Yet, the two have more in common than one might think, at least according to star Dominic West, who portrays Jean Valjean, a.k.a. Prisoner 24601.
Valjean begins the series, now a six-part miniseries premiering on PBS’ Masterpiece Sunday, newly emerged from 19 years in prison. He begins his life anew, wanting to shed his past and build a life for himself — but the dogged pursuit of his former prison guard, the newly minted Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo), puts him once more on the run.
That obsession, which finds Javert tracking Valjean across France, reminded West of a key scene in Mean Girls and popular meme. “This is a massive case of Why are you so obsessed with me?,” he jokes. “Jean Valjean and Javert really are Mean Girls, and it’s not clear why Javert is so obsessed with him. To an astonishing degree.”
For West, one of the most difficult parts of the role was exploring that cat-and-mouse game and why these characters can’t let go of each other. He says his costar David Oyelowo slightly disagreed with West’s assessment, which is that the relationship has an element of something “psychosexual.”
He explains, “There is a moment in our TV series where I strip off in front of David, as a prisoner; I’m being released and he does cop a glance…There’s a certain sexual obsession. There’s something going on between these two men. And we didn’t want to play that too much. It’s not explicit in the writing, and certainly not in Victor Hugo, but I think with our modern sensibilities you’ve got to look for an impulse that strong. And there’s no stronger impulse than love and sex.”
West is bursting with pop culture comparisons for the new Andrew Davies adaptation of the tale, which is known most famously to people in the form of the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil musical. This six-part miniseries, which debuts April 14 at 9 p.m., is not a musical and hews more closely to the novel.
In advance of the premiere, EW called up West to talk how much the musical inspired him (hint: not at all), why Iron Man ain’t got nothing on Valjean, and what it was like trying to keep his cool opposite Oscar winner Olivia Colman’s comedic antics.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How familiar were you with Les Mis when you signed on? With the musical’s popularity, it seems almost unavoidable, especially in Britain.
DOMINIC WEST: I escaped it! I hadn’t seen the musical and I hadn’t seen all of the film of the musical, so I was pretty new to it all. I certainly hadn’t read it. If I was honest, I was slightly put off by the musical. I also thought, “Well it’s just been made into a film. What’s the point of doing it again?” Then I read Andrew’s scripts and I saw why it was a classic. Then I read a book, and then I decided I thought it was the greatest hero in literature and I had to do it, but before all that I didn’t really know much about it at all.
Something that struck me in this adaptation is how much we really get a sense that Valjean is a scary guy. He’s a hardened criminal who is reforming, and we see that in the ferocity you lend him in early episodes. For you, how did you tap into that and then how did you hammer out the journey to his gentler side?
The problem with the story is the only thing he’s guilty of is stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his starving nieces and nephews, who when he then gets jailed for that, they then presumably all die. This guy hasn’t done anything wrong. In fact, he’s been completely wronged. That’s one way you find how brutalized he’s been, how unfair he feels the world has been to him. There’s a rage in there which I found because he’s constantly being told he’s a beast, he’s a brute, he’s a good-for-nothing. Throughout the story, he’s constantly thinking of that of himself. So, he does need to be as brutish and as frightening as possible at the beginning. If he’s always been a nice guy, there’s not much of a journey to go on. It’s just more dramatic when the Bishop shows love to this guy if he’s terrifying.
I was watching the first episode the day the sentencing for Paul Manafort came out here, and it struck me that Jean Valjean got 19 years for a loaf of bread and this guy got way less for something objectively worse.
[Laughs] Yeah. It’d be great if he got 19 years hard labor. [Laughs] It was a real problem for me getting my head around that, you just sort of think, “Hang on a second, a loaf of bread?” That is just nuts. That’s crazy. But that was one of the big things that I had to come to terms with in terms of psychological things with Jean Valjean —this sense that if you brutalize people, then they believe they’re not worthy of anything. They believe they are brutish and they behave accordingly. That’s a lot what Victor Hugo was trying to talk about.
David Oyelowo is your foil as Javert. What was that push and pull like with him?
