Based on the
legendary Victor Hugo novel – by way of the operatic stage musical
created around it – the recently released cinematic version of
Les Misérables spans 17 years and is set against the political
turmoil of post Napoleonic France, which culminates in the June
Rebellion of 1832. Within this
context, ex-convict Jean Valjean who was jailed for stealing a loaf
of bread (played by Hugh Jackman) becomes mayor of a French town
after illegally changing his identity in order to seek
respectability. Hard-nosed police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe)
is in pursuit of the missing parolee who now owns a factory where
the unfortunate Fantine (Anne Hathaway) gets expelled by an
unscrupulous manager for having an illegitimate daughter, Cosette. Once
he admits to his original identity to save a man falsely accused of
his crime, Valjean agrees to take care of Cosette as her mother is
dying. Therefore he becomes a fugitive again to avoid capture.
later, students Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne), Enjolras (Aaron
Tveit), together with street kid Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone)
eventually foment revolution. In the course of this Marius sees and
ultimately connects with the grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who he
falls in love with. Meanwhile, Éponine (Broadway vet Samantha Barks,
making her film debut), who knew Cosette when they were kids,
realizes she will never have him so she also joins in the revolt. As
this complicated story cyclonically whirls towards its romantic yet
dramatic conclusion, they operatically act out the whole thing
Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and scripted by
the auspicious team of William Nicholson, Alain Boublil,
Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, the film is packed
with a star-studded ensemble cast who not only acts their way
throughout a complicated plot but sings it as well.
In order to
promote it as an award contender, Universal put the cast of Les
Misérables through their paces offering them for Q&As at every
turn. One took place
at a screening in late last year when director Tom Hooper was joined
cast members Hathaway, Seyfried, Redmayne and Barks in a
conversation about its construction and the trials of transferring a
hit Broadway musical to film. Obviously such interactions have paid
off with the film in contention for everything from Best Picture to
Supporting Actress and Best Actor.
was live singing? It’s tough as it is for a performer to sing and
act, but how tough is it when you’ve got a single shot and you’re
doing the entire song live?
Well, the live singing… I kind of thought Tom was crazy when he said
it – crazy as a fox. That’s not the saying is it? This is going very
well. There’s tremendous freedom in it, to really be able to get
inside the words and express your character. It was great not to
have to match your performance to something that you would have done
three months before. Getting another day with the scene can reveal
new things. What you would learn about a character in three months
can be insane. Obviously, there was a lot of discipline; you had to
protect your voice. I never knew if we were doing anything in one
take or not. It was always the goal to get it in one but Tom didn’t
come over and say, “Okay, this is going to be a simple shot. Now
think about that while you sing.” He’s kinder than that.
and Samantha – what’s the hardest thing about singing and crying at
the same time?
It actually takes pressure off of you.
You can be out of tune.
You can be out of tune and then it doesn’t matter as much.
Sam is the one had it difficult because she had to sing, cry and [do
it] in the rain.
Yeah. When it’s really cold your teeth are chattering away. So,
there’s a few things to contend with but it kind of all adds to it,
Tom, what went
into having them all sing live? What were the potential pitfalls.
Well, my instinct was to do it live from the beginning. As I was
thinking about doing it, I was re-watching the classical musicals. I
must admit, I struggle watching movies where people are lip-syncing
to playback because there’s a slight distance between the actual
performance and the lip synching or there’s a falsity in it.
Ultimately, whenever it comes and particularly in the musical that’s
comedic or light. You can relax into it. I felt that for something
as emotional as Les Misérables I didn’t want any barrier
between emotion and realism and truth. So for me, it was very
important. I feel like acting is all about being in a pure language
in the present tense. It’s very hard to be in a pure language in
present tense if you’re copying something you did three months
ago. What’s important in this is not just the fact that the singing
is live, it’s that the accompaniment is being played live. We had
two great on-set pianists, Roger and Jennifer. That allows the
actor, if they need to take a tiny moment to have a thought or full
emotion before they express it, it allows them to be somewhat
controlled with the tempo of what they’re singing. I wanted to
imagine an alternate reality, which is just as we generate sentence
construction and grammatical construction. This is a superior set of
beings who can generate melodic and rhyme construction off the top
of their head. I wanted it to feel like these wonderful actors
playing these characters were producing these songs out of the
depths of their soul in the moment, to create that sense of being in
the moment. For me, live is the only way of doing it.
