Drinking coffee in the restaurant of a central London hotel as jazz burbles away in the background, Eddie Redmayne is wearing faded blue jeans, a white sweatshirt and a scarf. No wedding band, though. Uh-oh. “‘Spotted without his ring!’” he says, mock-horrified. He misplaced it while shooting The Danish Girl eight years ago, which is only one of the reasons to lament that film. We’ll get to the others in good time.
He bought a replacement ring then lost that, too, so he gave up. On jewellery, that is, not marriage. “I am incredibly happily married so I’m afraid there’s no scoop there,” he says apologetically. The tone fits with his demeanour, which is that of a Saturday boy at John Lewis: posh, affable, sincerely regretful that he doesn’t have the item in your size. He just turned 41 but could pass for mid-20s. His tousled hair is rust-coloured, his skin frantic with freckles, his lips so plump they look like crimson jellies.
A scarf stays knotted around his neck throughout our morning together; he picked up a nasty cold on his recent trip to the Golden Globes in Los Angeles, where he was in the running for best supporting actor for playing the serial killer Charles Cullen in The Good Nurse. When the sneezes come today, he whips out a comically large red handkerchief peppered with white dots, like a magician preparing to make the crockery vanish.
In fact, his party trick is quite the opposite: he makes awards appear. He got the big three (Oscar, Bafta, Golden Globe) for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and an Olivier last year for his lizardly, mercurial Emcee in Cabaret, which also starred Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles. A soundtrack recording, taped during live performances for added wildness, has just been released. Redmayne’s approach to the character, he says, “is that he would shape-shift and emerge as this Aryan conductor who could drop his baton in one of the champagne bottles at the end, and then walk off into the night. Whatever else is going on, he’s fucking fine.”
He took home his first Olivier (as well as a Tony) in 2010 for playing Mark Rothko’s assistant in Red. Each night, he and his co-star Alfred Molina splashed paint around on stage as they mocked up giant imitation Rothkos. What a job for an art history graduate, even if Redmayne’s dissertation at Cambridge was on Yves Klein’s blue. And don’t forget the Golden Raspberry award he won for worst supporting actor in the Wachowski sisters’ incomprehensible fantasy Jupiter Ascending, where he was a rasping, pursed-lipped princeling in outfits worthy of a fetish night: stiff gold collars, stippled rubber vests, bare chest underneath. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I still don’t. I honestly haven’t watched the whole movie. But I loved making choices that were …” He wrinkles his nose. “Well, ‘bold’ is probably too kind a word.”
Prizes are why we are here today. It’s encouraging that enough of Redmayne’s peers noticed his creepy but admirably level-headed work in The Good Nurse to vote for him in next month’s Screen Actors Guild awards. I wish him luck. “Ah cheers. Never gonna happen but it’ll be fun to go.” A few days after we meet, he also gets a Bafta nomination to add to the tally.
He plays Charlie Cullen, a seemingly compassionate, diligent nurse who is now serving 18 consecutive life sentences for the murder of 29 patients in his care at various New Jersey hospitals over the course of nearly two decades; the actual death toll could be in the hundreds. He contaminated IV bags with insulin, and injected patients with lethal doses of heart medication. His friend and colleague Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) was instrumental in bringing him to justice but The Good Nurse is less a story of heroes and villains than an indictment of the profit-centred healthcare system that enabled then concealed his actions.
“He’s basically giving his employers every opportunity to stop him,” says Redmayne. “It’s like: ‘Fucking do it. Go on.’ That’s what I found intriguing about the script. In some ways, yes, it’s a true crime story, but it felt more like a character study combined with a critique of the system.” With the NHS at its most imperilled, the film doubles as a warning to audiences in the UK. “Well, it’s more than a critique of US healthcare. It’s about systems in general in which the power of the individual is lost. That’s got to ring a gigantic alarm bell in relation to what we have here and what we take for granted. The NHS is going through an incredibly complex time.”
It’s admirable that the film resists trying to answer the question of why Cullen killed. But even the least prurient viewer might wonder whether he regarded those in his care as people or merely potential kills. “In those scenes with the patients, I was playing the truth of empathy and kindness, with the sense of the killer being a different person,” he says. “I believe he was, for all intents and purposes, an excellent nurse. But there were times when he was like an empty vessel that would become filled with arrogance and truculence. I spent time with the real Amy, and she described these moments when the Charlie she knew disappeared. That dissociative idea was a revelation for me. So that’s how I played him. It was about finding this vacuum, this different person.”