He took the lead on it really. I kept trying to get to know him and go out for dinner with him or something, and he kept avoiding me and ignoring me. I thought, “Oh, he’s not very friendly.” And then at the end when we finished, we went out, we had this great time and I said, “It’s such a shame we’re only just getting to know each other now.” Then he said, “Oh no, that was totally deliberate. I didn’t want to get to know you. I didn’t want to feel easy with you.” And he’s right – if you socialize with people, there is a chemistry between you, there is an ease between you, which the camera catches.
Andrew Davies is so well-regarded as an adaptor, having tackled everyone from Austen to Dickens to Tolstoy. Why do you think he has such a knack for adapting these very big books by canonical authors?
He won’t do a book that’s less than two inches thick, I think. [Laughs] But I suppose he got good at it with Pride and Prejudice. When I was looking back at the scripts having read the novel, [I noticed] almost every significant and memorable scene that I remember from the novel, he managed to somehow get into the screenplay. And when you consider how long the novel is, that’s an extraordinary achievement. He’s just very good at selecting the nuggets and finessing the bumpy bits. Because another thing that strikes you when you try to work out what happened, there’s an enormous amount of coincidence, as typical of 19th-century novels I suppose. What he’s very good at doing is condensing the important stuff, but also of unknotting the more grating bits of structure, which modern audiences don’t really buy.
You have some great face-offs with Olivia Colman as Madame Thenardier, and you’ve both been praised for your dry wit and sense of humor on set, so what was the funniest moment you shared together while making this?
[Laughs] Oh god, well the trouble with her is she’s so damn good that she can be roaring with laughter right up to action and then suddenly she’ll do the most devastating scene of sadness. I thought I could do that, and I thought I could run with the big leagues, but I couldn’t…There’s a big fight scene where they all pin me down on the table, [and] she gets me by the hair. She did pull my hair quite deliberately I think. Then I get a red hot iron bar out of the stove and I burn myself with it to show them how it’s nothing to me. But anyway, it’s a serious scene for Valjean. As we were preparing before action, she and Adeel [Akhtar], who played Monsieur Thenardier were doing this impression of this couple who are on British TV [on] a thing called Goggle Box, which shows ordinary people watching TV. Everyone’s crying with laughter listening to their impression of this couple. She was constantly doing impressions and cracking jokes, and I just remember that one scene where I realized I had to stop listening to her and concentrate on the work at hand.
In some ways, this story is more religious than modern audiences often see – was that an aspect you tapped into? How do you feel about Hugo’s assessment of God in this story and God’s power in Valjean’s life and destiny?
It’s obviously central. Hugo does a three chapter dissertation on the state of the Catholic church, nunneries in particular. He’s not a great fan of Catholicism, but he’s definitely a believer in God. You can’t really do Valjean without having that dimension to him. He believes in God; he believes he’s been saved and can be redeemed. That’s fundamental to him. You can’t understand him without that. The candlesticks become a symbol of that belief in God. This Archbishop, who gives him the candlesticks, is a wholly good person and the power of that virtue is what turns Valjean into a hero. That virtue does not come divorced from his God. That does not exist in a vacuum. My faith is less certain, and more modern skepticism, but there’s not really any room for that with Valjean. Without being specific about a religion, he has to believe that there is a higher power and that that higher power has saved him.
Valjean is a very physical role in a lot of ways. Did you have to do a lot of training for it?
Yeah, that was a nightmare. He’s essentially described as the strongest man in the world, who can fight ten men at a time. He climbs up the sides of buildings rescuing children, and in the book, he climbs up the mast of a huge tall ship and rescues a sailor who’s trapped on a yard arm and then jumps off it into the ocean and stays underwater for a full five minutes so everyone thinks he’s dead and then escapes. He’s a superhuman; he’s the original superhero. I’d like to see Iron Man do 19 years hard labor in a 19th-century prison. He’s tough as nails. That was quite daunting for me. I did a lot of boxing training; that’s the toughest training I know.
Would you be up for playing him in the musical version should the opportunity ever arise?
I think there’s a reason you haven’t heard me sing much. [Laughs] I think I’ve got a lovely voice, and all I’ve ever wanted to do is musicals. The only one I’ve ever done is My Fair Lady. I played Professor Higgins, which is a part that’s written for a non-singer. I was constantly trying to put songs into Les Mis. As much as I would love to play Valjean in the musical, I don’t think anyone’s going to ask me too once they hear me sing. [Laughs]