Anne Hathaway stars as Fantine opposite Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, in the rousing and riveting big screen adaptation of Les Misérables. She plays Fantine, the tragic heroine of Victor Hugo’s epic 150 year-old novel. Fired from her job as a factory worker and finding herself destitute. Fantine is driven into a life of prostitution. She has to make money in order to support her illegitimate daughter.
Directed by Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar in 2010 for The King’s Speech, the film is set against a backdrop of turbulence and revolutionary fervor in post revolutionary, 19th Century France. Les Misérables was produced by Working Title Films, together with Cameron Mackintosh. Mackintosh produced the hugely successful stage production, which has been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries since it first opened in 1985.
Hathaway is marvelous as Fantine, infusing her performance with raw emotion and passion. She had her hair cut short (on film) for the role and lost weight to bring physical authenticity to her character who is destitute and suffering from consumption.
Playing Fantine was the culmination of a long journey that began at the age of seven, when she saw her mother, stage actress Kate McCauley in the role, during a touring production in the US. It made a deep impression on her.
Q and A follows:
What do you recall of the time when you watched your mother playing Fantine?
“I really remember connecting with Les Misérables on a very deep level, even though I was only seven years old. My mother was actually playing the factory girl in a touring production of the musical; she was the understudy for Fantine but got to do the role that day. Watching her play that character who goes through so much was amazing. It made the story very real for me. I felt for all the characters very deeply, even though I was so young.”
What was it like seeing your mother inhabit such a tragic role?
“Well I’d seen her die before, she had played Eva Perón, but to see her as Fantine was different for me, much more emotional. I understood that it wasn’t her that was dying, but in the stage show Fantine was singing to her daughter and I remember at the time feeling like she was singing to me. So I was devastated watching her die, it was so powerful. Of course I had no idea that the character would enter my life years later in the way that it did. Being a part of this extraordinary and stunning cinematic achievement from Tom Hooper does feel like destiny though. I hesitate to say that, because I believe we make our own destiny but if this is the destiny I created, I must say there’s been a lot of help along the way and it’s crazy the way it all turned out.”
Tom Hooper says your audition was remarkable; what was it like?
“I had met Tom Hooper when he won the Oscar for The King’s Speech because I was hosting the Academy Awards that year (2010) so our paths crossed quite a bit during the season. I went into the audition and started with I Dreamed A Dream and sang that for about an hour. I always look for little cues as to how it is going: are they looking at their watch? Are they awake? When I finished singing, Tom was crying and I thought that was unusual. He said ‘that song has never made me cry before’. I thought ‘that’s a good sign.’ (laughs) Then I thought: ‘maybe he is just a weepy person.’ I sang The Arrest then did the ‘death scene’ even though they hadn’t asked me to prepare it. Because I had seen the show, I knew the death scene very well. It was actually a very pleasant audition. But when I left, I went down to the street and burst into tears. It was such an intense experience (I burst into tears quite often!) But I felt quite positive. I thought to myself: ‘I know he has to see a lot of girls but I think I think I’m in first position.’ A month later, I found out I had the part.”
Can you discuss your experience of working with Tom Hooper?
“I admired his work on The King’s Speech. Tom is a brilliant visual storyteller. On the surface he seems shy and removed and I think I was expecting a bit of a reserved Englishman! I wasn’t expecting him to be so warm and passionate and dedicated. He is unbelievably caring and talented. He is also open to collaboration. I came in with a lot of research written down and he wanted a copy for himself. We poured over the details, discussing just what it was like to be a woman during that time, he wanted to know everything I had learned about prostitution and he was fascinated by it all. He has found a way to make it so contemporary and compelling. It was a gargantuan challenge and he has tackled it in a way that is moving and heart-stirring and inspiring. I think that Tom is one of our great talents.”
How did you approach the role?
