Eddie Redmayne: A most brilliant education


Together meets up with a young actor who is clearly destined for great things.

Eddie Redmayne is something of a paradox. He’s an actor who studied alongside Prince William at Eton, read art history at Cambridge and wrote his dissertation on the artist Yves Klein – yet he needs his wife Hannah Bagshawe to pick out his wardrobe because he’s colour-blind! But even though Eddie has trouble distinguishing purple from blue, he has no difficulty in choosing film roles.

Having won the Oscar for best actor earlier this year for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne may well be in line for a second consecutive Academy Award for The Danish Girl, a film which made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival before heading to North America where it played at the Toronto International Film Festival. Both Redmayne and the film have earned rave reviews and many industry observers are touting The Danish Girl as a sure-fire Oscar contender.

The 33-year-old British actor plays Lili Elbe, a Danish painter who was born male (and given the name Einar Wegener) and became the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery in the process of transforming into a woman. Directed by Tom Hooper, the film traces Lili’s transition from artist Einar Wegener and its effect on Einar’s wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander).

“I was sucker punched by the emotion of it,” Redmayne said. “This idea of two formidable people going on this journey together. The notion of love not being defined by gender, not being defined by anything other than two souls meeting really. As I started to research and meet people from the trans community, who were so overwhelmingly generous with their stories, the notion of the great privilege to play someone like Lili, the stakes just got higher and higher and higher.”

Previously, Redmayne has delighted audiences and critics alike with stellar turns as Julianne Moore’s son in the incest drama Savage Grace, as the star-worshipping assistant turned lover in My Week with Marilyn and more recently as the singing revolutionary Marius in Les Misérables.

Should Redmayne go on to win a rare Oscar double, he would become the first actor since Tom Hanks in 1994 and 1995 (with Philadelphia and Forrest Gump) to earn consecutive awards.

Redmayne was born and raised in London by a businessman father, now a managing director at a City bank and a mother who was a relocation specialist. Eddie studied alongside Prince William at Eton and later read art history at Trinity College, Cambridge where he wrote his dissertation on the artist Yves Klein

He never attended acting school but instead came under the tutelage of a drama coach at Eton who ran a rigorous programme for aspiring thespians. Prior to his film career, Eddie gained recognition for his work in a variety of theatre productions including Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? in 2005 and John Logan’s Red, staged at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2009 and which earned him both an Olivier and a Tony award.

It was recently revealed that Redmayne has been cast as Newt Scamander in J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, his highest-profile role yet. When it comes to having played Lili, the handsome star is still partially under the emotional sway of the character: “I can access her smile quite easily,” Redmayne admitted. “I recall meeting with a transgender woman as part of my research and asking her when she felt happiest. It was after transitioning, and she was just walking through a park and sat on a bench — and saw the world go by and smiled to herself. It was a moment of the world feeling right. The idea of that smile was something I tried to find.”

Eddie Redmayne lives in London with his wife, Hannah Bagshawe, a PR executive he met while auditioning for Les Misérables.

Together: Eddie, you’ve previously undergone a difficult physical transformation in The Theory of Everything and now perhaps an even greater one in The Danish Girl. Are you drawn to this aspect of performing?
Redmayne: It’s not about wanting to transform, it’s about playing incredible people. If you’re lucky enough to do that, that’s great. What was interesting about this project for me was that when Tom gave me the script during Les Miserables, I read it but didn’t say anything about it. It was probably the best one I’ve ever read. A unique, hugely passionate love story. This person being brave enough to fight and want to live a life authentically. Different producers worked on this movie for many years and they passed it through different directors. Tom (director Hooper) and I talked about it for years. We shot the film while I was promoting The Theory of Everything.

What I took away from the film was the most brilliant education on many things. I’ve met many people in the trans community during the past four years. This icon of theirs was formidably generous. I have to thank her for portraying Lili.

What was it like for you speaking to transgendered people while researching your character?
The generousity of people was amazing. (I met with) a couple in Los Angeles, they were together when she was a man and afterwards. They told me: please ask anything. Their kindness and support galvanised me in it.

In relation to the partner of the transitioning person, the biggest question was how deep was the partner’s pool of empathy. In that sense, I wanted to meet contemporary trans people but also those from different generations. I’ve read her (Lili Elbe’s) diary, although it’s an unreliable secondary source because it was rewritten. I’ve also read the fictionalized book The Danish Girl and all that I could find about Lili. Then I tried to find those aspects in me.

