The movie version of the stage musical “Les Misérables” is being hailed as an instant classic. And it’s a movie musical that took on the difficult task of having all of the actors sing live while filming the movie. The film (directed by Oscar winner Tom Hooper) stays mostly faithful to the story and music of the original “Les Misérables,” which is set during the French Revolution. However, some of the songs were altered and there is a new song called “Suddenly” that was written specifically for the movie. “Les Misérables” composers Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer wrote “Suddenly,” which is performed in the movie by Hugh Jackman.
The cast of the “Les Misérables” movie includes Jackman, as Jean Valjean, the paroled convict trying to escape his imprisoned past; Russell Crowe ans Inspector Jalbert, the police officer who is trying to put Jean in prison again; Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the factory-worker-turned-prostitute who sells her body out desperation to financially support her daughter Cosette; Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, Cosette’s uncaring foster parents; Amanda Seyfried as the adult Cosette; Samantha Barks as Éponine, the Thénardiers’ biological daughter; and Eddie Redmayne as Marius Pontmercy, the student revolutionary caught in a love triangle with Cosette and Éponine. Jackman, Hathaway, Seyfried, Barks and Redmayne gathered for a New York City press conference to discuss the movie. Here is what they said.
What did you think about all the crying in this “Les Misérables” film?
Hathaway: From the audiences or the actors?
Anne, Tom Hooper mentioned that you practiced crying while singing, and Samantha, you sang with rain coming down onto your face. How did you manage to cry and sing at the same time?
Jackman: Go, Annie.
Hathaway: All right, first one up. I don’t know that there are any secrets to it, it’s just- it’s a pulse, it’s a vein that you follow. In my case there’s no way that I could relate to what my character was going through. I have a very successful, happy life and I don’t have any children that I’ve had to give up or keep. And so what I did was I tried to get inside the reality of her story as it exists in our world.
And to do that, I read a lot of articles and watched a lot of documentaries and news clips about sexual slavery. And for me and for this particular story I came to the realization that I had been thinking about Fantine as someone who lived in the past, but she doesn’t. She’s living in New York City right now. She’s probably less than a block away.
This injustice exists in our world and so every day that I was her I just thought this isn’t an invention, this isn’t me acting, this is me honoring that this pain lives in this world. And I hope that in my lifetime, in all of our lifetimes, like today, that we see it end.
Redmayne: It was certainly a sense also, from the student’s point of view, that this book that was written in the 19th century had such relevance, contemporary relevance. So with songs like “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” and all the stuff that happened at the barricade, all you had to do was open a contemporary newspaper to see equivalents happening whether it was protests in New York or in the Middle East, this idea of young people lighting a flame to try and expose truths or pursue their own passions for a greater good. So I think there was relevance across the board for all of us to tap into as actors.
Samantha, was it difficult to cry in the rain?
Hathaway: Have you cried in the rain in your real life? While singing?
Barks: I don’t know. I came at it from a point of view of I’ve done this show as a theater production and so for me when there’s rain pouring on your face, and you’re crying and you’re sniffly, and you kind of have to leave a bit of your vocal vanity at the door a bit. Because at first you’re thinking, “Does it sound nice? Is it sounding right?”
But I think that kind of realism in your voice kind of adds to the emotion of that live singing. Especially moments like “A Little Fall of Rain” with me and Eddie it allows you to sort enter into real crying, but trying to add that to your voice, because when you speak and you cry you can hear it in someone’s voice, and I think to be able to hear that when somebody’s singing that only adds to the emotion of it.
Jackman: I’ll just maybe add a little light to the process. Tom Hooper from the beginning told us all there was going to be rehearsals. I’m not sure any of us expected nine weeks of rehearsals. I’ve never been on a film when an entire cast signs up for the entire time. I come from the theater, so for me rehearsal is vital and a way of life.
There are many film directors who don’t believe in it and some actors who prefer not to rehearse, but with a musical you have to. We would rehearse full out, it wasn’t like a half-hearted thing, and Tom would be sitting here, he would in fact move his chair often to a very uncomfortably close place and do this the whole way.
