He’s not yet 40, but Eddie Redmayne OBE is already one of our foremost actors, bagging Oscar, Tony and Olivier awards for his boundary-pushing roles.
Now, as his latest film takes him, literally, to new heights, he talks to Gavanndra Hodge about the mayhem of family life, and being reunited with his ‘work wife’
Eddie Redmayne is desperate for a coffee. It’s 9am but he’s been up since five with his one-year-old son, Luke, and three-year-old daughter, Iris. ‘Several nappies have been changed,’ he explains. And yet he looks almost preternaturally fresh, eyes bright, skin unlined, wearing a posset-free Brunello Cucinelli shirt, gracefully hurdling over the back of the banquette to find a waitress from whom to order a latte.
Redmayne, 37, is one of our foremost actors, celebrated for extreme physical transformations and subtle emotional power. He won the best actor Oscar in 2015 for his portrayal of the late physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and the following year was nominated for The Danish Girl, in which he played Lili Elbe, an artist who was one of the first people to have gender reassignment surgery. He has won Tony and Olivier awards for his theatre work, has been awarded an OBE for services to drama, and has delighted Harry Potter fans with his ongoing portrayal of supernatural zoologist Newt Scamander in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise. The clip of him as Marius in Les Misérables, dashing and disconsolate, singing Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, has been viewed more that 80,000 times on YouTube.
Redmayne’s latest film is The Aeronauts, a period adventure featuring gas balloons and impressively whiskered Victorians – it is basically Gravity in tweed. Redmayne plays the meteorologist James Glaisher, who ascended to 37,000ft in a balloon, higher than anyone had gone before, in order to gather scientific data. In real life, this perilous trip was skippered by Henry Coxwell, but for the purposes of romantic frisson and anachronistic gender equality, Coxwell has morphed into the fictional balloonist Amelia Wren, played by Felicity Jones, formerly Jane Hawking to Redmayne’s Stephen.
Redmayne received the script for The Aeronauts while filming Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. He had been hoping his next project would be something ‘contemporary, probably American’, but was intrigued by the way the film quickly transformed from a genteel period drama to a nail-biting survival epic set in a wicker basket. The deciding factor was whether Jones would agree to star with him. ‘I got the script knowing that Feliss had it too. So we called each other up and said, “I’ll do it if you do.”’
Redmayne has known Jones for over 15 years – they met when they were auditioning for a Dominic Savage film that was never made called Mood Indigo. ‘Dominic said, “I just want you to look at each other and I want to feel the chemistry.” And I was like, “What just, like, look?” So I sat there, looking [Redmayne does a bit of soulful staring to demonstrate]. I didn’t get the job. So when people say that we have good chemistry I always feel deeply relieved, because there was a moment when we really didn’t.’
Redmayne and Jones did not become proper friends until they made The Theory of Everything, playing husband and wife, patient and carer, the relationship between them the defining motif of the film, making it a piece about love and family rather than science or disability. ‘She is a great pal, a wonderful person and a formidable actor.’
In The Aeronauts, unlike in The Theory of Everything, Jones gets to play the naughty daredevil, while Redmayne has to be the serious one, a role reversal that, according to the director of the film, Tom Harper, reflects their real characters. ‘Eddie is meticulous, terribly detailed, whereas Felicity comes in, tries it a few different ways, and has a sort of instinctive approach.’ Redmayne did exhaustive research, reading books, visiting museums, making himself familiar with the scientific instruments, even visiting a decompression chamber to experience hypoxia – the deprivation of oxygen that happens at high altitude. Harper went into the chamber with him. ‘It turns out that under hypoxia, I become a forgetful mess, whereas Eddie becomes an eloquent, fervent performer.’
After three months of preparation, the two leads took a few months off before filming, Jones to get married to the director Charles Guard, Redmayne for the birth of his second child, Luke, with his wife Hannah Bagshawe. The couple have known each other since they met at a party at Bagshawe’s boarding school as teenagers – ‘we may have had a kiss’ – but they didn’t get together until over a decade later.
‘Hannah has got an amazing creative mind,’ he says. ‘She has wonderful taste, so if ever I am thinking of doing a job, I always get her to read the script and her instincts tend to be bang on.’
When I ask who is the crazy one in the relationship (there is always one), Redmayne does not hesitate. ‘Definitely my wife. I am totally wrongly equipped for the world that I work in. I like order, I crave a peace. And everything about my life is chaos and juggling. Fortunately Hannah is much more free-spirited and loves the manic craziness.’
The couple married in December 2014 at Babington House in Somerset, Bagshawe wearing a gown created for her by Sarah Burton ‘because they had met and got on so well’. They have recently moved to a flat in west London and are still deep in the mayhem of early parenthood. ‘It has been wonderful, challenging, exciting, knotty and brilliant,’ says Redmayne. They are not the sorts of parents who read all the books, but routines have been found and followed, ‘just because you want to get your little ones to sleep, so we can have that essential glass of wine’. Bagshawe has not yet gone back to her job as an antique dealer, but Redmayne says that parental duties are shared. ‘I am pretty hands-on, that has never been a question for us. I am quite playful, love messing around with my children, turning up the music, making a fool of myself.’
Redmayne was raised in Chelsea, close to the King’s Road, with its art shops, bookshops and fancy restaurants. His father, Richard Redmayne, is in corporate finance, while his mother, Patricia, used to run a relocation business. Redmayne has two older half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage, as well as an older brother and a younger brother. He describes his childhood as ‘wonderful and loving’. His family encouraged his theatricality, even if they didn’t quite understand it, being more into sport than show tunes. Redmayne’s mother rented him a piano and, from the age of seven, took him to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire every Saturday to attend the Jackie Palmer Stage School, where a fellow pupil was James Corden, whom Redmayne describes as ‘frickin’ heaven. He was really good at street dance and I would just turn up in a black polo neck and sing Memory from Cats. That was the horrendous reality.’
Redmayne got the chance to relive this moment when he appeared on Corden’s US chat show, The Late Late Show. ‘I was on the sofa with Jessica Chastain and he played a video of me singing Memory, with me at the bottom of the screen reacting. I am one of those people who can’t lie. I can’t hide my emotions. I went beetroot and started sweating. And rather than just playing it for 10 seconds, he played the full three minutes.’
During this clip, which is also available on YouTube, Redmayne says that he didn’t have many friends during the black-polo-neck years. At the time he was attending Colet Court, now St Paul’s Juniors, but despite his enthusiasm for the Andrew Lloyd Webber back catalogue, he says he wasn’t bullied. ‘I was certainly teased. I think one of the great sadnesses about being young is that showing passion is deeply uncool, but I find passion attractive… I have always just had things that I really adored. And the truth is I loved acting.’
It was while he was at prep school, aged 12, that he won a part in Oliver! at the London Palladium with Jonathan Pryce. ‘I got to leave my maths class, go into the West End, go down these dark corridors. It was so romantic. And everyone there was passionate, whether it was the costume makers or the set guys, no one was coasting.’
Redmayne continued to act at Eton, and won a choral scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied history of art, but found that the singing was getting in the way of his acting. ‘It got to the point where I would have a costume under the cassock during evensong and then would have to run to [a performance].’
He gave up his choral duties after a year, enabling him to appear as Viola to Mark Rylance’s Olivia in an all-male production of Twelfth Night in 2002. Redmayne’s soft-eyed ingénue was described as ‘scandalously persuasive’ by critics (he looked rather like a young Jennifer Garner). The play was staged at Middle Temple, but rehearsals were at the Globe, working with verse and voice coaches. ‘I didn’t go to drama school, so I think of that [time] as a kind of training.’
There was a fallow year after graduation, during which Redmayne worked behind the bar at the Builders Arms in Chelsea, but that was quickly followed by parts in lush historical films such as Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Other Boleyn Girl; and Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Birdsong on television. There remains a strong appetite – both at home and abroad – for this fetishised version of an English past, dashing and gentlemanly, richly clad in velvet and/or tweed, which benefits a generation of actors familiar with grand old buildings and clipped lawns.
