Eddie Redmayne interview
By Georgia Dehn, The Telegraph – November 2009
Eddie Redmayne is embarrassed about the colour of his hair. It has been dyed a flaming red for his part in the big-budget tele-vision adaptation of the Ken Follett novel The Pillars of the Earth. Redmayne is back and forth to Hungary every week or so to finish filming the series, which is due to be shown next year. ‘I can’t wait to have my own colour [a light brown] back again,’ Redmayne says, putting a hand through his hair. ‘Fortunately, I’m colour-blind, so I can’t really tell myself. But everyone else I know points it out as soon as they see me.’
Redmayne, a sufferer of severe red-green colour-blindness, will next play the role of Mark Rothko’s assistant, Ken, in the Donmar Warehouse’s two-hander, Red. The entire production is set in Rothko’s Bowery studio in New York, and Redmayne will have to mix paints on stage. ‘We will see how qualified I am to do that,’ he says. ‘Hopefully it won’t be too embarrassing. It will be fun for the audience to watch us crush pigments, cook paints and prime canvases. That’ll be luscious. I imagine the Donmar is going to stink of white spirit for the next three months.’
Alfred Molina, who has not been on the British stage since 1992, plays Rothko. It is the third day of rehearsals, and Molina, Redmayne says, is as cool as a cucumber. ‘If Fred has any nerves or apprehension, he’s hiding it,’ he observes. ‘I am like the nervous child running around him.’ Sitting in a brilliant-white, but empty, art gallery cafeteria, Redmayne is almost bouncing off the walls with excitement.
‘I don’t want to be irritating about it, but this is the dream job for me,’ says Redmayne, 27, who graduated in 2001 with a degree in history of art from Trinity College, Cambridge. Acting and art have been his two passions since childhood. He did not know a huge amount about Rothko before he started preparing for this role, as he had focused primarily on late 19th- and early 20th-century British and French art at Cambridge. But he did write his final-year thesis on Yves Klein, who did for blue what Rothko did for red, albeit on another continent.
Red is a new play, written by the American dramatist John Logan, well-known for his screenwriting credentials (Gladiator, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd) – and directed by the Donmar’s artistic director, Michael Grandage. It deals specifically with the time in Rothko’s life – 1958 and 1959 – when he was commissioned to produce a series of paintings for the newly built Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan, described in the play as being ‘the flashiest mural commission since the Sistine Chapel’. Opening with Rothko hiring a new assistant and working at his new studio in the Bowery, the play follows the painting of the Seagram murals up until the moment the volatile, depressive Rothko decides to pull out of the project. As part of his research Redmayne watched a documentary, Rothko Rooms, which implies that the reason Rothko pulled out was because he had not been told the murals were for the Seagram’s upmarket Four Seasons restaurant. ‘He thought the office workers in the building, the proletariat, were going to be able to engage in his paintings,’ Redmayne says. ‘Rothko had a problem with the type of people who were eating at the restaurant. He had a very specific opinion about how viewers should relate to his art and always wanted complete control.
‘There is also a feeling in the play that Rothko is rallying against the pop artists,’ Redmayne continues. ‘My character represents a new generation of artists dealing with mass media, advertising and the commercialism of art. Rothko resented everything that represented, and by taking on the commercial commission for the Seagram Building he felt, in some way, as though he were selling out.’ Rothko kept the commissioned paintings away from the public for years, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that he gave nine of the paintings he had intended for the Four Seasons to the Tate, as a gift. In 1970 he was found dead in a pool of his own blood, having sliced his arms with a razor. All these topics colour Logan’s master-apprentice drama.
Redmayne was Grandage’s first choice of actor to star opposite Molina. Grandage offered Redmayne the part only two weeks after he had seen the script himself for the first time. ‘I knew immediately that he was right for the role,’ Grandage says. ‘And Eddie, rather sweetly, accepted the part as quickly as I offered it to him.’
Redmayne has a brilliant and extraordinary capacity to confound the viewer, Grandage continues. ‘He can do vulnerability in a rather moving way, where you want to help and you feel quite sorry for him,’ he says. ‘But more importantly for this character, Ken, I knew he could offer that up and then be quite ferocious in standing up to Rothko later in the play. He’s a remarkably versatile actor. He’s got wonderful intellectual and emotional centres that work together.’
One of five, Redmayne was born and grew up in London. He has an older and younger brother, and an older half-brother and half-sister. He is the only actor. In fact, he says, there is no other acting blood in his family. His father works in the City and his older brother has followed that lead.
