'Les Miserables': First interviews with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway
Les Miserables fans can be forgiven for not wanting to wait “One Day More.”
The big-screen musical is coming to theaters 25 years after the debut of the Tony-winning Broadway show, 150 years after Victor Hugo penned his epic novel, and 180 years after the Paris uprising that inspired the story.
It’s one of the most eagerly – and impatiently – awaited films of award season, and won’t begin screening for critics, guilds, and Academy voters until after Thanksgiving. Moviegoers will have to hold on even longer, until Dec. 25, for their chance.
But Entertainment Weekly’s Prize Fighter saw an exclusive rough-cut preview of the movie, and as a special pre-holiday treat we present the first major interviews with stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.
Consider this an appetizer before the main course.
First, a little background: Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a poor man once imprisoned for stealing bread who receives an unexpected gift that allows him to become a respected member of society – but only after turning fugitive and changing his identity.
Anne Hathaway is Fantine, a woman who works in the newly respectable Valjean’s factory until nattering co-workers force her out after discovering she has an out-of-wedlock child. From there, she has few options beyond selling her body to raise money for the little girl’s care.
Valjean fails to intercede on her behalf because he remains under the suspicion of a police officer, the merciless former prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe,) and fears rocking the boat might draw attention to his true identity.
Even before it screens, Les Miserables, directed by The King’s Speech Oscar-winner Tom Hooper, is already considered one of Oscar season’s power players, with lush costumes, make-up, production design, and cinematography, and complex editing to join together its live-sung performances (We’re promised there is no lip-synching in this film.)
Jackman is a contender for lead actor, and Hathaway is a front-runner for supporting actress, though the film has a host of potential nominees: Crowe as the imperious Javert, Amanda Seyfried as Fantine’s grown-daughter Cosette, and My Week With Marilyn’s Eddie Redmayne as the student revolutionary Marius.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter deliver comic relief as well as menace as the thieving innkeepers the Thenardiers, and newcomer Samantha Barks makes her film debut as Eponine, their surprisingly warm-hearted daughter.
After watching the rough cut of Les Miserables, I found myself walking out of the theater and asking: What the hell do I contribute to the world?
Hugh Jackman: [Laughs.] Yeah! I found that after reading the book. I felt, ‘Wow, I’m not really measuring up here at all.’ I will never ever complain about the weather again.
Everyone in the movie sings live instead of lip-synching to pre-recorded songs. [NOTE: Check out the video above for more details on this technique.] It’s not how movie musicals are normally done, so did you start with something easy to warm up?
No, one of my biggest songs was on the first day, which was probably a good idea. It was the soliloquy at the beginning [“What Have I Done,”] which is a very emotional song, and it was great to make that first because it’s one of the toughest.
So you jumped right in to the deep end. Did it immediately feel comfortable after that?
I suppose it was a bit like doing a nude scene. When you take your clothes off, everybody is self-conscious, but within an hour … It’s nothing. [Laughs.] I definitely felt more and more comfortable as we went. I think everybody did. It would become normal. Everyone was singing. Even the crew was singing!
At least with a nude scene, the crew workers don’t take their clothes off! Given your longtime love of musicals, would you shoot another this way?
If I ever had it do to again, I would much prefer to sing live. There’s something about the crucible of that moment, where everybody – the crew, you, the music – has to come together and work. It’s frightening, but it’s exciting.
Musicals are frequently an unabashedly happy genre, but in Les Mis we see what pushing people to the fringe of society can do to them. The poor struggling and dying. People starving, and children in bad homes. There’s a lot of pain in this movie, as well.
There is, you’re right. He put Les Miserables in the title because you can’t tell this story in any way without exploring that. How do people behave under that? You have the Thenadiers, these survivors, these parasites, who go around and find a way to survive in it all. They’re not altruistic, they’re not empathetic, they’re not idealistic in any way, shape or form. But they scurry around and survive, and we somehow enjoy them too. The full gamut of human nature is on display here. But my feeling is that ultimately it’s uplifting. Valjean, who is someone to look up to, is pretty amazing what he does and what he gives.
NEXT PAGE: Jackman confronts the original Valjean…
Let’s talk about two of your co-stars: the first is Colm Wilkinson, who plays the bishop – a man who gives Valjean a shockingly generous gift that allows him to reinvent himself. Wilkinson originated the role of Valjean on Broadway and in London’s West End, so it seems appropriate that he gets to play this critical part in Valjean’s evolution.
He was that first week of shooting, so it felt odd because Colm was one of the most famous people to ever play the role. I saw him a year before when I did the film, when I was doing my one-man stage show, and it was great to meet him and work with him. There was this strange feeling of him saying, ‘Hey man, it’s all yours. It’s all good.’
Since he played Jean Valjean for years, was there anything valuable you picked up from him?
