Eddie Redmayne didn't set out to play a serial killer. In fact, he didn't know that he could. "You are always looking for parts of you that are unmined, that are untapped. Interestingly, I tend to be less good at finding them myself," he tells A.frame. "It's when directors see something in me that they think perhaps I'm capable of that I wouldn't necessarily find in myself that I tend to do the most interesting work."
The role in question is Charlie Cullen, who is confirmed to have murdered 29 patients but believed to have killed as many as 400 over 16 years working as a nurse, mostly by dosing IV bags with lethal amounts of insulin and other drugs. Redmayne stars as the so-called "angel of death" in director Tobias Lindholm's The Good Nurse, which tells the true story of how nurse Amy Loughren (played by Jessica Chastain) befriended Cullen when he started working at her hospital and ultimately helped bring him to justice, ending his killing spree.
Redmayne has played a number of real people before, including his Oscar-winning portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and Oscar-nominated turn as pioneering transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. But he's also made a career of embodying decent, stand-up blokes: The smitten assistant in My Week With Marilyn, the lovesick revolutionary in Les Misérables, the wizard with a soft spot for magical animals in the Fantastic Beast movies.
"It was never a part I necessarily would've felt that I was born to play — America's most prolific serial killer," Redmayne says with a laugh. "But Tobias saw something in me, and I'm thrilled he did."
"We needed one of the friendliest men alive," Lindholm explains, saying Redmayne was his first and only choice for the role. "Eddie is so likable, he's such a nice guy, so I thought, if we can get that quality and give it to Charlie Cullen, then we will understand why Amy befriends him. The fact is, we wanted to make a serial killer film about humanity. So, I really needed to humanize the serial killer — not humanize his actions, but humanize him as we meet him — so that the audience could identify and, like Amy, get lost in the friendship, and not really expect what was coming."
"At the same time, Eddie had proven in Theory of Everything how brilliant he was at showing a very rich inner life in almost no physicality, only with the eyes," the director continues. "The stories he told with his eyes in that one reminded me of what we needed from Charlie when he is not her friend anymore, when he changes into the killer Charlie Cullen. And I was certain that Eddie was the right one."
"I'm not an actor who can just jump from job to job," Redmayne says. Having first attached himself to The Good Nurse in 2018, he wouldn't start filming until April 2021, months after wrapping Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. "I need a long runway, in the sense that I need to start by approaching things from the ground up. I need time before so those things can embed in order that I can be playful and free when I'm working opposite someone."
Redmayne's preparation began with Cullen's physicality, working with choreographer and movement director Alexandra Reynolds to embody Cullen's specific way of moving through the world. "Charlie was described as looking like a question mark," the actor says. He studied the specificity of Cullen's voice with dialect coach Michael Buster. Chastain and Redmayne attended two weeks of nursing school to learn the skills required of a nurse working in the ICU, and then, dissected every scene with Lindholm during a month of rehearsals.
At the same time, Redmayne found himself returning to Charles Graeber's book, The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder. The movie, scripted by Oscar nominee Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), adapts only the final third of the book, when Cullen and Loughren's paths cross. The other 200 or so pages are an exacting account of the trauma Cullen first suffered in life before he began to inflict it onto others. Redmayne also had access to the real Loughren. "She spoke very intimately about her friendship with Charlie and the complexity of that — that this was two different human beings. She loved this man and he saved her life. And he was kind, and gentle, and empathetic, and then, he was this other human being who was someone unrecognizable."
What neither Graeber's book nor Loughren could tell Redmayne was why Charlie Cullen did what he did, because Cullen himself never revealed why. Redmayne was able to find intention in its absence.
"I didn't feel the need for the why," he says. "Because I felt that as an audience member or as someone hearing this story, we yearn for a why in order that we can explain this person who did monstrous things away as being other. As being something that, 'Well, he did this because of this and we would never do that.' Whereas, human beings are actually much more complex than that. I wasn't looking to interrogate the why for that reason — to not let an audience off."
Because The Good Nurse unfolds from Loughren's perspective, for much of the movie, Redmayne plays Cullen as she experiences him: An amiable colleague and caring friend, always around to lend a hand and great with her two young daughters. Amy only glimpses Charlie's true monstrous nature toward the end of the film.
"The end of the movie was right up at the end of filming. My family had gone home at that point, and I hadn't seen Jess for a few days. We definitely kept our distance for those days," Redmayne recalls of filming their final encounter in a police interrogation room. "I believe that our friendship and our total trust in each other as actors bled through that scene.
"Eddie and I had talked about that the [interrogation] scene needed to be the first place where we would unleash the beast, where we would show there's violence in him," Lindholm says. "But we had not talked about how. Instead of building a prison cell, I insisted on us shooting in a real small room in a basement, so that we would get that claustrophobic feeling of a camera and a whole crew being squeezed in around the actors. Then I surprised Eddie by handcuffing him to the table that morning. We had not talked about that. It was just something we did."
"And then, Eddie went for it in the first take, and this is a 16-minute-long scene we did, and we did it for 11 hours in a row," the director remembers. "For the first one, he just went for it. And what he did shocked me."
"I'm an actor that will commit everything when I'm on set," Redmayne says. "But I also need to be able to go home and be a functioning father and husband and human being."
Which is to say, he is not Method. The genial Brit only lived in the mind of the American serial killer for as long as he had to and, once he wrapped, there was no exhaustive process of cleansing himself of Charlie Cullen. He'd delved into his darkest role yet, and then, just continued onward with his life in the light.
"You'd have to ask my wife, but I feel like I'm quite good at shedding skins of characters," he says with a grin. "But then, I think you also take ashes of characters on with you. And certainly, I was very inspired after having worked with Tobias and he had pushed me to places that I'd felt reinvigorated. I knew that I was off to do a production of Cabaret in London. So, in order to keep that learning process going, I took myself off to a physical theater school in Paris to do some work that was very, very different. It was the theater of the absurd. It was, like, completely different, in order to keep shaking myself up. Because I had found the experience of The Good Nurse vitalizing in that way."
By John Boone