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Asked how he got into acting, he looks puzzled. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I don’t come from an acting background, and there’s no one in my family who particularly has an interest in it, but I’ve always loved it ever since I can remember. I think I found my way into it through music, actually. I had an instinct for singing when I was little, and through that I just kind of found theatre.”
There’s certainly no staginess in his latest role in the Netflix film The Good Nurse, in which he plays real-life US serial killer Charles Cullen – who may have murdered as many as 400 patients over three decades.
In fact, it represents a chilling departure for the star. Redmayne’s performance alongside Jessica Chastain as Amy Loughren, the co-worker who helped bring Cullen to justice, is full of staring eyes and quiet menace – a world away from his most famous role as the genial and bumbling Newt Scamander in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts franchise.
For the star, it is little short of a reinvention. Having won an Oscar for playing physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, he wanted to do something that didn’t involve tweed suits or typical Englishness. Something more meaty.
Playing the real-life Cullen, who confessed to murdering 40 patients, but whose death toll is estimated to have been ten times higher, delivers in spades.
But before filming, Redmayne, who is known in the industry for his careful preparation, had to learn how to portray a nursing professional.
“I’m a shocking nurse,” he confesses, cheerfully. “I’m really bad at it.
“Look, you know what your skills are and what they aren’t, and what you may have to work harder at than other people. And all I will say is that you don’t want me anywhere near you in a crisis.”
Any illusions of nursing competence were destroyed when he and co-star Chastain were required to attend a two-week nursing course in order to prepare them for the roles.
“The course was run by an amazing guy called Joe, but it was like regressing to being an 18-year-old again, leaning back in my chair biting my pen,” he admits.
“Jess has a brilliant mind and was much more effortless with it, but I found it difficult. And this was important because in the movie you had to do a lot of putting in IV bags and pulling things off and to do it without looking really weird and self-conscious about doing it.
“I’m generally known for being bad with props anyway, and it ended up that I’d have to come onto the set really early and practice with the medical dummy so that I could get it right.”
Problems with props aside, Redmayne isn’t doing too badly, as his Academy Award, two Golden Globes, three BAFTAS, with talk of more awards to come for The Good Nurse, and a little thing called an OBE can attest. And all by the age of 40. Which is why he returns time and again to the utter unlikelihood of his career.
Growing up comfortably in west London, his corporate financier father Richard and successful property relocator mother Patricia supported his endeavours to the extent that, when he was aged just 10, they allowed him to audition for a role as one of the workhouse boys in Sam Mendes’ glittering 1994 West End revival of Oliver!
“It’s a great musical!” he beams. “There are loads of children in it, and I got cast as one of them. And what that meant was that I could leave maths class on a rainy Thursday – just step up and say, ‘Bye’ to my friends, and walk out – and go and get on the Tube and get to the London Palladium, which is one of the most beautiful theatres in London.
“There was such a romance to that, and then when I got there, to be part of this huge thing, with Jonathan Pryce playing Fagin – well, it was just otherworldly, and staggeringly addictive.
“In my head, I was thinking, ‘I would love to do this’, but at the time, I just thought it was a hobby, not a proper thing.
“I never believed it was possible to do a job that you loved and were passionate about.”
He pursued the “hobby” of acting through his time at Eton – in between playing rugby with his classmate Prince William – and, aged 17, took the role of the Emcee in a school production of Cabaret that was taken to the Edinburgh Festival. One he recently revived to huge success on the London stage with Jessie Buckley, of which more later.
“It was the moment when my parents said, ‘Oh, maybe you could do this acting thing’ – although I don’t think they were very keen for me to be an actor.”
He dutifully went to Cambridge to study History of Art but, while he was there, landed his first real professional role. Even that contains a huge element of chance, as he now describes it.
“It was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and it was commissioned by the Globe Theatre, which was then being run by Mark Rylance, to put on a commemorative performance – all-male, just as in Shakespeare’s day,” Redmayne continues.
“Mark was playing Olivia and they were looking for a young actor to play Viola – they asked all around the universities, and I went for an audition – I was so clueless I didn’t really know Mark’s work that well at all.”
He was astonished – and, he freely admits, embarrassingly unprepared – to learn he had passed the first hurdle. “I remember going away for a few days and then getting a call saying ‘Will you come now for a last audition?’ I was in a pub in Notting Hill and I was three quarters of the way through a bottle of wine, so I was drunk, which was helpful.
“But then I arrived at this audition with the great Mark Rylance, and he put on a rehearsal skirt and I put on a rehearsal skirt, and we started playing the scene.
“Then he took the book out of my hand, and suddenly I was having to improvise Shakespeare. Looking back on it, it was probably one of the more terrifying moments of my life. But thanks to that three quarters of a bottle of red wine, I had no inhibitions and I was lucky enough to be cast.”
It was at the Globe Theatre, he now realises, he received a professional education he will never forget. “I didn’t go to drama school, but I always see my time at the Globe as my training. They had a verse coach, they had a voice coach, the director was incredibly rigorous, and I got to work with and learn from great actors.”
He also fell irretrievably in love with the world of the theatre and acting.
“What I continue to love about what we actors do is that there’s a democratic quality to being on stage, in that you’ve all got to help each other,” he says.
“In most industries, you kind of start as a novice and you gently work your way up. But at the Globe, that was my first real professional job and yet I was working with people who had been doing it for years, and we were all in it together. You were there, and you were treated as a partner – a dance partner, a sparring partner, whatever – from the word go. I love that about acting to this day.”
Twenty years later – now with a pretty spectacular big screen career on his CV – he is still in love with the theatre, best illustrated by his recent revival of Cabaret at London’s Playhouse Theatre.
This time around, however, he says he approached the project very differently.
“When I’d done it as a kid, I hadn’t really researched it, but this time, I took it seriously. I even went to clown school in Paris.”
He smiles affectionately, thinking of the day he unveiled this plan to his wife, Hannah Bagshawe, mother of their two energetic children Iris, six, and Luke, four.
“I signed up for the course, and I said to her, ‘Is it alright if I go to Paris to do a physical theatre course, for Cabaret?’ She said, ‘OK.’ Then she said, ‘Hmm… are you sure you’re not just going to Paris on holiday?’ But in fact we worked really hard.
“And it was a reminder to myself never to stop learning. Because when you stop learning is when you start to lose the love for your work.”
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