Eddie Redmayne’s challenge in channeling Stephen Hawking

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NEW YORK — While the Oscar chatter already buzzing around Eddie Redmayne — for his incredible performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (opening Friday) — is something the gracious Englishman will not discuss, the actor was more than happy to talk about what he called a “true life-changing experience” of portraying the famous physicist.

Sitting in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan recently, Redmayne, who is perhaps best known for his roles in “My Week With Marilyn” and “Les Miserables,” admitted “there were so many things” to challenge his portrayal of Hawking during his youth and young adulthood.

“First of all, as someone who was so incredibly ignorant scientifically, I learned a lot about that,” said Redmayne. Yet, the actor stressed that it was the personality of Hawking, the spirit of the man, that he hoped to capture. For Redmayne, the time he spent with Hawking — getting to know him and how he has handled his decades-long struggle with ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) — was essential.

“The thing I was immediately struck by, and still think of above and beyond all else, is his charisma. His charm, his humor, his mischief is totally enchanting. When you meet Stephen, there’s a glint in his eye. He completely controls a room. There’s a bit of rock star quality about him,” said Redmayne.

The actor also acknowledged his playing this role has made him even more sensitive to those who have to face the medical and physical challenges of living with what today is still an incurable disease. While Hawking has remarkably lived for more than a half-century with ALS, most afflicted people die within a few years of diagnosis.

“I learned so much preparing for this role,” Redmayne said. “I spent three or four months going to an ALS clinic in London and meeting many people who were suffering, and their families.”

As a graduate of Britain’s prestigious Cambridge University — also the academic home of Hawking — Redmayne experienced a little nostalgia during the film shoot.

“Yes indeed, but that came after I got a text from my mum and dad … saying ‘How lucky you are. Just 10 years in [from having studied at Cambridge]. Who would have thought you’d be back at Cambridge playing Stephen Hawking?!’

“It was at that moment that I pulled my head out of this myopia and made me realize, yeah, this is great!”

While Redmayne was very complimentary about the way director James Marsh and the film’s production and set designers recreated the Cambridge of Hawking’s time, he did chuckle recalling one particular scene — something that made him realize he was in a big Hollywood film that somewhat exaggerated a Cambridge tradition.

“It was the scene at the annual May Ball with me and Felicity [Jones, who plays Jane Hawking, Stephen’s first wife and the author of the memoir upon which ‘The Theory of Everything’ is based]. Suddenly you see this amazing display of incredible fireworks going off. I must say I never went to a May Ball that was anything like that!

“Trust me. We never had fireworks anywhere near the scale of what you see in the film,” added Redmayne with a huge laugh. “But they sure were fun to watch when we made the movie!”

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