He illustrates the demarcation in a pair of chilling confrontation scenes: first in a diner, where Amy wears a wire as she tries to lure Cullen into making an incriminating statement; then after his arrest, when he is harangued by the interviewing officer. In both those moments, the actor turns away from the camera then swivels back round to face us, his features fixed in an impenetrable mask. Somewhere inside him, a switch has been flicked to “off”.
No one should be surprised that Redmayne is capable of that iciness. One of his first films was Savage Grace, another factually based psychological drama. He played a fraught, tormented heir involved in a semi-incestuous relationship with his socialite mother, played by Julianne Moore. Redmayne had fought hard to get the part. Coming in 2007, so close to the start of his screen career, it introduced him as a risk-taker, likeability be damned. He made good on that promise in little-seen oddball endeavours such as Hick, where he was a limping Texas paedophile pursuing a young Chloë Grace Moretz.
His path has been unorthodox, even if his background (he was in the same year as Prince William at Eton) is privilege incarnate. “I knew nothing about film or TV but I got into acting because I loved it at school,” he says. A former drama teacher suggested him for Mark Rylance’s all-male production of Twelfth Night at the Globe; Redmayne, 20 at the time, won the part of Viola. “I’d played so many women at school that it wasn’t a stretch,” he shrugs. Adela Quested from A Passage to India is one of his favourites. “‘I want to see the real India,’” he purrs, slipping briefly into character and gazing demurely across the restaurant.
His career goals were modest. “I thought if anything happened for me it would be Sunday night television, something English and Etonian. Maybe a bit part in Foyle’s War.” That wasn’t how it panned out. His breakthrough stage role, in 2004, was as a fragile young American whose father is in a sexual relationship with a farmyard animal, in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? “US casting directors came to see it. Very quickly, rather than doing English characters, I was cast as Americans.”
As well as Savage Grace, there was Robert De Niro’s espionage thriller The Good Shepherd, where those full lips came in handy playing Angelina Jolie’s son. And that Sunday night prediction was realised in the end. “Eventually I found my way back to tweed,” he smiles. He was Angel Clare opposite Gemma Arterton as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, then the lead in Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong. “Plus that whole weird period where I was in anything related even tangentially to Queen Elizabeth.” He’s muddling the chronology slightly – a role in the series Elizabeth I crops up right at the start of his CV – but it’s true that if there was a doublet and hose hanging around, the young Redmayne was either wearing it or standing next to someone who was (see The Other Boleyn Girl; Elizabeth: The Golden Age). He gallops on through his IMDb page: “Then Theory, and The Danish Girl, which I suppose both is and isn’t an English period drama …”
Ah, The Danish Girl. Redmayne’s publicists had politely asked me not to press him on an issue about which he has nothing more to add: the public statement in 2020 in which he diverged from his Fantastic Beasts creator JK Rowling on the matter of transgender identity. “I disagree with Jo’s comments,” he said at the time. “Trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary identities are valid.” But it is Redmayne who brings up The Danish Girl, a film he has said he would not feel comfortable making now. He believes the role of the painter Lili Elbe, one of the first known people to undergo gender-confirming surgery, should have gone to a trans performer. “I made that film with the best intentions, but I think it was a mistake,” he said in 2021.
I ask how that realisation has coloured his feelings toward the movie itself. Is it a failure? “Truth be told, I only see the flaws in the work I do anyway,” he says after a long pause. Then he stares into space for 10 seconds. “I worked really … I’m, um, I … I don’t know how to answer that question.” He turns to me, his eyes crinkled and sad. “I don’t know how to answer it. Sorry.” Can he not even say how he feels about the film? “The thing I find most complex is truth …” There follows an explanation of the genesis of the script before he finally reaches his conclusion: “The film feels like a fictionalised version. It doesn’t feel like Lili’s story.”
He won’t take parts now that should go to trans actors: that much is clear. But what can someone with his clout do to help his trans colleagues? “A few years ago, I did a workshop with trans actors at the Central School of Speech and Drama. A lot of them were quite rightly interrogating me about my choice to do The Danish Girl, and pointing out that many trans actors don’t go to drama school because they don’t see it as an opportunity. Unless there are parts that you think are possible for you to play, why would you?”
A sigh. “I believe everyone wants to be able to play everything. That’s what we dream of as actors, and should do. No one wants to be limited by their gender or sexuality but, historically, these communities haven’t had a seat at the table. Until there’s a levelling, there are certain parts I wouldn’t play.” Earlier on, reflecting on his lack of formal training, he had told me: “I can only learn from my mistakes.” At least no one can say he hasn’t put his money where his mouth is.
• The Good Nurse is on Netflix. Cabaret: London Cast Recording is released by Decca Records