Do you think that society needs to be more open and understanding of the situation of transgender people?
What I found astounding in relation to Lili’s story is it’s almost 100 years old and there’s so much progress that needs to happen in the amount of discrimination. It’s amazing we’re able to have this conversation now and that the world is becoming educated (to transgendered people). There’s still a long way to go.

We need to break down prejudice and taboos and misconceptions. Society needs to understand the difficulties faced by trans people and especially the amount of abuse and physical violence they are often subjected to. Lili was beaten, and in speaking to trans women there is a terrific level of discrimination and violence that they must confront. One of the saddest and most shocking things I learnt in my research was that 41% of trans people have attempted suicide.

Would you like to see this film help change popular attitudes towards the transgender community?
I hope this film will send a message to people that trans people need to have our compassion and understanding and be treated as equal members of society.

What were your emotions or feelings the first time you walked onto the film set of The Danish Girl as Lili?
I was particularly struck by the male gaze and the way men would look at me as a woman. Of course, that’s nothing compared to what trans women and men have to deal with, that fear particularly in societies where there’s real danger. But you did get a slight sense of the gaze, of being scrutinized.

What was it like working with Alicia Vikander who plays Einar’s wife and the Lili’s partner?
I’m very lucky to again have worked with Alicia. When she auditioned with me for Tom, it was a very important scene, one where Lili first confesses her true feelings to Gerda. And when we finished I looked over and Tom (Hooper) was crying. That’s how accomplished an actress she is.

How are you handling the fame and recognition?
It’s very exciting. I never set myself any specific goals and I never had ambitions of becoming a big star. I’m only interested in being part of good films, working with talented people and making the most of those experiences. I’m very grateful for whatever success I’ve had up to this point and it’s a very good time in my life overall.

You did your acting training at Eton of all places?
I had the greatest drama teacher I could ever have wished for in Simon Dormandy. He inspired me to continue acting and I owe him so much. He treated us like professionals and that kind of respect and guidance makes you want to take things very seriously.

When you have someone like that giving you advice and encouraging you every step of the way you feel that you can accomplish anything. We still stay in touch and over the years I’ve continued to seek out his advice and work with him if I think I could use some feedback when I’m preparing for a role.

Did you always know you would become a professional actor one day?
No. I enjoyed it growing up but it was only when I was about 18 or 19 and did a production of Cabaret at the Edinburgh Festival that I knew that I wanted to make acting my career. We did the production in this very grotty, grimy venue but I loved it and that’s when I really got the bug. The odd thing about this profession is that you still feel like a kid play-acting. There’s this sense of make-believe and wonder to it that stays with you. Making movies is a bit like being on summer holiday where you meet people, become friends and then perhaps go away and never meet again.

Which actors whom you’ve worked with have inspired you the most?
Oh, there have been quite a few. Certainly Julianne Moore (who co-starred with Redmayne in Savage Grace) was a revelation. She is very instinctive and completely mesmerizing at times the way she suddenly throws herself into a scene. When she’s not working, she’s so friendly and enthusiastic and you would never have any idea how frighteningly compelling she can be when you’re acting opposite her.

Hugh Jackman is also one of those actors who has such a powerful and engaging spirit. Not only are you in awe of his talent but working with him (on Les Miserables) enables you to see someone who is very disciplined and dedicated to bringing out the best in himself and everyone else. You feel like you want to raise your level just to match him.

You’re noted for being a very stylish dresser and you’ve also worked as a campaign model for Burberry. Do you consider yourself a fashionista?
I enjoy fashion although I’m often wearing jeans. But I like good suits and I love to wear a nice jacket with a pair of jeans. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve become friends with Christopher Bailey and he’s given me some good advice.

I’m slowly learning more about fashion and I’ve been able to attend some fashion shows and events over the last several years. But being colour-blind I’m not sure if I will ever have a very good sense of being able to match things. Colours can be confusing.

So who picks out your clothes?
When I go out to premieres and events, I have to check with Hannah (his wife) that the trousers match the top. But I’m lucky to be with someone who is very supportive.

How do you think you’re going to handle being a huge movie star down the road?
(Laughs and puts his hands across his face) Oh, I can’t think about things like that. I feel very lucky to have had these kinds of incredible opportunities of late and we’ll have to see where it all leads.