One: I have adored Eddie Redmayne since I saw Les Miserables on Christmas 2012. Not only is he a talented actor, he is also a thoughtful, charismatic, and adorably self-depricating person, at least in interviews. The way he discusses preparing for roles and admits to his own mistakes. He's incredibly respectful as well. I hold him in pretty high esteem. I do not think this colors the opinion I'm about to express, but it might.
Two: The keyword there is "opinion." The following is one opinion from one disabled woman who has a significant amount of privileges. I don't speak for anyone other than myself, and I especially don't speak for people whose experiences are closer to the ones portrayed in The Theory of Everything.
Okay, let's get to the actual opinion, shall we? The Theory of Everything collected press even before it--and Eddie-- got nominated for an Oscar. With his win, I imagine there will be a bit more discussion, but once the awards are given out we as a culture tend to move onto the next controversial topic. Now then, it may be surprising that there is negativity surrounding an uplifting movie about one of the greatest scientific minds of our time, but if there's one thing people have it's opinions on the internet. Truth be told, though, the criticism isn't unique. Any film that casts an able-bodied person as a character with a disability garners censure from the disability community. The hype surrounding The Theory of Everything brought able-bodied bloggers and journalists into the mix. Some of them probably believe their arguments. Others want to paint themselves as progressive and understanding. If they really accepted their own claims, wouldn't their privilege invalidate their opinion in the same way that they wish to deny Eddie this part?
It's a thorny issue. one that every oppressed group has to deal with to some degree. When does privilege require you to stay silent? Should actors who aren't x (disabled, gay, transgender) be able to play characters who are? They're always difficult questions to answer, and in this case they may be impossible. Disability is unique to a degree in that unlike most other forms of oppression it can be acquired. it can affect people later in life. Most conditions affect people on a spectrum. It can be invisible. Also, although having a loved one with a disability is not at all the same as having a disability, it can profoundly affect someone's life from birth. Thus, it's hard to look at someone and decide whether or not they have the right to speak on a disability-related issue. Honestly, there's the chance that you shouldn't accept anything I have to say about Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen Hawking. I am physically disabled, but I have the privilege of being able to walk, speak, feed myself, etc. I am not overly limited in my ability to care for or express myself. My condition is chronic, but it is not degenerative. I have no memories of the world pre-ADA. I acknowledge all of this. I do, though, have a background in disability studies, history, and culture. I also have what might be an unpopular opinion.
I do not think there is anything wrong with having a non-disabled actor portray a person with a disability in this instance. My thoughts on the subject are very specifically related to both the actor, Eddie Redmayne, the character, Stephen Hawking, and the condition, ALS. It's easy to apply a generalized should in the abstract. But this example is as complicated as it is concrete. First of all, the actor. Eddie Redmayne put an incredible amount of effort into this role. An actor takes on an entirely different life with each film. There is a new personality to portray, a new physicality to enact, a new voice with which to speak. And Redmayne is the type of actor who takes this very seriously. In any interview about his preparations for The Theory of Everything, he talks about the work he did to understand Stephen Hawking, both mentally and physically. Although not a science person, he studied to comprehend Hawking's discoveries. He spoke to people with ALS, the way actors portraying police officers often go on ride-alongs. He worked with a dancer to perfect the affects of ALS at each point in the film's timeline. In the director's commentary for the film, James Marsh says that the physicality had to become unconscious for Eddie. That once the cameras started rolling, his mind had to be focused on the words, the inner monologue, the same way any actor's would. This undoubtedly put a physical and mental strain on Eddie, but Felicity Jones has made a point of saying that his dedication made his scene partners attempt to take it up a notch with their own characters. It's important to note that she, too, changes her character's body language in the different stages of the film. Thus, although portraying a person with severe physical disability might be more taxing than some other roles, the process isn't necessarily different.
