'Les Miserables': Reigniting the eternal heartache of Eponine and Marius
Eponine and Marius are not quite star-crossed lovers. They’re the couple that never was. The couple that, had Victor Hugo focus-tested the plot of Les Mis, would have probably won out over the pairing of Marius and Cosette. Scenes would have been rewritten to fulfill that overwhelming reader desire for Eponine to win his heart in the end.
But Hugo and Les Misérables don’t care about giving audiences something nice and pleasant, and frankly, having a crush that doesn’t like you back is the very least of anyone’s problems in 19th century France.
The film adaptation, opening Dec. 25, stays fairly true to the stage show, but Tom Hooper and company also added some narrative elements from Hugo’s novel, giving depth and backstories to characters that might have seemed too slight for the stage. Marius gets a family history, and Eponine is presented with more of a moral conflict, and they become richer characters because of it.
EW already talked to Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman about the roles of Fantine and Jean Valjean, now we hear what supporting actors Samantha Barks (a newcomer to film who played the role in London) and Eddie Redmayne (best known for My Week with Marilyn) had to say about creating that eternal long, lost love between Eponine and Marius.
As a bit of background, in the film, we meet Eponine at two stages in her life. First in 1815 as the spoiled child of the crooked inn owners, the Thénardiers (played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), and then in 1832 as a young woman whose life has gotten worse. Samantha Barks plays this older version of Eponine, as a kind of tragic cool girl. She’s desperately poor and living on the streets, but feisty and strong willed. She finds solace in her love for Marius (Redmayne), the handsome student revolutionary who never returns the feelings.
Marius is a young man who’s become estranged from his wealthy grandfather due to his radical political views. He joins up with a band of students with plans to revolt against the monarchy, but his revolutionary impulses waver when he spots the beautiful Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) in the streets one day and instantly falls in love with her. The crazy thing is, she instantly falls for him too. But of course nothing is that easy.
EW: Why do you think so many people love Eponine?
Samantha Barks: She’s such a relatable character. I always wanted to be Eponine.
She was always the theater nerd’s first experience with unrequited love.
I’m on Twitter and I get a lot of tweets saying, “I’m having such an Eponine day.” Or they’ll say “I’m listening to ‘On My Own’ and it’s totally summing up my day,” and I’m like, “It’ll be okay!”
We’ve all had unrequited love, where you love someone and they don’t love you back. For some people who have very empty lives or who go through really hard times, sometimes the one thing that keeps them on their feet is a burning love or desire for somebody. And I think that is sort of the main theme of Eponine.
You played Eponine for a year in London and then participated in the 25th Anniversary show. When did your love of musicals begin?
I grew up singing the whole of Les Mis. I’d just dream of seeing it. I grew up on a little island called the Isle of Man in the north of England. I never went to London my whole life. I never saw a West End show. I just dreamed of London. My life was like a West End show. I had a little karaoke machine that my family bought me. I set it up and I’d do these one-woman shows of Cats, Evita, and Les Misérables.
When I moved on to London, I was 16 and Les Mis was the first show I saw. I remember just being so moved by it. It was an out of body experience. It wasn’t like anything I had ever heard or seen before. It’s got this amazing underlying spiritual tone to it. It kind of moved me in ways I didn’t think anything could move me before.
To put music to such a stunning novel has created something so magical. So to be part of it on such a huge scale is mindblowing.
Frances Ruffelle originated the role of Eponine on stage in London and she has a cameo in the film as a prostitute. Had you met her before?
I was so excited to see her on screen! She’s a good friend of mine, actually.
Before I started on the West End, we did a duet of “On My Own.” I’ve got a long running relationship with her. And then we got to sing together again with the original cast. I also sang with Lea Salonga, who was another famous Eponine who did the 10th Anniversary.
Did Frances or Lea give you any advice for playing Eponine?
So many iconic people have played the role and there are so many renditions that you can’t imitate or mimic. Although you can admire and respect all those incredible performances like those two women, you’ve got to do your own thing.
And now you’re this generation’s Eponine.
Yay! Flying the flag for the heartbroken.
What was it like, working on your first film with this cast?
With Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, you’re not starting off lightly. I was like “I don’t know what they’re going to be like! I’ve never worked with anybody on this scale!” So I was petrified.