Eddie, you had
never done a musical. Was that daunting not just to give a line
reading but to give a line reading in a song?
Yeah. It was. I’ve been a huge fan. The most amazing thing about
this was that everyone involved was a fan, like a serious fan. We
all felt that pressure as much as I’m sure a lot of people who love
the musical felt it. What was interesting was having enjoyed the
musical when I was a kid, I always wanted to play Gavroche. I spent
my entire time on set just dying to play Gavroche. I just watched
the film and I sat there jealous of Daniel [Huttlestone], who plays
Gavroche. I loved it as a kid. Having worked in film, you realize
that when we came to the auditions you had to… We ordered our own
interpretations and showed them to the musical theater producers and
composers [as to] what our take on it was. Sometimes it hits and
sometimes it misses. We’d have moments of massive conversations
about this, about what would work best. But this entire production
was filled out of fear.
you’ve done the show onstage. How different an experience it was to
be doing songs where you’re singing all the way through but there’s
no pause at the end?
It’s such a different world because when you’re onstage and you
perform a number like “On My Own,” it’s an instant reaction you
feel. You feel the buzz from the audience with the applause, whereas
now you wait for months and months to see if people are enjoying it.
It’s very different. This being my first film, it was so scary for
me. I was used to the live singing and performing every night. But
it was the film aspect that was new for me. So, there was something
new for everyone, which made it very exciting really. Everyone was
very supportive and lovely.
What is the
particular challenge of performing live like that when you’re
You just keep your voice in shape, which is all the time. You have
to live like a singer, which can be very challenging. You have to be
disciplined with how you treat your entire body, sleeping and not
partying and eating the right foods and all this crazy stuff that a
lot of actors don’t go through, which is fun. Yeah. It’s keeping up
with the tempo as well. Actually, the funny thing is, we all had to
wear earpieces. Everybody without an earpiece is obviously just
hearing our voices a cappella, so when we forget our earpieces, we
wouldn’t want to admit it. Because we would leave it somewhere and
then you’d have to keep [your place], it would take a few minutes
and it’s embarrassing. There were times when I forgot my earpiece
and I would just try to go along with it and they would think I was
crazy. Tom would be like, “What’s she doing?” The pianist is like,
“What’s going on, she’s gone nuts,” because I’m out of tune. That’s
the thing. All these weird things that you never think about.
You were trying not to waste time?
We had earpieces with the piano player into our ear and that’s what
we’re talking about… We had been doing “A Heart Full of Love” with
Amanda and she’s looking lovingly into my eyes, sort of humming
along. I was like, “This is a really bold interpretation.”
How hard was
it on the voice? How many takes did you do in a day?
Hugh admitted that he did a one-man show in Broadway in order to
prepare for that scene. I was kind of shocked that none of the other
actors did a one-man show to be prepared, but Hugh did. So, Hugh is
special [chuckles]. I must hand it to the cast, from the
moment they all got the parts they started pretty full-on
preparation regimens. The rehearsal group is nine weeks. All of them
understood the importance of vocal fitness to be able to do it. It’s
not only that you’re required to sing but you’re required to sing in
the early morning, which is not normally the best time to sing in
order for film sheets to work. But what was amazing was having done
that training, we never had any problems amongst this group with
Anne, when you
do “I Dreamed A Dream,” it’s not the song Susan Boyle sang. how many
times did you have to sing it that day and how did you prepare to do
it each time?
Part of the reason why it’s not the song Susan Boyle sang is because
I can’t sing like her. I think the nicest thing I did to myself on
this job when I had to do some not nice things for myself was I
didn’t listen to the playback until it was finished. I’m so glad I
didn’t because it just would have been too much. The bar for this
song has been set so high by so many incredible vocalists that there
was just no way that I was going to be able to match it, so the only
thing I could do was do it differently. Do it really real and really
get inside of it. Like what Tom was saying, not think of it as a
song but as a howl from the center of your soul. I thought it was a
really cool decision by Tom and our writer to place that song after
she’s had her first experience as a prostitute as opposed to after
she’s lost her job [as in] the show, because you can really get
inside the pain. See the beginning of that outrage that she has and
watch this woman shut her heart down. Victor Hugo described her as
having a heart of stone with only one bit of light left at the
bottom, which she kept alive for her daughter. So, to be able to get
into the song from that perspective, I was excited about getting to
do it like that. I think we did two-and-a-half takes. I was kind of
a chicken about it. Actually, it was an earpiece problem because I
was having trouble, I was hearing myself so loudly in this quiet
space. There were so many cameras and they were right there. I don’t
know, everything was too close. I just took the other earpiece
because we had one for the right ear and one for the left ear. I
just put them both in so I couldn’t hear myself anymore and I just
let one rip. I think that’s the one in there…
Take four, take four was the one. Actually, one of the interesting
things about embracing live tempo and live piano is it means that
when she was doing “I Dreamed A Dream,” each take was a unique
event. It’s quite hard to intercut different renditions of a song at
different tempos. So, when I shot it, I had to shoot it from the
point of view that each individual take was it. That’s actually
quite unusual because normally you do a little from here, this bit
from there, that one from there. Performances are often patchwork
quilts of many different takes. Whereas, in each of these songs, all
the songs you saw were did in one take all the way through.
