How Eddie Redmayne’s love of art sent him back to World War One

The Oscar-winning actor appears this week in a documentary about the art of the First World War - but what got him involved?

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that acting was Eddie Redmayne’s first love, given his current status as an Oscar winner. However, long before he found himself clutching a Best Actor statuette for his uncanny portrayal of Professor Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne nurtured a passion for art.

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After leaving Eton, where he was in the same year as Prince William, Redmayne won a place at Cambridge University to study history of art. He admits he wasn’t the most committed student, “floating” into “a couple of lectures a week”. Despite this, he graduated with a 2:1 and a genuine enthusiasm for his subject – particularly early 20th-century painters.

“The world had changed,” he explains in a new documentary this week, “and while the world was changing the art was changing as well.”

Although determined to act, Redmayne didn’t abandon his interest in the art world, preferring to combine the two. In 2009, he was cast in Red, a play about the American artist Mark Rothko, at London’s Donmar Warehouse. His performance as Rothko’s young assistant won him both an Olivier and a Tony award and caught the eye of documentary film-maker Margy Kinmonth.

“It was a sensational piece of theatre; a fascinating insight into an artist,” says Kinmonth. “Later on I saw Eddie in the BBC war drama Birdsong [below] and Les Misérables so I was always very keen on him and thought he was an absolutely wonderful actor. I thought, ‘Gosh, I would love to work with this guy.’ ”

Kinmonth has experience in tracking down high-profile figures for her documentaries. In 2011 she made Looking for Lowry with Sir Ian McKellen; in 2013 she got Prince Charles to front Royal Paintbox, a film about his family’s love of art. Now it was time for Project Eddie.

“Two years ago I went to see Eddie’s agent. But then a long time went past because Eddie was shooting the Hawking film. It was hard to get to him so I wrote him a letter, and it went back and forth a bit, but he agreed to meet me.”

Eddie Redmayne in the Theory of Everything

Kinmonth hadn’t decided what film she wanted to make. But, keen to appeal to Redmayne’s interests, she proposed two possible subjects: Rothko or war art. “I suggested doing something on Paul Nash, and Eddie was interested in that period because a lot of his degree focused on the first half of the 20th century. When I met him he was utterly charming and teeming with ideas.”

This was late 2013 and Redmayne was finishing filming The Theory of Everything; his time was precious. Finally, in January 2014, Kinmonth pinned him down for a week’s filming. The pair would retrace the journey the artists took from London to Belgium, ending at the Sanctuary Wood trenches, east of Ypres. It wasn’t Redmayne’s first trip to the Western Front. In 2012 he visited the battlefields of northern France in preparation for his role in the BBC’s Birdsong, an experience he described as “incredibly moving”. He was equally affected by his time at Sanctuary Wood, where 2,000 of the 250,000 soldiers who died at the front in Flanders are buried.

“It was extraordinary wandering around where so many people were killed,” says Redmayne. “You can’t help but find a weird beauty in it and I think that must have been one of the dilemmas. It’s something that Nash talks about, it’s something that Nevinson talks about – how in this incomprehensible and, as they say, indescribable context, you could find beauty.” 

The film ends with Redmayne speaking to contemporary war artists about modern-day conflicts, from Bosnia to Syria. An intelligent interviewer, he doesn’t need the security of a fictional character to command the screen. “Eddie kept worrying that he wasn’t any good but he was a natural,” says Kinmonth. “The average age of men who died was about 28, and he had this affinity with them, and understands the sacrifice, so it’s very moving. When I showed the film to my producer, he was in tears.”

Redmayne acknowledges that, had he been born a century earlier, he would have been brandishing a rifle, not an Oscar. And, like Nash and Nevinson, he too could have found himself sketching the horrors of frontline warfare. “It was unspeakable, hopeless, godless. I’m not sure it’s possible to understand the true experience of being a war artist, but I do know that we lost so much formidable talent; so many young men who never got to see their potential fulfilled.” 

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Perspectives: War Art with Eddie Redmayne is on ITV tonight (Sunday 24th May) at 10.15pm