So everything that we ended up doing, it was brilliant. By the time we got to the set it was not uncomfortable having the camera that close. There had been times when I had, Annie, all of us had done a version of the song where there’s snot coming out of our noses and Tom would be like, “That’s a little too much.” So everything was really tested properly, and I mention that because I am so grateful to Tom and everyone at Working Title and Universal that they spent the money and time on that to make it possible.
Hugh, can you talk about losing the weight for “Les Misérables”? Did you have to torture yourself? How did you see this character to present it to the world?
Jackman: I’m so thrilled to hear you say that and I want someone to pass it on to Tom because we talked from the beginning, and it’s a very big part of the story, this relationship Javert has with Valjean and they know each other right through the story. When they meet in the play, it’s probably five minutes in where they re-meet nine years later and Javert has no idea who this guy is. And it’s plainly clear to everyone that the guy’s just taken a fake beard off and put on a grayer wig and it’s exactly the same guy.
And Tom says “We actually have an opportunity here for all the characters to show time, scale, all these things.” So he said, “I want to make you unrecognizable and if people in your life aren’t saying ‘Man, you’re sick. Something’s wrong, what’s wrong with you?’ Then we haven’t gone far enough.”
So I did lose a lot of weight, and then had the joy of putting weight on, which was a 30-pound journey from the beginning. But I have to say all that pales in comparison to what this lady next to me did because at least I had time to prepare and do that. Annie was doing it over 14 days. I think you lost about 300 pounds in 14 days.
I’ll just share a little story, and I can talk too much so just shut me up, but I had my hair cut off with those gashes in it and Annie had been talking about cutting her hair. She came in for her consultation with Tom and she walked in to the makeup room, where I was sitting there with my head shaved and I saw the look on her face, the reality dawning on her. And as she was talking to Tom and her makeup artist — and if you watch the movie again her hair stylist is a man, but obviously in the film was dressed up in a dress, because you need an actual hair stylist to cut her hair, right? So if you notice man hands in a dress, you’ll see why.
And I remember Annie going “Now, by the way, if you end up cutting my scalp and there’s blood- fantastic, let’s go for it.” Tom was standing behind, and I put my hand up and said, “For the record I would like makeup. Fake scars, please.”
Can you talk a little bit about how you saw the character of Jean Valjean?
Jackman: He’s obviously one of the great literary characters and I kind of see him as a real hero; quiet, humble. And Annie and I were just talking, there has been such a great reminder in the press today of the New York City cop who bought the shoes for the homeless man. To me, Jean Valjean comes from a place of the greatest hardship that I could never imagine, I don’t think any of us here could, and manages to transform himself from the inside.
Obviously, on film we wanted to show the outside change as well, but actually Victor Hugo uses the word transfiguration, it’s even more than a transformation, because he becomes more god like, it’s a religious, it’s a spiritual change, it’s something that happens from within. It’s to me one of the most beautiful journeys ever written and I didn’t take the responsibility behind the role lightly. I think it’s one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had and if I’m a tenth of the man Jean Valjean is I’ll be a very happy man.
One of the most powerful and culminating lyrics is “to love another person is to see the face of God.” What’s your personal ttake that?
Hathaway: Amanda, why don’t you start? You’ve been all pretty and quiet over there.
Seyfried: I don’t know, it’s the most profound thing I think that you can ever hear someone say, and for it to be sung is just that much more powerful. It’s what we’re left with in the end and that’s why “Les Mis” has been such a phenomenon for so many years, because of the theme. What it’s about really in the end, to love. Through Claude-Michele’s music too. It’s the combination of everything that we’ve watched, and everything that we all are looking for.
Barks: I agree with you about the themes, because it’s that thing of redemption and hope. I think the lyric, “to love another person is to see the face of god,” for my part I felt that growing up in the world of the Thenardiers, and however hilarious as they are they’re very twisted, dark people. So for a character like Epionine whose never experienced good people, when she meets somebody like Marius who is a good man, and that kind of effect on her and love actually redeeming her.
In one sense, she does chose the natural path to her riches, which is she’s a criminal so it’s not the correct path to be on, but in the end she does do the right thing because I think love has actually redeemed her -although her ending is tragic, she does do the right thing. So I think love redeems her.
Redmayne: I felt like a sense as well, relating it to Claude-Michele’s score, that the tune that Colm Wilkinson, as the bishop, sings to Hugh at that moment in which god is placed into Jean Valjean’s life for the first time, how that recapitulates throughout the piece. And when I saw the film, the bit that absolutely stunned me is when Hugh and Isabelle [Allen] are running away from Javert and they come into the convent and you suddenly hear these nuns singing that piece.
And its suddenly a choral piece, and this idea that Tom has woven in religious imagery throughout the piece, but suddenly to hear this music in an ecclesiastical setting. Something transcendental hit me in that moment, and I think it is something that Tom was very conscious about and sort of in some ways Claude-Michele and Alain [Boublil] and Herby [Kretzmer] in the last moments of the film conclude with something that they’ve woven throughout the entire piece.
Hathaway: Yeah, I think that it’s the answer to the question that Jean Valjean asks in the prologue, “What spirit comes to move my life?” And he spends the rest of the film answering that question.
[She says jokingly] And a brief sidebar, I just wanted to make sure that I impress upon everyone in this room, I don’t want you to walk out of here charmed by Hugh Jackman, because we all know that he’s a miracle and we all know that he can get up and make friends with everyone and be totally friendly and sometimes I think that keeps people from seeing his genius as an actor.
And I just want to say the reason that that line resonates with you is because we’ve witnessed it in his performance the entire time. What he does in this film is inspiring, and we were all inspired by him, he was absolutely our leader. So I just don’t want his “nice guy” thing to distract you from the fact that he is a deep, serious and profoundly gifted actor.
Jackman: I’ll shut up then. Thank you, Annie. I think you’ve hit on, to me, the most powerful line of the musical and what Victor Hugo was talking about. And of course for Victor Hugo there’s a large comment in the book about the church at the time, it made him very, very unpopular when he wrote it. It was a big behemoth, powerful, distant, quite excluding thing. There’s a lot of fire and brimstone and I think he was reminding everyone at the time of the Jesus Christ example, which is to love people.
And it’s never been more relevant. I mean, we saw it on the street with the cop. There could be a fair dose of that right now in the Middle East, dare I say it, I think in many places. I think for all of us the idea, the philosophy that actually you don’t need to go to the top of a mountain in Tibet to find self-realization. You don’t necessarily need to do great things or listen to spiritual leaders, or whatever it is.
The first thing you have to do is be present, know what you stand for in life and face what is in front of you. And as Annie reminded me this morning, that’s that cop in Times Square, the humanity of just seeing what was required. That’s real love and that’s probably the point of Victor Hugo, and I agree with him the answer is to love. So I think you hit right on it, thank you.
Hugh, can you talk about “Suddenly,” the original song written for this “Les Misérables” movie?
Jackman: The song emanated from Tom Hooper’s realization in the book Victor Hugo talks about two lightning bolts of realization for Jean Valjean, one is of justice, virtue in fact. One is of virtue with the bishop, and one is of love when he meets Cosette and it describes that for the first time in a 51-year-old man’s life he experiences love.
I’m not sure if any of us can ever say we experienced that, but Tom said, “This is one of the most incredible dramatic moments ever written about and we don’t have a song for that? How could we miss that moment?”
And it propels the entire second half of the movie for Jean Valjean and also adds the complexity, which Tom is about, which was really about-it’s not just simple, he doesn’t just look after Cosette; he’s terrified, he’s full of love and anxiety like every parent, and it’s a beautiful impulse. So he asked the guys to write a song.
