Playing an artist’s assistant in new play Red seems the perfect fit for young actor Eddie Redmayne. The rising star tells Caroline Bishop about his own apprenticeship in the acting profession.
There is a small but significant fact that the admissions tutors at Cambridge University did not know about Eddie Redmayne when they accepted him to study History of Art at Trinity College: he is colour blind. Not surprisingly, it caused a few problems during the course of his studies. “In your exams you would have these envelopes with images in them,” he says, “I remember there was one about chalk drawings, the difference between black chalk and red chalk; I had no idea!”
Perhaps it was a good decision then, that after university he began a career in acting rather than anything art-related. “For me colour blindness feels like you haven’t really been taught colours particularly well,” explains the 27-year-old when I meet him mid-rehearsals for his new play, “so a dark blue I’ll think is a purple and a purple with lots of whites in it I’ll think is a blue. Particular tones of green and brown and red become confusing.”
So it is ironic that he has been cast as an artist’s assistant in Red, a new play about the 20th century abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, known for his large canvases of colour. I wonder what Redmayne sees when he looks at the large splotches of red paint which adorn his jeans this lunchtime. He and co-star Alfred Molina have spent the morning recreating Rothko’s studio, stretching and priming canvases as Rothko and his assistants did for real, and the evidence shows all over Redmayne’s clothes.
“It’s really about how the old guard deal with the new. And my character represents the new in some way”
“Physically it’s just so wonderful, you get to make paint, stretch canvases, it all happens on stage,” said Redmayne. His enthusiasm for the play is palpable; though he didn’t study Rothko’s work at Cambridge – instead he “became obsessed” by Yves Klein’s canvases of blue – the play has allowed him to re-engage with something he is obviously passionate about at a time when he had “a panging nostalgia” for the subject he studied.
His love of art is just one reason why Redmayne describes John Logan’s play as his “dream job”. The other reasons hardly need be stated; he gets to return to a theatre he loves, the Donmar Warehouse, where he previously appeared in Hecuba in 2004, and be directed by its Artistic Director Michael Grandage in a two-hander alongside acclaimed British character actor Molina. “When Michael offered it to me, he said ‘I’ve got a play for you to read, it’s called Red, it’s about Rothko’, I had to stop myself from just leaping across the room going ‘Yes!’ It was one of the greatest offers ever.”
Logan’s play centres on a specific period in Rothko’s life, in the late 1950s, when the temperamental artist – he was to commit suicide in 1970 – was commissioned to provide a series of murals for the walls of The Four Seasons restaurant at the top of the new Seagram building on New York’s glamorous Park Avenue; at the time it was the highest paid commission in the history of art. However the paintings – a vast series of sombre studies in dark red and brown – never made it to their destination as Rothko famously made a dramatic volte-face, objecting to the finished restaurant where his work was to be displayed and returning the money he had been advanced.
“Within that context John Logan has written the part of a young assistant who arrives on day one and starts working with him,” says Redmayne. “This is a fictional character, but really he represents the young guard, so in many ways it’s a father-son, mentor-apprentice play.”
The mentor, in this case, is an artist at the forefront of abstract expressionism, but whose work is at risk of being surpassed by a new fashionable artform, Pop Art. “It’s really about how the old guard deal with the new. And my character kind of represents the new in some way, so it’s about apprentice overtaking master and these sorts of things,” explains Redmayne.
“On the set of The Good Shepherd I was terrified most of the time”
The parallels are clear. While Molina is an established actor who, at 56, is almost the exact same age as Rothko was at the time of the Seagram murals, Redmayne, nearly 30 years his junior, is one of the young guard learning from the master. Since starting out in the industry, Redmayne has undergone a demanding apprenticeship, collecting film credits including The Good Shepherd, The Other Boleyn Girl and the just released Stephen Poliakoff piece Glorious 39, a lead role in the BBC’s Tess Of The D’Urbervilles and several well-received stage outings including Christopher Shinn’s Now Or Later at the Royal Court last year.
It is a career that has come about thanks to a combination of ability, privilege and luck. The Eton-educated Redmayne always acted in school theatre productions and continued to do so when at Cambridge University, but it was a lucky break that propelled him onto the professional stage; his old head of drama at Eton suggested him to the casting director of an all-male production of Twelfth Night that Shakespeare’s Globe was staging at the Middle Temple Hall to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the play in 2002. Redmayne seized the chance to audition for the Globe’s then Artistic Director Mark Rylance, and was cast as Viola to Rylance’s Olivia. Cambridge gave the budding actor a reprieve from lectures to go to London and do the play, so Redmayne spent a term acting in Tim Carroll’s production in the evenings and sneaking into the Courtauld Institute library next door during the day to keep up with his studies. It was, Redmayne agrees, an “incredible break”.