“I had an inherent empathy for the character and I had a desire to tell the truth while playing her. I did not see her as a victim; she is not a victim because everything she does is for her child. She shuts down every part of herself and her ability to love and she replaces that tremendous love with rage and pain and hate. But what Victor Hugo says and this is an important part of the text: she keeps one part of her heart alive at the very bottom for her daughter. At the bottom of this whirlpool of hate that has become her heart, there is great love that is fueling her, which cuts through all that hate.”
Did you get immersed in research?
“I did a lot of research into the emotional lives of prostitutes and contemporary sex slaves. I watched harrowing accounts and interviews. There are women all over the world doing what Fantine has to do who would gladly die rather than become a prostitute, but they do it because they have to feed their children. I’m not a mother myself but I understand and empathize with them. The situation is the oppressor. Hearing the stories of these women was heartbreaking. There are women who have lost everything and needed to feed their children. In one interview, I saw a woman burst into tears with soul-racking sobs. I really felt that I had to do justice to the reality of all the suffering of these women.”
How easy is it to relate to Fantine?
“I understand the difference between me and my character. I get to go home to a beautiful bed and a wonderful husband every night. I lead a beautiful, privileged life surrounded by love and infused with love and I couldn’t begin to understand what it’s like to live a life like Fantine’s, but I empathize with her and with these women.”
The film is different from most musicals because the singing was done live instead of lip-synching to pre-recorded tracks. That must have been challenging?
“It was very hard, but parts like Fantine are the gems, the roles you seek out as an actor because they are challenging and allow you to transform yourself in order to portray the character. I had to really work on my vocal stamina. But I was very lucky because I have had experience of musical theatre and a lot of film experience. So I worked on translating what I love about musical theatre into the language of film. There was something very vulnerable about having to open myself up and turn into a raw, gaping wound—and I had to do it in tune. I did feel vulnerable. Music goes where words won’t let you go. When you are singing, you instantly go to a dreamy place; it just transports you to that place immediately. I can’t explain it but it is about the beauty of music. To have that part of your soul and your instrument ignited was amazing and caused us all [the cast] to feel everything so much more deeply.”
How did you interpret I Dreamed A Dream, which is such an iconic number?
“If you think of I Dreamed A Dream, it’s anthemic when it is performed on stage. It stirs the soul and it introduces the audience to Fantine. It is a very big number. But in film, when you go ‘big’ you often turn the audience off. If you want a powerful effect, the best approach is to show restraint. So I imagined the song from a restrained emotional perspective. The first take of I Dreamed A Dream that we did, I shied away from going where I knew that I had to go. Then I felt angry with myself and in the next take I just let it rip. I remember it building and riding a wave of emotion.”
Can you discuss your dramatic weight loss of 25 pounds for the role?
I don’t want to talk about the method, because we have such food shame and such food guilt; it is part of the western condition, living in a culture that has an abundance of food and fitness models. And when I was a teenager I would have tried anything that an actress I liked was trying, in order get thin. But I can say that I lost 10 pounds initially, to prepare my body for the weight loss. Then I cut back every day, while I was working at the same time. I had to cry and sing. I wound up losing 15 more pounds. But the weight loss was specifically done to play a part where I had to appear dead.”
Why did you feel it was necessary to lose so much weight?
“ I learned a lot while filming The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan asked me to do all my own fighting. I trained for six months for a fight that lasted about a minute in the film. But that fight is so much more effective because it’s really me doing it myself. I understood the character so much better because I got inside her skin and inside her life. With the stage production of Les Mis, the audience is willing to go along with the character, she doesn’t need to look so thin, but in the language of film you can really look ill to the point of death and that helps me to get inside her.”
Are you happy with your weight now?
“I’m not as happy as when I was doing The Dark Knight Rises, because I was so strong then I don’t feel strong now but I feel fine. “
What was it like working with Hugh Jackman? You sang with him at the Oscars.
“Well Hugh and I have wanted to do something musical together for a while; we’ve been looking for a project. Then this film arose that we had not planned at all. It had nothing to do with us. We just happened to appear in the film together and I was thrilled. He is a lovely person, he is just about the strongest person I know, and he has a very light touch. He takes everything he does so seriously and commits ten thousand percent. Also he’s just a pleasure to be around. He is a wonderful actor and singer and I would love to work with him again. It was also fantastic working with Russell Crowe. They are both soulful, kind, wonderful men and I was so lucky to work with them.”
I believe Russell Crowe hosted regular Friday night singalongs for the cast; that sounds like fun?
“ He invited us all to the cottage he was renting in the hotel grounds. It was very cozy. He would have us over and would cook steak for everyone. He would give me such a hard time for being a vegan! But he made me very nice salads. And then after dinner we would all move into another room and someone would start playing the piano and we would all sing. It would relax everyone.”
Why do you think Les Misérables still resonates so strongly with audiences?
“I think it really captures the emotion of what it’s like to be young and idealistic and angry and wanting to start a revolution, and I think that the film is political because the story is political. Victor Hugo wrote a masterpiece that is singular in its depiction of passion and love and when you look at the scenes with the students and all those images, you think of all the images that you see in the news and everything that is happening in the Middle East right now.”
You had your hair shorn quite brutally for the role, by an actress playing a wig maker who is buying Fantine’s glossy locks. It was actually cut on film. What was that experience like?
“My hair had grown really long; it was the longest it had ever been in my life.
I gave Tom the option to cut it for real. (Although friends of mine who are actors had given me contacts for good wig makers) But I really thought that cutting it off was the right thing to do. I was worried, but I was being very stoic about it until the actual day we were cutting it off. I took so many pictures of my long hair because I wanted to remember it. I really didn’t want to do it on the day but I had made this promise and I don’t back out of promises. Also by then there was no time to make a short wig. I was very scared, I was shaking, but I could use all those fragile feelings to play the character. So really it was a blessing.”
How did you steel yourself for the scene?
“Tom said ‘we won’t ‘pull the trigger’ until you are happy because we won’t be able to go back.’ I remember sitting there with three cameras right in front of me and Nicola Sloane the actress (who played the ‘hair crone’) grabbed my hair, I felt the blade go up and the first locks were chopped off. She cut for about three minutes. I reached up and my hair was just gone. (Fantine also sells her teeth but I did not have my teeth pulled out!) We had a break and I was sitting there half bald. Because Nicola is not a hairdresser she didn’t cut all of it. There was a costume change while Paul Gooch, my hairdresser, put on the costume and did the rest for the close ups. When we finished I did have a feeling of absence. Paul was standing there with his arms outstretched and I hugged him. That was in April and I have had short hair ever since. You know if you are not willing to cut off your hair, lose the weight and look like an idiot singing then the role is probably not speaking to you strongly enough.”
Do you like having short hair now – it looks beautiful?
“I do and I don’t. I always love being a low maintenance girl, now I am a no maintenance girl. There are some days that I look at Amanda (Seyfried) and see all the things she can do with her hair and I feel bit nostalgic. But I love being divorced from my vanity and I love having my identity challenged.”
How much are you enjoying life right now?
“I’m 30 I did it! I’m no longer in my 20s I am super-grateful for the way my 20s rolled out because I really like where I am at right now. I think I was able to work through a lot of stuff and enter my 30s with my best self-intact. Now I’m looking forward to growing. I was expecting 30 to be a bit of a doomsday, but I have watched my friends turn 30 and after initially worrying and complaining, every single one of them has blossomed. I have recently discovered an appreciation for the way life moves and I know that you cannot take anything for granted. In my job I meet so many people and I can tell you that most people in the world are amazing actually. I feel I have such a unique glimpse of the world and I have the loveliest experiences with people I meet everywhere. I am so lucky. This has been the greatest year of my life.”
“Les Miserables” Now Showing Nationwide released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar Entertainment Corp.