,” he says, choosing his words. “When you make films, you kind of lose control. You’re a cog in that thing. You can work on the script for ages, but there comes a point where you have to give that away, and that’s a complex thing, you know? At its very best, you’re doing it with someone you trust and you therefore feel completely free. But it doesn’t always work like that.”
If Redmayne has always worked very hard, he has also, by his own admission, not worked very much. And, thanks to both Cabaret and The Good Nurse, he now expects, maybe, to work even less. “What this year has done is made me more picky,” he says, laughing again. Unlike most performers, he’s not quite sure what he’s doing next. But having now finally worked with a friend, he’d like to do it again. Perhaps with one of his long-time crew of fellow Brits – Ben Whishaw, Andrew Garfield. Perhaps with his Cabaret co-star, Jessie Buckley. Perhaps, he ventures, even a comedy – the kind of film where it helps that you’ve been to clown school. “I was rattled around,” he says, “and got a new love for what I did that perhaps I’d lost a wee bit of.” [Source]