They’re spindly, dashing, well coiffed, and most of all talented young Englishmen. Due to their theatre backgrounds, they can stretch from intimate indie dramas to Hollywood blockbusters. Call them The New Brit Pack. Andrew Garfield, Ben Whishaw, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and, last but not least, Eddie Redmayne.
“We don’t all go to the same hairdresser!” says Redmayne, with a laugh. “What’s interesting about Ben and Andrew is we’ve been at it awhile and I remember auditions seven years ago when we were all in the same room together. So it’s not just the hair that binds us, but there’s a mutual support since you do feel a bit alien when you go over to the states to act in Hollywood. I’m grateful to have a great network of British actor-friends.”
In the movie-musical Les Misérables, Redmayne plays the plum role of Marius—a courageous young revolutionary during the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris who falls for Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the radiant daughter of former convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). And, despite the megawatt cast of stars, it’s Redmayne’s performance that’s one of the standouts, exhibiting a remarkable singing voice.
To win the highly-coveted role in Oscar winning director Tom Hooper’s film, where nearly every line of dialogue is sung, Redmayne faced what he says is “one of the most rigorous audition processes” he’d ever been through.
While shooting the film Hick in North Carolina, where he plays a cowboy-meth addict, Redmayne had a two-hour break and had heard through the grapevine that a film version of the celebrated musical was being made. He took out his iPhone and, in full cowboy regalia, filmed himself singing Marius’s song, “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.” He sent the video over to his agent, who then sent it to the film’s producers.
“That was the start of it,” says Redmayne. “But it was like The X Factor or American Idol. It was a tough panel of judges and you had to appease the music department, Universal, Working Title, Cameron Mackintosh, Tom Hooper, and the casting director, Nina Gold.” He pauses. “Cameron was probably the Simon Cowell figure.”
Despite enjoying singing, and a tiny role as ‘Urchin No. 30’ in a production of Oliver! alongside Jonathan Pryce in London, Redmayne says he didn’t have much of a musical theatre background so the role, which called for the actors to rehearse for nine weeks, singing from five in the morning ‘til ten in the evening, posed a great challenge for him. He hired a singing coach, Mark Meylan, to train his vocals up—but some things, like shooting scenes in a filthy Paris sewer, you can’t prepare for. According to Redmayne, to heighten the sense of realism, Hooper had rotting fish heads lying about during the filming of “I Dreamed A Dream,” and similarly, freezing cold clay mud doubled as sewer water.
For Redmayne, acting alongside macho film stars Jackman and Russell Crowe presented a more exciting challenge.
“I’ll never forget turning up on day one and hearing Wolverine and Gladiator doing their vocal warm-ups,” he says with a chuckle. “That was great. And that moment in the sewers where Hugh lunges out, I’m pretty sure I saw a scene in Wolverine where he did that and I thought, ‘This would be a great moment to break out your claws!’”
He was disappointed, however, to not be able to attend Crowe’s infamous karaoke singing parties during filming, where everyone from Jackman to Anne Hathaway belted out hits.
“I felt very jealous because I was shooting during Russell’s parties, but given that my karaoke song is ‘Bat Out of Hell’ by Meatloaf, which goes on for about an hour and a half, it was probably a lucky thing that I couldn’t make it,” he says.
The thirty-year-old actor attended Eton College—where he was a classmate of Prince William’s—before graduating with an art history degree from Cambridge in 2003. The decision to get his college degree, instead of pursuing acting full-stop at an earlier age, was a tough decision for Redmayne to make.
“I did a play with Mark Rylance [Twelfth Night] whilst I was at Cambridge and that’s how I got an agent and got started, and I had an option to take that play to the Globe Theatre in London and leave university,” he says. “But I was studying something that I was passionate about and all my mates were at uni. I think it’s unfortunately a different deal for men and women in this instance, but it was something that I started and wanted to finish.”
He’s since won an Olivier Award and a Tony for his stellar turn as an assistant to painter Mark Rothko in Red, and was nominated for a BAFTA for his starring role as a young crewmember who romanced film icon Marilyn Monroe in last year’s My Week with Marilyn. But it was his Hollywood debut as a younger version of Matt Damon’s character in The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert De Niro, that’s left one of the biggest impressions on him.
“It was absolutely terrifying and I felt completely out of my depth,” he says. “But what was interesting was when we came around to doing ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,’ which is a pretty formidable song, the way De Niro went about directing the heavy, emotional scenes I had in The Good Shepherd was he’d keep the camera running and once you finished the take, he’d go straight back into the take again, channeling the emotional place you got to at the top of the new take. I’d always found that very helpful so I asked Tom if I could do that for the song.”
He pauses, before adding, “I didn’t go to drama school so you learn from the people you work with. I’ve worked with formidable actors and really fantastic directors in theatre and film, so I try to learn through them.”