I did ask him a couple questions, but I remember him saying at one point, ‘It doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is you do it your way.’ He said, ‘I’ve been to some shows, and I see them trying to do it the way I did. And I actually didn’t do it the way it was written. In the end, the way it was written didn’t really serve me, so I changed it. And now people think that’s how it was written, when it wasn’t.’
What a very Valjean thing to do – defy the rules.
That’s absolutely right! The other thing he said was he used to read the book periodically when doing the show, because it’s like dipping into gold. I’d read the book a couple of times, and I marked it up so I would read the scene written in the book the night before I would go on and act the scene in the film.
NEXT PAGE: Jackman’s rivalry with Russell Crowe
The other co-star I wanted to talk about was Russell Crowe. Valjean is very New Testament, all about forgiveness and redemption, and Javert is very Old Testament, much more about wrath and judgment.
We really pushed each other. That rivalry at the beginning, it really is a constant throughout. It had to be strong, and it’s really one of the spines of the story, that runs from beginning to end.
Was there rivalry in real life between you?
[Laughs.] Russell and I actually became very close friends. We were good friends before. We knew each other a lot. And Russell has given me advice several times at key moments in my life that helped with my career. I also owe him because two of the biggest roles I’ve ever had in my life, he turned down – and suggested me for them.
Which ones were those?
On X-Men, he was Bryan Singer’s first choice for Wolverine, and he mentioned me also for [Baz Luhrmann’s] Australia. He really is incredibly smart, and generous. It was a joy to work with him. The whole cast it was a great sense of ensemble. We all had that feeling it was going to take everything.
So Les Mis is too demanding for one-upsmanship?
It’s a real challenge, and we were there for each other. Some days I’d be doing a song, and he’d come support me. And vice versa. We got to know each other really well and go around together, having sing-alongs [off-set]. It’s actually one of the great bonuses of this job was getting to know Russell better. I remember him saying, ‘I feel a feeling I haven’t for a long time doing this movie — kind of good-scared.’ This is the scared you want to be, where it takes everything from you.
There are a lot of characters in this story, but it really comes down to these two, doesn’t it? As the audience, maybe we want to be like Valjean, but find ourselves more often acting like Javert – being uncompromising.
This is very much Victor Hugo’s thesis about Javert being so intractable and full of rules and seemingly without mercy. Valjean is obviously closer to Hugo’s belief — and closer to my belief — that love has to be spontaneous and that judgment for people has to be toward mercy and love, and not just black and white.
It’s about generosity vs. survival – but you can’t be fully one or the other. You need them both, right?
To me it’s one of the most fascinating parts of Les Mis. At what point does discipline become too harsh, and at what point is it really your friend? When does it go from a friend to an enemy? There is no answer to this, but that’s what interests me.
What was your first experience with Les Miserables?
Anne Hathaway: My first experience was seeing my mom in the show. I was 7 and she was cast in the first national tour as the factory girl who gets Fantine fired. And she [understudied] for Fantine. So my first time seeing the show was when she was the factory girl, and my second time seeing the show was when she played Fantine.
You’re joining the family business!
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] I’ve been hired into the family business – of simulating prostitution and death.
There are some grim parts of this story for a little kid. How did you feel watching it, especially since it’s your own mother playing the desperate, ailing mother of another small girl?
It was intense seeing it. It felt overbearing when I saw my mom do it. I was so emotional when she suffered. I knew it was a combination of being 7 and watching my mother [in pain], but also being incredibly moved by the unfairness of the story.
When you were trying to land the role, did your mother have any useful guidance?
I didn’t know if I should even tell her I was auditioning, just because the pressure was big enough already. I knew she would want me to get it even more than me wanting to get it. But then I thought, no I can’t do that. That’s wrong. So I told her about it. She was so excited.
And were you right? Did that add more pressure?
She kept it together so as not to freak me out. [Laughs.] We talked about the song [“I Dreamed a Dream”], and she gave me a deeper understanding of it. She told me that whenever she would sing “Cosette, it’s past your bedtime / You’ve played the day away …” that she always thought of me, and kept a picture of me in her dressing room to visualize as Cossette. That’s just the coolest thing ever. Somehow knowing it was so deeply in my blood, I was able to really relax for the audition. I felt like I had almost a 20-year head-start over every other actor.
The defining thing is that Fantine is a mother – the ultimate caregiver, willing to do anything for her child. It’s nice that your own mom was able to sort of pass something from the role on to you.
That’s the other thing. I don’t have children yet – though God-willing, I will someday soon – but I was able to feel such a strong connection with the material through my mother. Especially knowing this was the last performance my mother ever gave before retiring from acting and becoming a full-time mother. Knowing that was her sacrifice made the emotions very accessible and brought them to the surface very quickly.
You experienced the play early, but did you read the book when you were younger?
The thing that most upset about when I read the book was I haven’t read it sooner. I was a precocious youngster, and tried to read it when I was 13, I think mainly to show people I was reading Les Miserables. [Laughs.] But I couldn’t get past the first 15 pages. I put it down and picked it up occasionally.
