At 28, Eddie Redmayne has perfected a look of fresh-faced innocence masking inner commotion. He’s invoked the expression for various roles, as the chilling young murderer Alex Forbes in Like Minds and as a downward-spiraling, matricide-committing homosexual opposite Julianne Moore in Savage Grace. On stage, he’s played the emotionally charged boy whose architect father falls in love with a goat in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Redmayne keeps a copy of the play with him in his current dressing room at the Golden Theater, where he’s starring in the Tony Award-nominated play Red alongside Alfred Molina. Redmayne, who nabbed one of those noms himself (for Best Performance by a Featured Actor), plays another permutation of the plotting innocent—not a murderer, but no less intense as the fictional assistant to abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Molina). We caught up with the actor to discuss the fate of Rothko’s famous murals, his own color blindness, and what he’s wearing to the Tonys.
I saw the play last night and am still recovering. It was intense! How do you do it night after night? Well, last night I had some friends in so I ended up going for some drinks after and I woke up this morning with a slightly filthy hangover. So I punished myself by doing tax receipts.
What drew you to the play? I assume it had something to do with your background studying art in college. Well, the theater in [London’s] Donmar Warehouse where the play started is one of the great gems of theaters in the world, and Michael Grandage, who runs it, is a wonderful man. I’ve seen a lot of his work for many years, and I’ve worked at the Donmar before, but never under him. So when the idea of a two-handed play specifically about art—the idea that the arts matters—came up, it was one of those rare moments where everything that I was interested in and engaged in kind of collided, a wonderful little moment of fate. The play focuses on the murals Rothko painted for the Seagram building before he changed his mind about giving them up. A few ended up in the Tate Modern. Isn’t the museum naturally lit, which would seem to go against Rothko’s wishes? The story is that once he withdrew the commissions he had—I think it was 35 canvases— all the museums in the world wanted to get their hands them. So obviously, Rothko was very tentative about who he would give them to. And one of the guys was Sir Norman Reed, who was the curator of the Tate, and for ten years Norman Reed would swear to Rothko that they would build or create special rooms specifically for them at the Tate Britain—this was before the Tate Modern existed. The wall color would be as prescribed by Rothko, the lighting would be exactly as he wanted, and eventually Rothko agreed to that. So ten years after the end of the play, the same day that the Seagram murals arrived off the boat in London, Sir Norman Reed got a call that Rothko had been found by his assistant with his wrists slit. So the answer is that some of these murals, which were originally in the Tate Britain, are now in the Tate Modern in a room that is lit properly. Alfred Molina had source material to draw on as Rothko, but your character Ken is fictitious. Where did you find your inspiration? What’s interesting is subsequent to doing the play in America, I got a letter from a woman called Virginia Foster, who is the widow of a guy called Dan Rice, and he was Rothko’s assistant during the Seagram murals. And whilst the character is not based on him, Virginia sent me this transcript of him talking about working for Rothko. And weirdly, even though I’ve done the play in London and done it here, reading the transcript reinforced some of the character. But I approached it the way I approach any character—I see what’s in the text and flesh it out with references from life. And certainly, I’ve had experiences with elder actors and bosses in the past who I’ve had complex and tricky relationships with. There’s a scene where Ken is talking to someone on the phone, trying to decide whether to show Rothko his own paintings. Who was he talking to? That’s a very good question. I think it’s his girlfriend, and John Logan (the writer) thinks it’s his boyfriend. It remains a bone of contention between the two of us. You did your college dissertation on Yves Klein, who was a big advocate of blue. [Laughs] So this is the sequel.
As an art lover, do you have a color preference? The color that Yves Klein does. Wet paint has a luminosity that dies when it dries and it loses the gloss. So Yves created this color scientifically that retains that luminosity. He was a big showman, so he got it copyrighted. The color is called IKB—International Klein Blue. And it sounds all bullshit-y and ridiculous, but when you stand in front of those canvases, the color is sublime and dumbfounding. So that specific color is my favorite color in the world. Are you going to follow this up with a colorblind question?
No, wasn’t planning on it, but if you want to discuss it. No, I talk passionately about that color and then people go “but you’re colorblind.” And I go, “I know. I don’t know what I see but I see it and I like it.” You must have some confidence because you already have the Olivier award for this role. Are you nervous about the Tonys? Do you know what? It’s amazing how many award ceremonies there are in America. Am I nervous about the Tonys? Genuinely, the nomination was completely beyond anything I’ve ever thought about. You’re being so diplomatic. I wanted to ask who you consider to be your biggest competition. Frustratingly, one problem with doing plays here is that you don’t get to see anything because your schedule doesn’t allow it. But I’ve met all the guys and I’ve heard extraordinary things about Stephen in Fences and Stephen Kunken in Enron is meant to be wonderful. Do you have your outfit picked out? I do. A couple of years ago I did some work with Christopher Bailey who runs Burberry. I’m a huge fan of his so I’m going to be cut out in British Burberry. So what’s next? I see there’s something called The Pillars of the Earth? I’m actually really excited about it. It’s a huge epic medieval story that was a book by Ken Follett and it was one of Oprah’s favorite books and was subsequently a massive international bestseller. It’s being aired on the Starz network in July. It’s an 8-hour miniseries and I play this young boy who is mute and has grown up in the forest and who, over eight hours, becomes a master builder. So it’s about apprenticeship and craft and it’s also set in a historical time, with monarchs changing and war. What I’ve seen looks spectacular.