Winning back-to-back Oscars is a rare feat. Tom Hanks was the last actor to do it and that was more than two decades ago. But the smart money will be on Eddie Redmayne walking away with consecutive Oscars this awards season thanks to his latest stunning performance in The Danish Girl, which opens in cinemas on New Year’s Day.
The British star won an Academy Award last time around for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. And like Hanks – who turned in two very different performances when he won his Oscars for Philadephia in 1993 and Forrest Gump in 1994 – Redmayne’s latest transformation is a world apart from playing the genius with motor neurone disease.
In The Danish Girl, Redmayne plays Lili Elbe, an artist who was one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Lili was born Einar Wegener in 1882 but underwent a series of five experimental operations between 1930 and 1931 which led to her death soon after the final procedure.
The film is directed by Tom Hooper, who is no stranger to Oscar success himself. He picked up Best Director in 2011 for The King’s Speech. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander co-stars as fellow artist Gerda Wegener, Einar’s understanding wife and Elbe’s faithful friend. The Danish Girl received a ten-minute ovation at its world premiere at the recent Venice Film Festival. While there, Redmayne explained how the complex role came to him: “Tom [Hooper] first gave me the script when we were making Les Misérables,” he says.
“So I was attempting to sing and man barricades and he slipped me this envelope and said ‘Will you read this, I’m not going to say anything about it but I think it may be the best script I’ve ever read’.
“And I read it and I was profoundly moved by this unique hugely passionate love story, and at the sort of fulcrum of it was also this person being brave enough to fight to live a life authentic,” he continues.
I’m not going to say anything about it but I think it may be the best script I’ve ever read
The screenplay by Lucinda Coxon – which was based on the novel of the same name by David Ebershoff – had actually been doing the rounds with Hollywood directors for some years and various actresses were linked to the part of Lili including Marion Cotillard, Charlize Theron and Gwyneth Paltrow. But in a town where box office is everything, the studios were nervous of the subject matter.
Fast forward to 2015 with Caitlyn Jenner [former Olympian Bruce Jenner] adorning the front cover of Vanity Fair magazine and the conversation surrounding transgender issues is now in the mainstream.
Hooper came across the script for The Danish Girl five years ago while he was making The King’s Speech. He says Redmayne was always the actor he wanted to make the film with, having seen him play Viola in a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 2002. “I think there’s something in him that’s drawn to the feminine. So I thought that would be interesting to explore,” he says about Redmayne, who married publicist Hannah Bagshawe last year.
“I think also to some extent in our film Lili is presenting as a man for the majority of the film, for about two thirds of the movie, and her transition happens quite late, so I also had to consider that coming to the decision,” says Hooper, who has received some criticism for not casting a transgender actor in the part.
So how much did Redmayne know about being transgender before making the film? “The whole process for me was the most mammoth education,” he says. “I met many people from the trans community. I tried to meet people of different generations as well because what was interesting to me was this was a story set at a time in which there was no predecessor, no precursor.” he says.
“There was one particular couple in Los Angeles,” he continues. “A woman called Cadence and her partner Trista. They had been together when she was living as a man and they’re still together. The way in which they allowed me to ask anything – and they did say, ‘Please ask us anything’ – along with their kindness and support galvanised me in it.”
So what did he learn from these meetings? “There were two things that Cadence said: one was that she would give her everything and anything to live a life authentic. And the other was in relation to her partner while she was transitioning: the question was for her, how deep was her partner’s pool of empathy. And those two things sat with me the whole way through the film-making process.”
With his slight frame and lightly freckled face, Redmayne – who has previously modelled for Burberry – looks much younger than his 33 years. There’s a raft of British actors making it big in Hollywood right now – the likes of fellow Square Mile cover star Benedict Cumberbatch – but Redmayne is the golden boy, the shining light. Success in the movie industry, however, hasn’t come overnight.
Redmayne learnt his trade treading the boards both in his home city of London and on Broadway. He landed his first movie role in 2006 in The Good Shepherd, an experience he describes as “genuinely frightening” and with good reason. Hollywood legend Robert De Niro was in the director’s chair and A-listers Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin and Matt Damon were among the all-star cast.
