The night before the cameras rolled on Les Misérables, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe presented the BAFTA award for Best Film at a glittering ceremony in London. Although Jackman and Crowe, both Australians, have been friends for years, it was the first time that they had worked together.
Funny, hugely entertaining and with perfect timing, they proved to be a formidable double act and stole the show.
It was, says Jackman, the perfect way to warm up for the main event – filming Les Misérables, the world’s most successful musical, for director Tom Hooper with a stellar all-star cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen.
“Russell and I have always got on well but BAFTA was the first time we’ve ever done anything like that,” says Jackman. “And I remember being on stage and he was seriously making me laugh, and I thought, ‘this is really going to work..’
“And even though what we’re doing on Les Mis is not comedic, we felt like a team. And I said that to him, ‘man, this feels like a good team…’ And he said, ‘absolutely brother.’ And after the show he gave me a hug and said, ‘I’ll see you at work tomorrow.’ And we were off and running.
“That was the night before we started filming so it was kind of cool. And then we got to work on Les Misérables and that teamwork continued. Not just with and Russell and myself, but everyone – Tom, Anne, Amanda, Eddie, everybody. It was a great team.”
Set against the backdrop of violent political unrest in 19th century France, Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel, is an epic story of broken dreams and unrequited love. More than 60 million people have watched the musical, at venues all over the world, since it first opened in London in 1985.
Jackman himself is a huge fan of the show and at one point, there was a slim chance that he would appear in the musical – in a different role. Impresario Cameron Mackintosh, who has produced many of the biggest stage hits of the last quarter of a century, including Les Misérables, first met Jackman in 1998 when he starred as Curly in the National Theatre’s acclaimed London production of Oklahoma! for director Trevor Nunn.
“For years Cameron had been asking me to do the role of Javert on stage,” Jackman explains. “I wanted to do it but the timings never really worked out. And then I heard about the film from my agent, who is a mad Les Mis fan – he must have watched it 100 times – and we talked about it and obviously I was very interested.
“And I’d always been asked to play Javert, but the more I thought about it the more I thought that Valjean would be better for me. I just felt more empathy and closer to that character. And so when they told me that they were thinking of Russell for Javert that made perfect sense to me. So I went in to audition as Valjean.”
Jackman is vastly experienced in musical theatre. He starred in Beauty and the Beast and Sunset Boulevard in Australia and as well as the aforementioned Oklahoma! – which earned him an Olivier Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical – in the West End. He starred in The Boy From Oz on Broadway where he also played, to rave reviews, in his one-man show, Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway, in 2011.
But even so, and just like all the rest of the cast, he had to audition for his role in Les Misérables .
“I’d seen the musical three times, I’d listened to the CD a hundred times. I knew those songs,” he says of his audition in New York.
“So I went in and there was Stephen Brooker, the musical director, a pianist, the casting director and Tom. And I could see Tom thinking, ‘can this guy do it?’
“And we went through the songs again and again. It was like a workshop. And then Tom would say, ‘OK, let’s go back to the beginning, I want to do all of them again..’ I saw him getting enthused.
“And I was really into it. And it went on for about four hours and I said, ‘Tom, look mate, I’ve got to get home to get my kids to bed..’ And he was like, ‘oh, OK..’ I could tell he would have kept going. But luckily it worked out.”
It certainly did.
On set, Hooper, the Oscar winning director of The King’s Speech, took a radical approach to making Les Misérables – every actor would sing every take live.
Each of the actors would wear a tiny earpiece – hidden from the camera – and whilst singing they would be accompanied by a pianist, playing live, out of camera shot, that they could hear via the device.
When they were filming in the studio at Pinewood, the pianists, Roger Davison and Douglas Whyte, would be in a room off the main sound stage and only the actors in the scene could hear them.
On location, briefly in France, and in England, the musicians would be in a canvass tent near where the action was taking place. It was, then, a huge challenge and Jackman clearly loved it.
His first scenes, at the very start of the shoot, were filmed in a tiny village in the French Alps. Valjean has just been released from prison. Starving and desperate, he takes refuge in a church. He knew then and there that Hooper’s gamble had paid off.
“I can remember singing at one in the morning inside this beautiful chapel where I literally had steam coming out of my mouth because it was that cold. Singing live for every take is not easy and you have to really look after your voice.
“You wake up, say seven in the morning, and you are still singing at one in the morning - that’s a long game. It’s not like a theatre show where you pretty much shut down a little bit during the day, take it easy for a few hours, and then you gear up for your performance. You warm up, bang, you are out on stage for two hours.
“This is a long game. And because of the nature of filming, you don’t know exactly when you are on – you prepare for a scene but you might have to wait a few hours before you are called to do it.
“So it’s been probably one of the toughest, but most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done. The idea of singing live is daunting but it gives you freedom. I can go out and each and every take is different, you can play it with different emotions, speed it up, slow it down, put different emphasis on certain lines in different takes. It’s been extraordinary.”
Jackman underwent an extreme physical transformation to play Valjean. In the first part of the film, Valjean is gaunt and emaciated after just being released from years of hard labour in prison. Jackman shed more than 15lbs and grew a long, shaggy beard to look the part.
“Tom said, ‘you need to be line an Ox of a man, very strong, but I also want you worryingly thin…’ I was like, ‘OK..’” he laughs. “It’s not easy to be thin and have muscles.
“Basically I was training three times a day but eating very leanly. I was probably seven kilograms (15.7lbs) lighter than I usually am. I was very, very lean and got into a shape that I’ve never really been in before. It was a crazy time.”
With the first section, filmed in France, completed, Jackman then had to rapidly put the weight he’d lost back on. “I had to put on weight as quickly as I could and for about a week I was eating everything that came my way,” he recalls.
Jackman was born and raised in Sydney, Australia and studied at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth. Immediately on leaving college he landed a role in the popular TV series Correlli.
After more TV work, theatre and films in his native Australia, Jackman was cast as Logan/ Wolverine in X-Men for director Bryan Singer, starring alongside Sir Ian McKellan, Halle Berry and Patrick Stewart.
His extraordinarily powerful performance launched his Hollywood career and he went on to star in numerous films including Swordfish, X-Men 2, The Prestige, The Fountain, X-Men: The Last Stand, Australia, Real Steel and many more. He recently finished film The Wolverine for director James Mangold.
“Les Miserables” now showing nationwide released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar Entertainment Corp.