‘I heard my brother on a conference call the other day,’ Redmayne says. ‘My jaw dropped to the floor as all these financial terms came pouring out of his mouth. Words I’d never heard of. I was impressed. I had the feeling that I had grown up with my brother and knew everything about him, except this massive thing that I didn’t have a clue about, which is what he did at work.’
Redmayne’s parents were great facilitators of his love of acting as a child, taking him to drama lessons from an early age. He first appeared on stage aged 12 in Sam Mendes’s West End production of Oliver!. ‘I was workhouse boy number 40,’ Redmayne says. ‘It was such a minor part that I didn’t meet Sam Mendes. But his name remained firmly on my cv for a long time.’ He continued to act at school – Eton – and university, and during that time performed with the National Youth Music Theatre. He secured an agent after his professional stage debut as Viola in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’s Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple Hall in 2002.
Redmayne won the Evening Standard Best Newcomer award in 2004, when he was 21, for his performance as the troubled gay son of a New York architect, Martin, in Edward Albee’s The Goat at the Almeida. Martin was played by Jonathan Pryce who, coincidentally, played Fagin in Mendes’s Oliver!. Since The Goat Redmayne has been on stage in two other hugely successful shows – he played Polydorus in Hecuba at the Donmar at the end of 2004, with Clare Higgins and Tim Pigott-Smith; and the son of the Democratic nominee for the 2008 US election in Now or Later at the Royal Court last year.
Running parallel to Redmayne’s stage success is a thriving film and television career. Last year he starred as Angel Clare in the BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, directed by David Blair and also starring Gemma Arterton. ‘Eddie has that quality that suggests there is always something in reserve,’ Blair says. ‘He is very bright and he doesn’t tell us everything about himself upfront, which makes him very interesting.’ In 2005 Redmayne played Southhampton in the television mini-series Elizabeth, starring Helen Mirren, and in 2007 he played Thomas Babington in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchett. That year he also played Tony Bakeland in the 2007 arthouse thriller Savage Grace, based on the true story of the Bakeland family – in which his bourgeois mother (played by Julianne Moore) ends up seducing him.
Redmayne’s next screen appearance is in another period piece: Glorious 39, directed by Stephen Poliakoff, which is released this month. It is a Hitchcockian suspense story set on the eve of the Second World War, about an upper-class English family desperate to appease Hitler. Redmayne plays Bill Nighy’s son. ‘Despite the fact that we were shooting the glorious summer of 1939 in freezing-cold Norfolk, it was a really wonderful shoot,’ Redmayne remembers. ‘We lived the quintessential English dream in Burnham Market and I got to wear very high-waisted trousers, which Bill was jealous of. I don’t want to give the story away, but it was a tricky part for me. The irony is that I found it most tricky because I was playing so close to type. I was playing a guy who had probably been to Cambridge, and probably been to Eton, yet I had to have dialect lessons. I couldn’t believe I struggled with it. That messed with my head a bit.’
‘Eddie has a depth and an unpredictability,’ Poliakoff enthused after the London Film Festival premiere of Glorious 39. ‘I think this part shows his range very well because he has a real charm, but is also very dangerous. It’s interesting. The other thing about Eddie is that he plays an American very convincingly. I hope that we make the most of him in the British theatre and cinema and don’t lose him to America.’
Redmayne has already had a taste of the big-budget Hollywood life. He played Angelina Jolie’s son in The Good Shepherd. ‘That remains the most amazing but terrifying moment of my life,’ Redmayne says, as if he still can’t believe it happened. ‘I was living in a hotel in New York and taken in a blacked-out car to Brooklyn every morning, where there would be paparazzi lining the streets waiting for Angelina and for Matt Damon, who was also in it. You walked in and there were huge sets and I could just see money everywhere. Then I’d get into costume and be there with the lovely, but the superstar Angelina, and the camera is right here’ – he leans across the table pretending to hold a film camera to emphasise just how close – ‘and someone says, “Act”. All that money and, actually, it is just about what you do with your face.’
As for Pillars of the Earth, Redmayne says, ‘This is the biggest project I’ve worked on in terms of the scale of the set. Three-quarters of a 12th-century cathedral has been built in a field in Hungary. It’s incredible. It is an amazing cast to be working with as well, including Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Donald Sutherland and Ian McShane. People who know Pillars from the novel are very passionate about it. The characters kind of get under their skin.’
Redmayne is single, for the moment. ‘Ladies and babies, and mortgages, for that matter, can all wait,’ he says. For now he is enjoying the freedom to do what he loves best. ‘Acting has done a strange thing to me, though. I often sit there, thinking, “I love this, but I wouldn’t put my daughter on the stage.”’
» Originally published here.