Currently playing in theaters is the cinematic take on the classic stage musical, Les Misérables, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. The film is directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and stars Hugh Jackman (The Prestige, X-Men), Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises, Rachel Getting Married), Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind, L.A. Confidential), Amanda Seyfried (Alpha Dog, Mamma Mia!), Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn), and from the stage musical, Samatha Barks.
I recently had the chance to attend the press conference for Les Misérables at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City where I was able to speak with Tom Hooper, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Banks about their new film.
Jackman was asked about his dramatic weight loss and physical transformation for the role of Jean Valjean. “It’s a very big part of the story, this relationship Javert has with Valjean and they know each other right through the story. When they meet in the play it’s probably five minutes in where they re-meet nine years later and Javert has no idea who this guy is. And it’s plainly clear to everyone that the guy’s just taken a fake beard off and put on a grayer wig and it’s exactly the same guy. And Tom says ‘We actually have an opportunity here for all the characters to show time, scale, all these things.’ So he said, “I want to make you unrecognizable and if people in your life aren’t saying Man, you’re sick. Something’s wrong, what’s wrong with you? Then we haven’t gone far enough.’ So I did lose a lot of weight, and then had the joy of putting weight on, which was a thirty pound journey from the beginning. But I have to say all that pales in comparison to what this lady next to me did because at least I had time to prepare and do that. Annie was doing it over fourteen days; I think you lost about 300 pounds in fourteen days.”
Jackman went on to say, “I’ll just share a little story, and I can talk too much so just shut me up, but I had my hair cut off with those gashes in it and Annie had been talking about cutting her hair. She came in for her consultation with Tom and she walked in to the makeup room, where I was sitting there with my head shaved and I saw the look on her face, the reality dawning on her. And as she was talking to Tom and her makeup artist- and if you watch the movie again her hair stylist is a man, but obviously in the film was dressed up in a dress, because you need an actual hair stylist to cut her hair, right? So if you notice man-hands in a dress, you’ll see why. And I remember Annie going ‘Now, by the way, if you end up cutting my scalp and there’s blood- fantastic, let’s go for it.’ Tom was standing behind, and I put my hand up and said, ‘For the record I would like makeup. Fake scars, please’.”
Hathaway was asked about crying and expressing sorrow while singing. “. I don’t know that there’s any secrets to it, it’s just- it’s a pulse, it’s a vein that you follow. In my case there’s no way that I could relate to what my character was going through. I have a very successful, happy life and I don’t have any children that I’ve had to give up- or keep. [Laughs] And so what I did was I tried to get inside the reality of her story as it exists in our world. And to do that I read a lot of articles and watched a lot of documentaries and news clips about sexual slavery. And for me and for this particular story I came to the realization that I had been thinking about Fantine as someone who lived in the past, but she doesn’t. She’s living in New York City right now; she’s probably less than a block away. This injustice exists in our world and so every day that I was her I just thought this isn’t an invention, this isn’t me acting, this is me honoring that this pain lives in this world. And I hope that in my lifetime, in all of our lifetimes, like today, that we see it end.”
Barks noted, “I came at it from a point of view of I’ve done this show as a theater production and so for me when there’s rain pouring on your face, and you’re crying and you’re sniffley, and you kind of have to leave a bit of your vocal vanity at the door a bit. Because at first you’re thinking “Does it sound nice? Is it sounding right?” But I think that kind of realism in your voice kind of adds to the emotion of that live singing. Especially moments like “A Little Fall of Rain” with me and Eddie it allows you to sort enter into real crying, but trying to add that to your voice. Because when you speak and you cry you can hear it in someone’s voice, and I think to be able to hear that when somebody’s singing that only adds to the emotion of it.”
