Chiselled cheekbones, hair gelled into spikes and a tightly fitted tweed suit with drain-pipe trousers are the first things I register about Eddie Redmayne as he bounces into the Claridges hotel room booked for our interview. I can see why Burberry asked him to model for them. Flattery is often the best way to open an interview with an actor (they’re an insecure lot) so I tell him that Radio Times readers loved his performance in the TV adaptation of Birdsong last year.
“How do you know?” he asks, a cheeky grin spreading across his angular face. “Did they write lots of steamy letters?”
There was plenty of steam in Redmayne’s performance as the young British army officer having an affair with a married Frenchwoman, but he says it was one of the hardest jobs he’s ever done. “Because the drama jumps between war scenes in the trenches to an indoor period drama, there would be days where I would spend the morning up to my neck in mud, get hosed down over lunch and spend the afternoon doing a love scene in the drawing room.”
Mud, rain and amorous clinches with a Frenchwoman are also features of the young actor’s latest, and possibly starriest, role to date, the film adaptation of Les Misérables. The stakes are high – Les Mis is the world’s longest running musical, seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries worldwide and the film is a big-budget affair with a high wattage cast including Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen.
It’s no surprise that Eddie Redmayne should be included in such a high profile venture, but what is interesting is that he’s one of several Old Etonians dominating the acting world at the moment. The list includes Dominic West, Damien Lewis, Tom Hiddleston and Harry Lloyd. Redmayne points out that they’ve all continued to do theatre alongside their TV and film work. As well as Birdsong and the film My Week with Marilyn, Redmayne also starred in Michael Grandage’s Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse in 2011.
Old Etonians have also conquered showbiz on the other side of the Atlantic. After the success of Hugh Laurie in House, Damien Lewis in Home land and Dominic West in The Wire, Eton’s headmaster commented that, “When HBO want a gritty, hard-bitten, authentically American character to head up a mini-series, they instinctively think: Old Etonian.”
I ask Redmayne why he thinks Eton is such a petri dish for thespian talent. Straight off the bat, he names two inspiring drama teachers: Hailz-Emily Osborne and Simon Dormandy. “They treated us like professionals and we had a state-of-the-art theatre which meant that the adjustment between school and working professionally didn’t feel like that much of a leap.”
Mrs Osborne in fact remembers being entranced by a 13-year-old Eddie when he first took to the stage. “He had been given a non-speaking role as Queen Charlotte in an excerpt of The Madness of King George. All Eddie had to do was stand and look terribly concerned while the elder boy hammed it up and went mad, but I was just riveted by him. He came across as so professional, even at that young age,” she recalls of her star pupil.
Singing was also part of his t raining at Eton and he went to Cambridge on a choral scholarship. That, and a part aged 12 in the Sam Mendes-directed West End production of Oliver! would prove key when he auditioned for the role of the young revolutionary Marius in Les Mis.
He says he wasn’t intimidated walking onto a set with Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway because singing is such a great leveller: “There was something both grounding and surreal about watching Gladiator, Wolverine and Catwoman doing vocal exercises,” he says, laughing and imitating someone going “Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah” in different keys.
The director Tom Hooper – who won an Oscar for The King’s Speech – insisted on filming the musical live to make it more authentic. That means the actors are really singing instead of miming to a pre-recorded soundtrack. Redmayne says when you’re shooting a film from five in the morning until eight at night, it’s about training your voice for a marathon rather than a sprint.
“Twenty takes means singing the same song 20 times so you really have to be at the top of your game vocally. And you never knew when you were going to be doing a big solo number, so the poor drivers on this film had to get used to us crazy actors driving to Pinewood at dawn doing endless voice warm-ups.”
When I asked what he learnt from working with big stars like Crowe and Jackman, he says nothing about the Oscar-winning star of Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, but is very complimentary about the Wolverine actor.
“Hugh was the leader. He would keep all our spirits up and every Friday he would buy all the cast and crew a lottery ticket because by that time we were on our knees. His capacity for generosity of spirit was extraordinary.
“Learning from other actors is not just about work, it’s also about how to be…” he pauses and thinks for a moment as if searching for the right words. “It’s such a confusing world, acting. You go from being nobody to being given far too much attention. It’s a constant oscillation which is hard to get your head around, so I watch and learn from people I think deal with it well.”
The anecdote about Jackman is also very telling about Redmayne. I come away with the sense that he is a very decent, grounded young actor who is aware of the pitfalls of showbiz and is trying very hard not to let his recent success go to his head.
He also refuses to concede that being an Old Etonian can in any way be construed as a disadvantage in the acting world. So when I ask if he worries about being typecast as a posh boy, his reply is suitably considered.
“I think our historic and literary heritage in this country means there are many good stories to tell and a lot of them tend to be period pieces and I’m very lucky to be part of that.” Moaning is clearly considered churlish in Redmayne’s book. “Actually I recently played a Texan meth addict,” he says, grinning. “That’s not typecasting.” I cast my eye once again over his well-cut, grey tweed suit and try to imagine him badly dressed, but I can’t.
Les Misérables is released in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 11 January