“I basically got the job because I have big lips and I was playing Angelina Jolie’s son,” Redmayne laughed while chatting about his first experience of Hollywood at the Santa Barbara Film Festival earlier this year. “The reality is that, after The Good Shepherd, I went back to London and worked in a pub.”
Redmayne landed his breakthrough in 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, then came Les Mis before The Theory of Everything changed, well, everything. Winning an Oscar is the pinnacle of any acting career. So how does it feel to clutch one of those golden beauties?
“It does feel very surreal but at the same point, it’s such an ephemeral thing this world we work in. I’ve been acting for 14 years – you have moments that are successful and moments that are not,” he says. “So I don’t think you can take it too seriously, because you know it will be gone in a shot.”
Redmayne wasn’t born to be an actor. A career in the City would have been far more likely given his family background. His father Richard Redmayne is chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald Europe’s corporate finance division and was also responsible for helping raise finance for the Eurotunnel construction.
It’s such an ephemeral thing this world we work in. You have moments that are successful and moments that are not. So I don’t think you can take it too seriously, because you know it will be gone in a shot.
Trace the paternal line back further, and you’ll find Eddie’s grandfather, John – an Army major turned stockbroker – and his great-grandfather Sir Richard Redmayne, who became the first Chief Inspector of Mines.
Suffice to say, Eddie had a privileged upbringing. He was at Eton the same year as Prince William and went on to study History of Art at Cambridge. “My parents were incredibly encouraging [of his acting career], but did say to go to university first. My dad had a friend who was a theatre producer and he would tell me the statistics of actors who work and those who don’t work,” he says.
Eddie was at Cambridge alongside Tom Hiddleston and Dan Stevens – fellow actors who are also a part of the British invasion of Hollywood – and it was there that he landed the female lead in Mark Rylance’s all-male version of Twelfth Night which had initially caught Tom Hooper’s eye.
When the The Danish Girl was first pitched to Redmayne by Hooper he hadn’t yet been cast in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne says he “chased pretty hard” to get the role of Stephen Hawking and eventually persuaded director James Marsh he was the man for the job in a pub in Marylebone.
Redmayne was downing beers at the time while Marsh drank coffee. “By the time we left, I was drunk and he was wired,” he recalled. But as soon as he was offered the part he admits he had “the crushing fear of responsibility” to do the great man justice. “There were basically so many things that terrified me about the film,” he admits.
Style file: Eddie Redmayne
But when it comes to nerve-wracking experiences, surely picking up an Oscar in front of your peers must top the lot? “Do you know what? I was weirdly not that nervous because three years ago, I came to the Oscars for the first time with Les Misérables and I had to sing live on stage. Just before going on, someone with a headset said, ‘Yeah, there’s a billion people watching…’, and that’s too much stress for your vocal chords to possibly consider. So that was such a terrifying prospect that this felt much more relaxing. You win or you lose, either way I was so thrilled to be invited to the party,” he said backstage after picking up his prize.
Redmayne’s self-effacing manner is part of his charm but it takes a steely determination to get to his level in the movie business. “I’ve always had to fight for jobs, certainly for The Theory of Everything,” he says. So what’s next for an actor who is at the top of his game? “Just retaining employment will keep me very happy,” he says with a smile.
Redmayne is currently filming David Yates’ Harry Potter offshoot Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. About his approach to his craft Redmayne continues, “I feel like every job I’ve always done, acting wise, I’ve poured my heart and soul into. Some of them are great scripts that end up being awful films, some of them are awful scripts that end up sort of being OK, sometimes they connect with an audience, sometimes they don’t. There’s a kind of alchemy that happens with filmmaking that you just can’t control and so all I can do is just keep pouring everything in and see what happens the other side,” he says.
At the time of going to press the nominations for the Academy Awards 2016 have not yet been announced. Redmayne is sure to be in the Best Actor category but it’s looking likely he’ll be up against some Hollywood heavyweights including Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and possibly Mr Hanks himself. So will Redmayne be the first actor of his generation to pull off back-to-back Oscar wins? In City terms, as his dad might say, he’s a sure thing.