This Charming Man
While preparing for his role in this month’s Harry Potter spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Eddie Redmayne found himself watching an exotic-animal handler stroke the inside of a rhino’s thigh. “This woman just started rubbing her rhino just above the knee—I was like, what are you doing?” the 34-year-old actor recalls, laughing. It turns out rhinos are into that.
And it turns out Redmayne is into finding out exactly this kind of obscure fact. You could say this part of the process—the months he spends enrapt in detailed, expansive research before he arrives on set—is his favorite part of being an actor. For his Oscar-winning performance as Stephen Hawking in 2014’s The Theory of Everything, he trained with a choreographer and an osteopath and spent countless hours in a London neurology clinic. And for his portrayal of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in last year’s The Danish Girl (for which he received his second Best Actor Oscar nomination) he met with transgender women from different generations to get a sense of the scope of trans life throughout history. Calling from his house in the British countryside, Redmayne speaks with solemnity about the duty he feels to get it right. “When you’re given the opportunity to play someone as amazing as Stephen or Lili, the pressure makes you really buckle down,” he says.
Redmayne brought the same reverence to his role as Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts, though, of course, playing a socially awkward, stealthily rebellious wizard toting a tattered suitcase filled with magical creatures presented a new and different challenge. “The first time Newt is introduced in the script, J.K. Rowling had written in the stage directions that he has a Buster Keaton–esque quality to his walk,” Redmayne recalls. “And I was like, Oh my god, what a thing to write! Now I have to go and work out what that is!” Potter fans will recognize Newt from the titular textbook Harry and Co. study at Hogwarts. Newt is the world’s premier expert on beasts, and in the film—the first of a five-picture series that also stars Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and Katherine Waterston—he comes to New York to research and rescue magic creatures, but things get hairy when some of his own beasts get loose.
For Redmayne’s first meeting with director David Yates, the actor arrived looking the part—unbeknownst to him. “I came with my briefcase—this little case where I keep my research and my script to whatever I’m doing,” he explains. “David started to tell me the story, and then revealed that Newt had this case in which he kept these creatures. So I slightly embarrassingly pushed my case under the chair to make it not look like I had come prepared with my own props.” That hiccup aside, from word one, Redmayne was in. “Eventually, I got to read the script, and even though by that point I was so excited in anticipation, it superseded all of those expectations,” he recalls. “I really do think J.K. Rowling is a genius. She creates this world that is so real and has such an intricacy and delicacy and authenticity to it. There are these magical, extraordinary elements to it, but it’s about trying to ground it in something truthful.” That balance suited Redmayne’s preparation style; Newt’s on-screen rapport with each of his cherished fantastic beasts—from the honey badger–inspired Niffler to the plantlike Bowtruckle—was informed in part by an animal Redmayne met offscreen, like the aforementioned rhino and a ticklish anteater. “It was so amazing meeting these [trainers] who had a passion for animals and knowledge of all their idiosyncrasies,” he says. “God, it was fun.”
Redmayne’s will to fill his creative coffers with material from the real world is one of the actor’s signature gifts—though he would characterize it somewhat differently. “I just have a really shoddy imagination,” insists the man who, in the space of the last three years, has seamlessly embodied a disabled person, a woman, and a wizard. “I remember once trying to invent a bedtime story for my niece and nephew, and it was like … and … umm … the end!” Whatever the secret source of Redmayne’s profound inquisitiveness, there’s no doubt that it infuses his on-screen presence with a mesmerizing blend of childlike radiance and wisdom. “When you turn the camera on Eddie, he’s got such soul,” says Fantastic Beasts director Yates. “His capacity for compassion is enormous.”