Like Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis and Dominic West all went to Eton, while Benedict Cumberbatch was at Harrow. Redmayne is not unaware of his advantages, and the question of access to the arts for those less privileged. ‘It is such a massive discussion, not just the arts, but everything, journalism, everything,’ he says. ‘I understand that acting is the thing that people are talking about because it is the most public. I think there is a massive problem with funding and support. And so what can you do?’ Redmayne backs the charity Arts Emergency, which helps actors from less privileged backgrounds through mentorship and communication and tries to create ‘this idea of an old boys’ club, this thing that lots of people who have gone to public schools have, which is access to friends of friends of friends’.
But, he insists, this is not just about class and connections. ‘When I did The Danish Girl, there was a huge discussion about whether cisgender actors should be able to play trans parts, and that whole process was a massive learning curve for me. I did a workshop at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama for trans actors, and what became absolutely clear was that it is a sort of vicious circle. So few trans actors had had opportunities because, until very recently, they haven’t been given role models to believe that they can. One realises that one has to shift the perception and the paradigm.’
Redmayne is not blasé about his position. As a young thespian he didn’t believe that he could be a professional actor, not least because his father hammered home the grim ratio of unemployed actors to employed ones. ‘You never think that you are allowed to do this thing, and so when you start the rat race of trying to be an actor, you are just desperately looking for employment, anything you can get.’ It is only recently, with the births of his children, that he has allowed himself to take time off. He is famously hard-working, spending months preparing for difficult roles like that of Hawking, immersing himself in the life, mind and body of a different person.
‘I was so nervous when I did that film because the stakes were so high,’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t sleep at all the night before day one of filming because I was so anxious. I was having to play Stephen at four different stages of his physicality – in the morning I was playing him healthy, lunchtime on one stick, afternoon two sticks and then at the end of the day in a wheelchair… I was so frickin’ nervous. I got up to walk from my hotel [to the set] and I got this text message from my mum going, “Who would have thought that 10 years after leaving you are back in Cambridge getting to play this…” and it took that moment for me to realise how lucky I was.’
He has talked before of being fuelled by fear, and tells me that he has tried all the regular techniques to deal with anxiety: meditation, the Headspace app. Nothing has really worked. ‘But to be honest I think I have learnt how to use it. All that tension ends up being deeply useful for my work. Although I would love for my own state of mind to have more control over it.’ After a recent family party during which Redmayne got very drunk, ‘it was generally decided that I am a much better human being when I am hungover’.
Other ways in which he has learnt to manage the brain fizz are reading novels by his favourite author Julian Barnes, painting and playing the piano. Bagshawe plays too: ‘It’s going to sound like the naffest thing in the world, but there has been a moment when we have attempted a duet.’ He also loves cooking, although he says he is so bad at multitasking that when friends come round for dinner no one is allowed to talk to him while he is at the hob. ‘I am like, “Sit down, have a drink, I am making a pasta sauce.”’ He loves cookery programmes, too. ‘Particularly when I am working. I find if I watch films or a TV series I go into a critical place, which sort of spins me out. Anyway, that’s my explanation for why I watch total crap – why I will occasionally whip on the Kardashians and get a gentle b—king from my wife.’
However, the couple’s evening viewing is not currently the Kardashians, but Ken Burns’s documentary series, The Vietnam War – ‘We’ve been in it for months and we are still barely at the beginning of the war!’ This is in preparation for Redmayne’s next role, as the political activist Tom Hayden in Aaron Sorkin’s film The Trial of the Chicago 7, about the anti-war protests in Chicago in 1968. The film will also star Mark Rylance, who was there at the start of Redmayne’s career, and for it the family will relocate to New York. ‘It is the first time we’ve done that with the whole family. We are properly excited.’ Equally exciting, for Redmayne, is the long-awaited opportunity to leave the tweeds behind, and do something a bit more contemporary. ‘I am gradually heading towards the 21st century.’
The Aeronauts is released on 4 November [Source]