In a wide-ranging sitdown in Toronto, the Oscar winner goes deep on his process, his tensely brilliant turn in The Good Nurse, and changing his priorities going forward.
Eddie Redmayne came into The Good Nurse, his first non-franchise film since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, knowing that he needed to pull off a tricky role: Charlie Cullen, the real-life serial killer whose reputation as a compassionate nurse belied a sociopathic, murderous habit of killing dozens, maybe hundreds of patients. In Tobias Lindholm’s deliberate Netflix thriller, which costars Jessica Chastain as Charlie’s close colleague-turned-adversary and premiered Sunday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, Redmayne is disarmingly sweet and affecting in his loneliness—and then, in a corker of a final scene, completely frightening.
It’s another transformation for an actor who’s made a habit of them—winning Oscars (The Theory of Everything) and Olivier Awards (Cabaret) for comprehensive inside-out work. Redmayne has balanced these rich kinds of roles, of late, with the Fantastic Beasts franchise, the third film of which was released earlier this year. As he comes off what he describes as a career-best experience in The Good Nurse, with another performance likely to court some awards attention, the 40-year-old actor knows he has some options and has come to a new kind of conclusion for himself. As he tells me in a wide-ranging interview from his Toronto hotel: He’s finished compromising.
Vanity Fair: It’s safe to say you’re associated with relatively heroic roles. Certainly not ones that are this dark. Did The Good Nurse appeal in that way, or feel like going to a darker place than you typically do?
Eddie Redmayne: The truth is, you do a load of work before anyone sees any of the work you’ve done. So I did all these films for years: I did a film called Savage Grace with Julianne Moore, in which I played a guy called Anthony Bacon who killed his mother. I did a film called Hick that has 5% on Rotten Tomatoes, in which I played a Texan meth addict pedophile.
[Laughs] So I’ve done all these films, no one’s seen them—in some cases, fortunately. But then of course you do a film that you become known for and then that’s the world. Without you knowing it, that’s the trajectory you get taken on for a while. The truth is I hadn’t been looking for something specific—every script, I just react to what is presented in front of me. But I do like the idea that a lot of the characters I played have empathy as something inherent to them. What I found intriguing about Good Nurse is this was someone who seemingly had empathy and then weaponized that empathy in a way that was terrifying.
When I spoke to the real Amy [Loughren, a coworker of Cullen’s who acted as an informant to law enforcement, played in the film by Chastain] she said this is two different people—“I only met the murderer Charlie Cullen once.”
We’d talk endlessly about his humanity and his kindness and his gentleness and his self-deprecating humor. How he would slag off his own sort of existence. Having someone tell you that—like, the audience should never think, “How did Amy not sense this?”
It’s exactly that balance—understanding how she did get so close to him, but also not necessarily sympathizing too much with him, which is a tricky line to walk. Did you think about that?
A lot. That was something Tobias and [screenwriter] Krysty Wilson-Cairns were thinking about at length. We had a month of rehearsal, which was wonderful—Jessica and Tobias and I. You can do that thing that’s gotten rarer and rarer, which is just work through a script. Particularly with a character as delicate as Charlie, you need that. It’s something I find inherently easier in theater, when you have months of rehearsal and it’s the director’s vision and you are telling their version of the story. More and more with film, when you come in for a day or you have no rehearsal and you meet the person, basically you’ve created these things in a vacuum.
So with that time, and I imagine some prep beforehand as well, how did you find your way into Charlie? Once again for you, there’s the physicality, the voice work, the facial expressions.
I love this question! It’s the part that I enjoy the most. You had Charles Graeber’s book called The Good Nurse, which is encyclopedic—and 70% of it is about Charlie Cullen before you even meet him in this movie. You have his upbringing, you have his damage. You have the fact that he first tried to kill someone, one of his sister’s boyfriends, who may or may not have abused him when he was seven years old, and then tried to kill himself when he was seven years old. The fact that he, when he was 15 years old, his mom died. Then he went and joined the Navy and passed all the rigorous psychiatric tests.
It’s not documentary and you’re never going to get there. Often, other artists’ interpretations are quite interesting. With period pieces, I used to go to the National Portrait Gallery to look at paintings or glean anything you can from anywhere. So, Charles Graeber described Charlie as looking like a “question mark.” That was so revelatory to me because it was not only a physical thing, which you can see in all the footage; it’s just this blankness that’s there. Then Michael Buster, who’s a brilliant dialect coach I’ve worked with for years, he and I worked listening to Charlie’s voice, trying to get a little of that sort of New Jersey-specific way of speaking. There are a few phone calls and things that we had that we could reference. Alexandra Reynolds is this amazing dancer that I first worked with on Theory of Everything—she came and I spent a day showing her all the footage I had. She does this brilliant thing of helping with the physical through something emotional: It felt like all of his tension was being held up by the nape of his neck, as if he’s being held up.
I imagine you’ve done this kind of intensive work before. What about the discipline, that particular process, did you need to learn along the way? Because obviously it’s very involved.