something you discovered on the set or decided ahead of time? That
song was all one shot. There are a number of the other songs that,
with the only exception of a couple of cuts, were essentially the
same shot. Were you shooting with more than one camera?
I was exploring it, so I allowed myself the option of not filming it
in one shot. In the edit room, it just became apparent there was
something particularly powerful about the combination of live
singing and letting the performance play out in one without
intermediation of cuts. The challenge I felt I set with the cast was
how to tell the story of these songs in a close-up. Because they all
found the way to do that, the close-up held. If they hadn’t, then
you would have had to cut away in order to find a that thing to go
to. They were able to hold it and to me that is amazing. I
song – what does it mean?
I think there’s something fundamentally artificial about singing a
song because there is a rhyme and there is poetry. This sounds
really pretentious and thespian but before Les Miz I had done
a Shakespeare play and it’s similar there. When that’s in verse, the
whole thing is artifice but you still have to find a thought at the
beginning of a phrase and make that thought feel totally new and
then run it through for the next three lines or to wherever the
rhyme comes up. So in some ways, the thoughts have to keep tumbling
and tumble quicker but then extend for longer. But also, you get the
support of the romance. I remember hearing Amanda saying sometimes
when you do a love scene or something you listen to things on your
iPod to get you in a zone. Here, when you’ve actually got the music
doing it for you, it’s…
I have music as a tool to carry you. I think one of the reasons why
Les Miz is so successful just as a piece is because all of
the poetry, the hundreds and hundreds of pages of poetry in the book
is interpreted with the melody. So, you can’t do a reading of the
book in two-and-a-half hours, although it does fly by. So, you can
trust the music and lean back into it. To sound thespian as well, it
kind of is like when you’re doing Shakespeare, you just have to know
that a lot of the work has been done for you through the music,
through the verse and go with it. The key is just letting go. I
think that’s the hardest thing about this is accepting that it’s an
alternative reality no less viable than the one that we’re in. It’s
just everybody’s singing. It was a really cool place to get to live
for a while. It was very unusual. I don’t think any of us will have
that again. The hardest part about it was when I had to go home and
I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to go to a bridal shower, I was a
I have to credit the quality of the songs because we all found that
the more you studied it, the more it actually resonated with many
details of the book. Like all great works, it allows endless
interpretation and it supports you in digging deep into it. I think
all the actors found that.
Was it done in
real-time when you had Anne’s hair cut off?
Yeah. It was done in real-time. Anne will tell you the story of how…
It was a cold night in England.
Initially, we started off with the actress playing the crone who cut
her hair. She’s an amazing makeup and hair artist dressed up as the
old crone. Amazing it didn’t distract Anne to have this man in drag
cutting her hair.
It wasn’t the first time, sweetie.
I wanted you to realize is that I had a slight different experience
of shooting this because I watched before my eyes the most
gorgeously crafted pixie cut appear. Anne was sort of acting the
terrible trauma of a haircut. I was thinking this is just the
creation of a lovely short haircut. I had to stop the cameras and
you are to be doing a savage haircut. You have to make it look ugly.
I sort of gave him a pep talk. Okay, we need to get the ugly haircut
out of it. It was amazing.
like you weren’t enjoying it.