But having somebody like Hugh as the foundation of it? I couldn’t think of anyone better. He’s the perfect cross-section for what we were doing. He’s got so much musical theater experience and so much film experience. And you also felt like you were in safe hands with a director like Tom Hooper.
Did you bond with the cast?
I so instantly connected with everyone in very different ways.
Amanda (Seyfried) is so much fun! I’d spent a few weeks on the barricade with just the guys, so by the time she arrived for “A Heart Full of Love” I was so excited to have another female on set! I just wanted to talk about girly things like cupcakes and stuff.
Eponine and Fantine don’t overlap in time in Les Mis. Did you get to interact with Anne Hathaway at all?
Yes! We’d have these situations where we were like, “Me too! Me too!” We had so much in common and we’d send each other vegan and vegetarian recipes. Also we were all kind of losing a lot of weight for the film, so we’d all be there to support each other on that and talk about diets and exercise regimes.
Me and Annie love singing together too. We were like, “Can we just sing together always?” It was really fun.
We have to talk about what it was like to sing your big number, “On My Own,” on camera. Did you feel like you had a leg up on the rest of the cast, having performed it so many times before?
Eponine was the role I’d always wanted to play because I’d always wanted to sing that song. So now, even when I get to sing that song, literally the 7-year-old girl in my head is having a party.
I was overwhelmed because I’d never done film before. But what was amazing is that no one has experience in this, and that’s what you have to remember. This is the first time anyone’s ever done this so although you’ve got people like Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe who have so much film experience, and I have so much musical theater experience, none of us had ever experienced the live musical theater in a film, so we were all there to help each other.
What was it like singing in the rain?
It was one of the best days of my life and one of the hardest days of my life. Not only was I singing this song over and over and over again, but I was in the freezing rain too. And it wasn’t like normal rain. There was just one rain machine over my head. It was the heaviest rain I’d ever been in.
But biggest challenge wasn’t the rain dripping down your face. It was the fact that your costume is wet and it’s freezing. Half way through your teeth start chattering. Later on your ribs start uncontrollably shaking, and you’re like “body, calm down! Let’s get through this.” It was a challenging day, but it was so worth it!
When you get to see it, Eponine looks like a freezing cold shivering girl and it’s true, she was. It’s real.
And finally, why do you think she loves Marius?
She’s a criminal who’s come from a really horrible, horrible background with these really wicked parents. So she’s known nothing else other than a life of being kind of a criminal. She’s tragic from day one.
In her life of darkness is this beam of light in the form of one young beautiful student Marius. He’s come from a privileged background, but he wants to do good. And she’s never met someone like that.
And “On My Own” sums it up. She’s basically saying “I have nothing in my life. I’ve actually just turned my back on my family. I’ve got no home, got no family, got no money, got no friends.” But as long as she can have this idea that maybe they can one day be together, it kind of keeps her going. And I think it’s an interesting theme, that love can give you strength. And in the end it redeems her as a good person.
EW: What was your first experience with Les Mis? Had you been a fan?
Eddie Redmayne: My mom and dad took me and my brother to see Les Mis when I was about 8, and I basically hero-worshipped Gavroche. I just wanted to be him. My brother and I would occasionally sing the “Confrontation” bit. I’d sing Javert and he’d sing Valjean…but not quite as well as Hugh and Russell did it.
When I heard they were making it I was in North Carolina playing a Texan meth addict cowboy [in Hick]. I filmed myself singing with my iPhone, sent it to my agent and was like “I do sing. I enjoy singing. Is there any chance I can get in the running for this?”
You sang in a choir at Eton. Had you kept up? Did you have to relearn everything?
I loved singing when I was a kid and then I did it a little bit at school and then at college, and then kind of stopped when acting became what I was interested in.
What was wonderful about getting this film was that you then get the best singing teacher in the world who helps you … get yourself to a place where you can do it. And that’s what I found fascinating.
You know how you sort of watch actors like lose weight, like Annie had to do in this film, or like Hugh had to do, or put on a huge amount? So much of what the singing teacher made us do was a muscular thing on your throat. So rather than a singing exercise, it involved holding your tongue out and getting the back of your tongue strengthened.
I don’t actually know what that was about. But it did feel like a full on work out to get there!
You’d worked with Tom Hooper before on Elizabeth I. What was it like getting to work with him again?