Jackman added a little light to the process of crying in the rain, “Tom Hooper from the beginning told us all there was going to be rehearsals. I’m not sure any of us expected nine weeks of rehearsals. I’ve never been on a film when an entire cast signs up for the entire time. I come from the theater, so for me rehearsal is vital and a way of life. There are many film directors who don’t believe in it and some actors who prefer not to rehearse, but with a musical you have to. We would rehearse full out, it wasn’t like a half-hearted thing, and Tom would be sitting here, he would in fact move his chair often to a very uncomfortably close place and do this the whole way. So everything that we ended up doing, it was brilliant. By the time we got to the set it was not uncomfortable having the camera that close. There had been times when I had, Annie, all of us had done a version of the song where there’s snot coming out of our noses and Tom would be like, ‘That’s a little too much.’ So everything was really tested properly, and I mention that because I am so grateful to Tom and everyone at Working Title and Universal that they spent the money and time on that to make it possible.”
Jackman was asked to discuss about how he saw his character Jean Valjean. “He’s obviously one of the great literary characters and I kind of see him as a real hero; quiet, humble. And Annie and I were just talking, there has been such a great reminder in the press today of the New York City cop who bought the shoes for the homeless man. To me Jean Valjean comes from a place of the greatest hardship that I could never imagine, I don’t think any of us here could, and manages to transform himself from the inside. Obviously on film we wanted to show the outside change as well, but actually Victor Hugo uses the word transfiguration, it’s even more than a transformation, because he becomes more god like, it’s a religious, it’s a spiritual change, it’s something that happens from within. It’s to me one of the most beautiful journeys ever written and I didn’t take the responsibility behind the role lightly. I think it’s one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had and if I’m a tenth of the man Jean Valjean is I’ll be a very happy man.”
Hathaway was asked about cutting her hair off. “I offered Tom the option of cutting my hair. It was always something I knew in the back of my mind that I would be willing to do for a character if it was ever the right thing to do. So when I got cast and I read the script and I knew that they were keeping the hair-cutting in, and then I read the book and it’s such a devastating scene in the book. I thought doing it for real might raise the stakes a bit for the character. And I guess I thought in the back of my mind if it was a painful experience watching her hair cut, then watching her teeth get pulled would be really painful, and then of course when she becomes a prostitute I just thought they’re going to be with her, feeling that alongside of her. And as an actor it was great to be able to authentically communicate a physical transformation.”
Tom Hooper decided to add one new musical number that was not in the original stage musical. Jackman discussed signing the new piece. “The song emanated from Tom Hooper’s realization in the book Victor Hugo talks about two lightning bolts of realization for Jean Valjean, one is of justice- virtue in fact. One is of virtue with the bishop, and one is of love when he meets Cosette and it describes that for the first time in a fifty-one year old man’s life he experiences love. I’m not sure if any of us can ever say we experienced that, but Tom said, “This is one of the most incredible dramatic moments ever written about and we don’t have a song for that? How could we miss that moment?” And it propels the entire second half of the movie for Jean Valjean and also adds the complexity, which Tom is about, which was really about-it’s not just simple, he doesn’t just look after Cosette; he’s terrified, he’s full of love and anxiety like every parent, and it’s a beautiful impulse. So he asked the guys to write a song. And I think I’ll count it definitely as one of the great honors of my life to have these two incredible composers write a song with your voice in mind, with my voice in mind. Whenever I get through singing it I feel like I’ve been singing it my whole life. It was an incredible honor.”
The cast was then asked to give their take on the culminating lyric, “to love another person is to see the face of god.” Hathaway leaned over and said “Amanda, why don’t you start? You’ve been all pretty and quiet over there,” which was a dig to Seyfried who had remained quiet thus far playing with her phone while the other cast members carried the discussion.
Seyfried responded, “I don’t know, it’s the most profound thing I think that you can ever hear someone say, and for it to be sung is just that much more powerful. It’s what we’re left with in the end and that’s why Les Mis has been such a phenomenon for so many years, because of the theme. What it’s about really in the end, to love. Through Claude-Michele’s music too. It’s the combination of everything that we’ve watched, and everything that we all are looking for.”
