The story of Stephen Hawking, so insightfully told in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, shows us that overcoming physical adversity, devastating as it can be, isn’t the whole story. It can require putting pride to the side as well.
For men, overcoming adversity means more than mere struggle, it is seen as a rite of passage; men are expected to prevail against any challenge—and preferably alone—if they are to be considered, well, men.
About one year ago, tragedy struck my home-away-from-home as fire destroyed the historic lodge at Wilbur Hot Springs in Northern California. I had turned 40 there, turned 50 there, spent holidays there, fell in love there, honeymooned there, and grieved the death of my father there. It was my sanctuary, the place where I meditated and simply worked on myself and (to me) my complicated life. Though the springs themselves were not affected by the fire, the loss of the lodge was devastating. For me, it was home. It brought tears and a frightening sense of insecurity every time I thought about it.
The Wilbur community rallied with generous support, and the owners and employees soldiered on, determined to rebound. Within just a few weeks of the fire, they had converted offices and massage rooms into bedrooms, reopened (in a most limited way) for the public, and announced plans to remake the lodge to the best of their ability. I immediately booked quarters and went back to Wilbur, expecting to be shocked and further saddened when I saw the damage in person. What happened was just the opposite. Everyone there seemed happy. They were in acceptance. And excited about the prospect of rebuilding. They were just fine!
When I slid into the curative water for my first soak, I understood: Even if every single building and tree burned to the ground, the water—the essence of the Springs—would still be there, flowing with the same innate purpose, the same healing qualities, and the same invigorating magic. It is the same with our lives. We may lose everything we hold dear, and yet our essence remains, if we are able to access it. If we trust, respect, and nurture it.
Is there any greater example of overcoming personal adversity than the story of Stephen Hawking, who, after being stricken with ALS while in college and given two years to live, went on to marry twice, father children, live for decades (still ticking!), and oh-by-the-way, develop the most advanced cosmological theory since Einstein met Relativity?
The Theory of Everything is a stellar telling of Hawking’s extraordinary and exemplary real life. Based on the memoir by his first wife, Jane, the film shows how spirit that refuses to be diminished, that continues to honor its very essence no matter the loss, can not only thrive, but change the world.
The film is powered by two extraordinary performances. Eddie Redmayne, the young British actor who stole Marilyn Monroe’s heart in My Week with Marilyn, completely inhabits the character of Stephen Hawking, delivering a turn that is as moving as it is impressive. Redmayne actually gives two distinct performances in the film, the physical shape-shifting required by the real circumstances, and then, once he was contorted and essentially unable to move, an internal communication that brings the life drama, and Hawking’s humanity, front and center. With Theory, Redmayne leaps onto the A-list, and is a formidable contender, if not the front-runner, for Best Actor at the 2015 Oscars tomorrow night.
Likewise Felicity Jones, who (like Redmayne) has been building an impressive resume in British theater, period television, and costume drama over the past several years, is making her move into the mainstream. She is a revelation in Theory, her long-suffering Jane holding space (without stealing the scene) in nearly every frame with Redmayne. Though the role is subdued, it is equal; she simmers and grieves with quiet urgency and feminine strength, and very nearly makes the film hers. Oscar was right to honor her with a nomination for Best Actress this year.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Theory is the unmistakable sense that Stephen would not have survived, much less thrived, without Jane. Sometimes, for a man of pride and accomplishment, accepting help can be harder than needing it in the first place. And sometimes refusing help can deeply hurt the person offering it.
Stephen and Jane Hawking are the perfect example of teamwork overcoming insurmountable odds, in which fear of vulnerability could have proven fatal. And we see a similar dynamic present in the relationship the film demanded of its leads. Just as Redmayne needed to overcome the physical trials as an actor playing a paraplegic, Jones needed to graciously support Redmayne’s performance without losing the center of her own character. At the heart of the film we see the actors doing for each other what the characters are doing in the story.
I sat down with Redmayne in San Francisco recently, and talked with him about the challenges he faced playing the iconic physicist. He explained that it was Hawking’s approach to life that gave him the key to unlock such a fearless performance, chained to a body that does not work.
“When I met Stephen, it was absolutely clear that for him the disease is secondary,” Redmayne said. “He has no interest in the disease. He has never looked back—he’s always been someone who looks forward. I wanted to really take from that. I spent four or five months working on the physical elements in order that they were so embedded that I could then really play with the other actors. I really tried to make the disease secondary.”
I was very interested to hear about his friendship with Hawking, and Redmayne was clearly still in awe.
“I can’t get over how privileged our lives as actors can be, and the people you get to meet. It was one of the great meetings of my life. I was horrifically embarrassed when I met him—I spent the first 20 minutes telling him about himself because I was so nervous. But just spending that time and hearing all the stories and his classic one-liners — I’ll never forget that day.”
I doubt anyone will ever forget Redmayne’s indelible work in The Theory of Everything. Or Felicity Jones, either. Redmayne’s performance was as difficult to achieve as any actor can face. But he had the perfect role model in Stephen Hawking. And so did Jones in Jane, to be sure. Let the essence be our guide!
The full interview with Eddie Redmayne for FlickNation: