Landing their lead roles in Les Mis was like a wish coming true for its stars, they tell Will Lawrence
THE BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are rolling in, but Les Misérables leading man Hugh Jackman says that he couldn’t have done it without his dad.
The 44-year-Australian star of X-Men and Australia says that his potentially career-defining performance as the hero Jean Valjean in the movie version of Les Misérables was forged under the influence of his father.
“My dad is quite a religious man,” begins Jackman, who notes that the evangelical American preacher Billy Graham was responsible for his father’s conversion at around 30 years of age.
“A bit like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables he was not really religious growing up, but he had an epiphany later in his life,” he adds.
“I’m very blessed to have had a father who was very much that way. He really is like that to his core, and without him I couldn’t have taken this role.”
The actor’s father was an accountant at Price Waterhouse and his son once asked whether his Christianity was ever an issue for him at work.
“And he said, ‘Religion you talk about means nothing. Religion that is in your actions is everything’,” Jackman recalls.
It’s a statement that would resonate with Valjean, the former convict whose life is transformed by a bishop’s kindness in the face of his own base behaviour. Indeed, Valjean’s story is the starting point for Les Misérables, the 1862 novel by French Romantic writer Victor Hugo which in 1985 began its rise to become the most famous musical in the world. The stage production opened in London at the Barbican Theatre on Oct 8, 1985, before transferring to the Palace Theatre, where it remained for 19 years until it moved to its current home at the Queen’s Theatre in 2004.
It is now the world’s longest-running musical, surpassing the record previously held by Cats on London’s West End and the man behind its great success, Cameron Mackintosh, lays the success at Hugo’s door. Explaining the phenomenon, Mackintosh says, “Les Misérables is one of the greatest social novels ever written. Victor Hugo created characters and wrote of situations both timeless and universal.”
The novel is indeed widely cited as one of the 19th century’s great works of fiction, and Mackintosh has discovered an intoxicating formula with his stage show. It is little wonder that he was closely involved in the making of the adaptation, serving as a producer on the film.
“When we started out [with the stage production], this magnificent cast was either in school, or were babies, or hadn’t been born yet,” adds Mackintosh, who’s responsible for the three longest-running musicals of all time — Les Misérables, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera — along with Miss Saigon, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and Oliver!, among others.
“Even though we were going to do it 25 years ago, I don’t think we would have ever found such an extraordinary cast, most of whom have a background in musical theatre.”
Alongside Jackman the cast includes Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Actress Anne Hathaway, who plays Fantine, has also attracted critical interest, with Supporting Actress nominations from the Golden Globes, Bafta and Oscars, and it’s proved a rewarding role for the 30-year-old, even though she lost quite a lot when playing the role. The super-svelte actress lost 25 pounds in weight in a bid to capture her character’s wretched state. She also lost her hair. One scene sees Fantine — fired from her factory job and struggling to raise her child, Cosette — forced to sell her own flowing locks, which are crudely shorn from her head.
“When I got the role I said I was up for cutting my hair off, but at the time I hadn’t yet got engaged and my now-husband looked at me with a mixture of pride, joy and worry and panic,” recalls Hathaway, speaking at Claridges Hotel ahead of the film’s London premiere.
The actress, who’s starred in the The Princess Diaries, Brokeback Mountain, The Devil Wears Prada, Becoming Jane, One Day and The Dark Knight Rises, was still dating her partner, actor Adam Shulman, when she was cast in Les Mis.
“Adam then said, ‘Okay, without giving away anything that’s coming in the next few months, how do you feel about being a short-haired bride?’ And I went ‘Arrghhh!’
“Then I thought, ‘Well, it’ll be truthful. I’ll be who I am when I get married.’ I am an actor and what I do is transform when the occasion arises. I tried to minimise that drama in my own head.”
The day of the haircut on set was far from easy. “I’d been trying to be very stoic about it, but I was just shaking like a leaf and was so scared. “To the director Tom’s credit, however, he was very nice to me that day, very loving, and then we cut my hair and it was done.”
She laughs. “I’ve become obsessed with my nails as a result, because you’ve got to have something to focus on, so today I have a cosmic French manicure!”
Hathaway’s mother, Kathleen, was cast by Les Misérables’ super-producer Cameron Mackintosh in the stage production’s US national tour when Hathaway was just seven years old. “My own experience with Les Mis began when I found out my mum had been cast in the national tour and played a factory girl and understudied Fantine,” says Hathaway. “I actually got to see my mum perform the role of Fantine, too, and have seen the show many, many times.”
A great deal of tragedy flows through the story and much of it washes across Fantine who, once deprived of her job, begins a harrowing descent into prostitution.
“I did a lot of research about the history of the period and what it was like to be a woman,” Hathaway continues, “but when it came to her descent I actually turned to modern research, particularly into the lives of sex slaves.
“Reading their accounts immediately puts you in a place of empathy and horror. There are things that I read that I will never forget and the emotion that comes out of so many of them is undeniably shame. And deep, deep barely-contained rage.”
Hathaway’s character sings one of Les Misérables’ most haunting solos, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. “And I couldn’t help but think of how brilliant the word choice was,” she says, “because Fantine is a dreamer.
Her director Tom Hooper, for one, marvels at her screen presence. “Annie is the female equivalent of Hugh Jackman in terms of having that extraordinary facility at knowing how to act through song,” says Hooper, who won Best Director at last year’s Oscars with The King’s Speech. “And it’s not just acting through song. It’s acting in close-up through song, the demands of which make it quite different from performing on stage. She is just wonderful as Fantine.”
*Les Misérables is in cinemas now
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