The passing away of Stephen Hawking, not only the greatest scientist of the 21st century but more importantly, the greatest example of rising above the severest of physical disability and pain, reminds us almost at once of the film The Theory of Everything (2014) based on his life and Eddie Redmayne, the actor who invested flesh-and-blood to this great man to bring it alive on the large screen.

The biggest challenge for any actor playing the lead character of a famous man or woman is that the actor needs to internalise the person he/she is portraying to bring the celluloid representation as close as possible to the real character. Physical resemblance is of course important but this can be done with the help of makeup, costume and so on.

But what about body language? What about the speech patterns the original personality had? What about his/her accent and language and vocabulary? The most important thing to make the performance as credible and convincing to the audience is to be able to ‘think’ like the person thinks or thought; to at least know what he/she dealt in. This needs not only physical but also psychological and emotional homework much before the film goes to the floors for the shoot to begin.

This is also known as performance cinema. It is difficult to define ‘performance’ cinema in precise terms because the definition differs from one scholar to another as well as from culture to culture depending on the evolution within cinema in each culture in terms of performance, technological changes, and performing artists and so on.

According to Stacey Stocky who teachers at the University of Denver, performance cinema combines both cinema and performance in dynamic ways, defining a media of creative work, while also instigating the development of new, defined genres. Henry Warwick says that a performance film “sits between traditional, passive, cinematic experience and the dynamic experience of, say, a live music performance.”

One major story behind the making of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is the rigorous training the two main actors, namely Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis had to undergo in ballet for six long months before shooting began. The training was backgrounded by body toning exercises. It was necessary for the two non-dancing actresses to attain the body type and muscle tone that would approximate that of professional ballet dancers.

Portman worked out for five hours a day doing ballet, cross-training and swimming followed by choreography training as D-day approached. Kunis did cardio and pilates seven days a week for five hours over five months and had to be on a diet restricted to 1200 calories a day. It would therefore, not be wrong to say that Black Swan as an example of ‘performance’ cinema. Another ideal example of performance cinema at its best is The King’s Speech (2010) directed by Tom Hooper in which Colin Firth played the future King George VI who, to cope with a terrible stammer, went through a series of consultations with Australian Speech and Language Therapist Lionne Logue played by Geoffrey Rush. Firth won a string of highly honoured awards for his magnificent performance in the film.

As a film critic, this writer feels that The Theory of Everything is a realisation of what Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida (1980). He wrote, “The power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.” He wrote this with reference to the photographic picture but lends itself beautifully to a different derivation of ‘performance cinema’ where the film illustrates perfection in an art that is not related to cinematic forms like acting or technology, etc.

A powerful example of performance cinema is the live manipulation of cinematic instruments and presentation of cinematic visual and audio visual data by performers and/or actors in front of an audience. The seeds of such performance were sown long before when Redmayne made his professional debut in theatre by playing Viola in a stage performance of William Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night in 2002. His theatrical background is flush with prestigious awards along the way.

Redmayne spent four months studying Hawking’s life. It demanded so much research that according to Redmayne, it was like writing a doctoral dissertation. He watched every documentary and YouTube video he could find on Hawking.

“I tried to read literally everything I could get my hands on,” and pored over all of Hawking’s books. It was really difficult because he could hardly understand much of what was there. So, he got in touch with a physics teacher at Imperial College London who proved to be a good translator. He also worked with a choreographer, Alexandra Reynolds. “We put what we knew into picking up a pen, drinking, walking, existing,” says Reynolds, who laboured with Redmayne for four hours a day, and filmed his movements on an iPad for them to study. She would ask questions like, “What’s happening in your pelvis? Are you holding your head right?”

He made it a regular habit of visiting a neurology clinic in London once every fortnight where he would interview patients suffering from motor neuron disease or ALS which Hawking fell victim to when he was 21 and doctors gave his life a deadline till his 25th birthday. He lived to be 76 when he passed away recently, trapped to a wheelchair and had even to rely on the mechanics of science and life just to be able to speak. Redmayne as an actor who came basically from Theatre, had done enough cinema to understand that a film is not shot chronologically but is edited in the post-production stage.

For this, he needed to understand how the disease slowly affected Hawking at different stages of his life. He also consulted with a doctor on vintage photographs of how surely and steadily Hawking’s condition deteriorated. He had listed points on his observation and research on a sheet and took it along wherever he went specially to the studio floors. He desperately wanted to meet Hawking in person but the astrophysicist genius declined till finally, he agreed.

Redmayne was terrified because he felt he must have done it all wrong but the Hawking gave him confidence to believe that he was on the right path. Redmayne's physical transformation became more intense when he played Hawking during the later years of his life. Imagine the kind of internalisation Redmayne had to go through to portray a real life genius who was everything Redmayne was not. Redmayne was only 32 when he began to shoot for Theory of Everything.

Hawking was already 72. Redmayne was hale and hearty and very healthy. Hawking suffered from a severely debilitating disease that took away every imaginable physical activity a normal man indulges in. He was not a physicist much less and astrophysicist and one of the greatest masters in science in the world.

As many predicted, Eddie Redmayne took home the Oscar Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne had to capture the progression of the disease. This was even more difficult because he needed to cover the different stages not only of Hawking’s growing into an old man but also the phases of the disease Hawking passed through. Redmayne had four-hour coaching sessions with Alexandra Reynolds, a Hollywood choreographer. Katie Skills, a consultant neurologist at the Queen Square Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases in London helped him actively to prepare for his role.

Together, they studied photographs of Hawking in various stages of his life to track the progression of his illness. Director James March has said that even when Redmayne was extremely tired having to sit like a paralytic strapped to a wheel chair with his head leaning on one side and his body at an awkward angle for hours together, he did not complain even once.

Now that Stephen Hawking is no more, youngsters who have not known Hawking or have not even heard of him, can get a more or less clear idea of what the man was if they watch The Theory of Everything. Redmayne won the Academy Award, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor, depicting the debilitating challenges of ALS. A year later, Redmayne did the title role in The Danish Girl that was a celluloid recreation of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe that fetched him his second nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor in consecutive years.

If Stephen Hawking is a miracle of science and medicine, both in terms of his inventions, theories and arguments, as well as in his tenacity and his determination that saw him defy death at 25, then it would not be wrong to state that Eddie Redmayne is a miracle in the celluloid representation of this genius which marks a milestone in cinema in general and performance cinema in particular.