And I think I’ll count it definitely as one of the great honors of my life to have these two incredible composers write a song with your voice in mind, with my voice in mind. Whenever I get through singing it I feel like I’ve been singing it my whole life. It was an incredible honor.
Anne, did you really cut your hair for “Les Misérables”? And are you sorry that you did?
Hathaway: I did cut my hair, and I’m only sorry when I get to spend time with Amanda Seyfried, whose hair is so beautiful. I don’t feel sorry. Sam you’re lovely too, but you get it.
Barks: No, she’s got miracle hair.
Hathaway: I offered Tom the option of cutting my hair. It was always something I knew in the back of my mind that I would be willing to do for a character if it was ever the right thing to do. So when I got cast and I read the script and I knew that they were keeping the hair-cutting in, and then I read the book and it’s such a devastating scene in the book.
I thought doing it for real might raise the stakes a bit for the character. And I guess I thought in the back of my mind if it was a painful experience watching her hair cut, then watching her teeth get pulled would be really painful, and then of course when she becomes a prostitute I just thought they’re going to be with her, feeling that alongside of her. And as an actor it was great to be able to authentically communicate a physical transformation.
In “Glee,” we see the musicians playing music. Where were the musicians and what are you singing to while filming “Les Misérables”?
Jackman: Great question.
Barks: We all have an earpiece in our ears, and we can hear the piano, but the piano is in a box just off set. So when we watch the film we can hear these big sweeping orchestrations, but actually what you can hear in your ear is a tiny piano. So you had to use your imagination for sure to create these epic orchestrations, that’s what we could hear. But it was funny, because if you don’t have the earpiece in then we all just look mad, like were just singing to nothing.
Seyfried: I also feel like we … Did you ever forget that you were singing on set?
Seyfried: Because you only do hear a teeny, teeny bit of electric piano and it was such a strange experience, like I’ve never experienced before, because you really are, you’re singing your emotions, you’re singing your feelings and thoughts when you would normally be speaking them, and it kind of goes away and all becomes one. So it’s good that we couldn’t hear the orchestra, because the orchestra actually didn’t exist at that point.
Redmayne: The other thing is the sort of unsung heroes of the film in some ways were the material accompanists Roger and Jennifer. We would have one scene and go off and someone else would come in and they had to play every single take flawlessly and with the most stunning sensitivity, that if suddenly half way through a phrase I decided to stop because I felt like it, they would have to stop with you.
And of course they were replaced by this 70-, 80-piece orchestra but their contribution. I think it was Hugh or Annie who described them as the other character in the scene. They were extraordinary.
Hugh, as a parent, how do you talk to your kids about these kinds of things so that they’re ready to see these movies and understand the themes?
Jackman: It’s such a great question. What amazes me — I have a 12-year-old and a 7-year-old — is how naturally they’ll go to that subject and how often they will see it and pick up on it. And we are lucky enough to have traveled to many places, sometimes with organizations like World Vision or whoever it is and the subject is natural for them. I think for kids in particular equity is the way the world is meant to be.
And, of course, they have very little control over their life, where they live, or their dress, all those things, but they naturally see the good in everyone around them and the equality in wherever they go. So we do talk about it. We often talk about contribution, about community, about giving back and I don’t know if it’s just me, but the school my kids are at, it seems now kids are way more connected to these issues than when I was young.
Global Poverty Project is really a bunch of young 20-year-olds whose mission is to see the end of extreme poverty in their lifetime. And they are committed to it; nothing’s going to stop it. So I’m a 44-year-old guy who basically gets on their bandwagon. They’re smart and they’re passionate and I think it’s an exciting time, because I think it’s a subject that totally resonates with young people.
My father worked at Price Waterhouse his whole life and he said by the end of his time, young kids would come there and they weren’t asking about the perk package or car they were going to get, they wanted to know about the corporate responsibility that the firm had. That was the most important thing to them. So I think it’s exciting and it’s a great idea to keep the conversation going whenever possible. I think my son will see it, it’s a good point. I hadn’t even thought about Ava [my 7-year-old] seeing it yet, I think it may be times at times a little too brutal, but certainly the themes will resonate for sure.
Tom Hooper and the “Les Misérables” producers had talked about the camaraderie amongst the cast. Did you do anything to commemorate it?
Seyfried: Oh, I wanted to get them last night. We were at the IFC. We were right next to eight tattoo parlors.
Jackman: 24602, 24603, 24604.
Hathaway: Honestly the person who I think was the beginning of glue that we wound up developing isn’t even here unfortunately, and that was Russell [Crowe].
Hathway: I mean, you cannot underestimate Russell’s contribution and influence on this cast. He was the first one to say, “Hey, everybody come to my house on Friday night. My voice teachers going to play piano well have a couple drinks and we’ll sing.” That was such a key part of the process because up to that point we were at rehearsal with each other, we were very serious, we’re spending all day crying, but then in between I don’t think we had gotten to the point where we thought of song as a way of communicating with each other.
I think we thought, “This is what we have to do; this is a technical thing that we must accomplish.” Those nights Russell let us approach it from a completely different perspective, which is this is the way we are going to communicate, this is the language we speak, these are our shared experiences.
I know for me, I can’t speak for everyone, but it made me so much more invested in the totality of the film. You know, being in the small part of the film that I am, I could have easily just gone home and forgotten about it all. But I cared so much when I left, I needed to know how did “On My Own” go? “In My Life,” how did that turn out? And I think it really cemented the bond between us, and now we kind of say we’re camp “Les Mis.”
Barks: You were so passionate about music and that’s what was so exciting for us, that’s what links us all together is that passion. Because this is my first film, but there was something new about this to all of us, and there was this link that bonded us all together, which was our shared passion for music and I think just all singing.
We sang a duet from “Rent,” we sang the Adele song both back and forward, and it made us all so comfortable with each other. And we were all just like, “I’ve always wanted to sing that.” It was singing in this group of people that no one’s judging you. It’s kind of like you said, we were communicating and sharing that bond of music, our love for music. It was really very cool.
Who was Joanne and who was Maureen?
Barks: I was Maureen.
Hathaway: You were Maureen. I was Joanne.
Barks: It was so much fun.
Hathaway: Yeah, I gave her the high part.
Redmayne: There was also something wonderful, I mean the process felt so new that the extraordinary thing about this project was that none of us really knew what we were doing. It was this wonderful mixture of the theater world and the film world meeting together on a process that felt unique and original to all of us and none of us knew the right answer.
So what was the most leveling and bonding thing, I felt, was on day one we had all gone through an incredibly rigorous audition process to get the parts and we arrived there going “All right, Annie, how are you going to do that? Hugh, how are you going to do that?” Literally asking each other for advice, and never feeling like we found the answer either, but constantly aspiring to do as best as we can because we are fans ourselves.
Hathaway: Sorry to answer twice, but I also think it cannot be understated we are all massive “Les Mis” geeks.
Hathaway: I mean from before and I think we’re all kind of slightly worried that this is not really happening. That we’re all in some strange, odd mutual trip and were all hallucinating.
Redmayne: Yeah. That’s true.
Hathaway: But we were all such fans of it that I think we all showed up on the first day with enormous gratitude, as you said, that the responsibility of telling this story was entrusted to us. And it was great to share stories. When was the first time you saw it? Who did you want to be at first? I mean Eddie, I think he’s still envious of Daniel [Huttlestone] for getting to play Gavrosh.
Redmayne: Genuinely envious. I watched the entire film going “God, couldn’t I be him?” And he was so good.
Jackman: On stage you could do it, I think.
Redmayne: Bit of powder.
Jackman: Yeah, a bit of powder.
Hathaway: Do it on your knees.
Redmayne: But I literally watched the film and he was so brilliant, as was Isabelle [Allen, who plays Cosette as a child], they were so effortless and wonderful, and my inner seven year old was so happy as well as being deeply jealous.
Seyfried: Izzy [Isabelle Allen’ actually gets to do it back on stage.
Hathaway: Is she doing it?
Barks: Right now on the West End
Seyfried: She’s so lucky.
Hathaway: She is? I’m her mother and I didn’t know? I’m terrible.
Seyfried: I just found out yesterday.
Hathaway: Oh that’s so cute! Good, good!
Jackman: I remember one of the first days of filming I was singing the soliloquy, that first number in the church and I remember we were down in the church. It was this beautiful place in London, real old church. I came up the steps, these winding, stone steps and Annie was at the top there and she just came over and she had tears in her eyes and she was hugging me, and she goes “I’m not going to miss this for the world.” It was like that. I’ve never known that on a film before. We were all kind of there for each other. It had the feeling of the closest stage show I’ve ever been involved with, but it was a film, which is unusual. Yeah, we’ll be bonded for life for what we went through.
Anne, you mentioned that you watched documentaries about sexual slavery to prepare for your role as Fantine. Which documentaries did you watch?
Hathaway: I watched a documentary piecemeal, kind of through different YouTube clips. I’m afraid I can’t give you those sources … I’ve been very inspired and moved by the work that Emma Thompson has done. The Internet is a spectacular tool to answer any questions you might have.
I just started reading various articles. It stays with you, and I read things that are unimaginable and you just think these human beings have experienced them. I remember a few images that jump out at me.
I remember there was a police raid on one of the brothels and a camera crew went along. There was a crawl space up in the ceiling. Oh my God, it was probably about four of those long and one wide, and 14 girls came out of it. And they were all so tiny and scrunched up there together, and when they came out they weren’t shocked that there was a camera there, they weren’t worried about getting arrested. They were gone, they were numb, they were unrecognizable as human beings and my heart broke for them.
There was another piece where a woman, she was blacked out because she didn’t want her identity revealed, she sat there and she kept repeating, “I come from a good family, I come from a good family. We lost everything and I have children so now I do this.” She doesn’t want to do this but it’s the only way her children are going to eat.
Then she let out this sob that I’ve never heard before and she just raised her hand to her forehead and it was the most despairing gesture I’ve ever seen, and that’s when I realized that I wasn’t playing a character. This woman deserves to have her voice heard and I needed to connect to that honesty and recreate that feeling. She’s nameless, I’ll never know who she is. She really was the one who made me understand when Fantine says “shame.”
What it’s like to not just go to a dark place but to have fallen from a place where you didn’t imagine anything bad was ever going to happen to you. The betrayal and the rage that you feel at life because you’ve gone into a place that, by the way, I don’t think this woman would have gone to, that Fantine wouldn’t have gone to if she didn’t have children to support. I think she would have just let herself die. And so it all just added up to be, you know, Fantine is so heartbreaking and it just kind of all layered within me.
What emotional toll did this material take on all of you and how did you recover at the end of the day after the cameras stopped rolling?
Redmayne: Sacha Baron Cohen. There was this wonderful thing. It was such a rigorous shooting process and fueled by passion, but my God, yet there were hard days. And the way Tom likes to work, he likes to create real scenarios so Sam was singing in freezing rain. Hugh was carrying me, carrying me through disgusting sewer stuff.
Hathaway: Tom told me it was chocolate.
Redmayne: But there was this wonderful thing where about three-quarters of the way in Helena [Bonham Carter] and Sacha arrived and just this lightness that, my god, we needed.
Jackman: Yes, yeah.
Seyfried: I created an alternate reality for our characters. However, I think I was the most comfortable of all of us because physically I literally did nothing but stand and sit. So I’m blown away by the fact that you all got through it and did so unbelievably.
Hathaway: You hit a C. You hit a high C.
Jackman: Yeah, come on.
Seyfried: I hit that C once out of, like, 17 takes.
Hathaway: That’s why film is awesome.
For more info: “Les Misérables” website