Yes. When I was cast in Theory of Everything, [director] James Marsh said, “This does slightly live or die in your performance.” I remember having the confidence to go, “Okay, that’s terrifying. So if that’s the case, I need help. And this is what I need. I need a movement coach, I need a voice coach, and I need to spend four months prepping.” Beforehand I’d never have had the audacity to ask for that. What it’s made me realize over the years is that’s what I need. I have friends who can go from job to job and they’re fucking brilliant in every single one. The ones where I do that, you see my need, unfortunately, for that long runway. What it meant with this one was that I felt like I knew what the building blocks would have to be. One of the things I enjoy about acting is that constant conflict between control and chaos. And that’s what I also think Charlie is. He was incredibly control-freaky and precise, mixed with just erupting out into the world. I find in acting, there’s an element of that.
With all that work you’re going completely outside of yourself, and you’re known for doing that as an actor. You’ve said the choice to do The Danish Girl, in hindsight, was a mistake. In terms of the notion of any actor can play anything, where do you see that limit now for yourself?
Very good question. The answer is, I don’t have an answer for it. Every part that I’m offered at the moment, I take at face value. I wrestle with the decision myself. I hold two separate ideas that I believe should be able to be held in the same conversation, which is that I hate the idea of limiting artists or actors, because that’s what we do, while at the same time realizing there are many marginalized communities who have not had a seat at the table in our industry. Until there is a rebalance, these conversations will continue and should continue happening. I can’t give you a hard and fast answer because each role, I now sit and look through that prism.
You mentioned valuing the rehearsal time for Good Nurse and finding that increasingly doesn’t happen in movies. I, of course, think of your other 2022 movie. Based on just what you’ve shared with me so far, it does sound like your kind of process would not be as conducive to the system of studio moviemaking, necessarily.
On the first Fantastic Beasts, I went in with that same process and said, “Look, this is how I like to work,” and [director] David Yates was all for it. And he allowed an openness of process. For example, traditionally on these film sets, the visual effects department is kept well away from the actors. For me to interact with these creatures, I need to know what these artists creating these things are thinking. If we’re kept at arm’s length, then that’s not helpful. David was wonderful. Rather than him going, “Oh, Eddie, the way we’re going to do it on set is there’s going to be a man with a tennis ball,” he was like, “What do you want? What do you need?” So I think if the creatives behind it are up for keeping that sense of camaraderie, that is possible on big scale films. The problem is time, and everyone’s time, and money.
This was the first time Tobias had made a Hollywood film, and every week he would assemble the Good Nurse cast and the crew, and talk through what had happened in the script that week. Someone on the crew or the cast would give a small gift, a box of chocolates or something, to someone else on the crew that had helped them that week. A costume supervisor giving something to a gaffer. It reminded us of this sense of company. It made us all feel like we were working on something for the same purpose. Now, of course, on the scale of Fantastic Beasts or something like that, you just can’t have that. Sometimes you don’t meet the rest of the cast until it’s the premiere or you don’t meet a load of the creatives. And I have missed that.
So is this kind of experience what you want to have now going forward?
Yeah. My experience through The Good Nurse, creatively, and then through Cabaret, which I’ve just finished in London and was a passion project for years and I helped put together—it was fucking hard work, but I loved every minute. It was going from playing this very introverted character in Charlie to this sort of extroverted, placeless character. Both experiences were very fulfilling creatively. [Pause] It made me not want to compromise.
I did see, at the Zurich Film Festival, you’re receiving their version of the lifetime achievement award.
I read the words “lifetime achievement,” which made me go, “Oh, fuck. I knew I was old, but really?” [Laughs] But I’m very grateful.
But it’s a huge thing for an actor who is 40 years old.
I mean it in a positive way! You’re young!
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m not sure, though, if I have a vast amount of achievement. I’m so excited to go back to that festival because I went with Savage Grace which was another passion project for me and it was one that I fought really hard to get made. I remember going. It was the first film festival I’d ever been to and it was very, very special. So to go back, having not played a serial killer for probably about 15 years, will be interesting.
You’ve brought up that project a few times now—does it feel like a full-circle moment?
I found myself in the press the past couple of days talking about how the Good Nurse book was our bible, going, “I remember…”—like I heard myself say those words before. That was a line I used during Savage Grace because there was an excellent book about that. Then two phenomenal red-headed actresses, Julianne Moore and Jess Chastain. And I do remember the night at the Oscars when Julianne and I both won. I remember the frenzied craziness of that night—you can’t really take anything in because there’s too much adrenaline—but Julianne was like, “Maybe someone will watch our film now!”
Savage Grace was also a few years before Theory of Everything, so it was before you learned what to ask for, in those kinds of parts, as you said.
And the only time I’d worked close to someone who was playing a real person that was sort of transformative had been Michelle Williams, when we’d done My Week with Marilyn. Michelle had chosen to work I think specifically the way that Marilyn had worked: She had a voice coach, a movement coach. I thought that was interesting. So I’d seen something in the process of being active as an actor rather than just going, “I’ve got the job and I’ll do what I do.” You can actually ask for these things that may feel old-school, but they’re worth it.
This interview has been edited and condensed. [Source]