Barks agreed with her about the themes, “it’s that thing of redemption and hope. I think the lyric, “to love another person is to see the face of god,” for my part I felt that growing up in the world of the Thenardiers, and however hilarious as they are they’re very twisted, dark people. So for a character like Epionine whose never experienced good people, when she meets somebody like Marius who is a good man, and that kind of effect on her and love actually redeeming her. In one sense she does chose the natural path to her riches, which is she’s a criminal so it’s not the correct path to be on, but in the end she does do the right thing because I think love has actually redeemed her -although her ending is tragic, she does do the right thing. So I think love redeems her.”
Redmayne stated, “I felt like a sense as well, relating it to Claude-Michele’s score, that the tune that Colm Wilkinson, as the bishop, sings to Hugh at that moment in which god is placed into Jean Valjean’s life for the first time, how that recapitulates throughout the piece. And when I saw the film, the bit that absolutely stunned me is when Hugh and Isabelle [Allen] are running away from Javert and they come into the convent and you suddenly hear these nuns singing that piece, and its suddenly a choral piece, and this idea that Tom has woven in religious imagery throughout the piece, but suddenly to hear this music in an ecclesiastical setting. Something transcendental hit me in that moment, and I think it is something that Tom was very conscious about and sort of in some ways Claude-Michele and Alain [Boublil] and Herby [Kretzmer] in the last moments of the film conclude with something that they’ve woven throughout the entire piece.”
Hathaway felt, “it’s the answer to the question that Jean Valjean asks in the prologue, ‘What spirit comes to move my life?’ And he spends the rest of the film answering that question. And a brief sidebar, I just wanted to make sure that I impress upon everyone in this room, I don’t want you to walk out of here charmed by Hugh Jackman. Because we all know that he’s a miracle and we all know that he can get up and make friends with everyone and be totally friendly and sometimes I think that keeps people from seeing his genius as an actor. And I just want to say the reason that that line resonates with you is because we’ve witnessed it in his performance the entire time. What he does in this film is inspiring, and we were all inspired by him, he was absolutely our leader. So I just don’t want his nice guy thing to distract you from the fact that he is a deep, serious and profoundly gifted actor.”
Jackman commented, “I think you’ve hit on, to me, the most powerful line of the musical and what Victor Hugo was talking about. And of course for Victor Hugo there’s a large comment in the book about the church at the time, it made him very, very unpopular when he wrote it. It was a big behemoth, powerful, distant, quite excluding thing. There’s a lot of fire and brimstone and I think he was reminding everyone at the time of the Jesus Christ example, which is to love people. And it’s never been more relevant. I mean we saw it on the street with the cop. There could be a fair dose of that right now in the Middle East, dare I say it, I think in many places. I think for all of us the idea, the philosophy that actually you don’t need to go to the top of a mountain in Tibet to find self-realization. You don’t necessarily need to do great things or listen to spiritual leaders, or whatever it is. The first thing you have to do is be present, know what you stand for in life and face what is in front of you. And as Annie reminded me this morning, that’s that cop in Time’s Square, the humanity of just seeing what was required. That’s real love and that’s probably the point of Victor Hugo, and I agree with him the answer is to love. So I think you hit right on it, thank you.”
The cast members were all huge fans of the stage musical, Les Miserables. Hathaway stated, “I also think it cannot be understated we are all massive Les Mis geeks… I think we’re all kind of slightly worried that this is not really happening. That we’re all in some strange, odd mutual trip and were all hallucinating… But we were all such fans of it that I think we all showed up on the first day with enormous gratitude, as you said, that the responsibility of telling this story was entrusted to us. And it was great to share stories. When was the first time you saw it? Who did you want to be at first?”
Jackman went on to say, “I remember one of the first days of filming I was singing the soliloquy, that first number in the church and I remember we were down in the church. It was this beautiful place in London, real old church. I came up the steps, these winding, stone steps and Annie was at the top there and she just came over and she had tears in her eyes and she was hugging me, and she goes ‘I’m not going to miss this for the world.’ It was like that. I’ve never known that on a film before. We were all kind of there for each other. It had the feeling of the closest stage show I’ve ever been involved with, but it was a film, which is unusual. Yeah, we’ll be bonded for life for what we went through.”
Les Miserables is now playing in theaters everywhere!