Just over two years ago, Eddie Redmayne opened at London’s cozy Donmar Warehouse as the assistant to artist Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) in John Logan’s Red, a performance that won Redmayne both an Olivier Award and a Tony. Since then, the Cambridge-educated actor has appeared to star-making effect on screen (opposite Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn), TV (as the lead in the BBC adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong), and as a Burberry model. Redmayne is back at the Donmar (through February 4) playing the title role of the fallen monarch in Shakespeare’s Richard II. After that, he segues directly into youthful hero Marius in Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Miserables. Broadway.com spoke to the charming, fast-rising talent about acting both musicals and the Bard, and turning 30 on January 6.
It’s thrilling to find a Shakespeare production—and a title performance—as clear, and lucid and moving as this Richard II.
It’s lovely to hear you say that. My feeling going into this was that I needed to approach it almost as a new play. I’d seen Kevin Spacey do the role [at the Old Vic in 2005] but I was coming to this from nine years of doing new plays with only one other Shakespeare play to my name [Viola, opposite Mark Rylance, in an all-male Twelfth Night].
That sense of discovery shines through on stage.
It’s about tapping into the humor and the anger and the fear, all of which are evident in Richard, and also my coming to the play not really knowing that it contained all these great drama school set pieces. What I wanted was to try and find a thru line in performance for a play that is more studied than performed.
What’s astonishing is the sense you convey of a ruler at odds with himself and the world around him, who nonetheless speaks some of the most beautiful passages in all of Shakespeare.
When you look at the character on the page, the instinct is almost to sing the part; I did try that in the privacy of my own home! [Laughs..] But the point is that you’re playing a character who is indulgent and Michael [Grandage, the director] gave me free rein to find that indulgence so that you can really luxuriate in the words, at the same time as you’re playing someone who is fundamentally quixotic—where things, for him, can turn on a pin.
How do you achieve that stillness at the beginning, where you are already seated on stage totally immobile as the audience enters the auditorium?
Fred Molina was sat on stage as the audience came in for Red, so having laughed at him during that play, maybe now it’s my turn [laughs]! Actually the conceit of my being there while the audience is taking their seats came from an idea about Richard’s insecurity at the sense of his own majesty, so much so that he would literally sit in silence for hours. For me, it symbolizes something of him as God’s anointed. It’s very odd: I’m not a religious person, but yesterday I started saying the Lord’s Prayer in my mind, and it was amazing how resonant it was!
This is your third play at the Donmar, after Hecuba and Red, and also the last play of Michael’s nearly 10-year regime.
Yes, and I’m sure it’s not the play that people expected Michael to finish with. But he hires such lovely people and such talented casts that I’ve felt within the context of the building a wonderful familiarity, given [a part] that in some ways has been quite exposing and intimidating. On the one hand, you’re aware that audience members will have seen other actors do [Richard II], when of course your job is to discover your own version of what it is.
You mention having thought of singing the part and in fact you do sing a line or two in the second act: is this a nod to your forthcoming film musical assignment as Marius in Les Miserables?
Well, I’m not sure that Richard II is necessarily a great singer [laughs]! It was funny: the other night we had in a few of the producers of the film and I found myself wondering whether they weren’t expecting a bit of a singing audition from me. But in the end I decided that the character of Richard was more important than Marius, at least on that particular evening!
Some people were surprised when you were cast in Les Miz. Are you a musicals guy?
When I was younger, I sang quite a lot, and I’m actually off to have a singing lesson when we finish this interview. With Les Miz my mom and dad took my brother and me to see it when I was a kid, and the result was that when we went on holiday my brother sang a mean Jean Valjean and I was Javert. I’ve probably now seen [the stage musical] three or four times in total, including once recently when I took the entire family, including my grandmother.
You seem to have all corners of the entertainment industry covered at the moment, from film to TV and stage.
Do you know what’s hilarious? I heard someone discussing this on the radio as if it was some kind of master plan, when the truth is I have no control over any element in my life, especially not my work. My hope is that it doesn’t seem like overkill [laughs]. What I will say is that they were and are all projects borne out of passion: My Week With Marilyn was rewarding and intense, especially for Michelle when it came to playing Marilyn Monroe, and Birdsong was phenomenally hard work, as well as immensely enriching. With all of these, including Richard, there’s a constant sense of expectation, which only adds another element to the experience of whatever the project is. I’m aware, too, of feeling very lucky and also very grateful.
You are turning 30 in a few days, with two shows on tap the following day. Any parties planned?
To be honest, part of doing a marathon run like this is not to be able to let your hair down much. Don’t worry, though, I plan to have a proper party when it’s all over; there is time for that yet!