As a boy growing up in London, Redmayne was as much an insatiable researcher of the fullest expression of life as he is now. The middle child of three boys (he also has an older half-brother and half-sister), Redmayne played piano, sang, drew, played rugby and tennis, and was absolutely “obsessed with magic,” he says. “There was this amazing shop called Davenports—the kind of shop where real magicians buy their tricks, the sort of place where you could buy the equipment to saw someone in half,” he says gleefully. “It had a very Potter vibe, actually—it was in this slightly grotty subway beneath Charing Cross station in London.” When he was 7 or 8 years old, little Redmayne would just hang out there, riveted. “When I got cast in this film, my grandma was like, ‘I always knew you could play a wizard,’” he says. “She was thrilled.”
Performance of another flavor took hold when Redmayne was 19 and starred as the emcee in a racy production of Cabaret at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. A year later, Globe Shakespeare’s artistic director, Mark Rylance, gave him his big break, casting him in a 400th-anniversary production of Twelfth Night. “I played Viola opposite Mark, who played Olivia,” he says. “So that was basically my training—learning from Mark and learning from the other actors in that cast.” He performed alongside another giant of the stage, Jonathan Pryce, in a much-lauded London production of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? in 2004, and started to make inroads into Hollywood a few years later. He had small parts in 2006’s The Good Shepherd and 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl, but it wasn’t until Redmayne was cast as Colin Clark, the magnificently wide-eyed production assistant who falls for Michelle Williams’s Marilyn Monroe in 2011’s My Week With Marilyn, that the broader film-viewing public (and the industry) started to realize what an unusual blend of magnetism and grace Redmayne had to offer. Since then, in addition to his Oscar, he’s won a Tony for his performance in John Logan’s Red.
Redmayne is now an indisputable power player in Hollywood’s New Establishment, but he’s also become, in the broader pop culture, a kind of avatar for modern British style. “I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this, but he’s an unusual-looking man,” Yates says. “He’s actually very beautiful, but not in a traditional way, so the camera really loves him.” From his appearance in a classic trench alongside Cara Delevingne in Burberry ads to regular inclusion on the best-dressed lists to his tasteful disinclination toward social media—“I’m a Twitter voyeur,” he says—Redmayne is the well-mannered epitome of breeding and class. He did, after all, attend Eton alongside Prince William and graduate from Trinity College, Cambridge, with honors.
In 2014, Redmayne married publicist Hannah Bagshawe, whom he’s known since secondary school, and this summer the couple welcomed their first child, a daughter named Iris. But aside from the reliably polite comments about the joys of fatherhood (“all of the stuff you’ve heard for years, it’s all true but utterly extraordinary,” he has said), he keeps his private life private. And when you ask him how he’s handling the post-Oscar whirlwind, the actor is almost comically gracious. “It still doesn’t feel real, the thing—like, it’s so shiny,” he says of the actual statue. “You’re lucky if you’re, for a moment, the flavor of the month, and you get given scripts earlier than before, but it’s a very ephemeral thing. I always find it interesting when people ask, ‘How do you choose your work?’ You really want to say, ‘You know what? Most of the time I’m bloody lucky to have a job.’”
But there’s a way in which this view of Redmayne as the archetypal British gentleman marginalizes—or at least distracts—from his power as an artist. “He truly is a gentleman,” says Katherine Waterston, his Fantastic Beasts co-star. “But being polite doesn’t really get you very far in this world. You’re not going to win an Oscar because you write a thank-you note.” What Redmayne offers, she says, is more than “fancy English boarding school” gentility. “His kindness is not something he simply practices—it is him. That’s what’s so disarming about it. It’s not that we never meet a gentleman or we’re never around polite people; it’s just how genuine it is and how true it is, how soulful he is. It’s almost skimming the surface to call him polite.”
That radiant goodness allows Redmayne to more deeply explore “the edges” of people, as he puts it, in his work. “I’m a relatively straightforward human being,” he says, joking that he’s nowhere near as complex as the people he plays. “But I love being able to investigate those parts of characters that you don’t relate to at all, that you have to find a way to. As an actor, you’re given the freedom to explore those things in a safe environment.”