Eddie Redmayne on the long but surprisingly rewarding journey to deliver The Good Nurse

Eddie Redmayne as real-life serial killer Charles Cullen in Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse.
Eddie Redmayne as real-life serial killer Charles Cullen in Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse.

Eddie Redmayne has won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Tony, a British Film Academy award, and two Laurence Olivier awards. He does not need to further prove his bona fides as an actor to anyone. And yet in Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse, Redmayne challenged himself to portray Charles Cullen, a real-life nurse who was extremely well-regarded as a kind, thoughtful, and supportive person—that is, outside of the 29 people he was convicted of murdering, and the more than 350 others in whose deaths he is suspected to have a role.

Redmayne spoke to The A.V. Club at the Savannah Film Festival in Georgia, where he received the Virtuoso Award at a screening of The Good Nurse, a project he was attached to for more than six years. In addition to talking about what resonated—and challenged—him about portraying a real-life serial killer, Redmayne discussed the successes and failures of big acting swings, like those in his notorious failure Jupiter Ascending, and reflected on the challenges of taking on projects that may receive criticism or pushback simply for being made.

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The A.V. Club: It feels like we’re all interested in the psychology of serial killers. What’s it like playing one as an actor, especially Charles Cullen, who seemed to be a fairly well-liked individual?

Eddie Redmayne: It made it curious. The fact that he didn’t seem to fulfill the stereotypes necessarily, but also having spent time with the real Amy beforehand, she really emphasized the truth of their friendship, the depth of their friendship. The fact that he saved her life. His humor, but like his dry humor and the fact that he would always use how screwed up his home life was as a sort of self-deprecating thing. But the fact that her love for him was very real. And that was intriguing because it meant that for Jessica [Chastain] and I, when she was so strong about that, that that became the thing. But she was also really interesting in that she described him as she only ever saw this monster twice, and that it was a different human being and that this thing glazed over him. She describes it as dissociative, and so even though I’d read all about his background and his upbringing, which is woven with trauma, hearing [from] this person that was so close to him [that he] was two different people was an insight.

(from left) Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain in Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse.
(from left) Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain in Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse.

AVC: For better or for worse, I feel like the public looks at quote-unquote serious acting as this huge transformation. And you certainly have done that for roles. But how much is that an integral part of your process to disappear in someone as opposed to finding an accord between who you are and who you’re playing on screen?

ER: That’s interesting. That idea of whether you go out to characters or whether they come into you is always an interesting discussion. My process, I suppose, as far as I have one, and it shifts and changes depending on what kind of the character calls for one, is one in which I have to start with the technical. I have to do all of that far in advance, because I’m not someone that can access accents at the drop of a hat, or slip into physicalities. I have to work at those things —for me it’s a bit like playing the piano. I play it a bit and I have to work a lot at the technical. But the thing only starts living once it’s so in my body that I can start playing, and that’s kind of how I approach it. And so with accent work or with physicality, I like to do that all miles apart so that by the time you’re playing opposite someone as formidable as Jessica, you’re just receiving what she’s giving you and responding, hoping that all of that stuff is somehow embedded down at you somewhere. But the interesting thing I find, particularly playing real people, is that the older I get, and this is like a really pretentious analogy, but I’m going to go there...

AVC: Let’s do it...

ER: I studied at the History Of Art university, and Cezanne, the painter, described that when he was painting a landscape, you take the colors that you see and then rather than just replicating those colors on your palette, it’s the energy between those colors that you’re trying to, because they’re never going to be identical, you’re trying to recreate on your palette and then on the canvas. So you’re accepting the fact that it’s not the same, but it’s finding a sensibility or an energy that will create something anew, but something that is true to the original. And I suppose that’s what I feel like I’m trying to do when I play real people is accept that you’re never going to get it right. It’s not a documentary, but you’re finding the similar energies, I suppose.

AVC: I saw recently you were joking about your Jupiter Ascending performance, and I was thinking about how you measure success in a performance. Certain things work out and certain ones don’t, but does that make you less inclined to take big swings?

ER: I’m my own fiercest critic. So the moments in films where things sing, that’s why you keep going. But early on in my work, I remember when I was starting out, it was always the fear of not wanting to get fired. And what came with that was some pretty beige, safe work. And I remember thinking to myself, I’d rather swing, put it that way. And yes, sometimes you swing and it connects, and sometimes you swing and it doesn’t.

AVC: There have been a number of projects that you’ve been in that, fairly or not, have received criticism or controversy. When, as an actor, you give your heart and soul to it, and then something happens, does that make you more trepidatious in choosing things going forward?

ER: I think with every role I choose now, there’s a massive process. I would say 80 percent of that is gut instinct, because most of what I read, my gut doesn’t respond to. If my gut responds, then my rational mind comes in and starts questioning whether it’s the right story for me to be a part of, and where that film or play would sit in the world. But that instinct tends to still be the first thing.

The Good Nurse | Official Trailer | Netflix

AVC: You’re getting a great honor here at the festival. Ron Howard earlier said getting an award lights a little fire in your belly. Does it feel like a validation?

ER: It feels [that way] with this particular film, because it was six years in the making. I first became attached to it when my daughter was born. And she’s now six. And what that process has been—it’s changed studios, it’s fallen apart, it’s come back together—always the quartet of Krysty [Wilson-Cairns], Tobias [Lindholm], Jessica and I, have stayed with it because Amy’s story is one that we felt was pretty unique and needed telling. The experience of making the film was a very joyful one, despite the dark subject matter, and I find creatively thrilling. Quite often when you have that experience, the film can end up being dodgy (laughs). So getting an award or seeing that people enjoy [the film] is a lovely validation or a wonderful bonus to the fact of what has been a really seminal experience.

AVC: How easy is it for you to find projects that you want to stay with for six years to see through to the end?

ER: It’s not that easy. It’s rare that you get that feeling. And also, quite often the things you’re interested in are not the things you’re necessarily seen as. And the moments in my career that I’ve enjoyed the most are the bits when someone sees something in you that you don’t see in yourself. This wasn’t necessarily a part or a character that I would have gone, “oh yeah!” but Tobias saw something in me and that tends to be when I do the work that I find most intriguing, is when someone sees a quality in you that you don’t necessarily see in yourself.

AVC: Is it flattering for someone to say, I can see you—

ER: “I can see you as a serial killer!” I mean, it’s the first time that the compliment of, “you’re terrifying,” has been one that I said thank you to.

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