Since Elizabeth I, he became a mate, and he would always come to see the plays that I was doing in London. It was very awkward because at the first audition he was like “you sing?” And I was like, “well I sort of sing.”
I felt like for film “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” would have to be sung a different way. So in the audition I’d sort of come up with a slightly different way of singing it unaccompanied and, in a way that can hopefully draw people in to the severity of what this guy’s just been through. And Tom found it interesting. So it was lovely when we both got excited about the prospect of it.
Was that it? Did you get the part after that?
No! Then it was sort of an X-Factor style audition process with a panel of judges like Cameron Mackintosh (producer of the original show, as well as the movie), Claude-Michel Schönberg (composer), and Alain Boublil (lyrics).
The great thing about this was, like, even though my audition process was pretty hardcore, so was everyone’s. Even Hugh’s, Russell’s, Amanda’s, Sam’s – and Sam had done the show! So there was this sort of instant bond because we had all gone through the mill to get the parts.
A few of the student revolutionaries in the cast had actually played Marius on stage as well.
Yes, several of them. Fortunately, I was green enough not to realize it till about day six. But they couldn’t have been more supportive and generous.
Did they give you any tips?
They were so lovely. They had some really helpful stuff. I would just ask if I was struggling. I would be like, “Alistair [Brammer], how did you do this bit?” Or, “Killian [Donnelley], what were you thinking here?”
So much of what we try to do on film is to make it sound, or make it feel – as you do with any piece you do – to make it sound like the thoughts had just arrived. But some of the stuff is so poetic. Particularly there’s that song “In My Life” and he’s singing [sings] “in my life, she has burst like the music of angels, the light of the sun. And my life, seems to start as if something is over and something has scarcely begun.”
It’s so full on, and so poetic. And so I’m like, how do you make that sound new? How do you make it sound fresh when it’s so poetic?
And Alastair was told me that he’d found this idea that maybe Marius wrote poetry, and he almost had written it out before, so it’s like he’s reciting something. That was really helpful.
Your big number, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” came rather late in production. What was that like?
There was this thing that would happen on the set that one by one you’d hear mumbles, like “Did you hear ‘I Dreamed a Dream’?” And then “On My Own,” and so on.
I once lied to Tom in an audition years ago for this Elizabeth I thing about being able to horse ride, and so there were various sadist things he did to me on this film to sort of get back at me, and one of them was every day he would go “oh, we just pushed ‘Empty Chairs’ back” and I was like “oh please just let me get this over with! Let me do it!”
And then he put you down in the sewers too! What WAS that stuff?
Oh my god. It was…I don’t know what it was. It was apparently clay something, and you’re swimming in it for a day and a half, you know? But again, Hugh Jackman never complains, so you’re certainly not allowed to complain.
I remember after sort of a day when we’re meant to be almost dead and Sacha (Baron Cohen) comes and steals my ring, and we were lying there and we were shivering. We’d been there for almost six hours, and Tom was like “guys you have to be still.” And we’re like “we can’t control our bodies! We’ve lost control!”
And then I have a makeup artist coming over and going “apparently it’s made of clay, very good for your skin!” And it’s like “Oh thanks, lovely to hear!”
Does Marius know that Eponine loves him?
I don’t think so. I think he sees her as a little sister.
It’s no secret that a lot of people are rooting for Marius and Eponine, though.
In the musical people are always like “Why don’t you just! Eponine is so sexy!” But what I love is the quiet strength that Amanda brings to Cosette. Her performance has made it a real love triangle.
Amanda manages to give weight to a part that has so little on the page of real substance. There’s that amazing moment in “A Heart Full of Love” where Marius goes [singing], “I don’t know what to say.” And she goes, “Then make no sound.” She’s so calm in it. She’s like, “So don’t speak.” And you can actually believe falling that quickly for someone that beautiful.
Rather than normally where people are like, “Oh come on Marius,” now people are going, “Oh well Eponine is so extraordinary, but oh I kind of get that [Cosette] too.” There’s a sort of dilemma there.
Love at first sight isn’t the easiest concept to convey.
I never really buy love at first sight on stage because it looks performed. Seeing Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo + Juliet and that way that the characters see each other through the fish tank, I was convinced that this would work better than the musical. It’s one of those moments where I sat there and thought, oh this will be interesting to see how that transfers to film.