“I was given this amazing opportunity to learn voice and verse, to a certain extent, but with a work in progress and some of the best people in the world. And certainly from Mark I learnt a lot about invention, more than anything else, and having the balls to be free.”
Twelfth Night secured him an agent and so he decided, after Cambridge, to try acting professionally for a year and see how he liked it. He says he never ruled out drama school, but “was just lucky that I kept working” so the need never arose. “I think what happened as a consequence of that was you felt… a slight sense of being a fraud, so what I did really was listen lots. So Mark Rylance, then Jonathan Pryce, then Clare Higgins and Tim Piggot Smith in Hecuba at the Donmar Warehouse, and right now into film, William Hurt, [Robert] De Niro, these amazing people, you just listen a lot and see what they’re doing. So what it maybe made me do was become more sponge-like out of fear of not having had a formal training. Not just how they work on stage or in the rehearsal room but how they are as people.”
“It made me become more sponge-like out of fear of not having had a formal training”
He absorbed the advice to the extent that he was named Best Newcomer by the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for his performance alongside Pryce in Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? at the Almeida and Apollo theatres in 2004, also collecting a Laurence Olivier Award nomination in the process. It was a review of this piece that attracted the attention of De Niro, who cast him in The Good Shepherd, propelling him into film.
He admits that despite starting out in theatre, his career has veered largely towards film, and he didn’t step on the stage between Hecuba at the end of 2004 and Now Or Later some four years later. “I remember [former Evening Standard critic] Nick De Jongh, at an Evening Standard Awards thing, going, ‘now don’t run off to Hollywood’, and I was like, ‘no of course I wouldn’t’,” says Redmayne. “But the reality is, you’re just trying to make your way and earn your living, and suddenly if you’re offered an opportunity and if on the back of that other opportunities come, you’d be crazy not to take them.”
He saw the move into films as part of his learning curve. With no experience or training in screen acting, he was eager to take any chance he could to learn on the job. “No one else is going teach me, I’m not going to suddenly wake up in 10 years time after having done 10 years of theatre and be able to do screen stuff. And also it is as silly as also being able to balance, financially, a living.”
I get the feeling, from his mildly defensive tone, that he has received some criticism for neglecting theatre. Yet his choice seems perfectly understandable. What young actor wouldn’t want to work with stars including Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Forest Whittaker, as he has done over the past few years?
“From Mark [Rylance] I learnt a lot about invention and having the balls to be free”
And it hasn’t been an easy ride. When he was cast as Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie’s son in The Good Shepherd, “I was so green,” he says. “Actually on the set of that I was terrified most of the time.”
Coming back to the stage, last year, brought a new set of worries. “With Now Or Later it was the fear of not having done a play for a while but also serving a play that I absolutely loved,” he says. He admits that, not having a tool box of drama school skills to fall back on, he needed the strong hand of director Dominic Cooke to help him rekindle his stage acting abilities. “There were things that had gone awry,” he tells me. “[Vocal coach] Penny Dyer came in to help me vocally because I had become lazy and certainly on this Michael [Grandage] is having to point out moments when I become too slurred with it, which is absolutely as a consequence of having spent the past year doing film. But you deal with those things. And I hope – not hope, I really believe – that as well as theatre helping the film work, film work helps the theatre work.”
There is an honesty about Redmayne which makes me warm to him. He knows that he is a beginner in this industry and has a long way to go before he has the reputation of Molina’s generation. He is also humble enough to admit he has made the wrong choices at times “but then you learn from everything. I don’t regret anything I’ve done.”
Such is his affinity with Red, he knows he has made the right decision this time. “Whatever anyone’s opinion on it, it’s a play that speaks to me, selfishly, in the most wonderful, enlightening, brilliant way about so many things – about practical things, about relationships, about parents and about art – that there is no question in my mind that I will have left with an amazing experience. So I hope people enjoy it, but maybe for once in my life,” he pauses, “I know that I’m gaining something from it.”
For once in his life? Finally, he explains, he is beginning to have confidence in his own instincts. “Often people’s opinion, particularly when you’re starting out, absolutely matters,” he says, “because you’re getting batted around, trying to find your feet in the industry, and you see that older actors are much more confident and content in just what the work is to them, and that’s what I feel with this.”
“Thank God I did get this play,” he laughs, before dashing back to rehearsals, “because if I’d gone and watched it I would have been like, ‘Noooooooooooooo! Surely I could have done that?’”