Q and A follows:
Q: You’re attempting something that’s never been done with a musical before, singing live on every take. What’s it been like?
A: You know, the musical director, Stephen Brooker, said it’s even better than being on stage because when you are in the pit the actors are 15, 20 feet away on stage, whereas here, he said, ‘I know exactly when you are going to breathe and when you are moving on and you need to stop.’ It’s quite a production. And it’s never been done this way before. I spoke to Simon Hayes (production sound mixer), who is a really great sound guy, and he said that there really wasn’t the technology to do this until about five years ago with the standard and quality of microphone we needed. It’s as good as being in a recording studio.
Q: Let’s go back to the very start. Didn’t you film for a few days in France before switching to England?
A: Yes, we did. We were in the mountains, the Alps, in the South of France and it was below freezing and just going dark. I could see the steam coming out of my mouth (laughs). I could feel the cold in my voice and I was freezing! And somehow that was perfect for playing this guy, Valjean, who is on this journey of purgatory. And even though he’s just been let out of jail he is still carrying that weight of who he was and not being accepted by society. And I knew then and there that’s Tom’s gamble of singing live was going to pay off in a great way. This is a bold decision but I think it’s absolutely the right decision – once you accept that you have entered a world where everyone is singing, stay with it, and that’s how the musical was written. And the thing is, when you are singing outside – like those first scenes in France where it was freezing cold – it sounds like you are outside, when you are singing in a church it sounds like you are in a church. It doesn’t sound synthetic or like you are in a recording studio where all the rough edges, that immediacy, is taken out.
Q: It must be harder on your voice singing live for multiple takes?
A: 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.
Q: You’ve done musical theatre in Australia, the US and in the UK. Had you met Cameron Mackintosh before this project?
A: Trevor Nunn brought me to London to do Oklahoma! and that’s when I first met Cameron. And for years Cameron had been asking me to do the role of Javert on stage.
A: Yes. And I’ve always loved the role of Javert. And I haven’t told Russell this, but the very first audition I did, for Beauty and the Beast in Australia when I was straight out of drama school, I sang Stars (one of Javert’s songs) from Les Mis. And at the end, the guys said, ‘why did you sing that song?’ And I said, ‘well it’s the only thing I had music to and I had to learn it in acting school.’ And they said, ‘well I don’t think it really suits you, you should know your voice and it’s really not applicable for this song. Go away and have some singing lessons and come back in a month.’ (laughs) And so when Cameron asked me to play Javert I wanted to ring that guy and say, ‘hey, listen here!’ (laughs)
Q: But what happened?
A: Well, 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.
A: Because it felt closer to my truth, I suppose. I just felt more empathy and closer to that character, Valjean, 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. Q: Tell me about the audition… A: It was three hours in New York. Cameron was there, Stephen Brooker, the casting person, a pianist and myself. I’d seen the musical three times; I’d listened to the CD a hundred times. I knew those songs. 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.
Q: And were you getting enthused?
A: Completely. 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 really well.
Q: Tom hadn’t done a musical before. You must have been intrigued to see how he would approach this?
A: Of course. But that’s why auditions are great, particularly a three hour audition, because you get to see exactly what the dynamic is going to be like. And even before that I instinctively felt that Tom was the right choice. I loved his movies and there were elements of Les Misérables that I knew he would be comfortable with – the period aspect of it, the size of the production, the complexity of it. I knew that he had the intellectual capacity to make that work. And there are some parts of the musical where there are holes in the plot and you just let that go because it’s absolutely fine on stage. But you can’t do that with film and I knew that he would plug all of those holes. I knew that he would find a really compelling way to make this movie come to life. I actually think it’s a plus to have a director that’s not steeped in the musical theatre world – it’s a plus to have someone who is more dramatically inclined.
A: Musicals of a dramatic nature – and I’m not talking about something like Singing In The Rain – have to feel like thought. What is sung has to feel like thought. Trevor Nunn has been incredibly successful with this stuff. I worked with Trevor on Oklahoma! And for the first three weeks we didn’t sing a note so when I did Oh What A Beautiful Morning I had to make it work as a monologue. I said to Trevor, ‘how am I going to make that work as a monologue? I repeat the line of the everything…’ And he said, ‘you’ve got to find a reason to repeat every line. If you don’t have that, then it’s boring.’ The song has to advance character and plot. So for me, having someone like Tom who is dramatically inclined and not just under the spell of the music was a huge plus. Obviously, you don’t want a director who has no musicality would be wrong and Tom has a great ear for the music. He knows it, he loves it. I think it’s the perfect mix. He’s not daunted by the epic nature of a film like this.
Q: What is it about this story that has endured and touched so many people?
