Birdsong - Eddie Redmayne interview
One of the hottest young actors around Eddie Redmayne talks about his role as Stephen Wraysford in the BBC adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ epic and massively popular First World War novel Birdsong.
“For me,” says Eddie Redmayne, “Birdsong is a piece that doesn’t just analyse carnal love, but all types of love; whether it’s sexual love, passionate love or emotional love.”
Intertwined with the horror of the First World War on the front line and in the tunnels under the Somme, lies an epic love story between Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire.
“What I love about Stephen is that he’s an incredibly complicated human being with extraordinary qualities and dislikeable qualities which come from quite a complicated upbringing. He is a loner and when he meets Isabelle he finds an incredible connection there; it’s a sexual relationship but also one of deepest love.”
Throughout Birdsong there isn’t a huge amount of dialogue between Stephen and Isabelle, instead theirs seems to be a courtship of lingering glances.
“I think it stems from Stephen not being a great communicator and he’s an isolated human being, he is someone who chooses his words carefully. But there is something magnetic between these two people, maybe love, maybe eroticism. It’s also that other thing that no one can articulate; it’s something chemical. I love the fact that Phillip Martin, the director, allowed that space between the characters, because I think it really is important for the piece.”
“Working with Clémence Poésy was a real treat, she was a complete joy, she has a wonderfully playful quality as an actress whilst being completely rigorous in her work ethic and it was wonderful to see. We both felt a love for the book and we wanted to make sure it was justly depicted.”
Running parallel to the love story in Birdsong is Stephen’s experience as an officer in the First World War. The filming of these two sections of the novel took place in different locations in Budapest, Hungary.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t film chronologically, so we were doing all the stuff about Stephen’s damage and him thinking back on his relationship with Isabelle, without having shot the love story with Isabelle. Fortunately, we did have a few days rehearsal with Clémence before we shot the Somme scenes in Budapest, so we had a connection of some degree. It was very interesting going back and playing the other side of Stephen.”
“The costumes were incredibly helpful in this aspect as well. The heavy coats and the quality of the army clothes did give you a certain posture and when we worked on the French scenes, all white ties and the starched collars, it gave you a formality. Before the war Stephen is in Amiens, where Isabelle is, and it is here that he’s at his happiest and the costumes there are much softer and more relaxed.”
“Trying to meld the two stories of Stephen together was really interesting. Trying to find the moment when these two distinct characters, who are almost two different people, merged together was a challenge. In fact it was very odd the first time I walked onto the French set for the shoot with Clémence, having played a soldier for six weeks, the crew went silent. Everyone was like, ‘Who’s that clean looking young man? Oh it’s you!’”
The contrast between the Stephen we see in France and the Stephen we see at the front line is important throughout the novel and the difference in the sets brings this to life in the adaptation.
“What was amazing was that Philip had really insisted on finding a location with a horizon in which the production designer, Grant Montgomery, could construct an intricate collection of trenches, to scale. I think we read a lot about the First World War but it’s very difficult to visualise it in our minds so Philip and Grant did a great job of finding the reality.”
“The landscape was very similar to what it would have really been like at the time, and the other thing that made the reality come to life in a sense was the baking summer heat in Budapest. You’re in these huge really warm woollen clothes and that’s exactly what the men had to deal with.
“One has an image of the First World War as being muddy and wet, and of course a lot of it was, but there were moments of harsh heat which the guys had to contend with. It was interesting feeling a tiny ounce of the discomfort of what those guys would have gone through; of course it was a billion times worse for them.”
“Even so, there was still a lot of lovely camaraderie in Budapest. It was a unique experience, it’s rare that it’s all guys working on the same thing. From there we went onto the French shoot and it was a different experience, equally wonderful, but it was like shooting a whole new film.”
In preparing for the role Eddie found it helpful to re-familiarise himself with Birdsong and he experienced first-hand the journey that Stephen took in the novel through the tunnels under the Somme.
“I was lucky enough to go visit France with Joseph Mawle, who plays Jack Firebrace; we went down these tunnels which they had just rediscovered. Once we got down there we crawled around on our hands and knees amongst chalk rubble, it was just the most extraordinary thing.
“I was shocked at how close the German and British front lines were. In the novel one can’t really get one’s mind around the idea of there being this rabbit warren of tunnels that genuinely could be intercepted by the enemy. I didn’t see how it was possible, but when you see how close the front lines are you realise it is absolutely possible.”
“We went down into a tunnel that had just been discovered and there was a poem written in pencil on the chalk wall, it must have been almost 100 years since it was last read. It read:
‘If in this place you are detained, don’t look around you all in vain, but cast your net and you shall find that every cloud is silver lined… Still.’
It was extraordinary and incredibly moving to read, especially knowing that although Sebastian’s piece is fictional, it is in fact based on truth.”
“One of the great joys of being an actor is discovering things that you realise you are incredibly ignorant of prior to taking on a role. I couldn’t get over the fact that on the day we filmed ‘going over the top of the trenches’, when I put my costume on I had to wear a tie and a tie pin, whilst also being equipped with a revolver, but this is what an Officer would have worn. Filming Birdsong has been a great education for me.”
Eddie almost missed his chance to play the role of Stephen Wraysford when he missed a Skype call with director Philip.
“I suddenly woke up and realised that it was eight o’clock in the morning and I was meant to be having a video call with Philip, I had to tell him that my video wasn’t working! It was a book that I had read when I was a kid, and was incredibly passionate about, so I was kicking myself at the prospect of having overslept. But, the conversation went fantastically well and when I came back to London we had a sit down and talked about the character of Stephen and we found that we were on the same page and it was a real privilege for me to undertake the role.”
“I hadn’t worked with Philip before, but I think he’s absolutely brilliant. He had a really great take on Birdsong; he had a more poetic, less distracting and more focused take on it, which I really thought was wonderful. It was a massive undertaking and I take my hat off to Philip, he did it extraordinarily.”
“I just hope that in some ways we do justice to a lot of people’s favourite book. I also hope we manage to create a complexity of characters who are real and that we somehow get an insight into really quite how extraordinarily complicated this war was.”