English actor and model Eddie Redmayne isn’t yet a household name, but he’s achieved rising star status with a string of much lauded roles in indie and mainstream films. After playing Edward Wilson, Jr. in The Good Shepherd (2006) and murderous son Tony in Savage Grace (2007), he returns to American film as colorful outcast Gordy in The Yellow Handkerchief. I spoke to Redmayne about getting a handle on his strange character, which meant doing road trip research and adopting a Southern drawl.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: The character of Gordy is a rather unusual one. How would you describe him to someone who hadn’t seen The Yellow Handkerchief?
Eddie Redmayne: Good question. I would say he is an open-hearted eccentric. He has spent his entire life as an outcast. He’s trying to find his own way, so he’s never fit in really. But he has an open heart, which is often misunderstood.
SFBG: So what drew you to the character?
ER: What drew me to the character was how utterly ridiculous it was that they would consider the idea of an English actor to play the part. When I read it, I thought that’s the most absurd thing in the world, I will never get it. So I went into the audition without a sort of care in the world, assuming that it was madness that they would consider me. I suppose what drew me to the part was how far from me he was.
SFBG: Is that a challenge for you, playing American parts? You’ve kind of shifted back and forth — do you see yourself doing more of that in the future?
ER: For me, what I love about my job is, I love storytelling. And if the story’s a good one to tell, then I’m incredibly proud to be a part of it, whether it’s English, American. It’s neither here nor there, really. I found this one a specific challenge and working on the accent was challenging. I had a great dialect coach. And also you feel a responsibility when it’s someone so far from where you are. But you have to actually go under the skin of it. So I did go down to Louisiana and do a road trip from Oklahoma through the Osage nation reservation and then down into New Orleans, so at least I could get a sense of the geography and the kind of places this guy was growing up in.
SFBG: How much of that were you able to use in creating Gordy’s backstory?
ER: Well, I don’t know if you remember the [sketchbook]. That was something that, when I did my road trip, I collected myself. I went and used all these disposable cameras and took photos and did drawings and messed around. Which was a lot of fun, and a way of building up a backstory for who he was and who his dad was and what his life story had been. For the audience, it’s kind of extraneous, I suppose, but for me it’s important that I knew where he was from.
SFBG: I wanted to commend you for your performance in The Yellow Handkerchief, but I also thought you were great in Savage Grace. You seem to play these characters who aren’t always relatable or even very likable to an audience. They’re interesting, but they’re not necessarily people you’d want to spend a lot of time with. So how do you find that balance in making them sympathetic but also difficult?
ER: [laughs] I know what you mean, and certainly with Tony in Savage Grace, that film wasn’t written as a psychological discussion as to how this person had ended up there. It was a cold detachment on what this life was, and what happens when relatively talented people have so much money that it catalyzes inertia almost. There’s nothing to do with your life because you don’t have to do anything. I suppose what I try to do is not to judge the characters that I play, and just present them honestly and hope that, certainly more so in Yellow Handkerchief, that the audience does eventually, despite feeling alienated and isolated from this guy to begin with because of his quirks and his eccentricities, that eventually they do see that there is an openness they can relate to.
SFBG: Going back to The Yellow Handkerchief, I wanted to ask for your opinion on why this unlikely trio forms. Obviously there’s some attraction on Gordy’s part when it comes to [Kristen Stewart's character] Martine, but what else is there that links them together?
ER: For me, the film is about chance, really. It’s about chance and circumstance. And what I love is, it hopefully feels like this is a story going on in the world that the camera stumbles across, travels with, and then lets go. It’s really about the truth of those moments in life that it is through moments of luck or passing or who you bump into on the street or whether, specifically in Yellow Handkerchief, a rain storm causes these people to end up in a car together for three days. It’s as simple a conceit as that. But I think it plays truthfully in its idiosyncrasies almost.
SFBG: Can you talk about developing chemistry with your co-stars, William Hurt and Kristen Stewart? How did you form that bond, both on-screen and off?
ER: Well, what was wonderful is, Kristen is magnetic and an incredibly wonderful person, very open and lovely, and we got on very well form the outset. William is someone I’ve admired for a long time and have worked with on The Good Shepherd, although I’d never acted with him. What was great is, firstly, we had two weeks rehearsal, which is rare on film and something that William insists on. So we got to know each other. But also, three of us sat in a car in the incredible heat in Louisiana, passing through these extraordinary landscapes. It’s a way to bond quite promptly, and so the chemistry built really through spending an intense, really quite intimate time together.
SFBG: I wanted to close by asking what’s next for you. You’ve done your fair share of theater, so I was wondering if you might be returning to the stage anytime soon?
ER: Actually, I open a play on Broadway [on March 11] with Alfred Molina. It’s a new play about Mark Rothko, which we just finished a run of at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London. It’s called Red, and it’s about Rothko and his assistant. So I’m lucky enough to act on Broadway in two weeks time.
The Yellow Handkerchief opens Fri/5 in Bay Area theaters.
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