Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables
There’s a sense of fate in Hugh Jackman’s starring role in Les Misérables. The show – which celebrates its 27th anniversary this year – is Cameron Mackintosh’s biggest theatrical success. The producer is also the man who gave Hugh Jackman his first big musical break.
“I started way back with Cameron fifteen years ago now, doing Oklahoma! here in London,” explains Jackman, “and I'd dreamt of being in a movie musical for a long time. And for some reason I just never even thought that Les Mis would be possible. It wasn’t even on my radar when my agent rang me up and said, ‘I think they’re doing the movie of the musical’.
“I immediately rang Cameron. I said, ‘I’ve got to do this’. I rang [director] Tom Hooper and I said ‘Mate, I’m going to audition for you. I’m coming in, I want to audition’. And he says, ‘Hugh, slow down. I haven’t even signed on to this picture’!
“I’ve never been so aggressive going for a part,” admits Hugh, “and never been so grateful to get a part in my life.”
Mackintosh shares Jackman’s enthusiasm and while it’s taken some time to get the film made – “this amazing cast we’ve got were either at school, babies or hadn’t been born yet!” says Cameron – it’s been worth the wait.
“We were going to do it twenty-five years ago, thank God we didn’t!” continues the legendary producer. “I don’t believe we would ever have found such an extraordinary cast. They all, along with Hugh, fought to be in this movie and I think that’s a great testament to the strength of Les Mis as a piece.
As you may have read elsewhere, Hooper made all his leads sing live on set. The results – particularly Anne Hathaway’s heartbreaking I Dreamed A Dream – are astonishing, particularly as most of the songs you see were done in single takes. For Jackman, it wasn’t just the live singing that was a challenge. There are huge physical requirements from carrying Eddie Redmayne as Marius through the sewers of Paris – “And let me tell you, Eddie, a very trim guy, is not as light as he looks!” laughs Hugh. “I constantly wanted to call for a double, like a jockey or someone to come in.” – as well as changing weight and body shape through the film.
“It’s weird, probably, coming from me, having played Wolverine or other action movies, but anyone who’s done a musical knows, physically it’s the most difficult thing you can do. The demands that Tom made of me, he said he wanted me unrecognisable. It was a fairly massive change from [the beginning of the film where Jackman is an emaciated prisoner] to then becoming the mayor and Valjean later in life. I probably lost fifteen kilos and then put fifteen back on - that bit was fun, by the way.”
It’s been dramatic but worthwhile – the film is stunning – and Valjean is possibly the role of Jackman’s life.
“Valjean is like a Hamlet,” admits the actor. “It’s one of those parts that you hope one day you’re going to get to play… apart from in your bathroom."
There were, Jackman admits, many times he was out of his comfort zone – although as he says “it’s good to feel uncomfortable, Cameron’s always saying that” – particularly during the big numbers.
“There were some scenes where it’s challenging and you know you’re being asked things of you as an actor that you haven’t been asked before,” explains Jackman. “I’m not a method actor, but sometimes it’s easier to stay in the ballpark. With Bring Him Home, I certainly said to Tom, ‘Whatever we do with Bring Him Home, please don’t take a lunch break. I don’t want to go away from it, come back, have to warm up and go back’.” Hooper took the star at his word, which meant take after take after take before Jackman was satisfied.
“It was probably six hours from beginning to end,” Hugh reveals, “but it felt like ten minutes to me.”
Hugh also got some great onset advice from the show’s original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, who appears in the film as the bishop that sets Valjean onto the path of redemption. “He just said, ‘Hugh, I did what was right for me - and let me tell you, I changed some things! So just do what’s right for you and you can’t go wrong.’
“Colm defined the role,” admits Hugh. “I was in awe of him, growing up. His version of Valjean is implanted in my head, it’s one of the great performances.
“I met him backstage when I was doing my one man show in Toronto and he said he was going to go for the bishop. And it’s so perfect, because the bishop as Victor Hugo writes him is in a way, God-like. It’s actually one of the most beautiful portraits of a man ever written. And if you read the book, it’s about the first sixty pages, and for the rest of the novel the bishop exists for Valjean as some sort of beacon, some sort of goal to live up to. And Colm was a bit like that for me.
“My first day of filming in London was with Colm. He was there with his wife and we shot a day or two at the dinner table, then I shot the Soliloquy on the second or third day. And I came upstairs from that and his wife was there and she hugged me and was very complimentary. I said, ‘Where’s Colm?’ And she said, ‘He thought today it might be better if he wait in his trailer’.” Hugh smiles. “I think it’s one of the most generous acts any actor has ever made…”
Les Misérables is in cinemas now. Buy tickets to see it on the West End from Saga Theatre Tickets.