It was difficult. I put it up there with the most difficult things
I’ve ever had to do, which I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t think I was
that vain. I think it was hard because there was nothing that I
could do for it like you do a stunt. You train the stunt, you sing a
song, you train your voice. This was just letting it happen and
accepting whatever the results were going to be and owning them for
a while. It was very nice because we had the earpieces. I actually
asked the sound guy to pipe a song through to kind of keep me calm
with a song that I felt that even though it was written that way at
that time. It was terrible because during that costume change there
was a 15-minute break where I was balled up front. It was the worst
moment ever. It was a very odd, glamorous mullet. Then it was done
and it was done and I took a few beats and then looked into the
mirror. I called my husband and was on the phone with him. I looked
in the mirror and I said I look like my gay brother. I’m just Man
Chicago has there been a really great movie musical. In the end
credits, you thank your parents for introducing you to musicals. To
take this on after the success of The King’s Speech was a big
risk. What made you think this was the movie to do?
I have said thank you to Roger, who was my piano teacher when I was
ten who [introduced] me [to] two musicals back to back, The
Beggar's Opera and Patience, by Gilbert & Sullivan. It’s
to him I owe not only my love of musicals, but through that I
discovered drama and film and acting. Through that I also discovered
I wasn’t good enough to be an actor. It was a very wise decision.
But why did
you decide to take such a big risk?
The thing I found most rewarding about The King’s Speech was
how it made people feel, particularly traveling with the film a lot
and seeing it with audiences around the world. It was how it
connected with people that I found was the thing I was most
interested in exploring. When the idea of Les Misérables came
along, I thought this is something famous for its emotional
connection. It’s famous for its ability to allow people to
re-experience strong emotions time and time again. You go to shows
and hear someone chatting about that’s the 11th time we’ve gone. Why
is that? It’s because the show allows them to re-experience these
very strong, essential, primal emotions. I thought wouldn’t it be
wonderful to see if there was an opportunity through the combination
of singing and music and drama to create an alternate reality in the
film space where emotions could be even more heightened? Where I
could perhaps do something that was even more of an emotional
journey for the audience than The King’s Speech. What’s
fascinating is both emotional journeys are sent on the voice. With
The King’s Speech it was the fragility of a voice in failure.
With this it’s the flaring of a voice and it’s the most powerful.
This is the
closest thing to being in a live Broadway show on the big screen,
even more than PBS capturing live shows on stage. It might lead
people to access to musicals via film instead of actually going to
the theater. Or, it could open up a whole other world to audiences
that normally wouldn’t think that musical theater was for them. Did
this weigh on you and your choices?
It’s interesting. When you’re releasing a film around the world as
we are in the next few weeks that you actually realize there are a
lot of countries that have no tradition of going to musicals. Also
you realize how much it’s an urban-centric experience. The New York
audience has been one that has embraced Les Misérables from
the beginning. The great thing about this film is that it allows
that experience to be shared in places where it had no opportunity
or access to see a live musical performance.
In the first
30 minutes the unbridled hatred that there has never really been
felt so strongly as in the film. It’s there somewhere in the script
but it’s so intense on the screen. You don’t even recognize Hugh
Jackman at first. He seemed so in character. It was wild. What made
you go for the hatred so intensely?
It’s all in the book. Victor Hugo talks about how 19 years of
incredibly severe punishment for a minor crime of stealing bread
leaves you with incredible pain and anger against the system. Victor
Hugo is very clear that Jean Valjean actually was a good man but has
actually become brutalized by that experience. He’s not necessarily
a good man when he leaves. His anger blinds him to the righteous
path. I felt it’s very hard for the epiphany, the power of his
conversion to work if you don’t understand the extent to which he’s
been brutalized. Because this man makes an extraordinary discovery
of a way thinking in compassionate terms, in terms of the loving way
to interact with people. He only gets that from his great
The order of
the songs were played out differently from the play. How much did
you have a say in that and how much did you mess around with it? Did
the actors have any say in that?
The great privilege of doing this film was that we were working
hand-in-hand with the writer/producers. They were the original team
who wrote and produced the show. When I would go to them with a
suggestion like I need a song for Hugh Jackman to express what it’s
like to discover love for a child in a parental role out of nowhere.
It was all done with the original team embracing it.
What sort of
reaction do you expect from
Les Miz purists?
I hope the fans will see the DNA of the creators for a change.
They’ve been actively involved and it’s been a wonderful
collaboration. I think it’s quite rare for a movie musical to
recreate the conditions of the original production. That’s what we
I also want to say something. The show’s been successful for so many
years. We know that it works as a musical. It’s just a great
experiment to see if it could work as a film. If it’s a bit
different, there’s always the show if you like that version. There’s
the 25th anniversary starring Miss Sam Barks who is just brilliant.
There’s so many versions. It is a successful novel. I think the
strength of the material that lets it work on so many levels in so
many ways. This is just one interpretation of it.
