After the constraints of lockdown, actor Eddie Redmayne was ready to get back to work. And when Redmayne goes to work, he really goes to work. There is the homework, the reading, but also the physical transformations for which he has become so well known, most famously in the role of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, for which he won an Oscar.
Today, he is sitting down with The Big Issue in the Corinthia Hotel, a stone’s throw from the theatre in which he starred opposite Jessie Buckley in Cabaret at the turn of the year (winning his second Olivier Award).
He’s here for the London Film Festival, promoting his new Netflix film, The Good Nurse – and the differences in the roles and productions could not be more stark.
As the Emcee in Cabaret, Redmayne danced, sang and hissed his way around the Kit Kat Club in a recreation of Weimar era Berlin. By contrast, in The Good Nurse, he plays Charles Cullen – the notorious serial killer who is thought to have murdered as many as 400 patients at hospitals in the US from the late 1980s to early 2000s.
It is a deeply unnerving performance. A fiercely modest actor with little reason to be, Redmayne deflects any praise on to his co-star.
“Getting to spar with Jessica Chastain, who I think is one of the great living actors, was joyful,” says Redmayne. “I’m not very often proud of things. But I’m so thrilled to be a part of this movie.”
And little wonder. The Good Nurse smartly avoids the pitfalls of some true examples of crime drama, neither feeding unhealthy myths about serial killers nor losing focus on the victims. Instead, says Redmayne, it showcases the heroic journey of Nurse Amy Loughran, Cullen’s friend and colleague, who begins to suspect the man she relies on both at home and at work is killing patients. It also shines a light on a massive systemic failure in US healthcare.
“I knew nothing about the story. I was astonished by the story. But I was also astonished by Krysty Wilson-Cairns’s script because we have our expectations of what true crime is – and rather than it being that sort of salacious ‘true crime-ness’, this felt like it was actually a hero’s journey of someone who was able to accomplish something that broken systems couldn’t,” explains Redmayne.
“It made me appreciate the value of the NHS. But my appreciation was exacerbated by Jess [Chastain] and I going to nurse school and working with an ICU paediatric nurse for two weeks.
“My eyes were opened to the variety of the skillset you need to be a good nurse. You need to be fucking bright, really good at maths and science, very physically robust to turn big bodies – which is hard physical labour. But you also need an extraordinary emotional intelligence. So the overwhelming thing was what a polymath you have to be to be a nurse. I don’t think I’d thought about it enough.”
But the system they are working in? The system in which Cullen was allowed to move from job to job to job despite suspicions about him killing patients, because it was easier to turn a blind eye and pass the buck? In one scene, this failure is writ especially large.
“For me, that scene is him thinking ‘You know what I’ve done. I know you know what I’ve done. I’m giving you every opportunity and you’re not going to stop me?’ My take on it was, that they wouldn’t stop him for fear of exposing the system,” says Redmayne.
“And it’s because of the money. The second these places become businesses, the bottom line becomes the thing. Systems become so large that human beings become cogs within that and can lose a sense not only of individual responsibility but the power to question or interrogate. Amy doesn’t in any way see herself as a hero. She says that anyone would do it. But it is so intimidating to challenge systems we take for granted. And unless you do, nothing changes.”
Redmayne describes his physical transformation with an air of wonder in his voice – as though he can’t believe it happened to him. But he offers a rare insight into the process by which he inhabited this seemingly unexceptional, almost invisible nurse who inflicted such horror – and how one line in the original book informed his portrayal.
“What I find when you’re playing real people, which I’ve done a bit, is that other people’s take on those people can be revelatory,” he says.
“There’s this book called The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber, and the last third of it is the story you see in the film. The rest is the biography of this man and his trauma and his upbringing and the extremities of his life that included him being in the Navy, passing all the psychological tests but then being found in a submarine hovering over the buttons for Poseidon missiles.
“And then being allowed to train as a nurse – at the hospital his mother had been taken to when she died, and where they’d lost her body.
“It’s written by a guy who spent a lot of time with Cullen and described him as being like a question mark. Something about that was very evocative, because it wasn’t only physical, it was also about his enigma.
“So I worked with a wonderful woman called Alexandra Reynolds, who is a movement coach I worked with on The Theory of Everything. An incredibly valuable skill she has is articulating in a beautiful way – and she described how it looked like he was being held up by the collar of his shirt. Rather than just having a hunch, she said it was where a lot of the emotion was.
“It meant that he could drift in and out of situations – invisibility and anonymity were really important to him.”
Redmayne did his homework in the aftermath of the first lockdown.
“It has always been important to me to work on the physicality months in advance,” says Redmayne. “I’m an actor that needs a long runway. I can’t jump into things like some of my friends can, move from film to film or quite often theatre soon after each other.”
The contrast between Cullen – an extreme introvert projecting love and care but causing such horror and devastation – and the extrovert Emcee presiding over a place for joy and creativity, however temporary, as Berlin approached the Nazi era is considerable. So in the weeks between the roles, Redmayne took extreme measures.
“I’d spent six years trying to get Cabaret into the world – about the same time, actually, as I spent trying to do The Good Nurse. And I came back to London reinvigorated,” he says.
“At the end of lockdown I was looking to explode. And I was so uplifted by the experience in New York and Connecticut of having been pushed outside my comfort zone that I wanted to go into the rehearsal room for Cabaret feeling willing to make a fool of myself and re-find an extrovert. So I went to Paris to clown school – to this physical theatre school called Lecoq.
“It’s been an astonishingly thrilling year, creatively. Getting to work at the intimacy of The Good Nurse with Jessica then working with the exuberance of Jessie Buckley, who has an amazing capacity to remind you of the joy of this.
“I got to introduce her singing Cabaret, which was a complete reinvention of what that song is and it felt like a privilege every night.”
That Redmayne still has to put six years of effort into getting projects made, despite the awards straining his mantelpiece and the acclaim and power that comes with them, feels surprising, I tell him.
“I love that,” he laughs. “I would love to have that clout, thank you!
“One thing The Theory of Everything gave me was more choice. But the things you want are not the things you’re necessarily given so you’re always having to challenge yourself and subvert people’s expectations a bit.
“I know life doesn’t work like that and you don’t get experiences as thrilling as both The Good Nurse and Cabaret that often, but it has made me not want to compromise.
The Good Nurse is in cinemas now and on Netflix from October 26
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