A: If I can simplify it, I think it’s about finding the best in the human spirit. Every character in this story has major obstacles to overcome, bigger than the ones that most of us encounter in life, but we relate to that. And time and time again, you see these characters under incredible duress, trying to find the best in themselves. It’s about the best of humanity, the human spirit. And that’s why it’s so uplifting. And they all fail, at times, but they don’t give up. Valjean, who I suppose is the hero, fails at the beginning and gets another chance, and another after that. And when he has those chances he makes the most of them. He battles, all the characters do. And even though it’s called Les Misérables, it’s an incredibly uplifting story.
Q: There’s a new song that was written for the film. Tell us about that?
A: The thing is, Les Misérables is such an ensemble piece. There are so many beautiful songs and so many different characters and everyone I’ve spoken to; they all remember something different about the musical – their favourite song, their favourite character. And yes, we have a new song, Suddenly, which is lovely. It came out of a discussion that Tom had and it came out of a line in the book that said that there are two lightning bolts of truth that strike Jean Valjean in his lie. One is to do with virtue and the other is to do with love. The first lightning bold is when the Bishop lets him go even thought he knows he’s been stealing. And the second is when he meets Cosette and for the first time in his life he understands love. And Tom pointed out that the musical doesn’t really deal with the second lightning bolt. So the new song deals with that and it’s about that emotion, love, coming into your life when you least expect it. And it really sets up my character for the second half of the movie.
A: Who Am I? I love the dramatic set up of it – it’s about a dilemma of conscience and it goes right to the core of who he is. I love the melody and the dramatic drive of that song. It’s always been my favourite.
Q: Did you have to lose weight to play Valjean in the opening sequence of the film, when he’s just been released from prison?
A: Oh yes (laughs). 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..’ (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.
Q: You’ve trained for roles before – I’m thinking of Wolverine – but this was different?
A: Yes, it’s a lot leaner than when I play Wolverine. And it was not fun to do. I really enjoyed the burgers after that (laughs).
Q: Presumably you had to put the weight back on rapidly to play a much healthier Valjean in the later stages of the film?
A: Yes. I had to put on weight as quickly as I could and for about a week I was eating everything that came my way (laughs).
Q: Let’s talk about your fellow cast members…
A: Unbelievable. They’re incredible.
Q: You actually sang with Anne Hathaway at the Oscars…
A: Yes, we did a little bit at the Oscars and Anne sang On My Own, weirdly. I knew she had a great voice and we’d talked a long time about doing stuff together. She’s actually born to do musical theatre. Tom described her as the muse of the Les Misérables production and I think that’s true. I remember when we were rehearsing and she sang every note in a totally believable way. You could have filmed her when she had a script in her hand because everything was bang on. She is going to blow people away with this performance. And it’s the same with Amanda (Seyfried). She’s done it before with Mama Mia! but this is different. She’s going to blow people away.
Q: And what about Russell? I’m kind of surprised that you two haven’t worked together before…
A: No, we’ve not done anything before this. And it’s been a complete joy to work with him. He’s a leader, he likes to come out and set the tone and I like to approach the work in that way too, and so it’s been great to be together and to finally work with him. It’s just been phenomenal. Everyone has been very team orientated. It’s very much an ensemble cast. It’s been awesome.
Q: And he’s an impressive Javert?
A: Oh yes. I’ve seen many Javerts and I dreamt of playing him myself but I could never play Javert the way that Russell plays him. Javert is often over played, I think, because he’s Valjean’s nemesis, and the temptation is to over play. But Russell walks on set and commands attention, he exudes authority and he has presence and power, all perfect for Javert. So you really believe in the tussle that these two men have down the years, that lasts pretty much a lifetime. And he’s vocally fantastic and committed. He worked so hard and he committed 100 per cent to this.
Q: You presented a BAFTA aware (for Best Film) with Russell just as filming on Les Misérables was about to start. Did that give you a good clue that you would work well together?
A: Russell and I have always got on well, but BAFTA was the first time we’ve ever done anything like that. 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 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 team work continued. Not just with me and Russ, but everyone – Tom, Anne, Amanda, Eddie, everybody. It was a great team.
Q: You’ve filmed Les Misérables mostly in England. Was there a part of you that wished you could have filmed some of it in Paris too?
A: Yes, a little part of me was actually hoping to be shooting on the streets of Paris but then again we are singing live so I’m glad to be in a controlled environment a lot of the time and that’s what we had with Pinewood. And the sets are unbelievably good. Eve Stewart has done an extraordinary job. This movie is epic and it’s going to look fantastic. There were times when I was on set when I had to pinch myself.
“Les Miserables” now showing nationwide released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar Entertainment Corp.