Okay, fine, one might say. Eddie did the work. He earned his Oscar. But that doesn't mean that an actor with a disability couldn't have done the same. This isn't an impossible claim, by any means. However, there are considerations here that don't come up when this issue is considered in other contexts. Nearly every interview Eddie has given about The Theory of Everything brought up the physical nature of this role. How difficult might it have been for an actor who already had a physical disability to contort themselves in the various positions required to make each stage of Hawking's ALS manifest. Depending on the actor's disability, though, the hardest part might have been the initial stages when Hawking is more or less non-disabled. If nothing else, it would require even more effort, led to more fatigue, and require the actor to exert more muscle control that their own disability allows. There's the deepest irony of this situation--to show the degeneration of muscle control requires a supreme amount of muscle control. I'm not saying any of this is impossible for a physically disabled person. That's an individual question. I would have concerns, though. There's an increased chance of injury, but this could apply to anyone. My true worry would be for the actor's mental health.
There's a story told about the filming of the Sophia Burset-centric episode of Orange is the New Black. Although Laverne Cox was willing to play pre-transition Sophia producers wanted to cast an outside actor, worrying that taking on the part would be triggering for Laverne Cox--that having to dress as a male might cause dysphoria. In the end they were able to hire her twin brother for the part. Had Cox performed the part, I'm sure she would have been fabulous, but I understand the producers' concern. I also know that as a person with a physical disability, I am very conscious of my abilities, and how privileged I am to have them. Having had to use a wheelchair occasionally makes me very, very, thankful for the days when I can walk. More significantly, I lost vision in one eye at the age of thirteen. I live with a constant fear of losing the low-vision I have in my good eye. I have a better-than-most understanding of the difficulties of not being able to see. I used to act, and I know how to go about researching and preparing for a role. I cannot imagine portraying someone whose vision is worse than mine, because I believe it would trigger my fear of losing my vision, because that is a very real possibility for me.
But then, I'm not blind. So would I be "allowed" to play a blind person? Anyone without ALS could be said to be in the same position as Redmayne. They might know what it's like to have a physical disability, and to use a wheelchair. They might know what it's like to go from able-bodied to disabled, as many disabilities are acquired. But they probably wouldn't have a disorder as degenerative or life-threatening as ALS. So, should whoever played Stephen Hawking have had ALS? There could be someone in the early stages who could have done it, but how traumatizing might it be to have to enact later stages of the disorder? And to present these stages, they would have to do the same preparation as Redmayne, the same physical and mental work, while knowing that this could very well be their body's default within months--remember, Hawking's ALS did not move at the disorder's usual pace.
To me, it seems like this could cause unnecessary mental anguish. One of an actor's best coping mechanisms is the fact that the life they are portraying is not their's. The role is a job. It's not a possible future. In fact, even for Eddie Redmayne this role comes with a bit more mental risk than most, because acquired disability is a possibility. He will never be a world-renowned physicist who is diagnosed with ALS in the 60s, but he could end up needing an electric wheelchair one day. He could lose his ability to speak. The possibility is there for him as much as for anyone, disabled or not. And that's my main reason for thinking that this role, specifically, can be played by a non-disabled actor. It is incredibly specific, and it is an acquired disability. Most people with disabilities haven't experienced that part of Hawking's life--the non-disabled part--anymore than a non-disabled actor has experienced the later part.
Of course, there are other considerations. The increased physical strain wouldn't be there for an actor with an invisible disability, but their experience of disability is, in many ways, as different from the physical disability experience as a non-disabled actor. And, really, what I think it boils down to is the fact that Stephen Hawking, the real, living person, does not mind being portrayed by a non-disabled actor. Of course, he also does not tend to identify as disabled, and he has been criticized for benefitting from the disability rights movement without using his position to advocate for it. But that's a whole other post. My point is that there are reasons to critique every possible opinion about this film. But what no one seems to deny is the success of Redmayne's performance. It is respectful, thoughtful, and nuanced. The film isn't overly inspirational the way most Disability! pieces are. It's more-or-less honest, and it's about more than just a white man's struggle with his body. It's about family, about belief, about change. It's important.
Should there be more disabled actors out there? Absolutely. Should they play disabled and non-disabled characters? Absolutely. Should The Theory of Everything be ignored or censured because of this? Absolutely not. In my opinion.