This film will
be seen all over the world. Do you anticipate some resistance in
some countries or in places for which this film might be too much,
too political or revolutionary because of the tremendous passion
generated by it. It’s hard to not root for the revolution. Isn’t
that scary to some countries?
That’s an interesting question, certainly one of the reasons I felt
it was timely to make the film. There’s such extraordinary inequity
in the world and such anger about it and so many protests that are
really an abundance in the Occupy Wall Street movement. I think
there’s a tremendously strong connection with the themes of this
kind of anger against the machine. It’ll be interesting to see
whether they’re in a country that don’t want to take it for that
reason. When you’re in on the more groundbreaking for other
countries is accepting the fact that they’re going to show the
musical with the lyrics sung by the original actors in the original
language. We decided early on to reject the idea of the whole thing
dubbed in local languages because then you’d lose all these people’s
performances. The whole concept of the live musical would collapse
when it was entire dubbed in Spanish. The amazing thing is that
Universal has embraced this and the singing will all be in the
original language of whatever country it is, which is a great, great
for the international market.
very close shots bringing the emotions directly to the audience
instantaneously. Did you want the characters to be close-up during
their singing and towards the end for the camera to pan away to see
the environment or the setting in which these emotions are playing
If some shots did go wide with the physical space and physical space
matters. With Anne’s song, everything she’s talking about is either
in her head or in an imaginary other space. To cut wide during the
song would not help or at least effect the meaning of the song. I
think the choice about whether to extract actors from that context
or put them back in that context is very much to do with teasing out
the meaning of the song.
What was the
hardest thing you didn’t think you could do when first asked to make
this film but ultimately did and felt better about it?
I remember just being soaking wet for a whole day. That was quite a
physical challenge because it’s like after a certain amount that was
where your rib cage starts to shake. That was quite a challenge but
it gets to a stage where I feel like it really adds to sitting and
crying in the street. I don’t know. It felt quite painful
physically. I’d say that.
I remember the day that they built this huge, stunning street filled
with shops, as Tom was saying. Everything was designed down to the
last detail. These shops were filled with things. Tom had four
camera men dressed up as peasants. We had 30 students and maybe 50
background artists playing peasants. He put ten minutes worth of
stock in the camera and said build a barricade, action. What? There
were pianos falling. It was the most terrifying ten minutes of my
life. But at the same point, I felt like a seven-year-old having the
best day ever. So, it was extraordinary. It was incredible. There
were a couple of antiques. I don’t like to mention the antiques.
It was pretty easy. I just sang in nice comfortable rooms. I had no
dirty work to do. He was really nice. He told me to stop laughing
What was the
hardest thing Tom asked you to do in this?
I think Tom wishes that I’d given him a chance to ask me things. But
I was like, “How about this, how about this, how about this…?” I
was slightly eager. I think the hardest thing Tom asked me to do,
which I did, was go home. I died and had to go home and leave the
rest of the film to be shot. I was terribly sad to leave this
project. I was terribly sad. I was so happy that I got to go back at
the end. I thought I was going to shoot but we ended up just doing a
photo shoot. But it was great to see how far everybody had come from
rehearsals where we all began that first day and were all a little
nervous to sing in front of each other to the end where we’re just
in costume and everyone’s so deep in their characters and everyone
had come so far. The hardest thing was having to leave all that.
Did you ever
say to yourself before you started working on this movie – “Is this
something I don’t know if I can do?”
I thought a lot whether to embrace that decision: should [it] have
been taken? But the first thing that I read was basically 50% music,
50% lyrics. For many sensible reasons, it followed the pattern of
most movie musicals. I think there are only a couple of movie
musicals that are through-sung. One is Tommy and the other
Evita. But there was an understandable nervousness about
embracing a through-song musical. In the end, why I did it is that I
feel it’s very difficult if you keep alternating because we’re all
chatting and suddenly I’ve got to sing a song. Why was the last bit
a dialogue and then you had to sing that bit? [At the time,] I
didn’t understand the connection. I went to see the composer and
asked his advice. He said if you’re going to alternate constantly
you have to work out the contract you’re going to make with the
audience to allow you to do so. If you can’t find that, maybe you
should consider it being through-sung. In the end, I felt like the
best thing to do would be to create the atmosphere that people
communicate through song and to not vary it; and not throw people
back out of that world into a more normal world. But at the time,
one of the biggest challenges was to reconnect to this. I’m pleased