We’re shooting a film in Cambridge, they said.
We’ll fly you over, they said.
You’ll be perfect for the part, they said.
And you’ll be working with Stephen Hawking, they said.
It was October 2003. What the whaaaaat? It was one of those (for me) rare halcyon moments in the career of a working actor where, honestly, you would have done the work for free.
I had just given birth to my first child and the thought of being flown over to the UK from Los Angeles so the first grandchild could spend a week with her British grandparents was heaven. Oh wait, and I get to work? And I get to work with Stephen Hawking?
I was cast to play his assistant for an IMAX film about Stephen’s theory of space. We would be working together for a week on one of the most iconic, breathtaking campuses in the world.
On my first day, I caught sight of Stephen in the distance. What would he be like? Here was the real man! Well I can tell you. He was an absolute and utter charmer with a twinkle in his eye and a rakish lopsided sly grin. A ladies’ man. A shameless rogue in an ironclad suit. I warmed to him on sight even as I stood in awe of him.
Everything was slow around Stephen. He commanded enormous respect. No one rushed him, and no one preempted what he was going to say. This was an almost overwhelming temptation at times as you watched him slowly choose screen by screen, then line by line, then word by word on his electronic board to tap out a single sentence. What was completely delicious was that – for such time-consumingly hard work – you might expect that the only phrases he ever spoke were of deep brilliance or far reaching import. Not a bit of it. He was extremely funny, with a quick and dry wit and an appreciative sense of humour.
Which he needed to have. Working alongside him over several days, I got to observe at close quarters just a glimpse of what it required of him every day just to stay alive. The preparation by others and consumption by him of a snack as simple as minutely cut up kiwi fruit took half an hour. And then there were tubes and tissues and who knows what behind closed doors. No one would have blamed him if he’d been foul or grumpy. I’m sure he had moments like anyone, but I never saw it. He never got impatient. He seemed present to the present.
Anyone who has worked in film knows that it is a painstakingly slow process anyway. All “Hurry up and wait.” During one set up, Stephen and I were waiting on our own together for about an hour. I remember a quiet passing of the time and much laughter at my ability – or feared non-ability – to smash a Galileo thermometer off his desk without hitting him in the eye. I was terrified I’d hurt him, while he was hugely amused. Thankfully it went off – several times – without a hitch. Only then did he admit that I’d done better than he’d expected.
Filmmaking is tiring so heaven knows what it was like for him. I talked at length with his second wife, Elaine, who was always present on set with us. How did he do all those lectures? I asked. How did he manage the volume of daily mail (there were sacks of it)? However long did it possibly take for him to compose an article, let alone write a book?
I got to see his office where, among other photos of him with famous people he’d met, he had a photoshopped picture of himself hanging out by a sports car with Marilyn Monroe. I told you.
What I learned most from being around Stephen was the power of patience, passion and sheer bloody minded determination. It seemed to me that the only reason Stephen survived so many decades beyond his original diagnosis was single-minded perseverance. His life hung so precariously in the balance every single day given how much care, attention and time it took just to keep him functioning, it would have been more than easy simply to give up.
The brilliance of his mind was clearly matched by the passion of his heart. For life, for love, for science, for human endeavour and discovery. And over all of this, he still had the capacity for loving life and fun.
My last memory of the shoot was of Stephen at the cast dinner. It was a small cast and crew, and we had become close. We were in a tiny restaurant, just us, and it was softly snowing outside. Everyone was having a great time and everyone, myself included, was feeling quite emotional about what we’d wrapped. I looked down the table and saw Stephen sitting with Elaine. He was wolfing down a dozen oysters and knocking back some fabulous claret with a huge smile on his face.
A man of our times. A man beyond our times. A man we got to keep way beyond his allotted time because of his determination to do so.
God bless you, Stephen, and thank you. You were a delight to be around, and a gift to the world.
We will miss you.
jsg/march 14, 2018