I’ve had some books like that too. I tried to read Look Homeward Angel when I was that age, probably for the same reason.
Did you finish it?
I spent the whole summer working on that book, but by the time I got to the end I could hardly remember how it started.
Well done. [Laughs.] I did that with Vonnegut one summer. I read every single Vonnegut book, and it was all for nothing because now they’re all kind of fused into one book in my head.
What useful thing did you eventually discover in the Victor Hugo’s novel?
There’s a beautiful part of the book that describes what happens to Jean Valjean because of Cossette comes into his life. For the first time, he learns to love. He had a kind of a detached love for humanity, in terms of ‘I must do right, I must do right,’ but it’s not connected to a feeling. It’s more intellectual. And Cosette is really what allows his heart to melt. My character is the beginning of that story.
Fantine’s misery forces Valjean to reevaluate his own existence, and try to rescue Cosette, this poor woman’s daughter. She takes doing the right thing out of the abstract for Valjean, but is that enough to prevent her story from being a somewhat hopeless one?
I’ve read a lot of criticism of the book, and a lot of critics talked about how Fantine and Cosette are just general women, that there’s not really a whole lot to each character. I take issue with that, because I was so grateful to Hugo for humanizing what can often just be an archetype – the Fallen Woman. He shows that there are layers underneath what you see in the world, without making Fantine a total victim … Well, I shouldn’t say that. She is a total victim. But the Fantine you meet when she’s a prostitute is not the Fantine you meet at the beginning.
And there’s a strong callous streak in people that says, well help yourself if you are poor and suffering, but it’s not always that easy.
It’s not the world that has its way with us; it’s the people in the world. I felt I knew Fantine. I felt so sorry for her. Then doing more research I found the story echoed again and again and again in the world today. There are Fantines all around us. There are Jean Valjeans among us.
Fantine’s signature song is “I Dreamed a Dream.” [Featured in the trailer above.] What was it like while filming that sequence?
It was like splitting yourself open, and not as much being naked as letting your innards be seen.
Those who know it only as Susan Boyle’s signature song will be surprised to see its true origins as a kind of bitter and cynical scoff, sung by a woman who is basically telling life to f–k off.
It wasn’t a happy recollection, as I’ve seen it played off. [This version] was making God accountable, saying ‘How bad, really, was my sin?’ The part of me outside myself was aware of the greatness of the task at hand. The part of me that had to actually sing the song was so unspeakably angry.
You all sang live on set instead of recording the songs in advance and lip-synching during the shoot, so how did that change the way you performed “I Dreamed a Dream”?
I had decided on the broad strokes of the performance, I wasn’t going to sing it like you would have to in a theater. I didn’t have to convey the message to the back of the house. I had to put the message in my eyes and let the emotion live in my voice, as opposed to trying to sing the song in a way that would be, um, aurally pleasing.
It’s filmed all in one take. How many times did you have to do it while maintaining that intense breakdown?
I did the first take – and wasn’t happy with it. I started the second take, and stopped. We had these earpieces [feeding the music], and it wasn’t my favorite thing. It was great when you had dialogue scenes. But when it’s just you and a piano, they couldn’t turn them up to a volume that would drown out your voice in your head.
Why was that a problem?
I realized I was listening to myself, and that was going to be the death of everything. We normally only wore one earpiece, but I asked for another one and I stuffed them so far down into my ear that I couldn’t hear what I was doing. And I just let it rip.
Did that help?
I felt myself take off — not the way I wanted to. But still, I left the ground, and finished. Tom came up to me and said, ‘I’m good.’ And I wanted to try to push for better than that so I did another eight takes and it never, never left the ground again. [Laughs.] So at the end of the day, I was like well that’s the performance! I have no idea if I was on pitch, but I certainly did feel it. I was quite nervous about it, but then my parents came to visit a few weeks later and watched it and said it was good.
Why did you not want to hear it yourself while performing, or watch it after?
I’m just your average actor with all your hangs up and neuroses. I was just trying to get out of my own way.
Before she turns to prostitution, Fantine sells her hair, sells her teeth, and wastes away to almost nothing. You didn’t lose actual teeth, but you cut your hair off and made some other sacrifices for this role.
Because of the weight loss and haircut, I pretty much got to do my performance in sequence. Before we started filming I lost 10 pounds and from the beginning of filming to when she is arrested, I had 14 days to lose 14 pounds, and I ended up losing fifteen. I lost 24 pounds total.
Didn’t that mess with your concentration during filming?
I couldn’t sleep. I was so starving, my body was keeping me awake at night, like it was telling me: Go look for food. I was kind of in this otherworldly, slightly ecstatic manic state all the time.
And you can’t really leave that behind on set, can you?
I had nothing else going on in my life! So there was no way to distract myself. At the end of a long day, I couldn’t go home and comfort myself with a drink or with food. It was all Les Mis, all the time.
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