A new film, “The Aeronauts,” tells a little-known chapter in the history of flight: The quest to go higher than anyone in history — in a balloon.
Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne stars as scientist James Glaisher, who attempted to set the altitude record in 1862. Felicity Jones, who previously worked with Redmayne in “The Theory Of Everything,” costars in the film as well.
Glaisher was a 19th century meteorologist at a time when trying to predict the weather was “deemed absurd,” Redmayne says. He used a gas balloon to study the skies and mysterious forces governing the weather.
“He was sort of looked down on and meteorology was seen as sort of hocus pocus,” Redmayne says. “And for me, one of the things I found riveting is it was a moment in history which I knew nothing about. And it actually never occurred to me that there was a time when people, of course, didn't have any idea what was coming.”
Redmayne says he was drawn to the film because it tells a story about “the pioneering sense of the unknown.” Not only did people not know how to predict the weather, but this period also marked advances in the early history of flight.
“We're now, of course, so numb to seeing the world from the sky because people go in airplanes, and it was how do you make an audience look at that anew and fresh?” Redmayne says. “And going up in an air balloon is a very specific thing, particularly gas balloons, which is what these guys flew in, because it's so silent. But you're completely at the whim of the elements.”
On filming in a gas balloon
“The important differentiation is these were gas balloons, so they don't really exist in the U.K. anymore. That is to say, a helium or hydrogen balloon taped in by a net, basically, and attached to a basket. And the way you go up is by letting it go, and the way you come down is by pulling a rope that lets the gas out. And the other thing you can use is you can throw off balance to make you go higher. So really, they built a balloon for our film that they recreated the Mammoth, the famous balloon from this flight. But in our country, there aren't many people who fly gas balloons anymore.
“So they built one, and we went off on our first few days of filming. Felicity and I were in costume, and they shot us from helicopters and drones. And Felicity Jones, who's in the film with me does astonishing things in this movie as far as risk is concerned, and she was sitting up in the hoop of the balloon, despite the fact that we are thousands of feet in the air. But it was incredibly peaceful and very beautiful, while these drones and helicopters were shooting. And when they left, they sort of disappeared off once they got the footage they needed, and we just had to land.
“But of course, the technology hasn't changed for 150 years, and so our landing was particularly catastrophic. Felicity very nearly killed us. And so it was a scary few days of filming in the balloons, but with one really quite intense crash. And from then on, we moved into studios where this basket was suspended around blue curtains. And although, interestingly, they refrigerated the studio so that you could feel the cold and the breath.”
On working with Felicity Jones again
“One of the great appeals for me with this film [was] when I was sent the script was the idea of getting to play opposite Felicity again, who I just adore as an actor and as a friend. And that weird thing that actors have that often you become very close to people when you're working, and you push each other and get to learn each other's process and then you go off and start a new thing. And actually to come back and work with someone, picking up where you left off, was an intriguing idea and we loved it. We were also stuck in a tiny basket for months on end, so it was important we got on.”
On acting without speaking, like he did in “The Theory Of Everything”
“The character gets hypoxia at a moment in which Felicity's character has to kind of save their lives. But it was interesting. One of the things I love about what I do is that you get to go and research it, and you're given the freedom to go and play around it. So the hypoxia element of the film, we actually went, the director and I, to this place where they put pilots who are training into these tanks and change the air pressure to recreate what it's like at 30,000 feet. And what's interesting is that rather than feeling dreamy, and you actually get incredibly confident that they make you do these tests of sort of one plus one and you're sitting there and they make you do it every three seconds. ... And you get more and more drunk and confident, weirdly.
“So that was interesting in bringing all of those sort of things that you learn and trying to find ways into the piece with it. There were definitely similarities. I mean, there was a moment when I spent a lot of the past six years in tweed or in period drama costumes. I was sort of looking to do an American contemporary piece, and then this came along. Play an English period drama, playing a scientist. And yet, there was something in it that wasn't necessarily what I'd been looking for, but it was something that I found completely unique.”
On how winning an Oscar changed his career
“I think that the reality is that it gives you more choice. And that's something, you know, for many years when you're starting out as an actor, you audition for things and you get what you're given, and you're lucky enough to be employed. And then something like 'The Theory Of Everything' happens and suddenly you're sent more things and given more of a sense of choice. But it's interesting because when you're starting out as a kid, you get sent a script and it's like, 'Cate Blanchett is attached to this, with this director and this and that.' That comes with a sense of expectation. Or you go, 'Oh, those are brilliant actors. And that's a wonderful thing.' Whereas suddenly you're being given the script before there's a director attached or early on in the process. And so it's suddenly it's your thoughts and ideas and taste rather than that of someone else.”
On fans’ reactions to the “Fantastic Beasts” films
“There's a particular age when magic is still completely real, in which I always feel like I let people down by not being [able to] sort of whip out a Niffler from my pocket or a sort of extraordinary magical creature of some description. And it's an amazing thing. It's a really wonderful thing because you make films in these vacuums, and whereas with theater you see an audience every night. You can feel whether they're coming on the ride with you or enjoying it. And what's weird with films is you make them at this particular moment in time, and then they come out a year later and even though you sort of know they're in cinemas or they're streaming. you don't necessarily know that people ... it feels odd that the people are actually going out and watching it. So when people come and react with excitement and joy and particularly something that's aimed with kids in mind, it's really special.”
This segment aired on December 5, 2019.