Les Miserables - Hugh Jackman interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
HUGH Jackman talks about some of the challenges of playing Jean Valjean, ‘the role of a lifetime’, in Tom Hooper’s big screen version of Les Miserables.
He also pays tribute to his own father and the Jean Valjean qualities he sees within him, and to co-star Russell Crowe, who he credits with being a close friend and mentor. He was speaking at a UK press conference.
Q. You seem determined to have been a part of this film. What appealed to you about it so much?
Hugh Jackman: Well, both trajectories I’d never really dreamt of. I had been in musical theatre for a number of years, starting way back with Cameron [Mackintosh] doing Oklahoma 16 years ago here in London and I’ve done movies for a number of years and I’ve dreamt of being in a movie musical for a long time. For some reason, I just never even thought Les Mis would be possible. I mean it’s been around for 27 years and was so iconic and it wasn’t even on my radar when my agent rang me up and said: “I think they’re doing the movie as a musical.” I immediately rang Cameron. I said I had to do it. And then I rang Tom Hooper and said: “I need a meeting.” He was very polite. He said ‘sure’. He’d just won the Oscar a couple of months before.
So, I went into meet him and I said: “I’m going to audition for you. I’m coming in… I want to audition for you.” And he said: “Hugh, slow down, I haven’t even signed onto this picture. I’m not sure what you’ve heard…” He almost had to call security for me. I’ve never been so aggressive going for a part. And I’ve never been so grateful to get a part in my life.
Q. The role of Valjean is undoubtedly the role of a lifetime. But to play the part you’re immersed waste deep in water as part of a chain-gang, you’ve obviously had to lose weight to look emaciated, and then there’s the ultimate where you’re plunged into sewage. So, was it the most physically demanding thing you’ve ever tackled? And what did they use for the excrement?
Hugh Jackman: What was it? Some form of peat. And it was very, very cold. And Eddie [Redmayne], who is a very trim guy, is not as light as he looks! I constantly wanted to call for a double, or a jockey or someone to come in. It’s weird probably coming from me having played Wolverine or having done other action movies, you’d probably think I’d think a musical was going to be easy. But anyone who has ever done a musical knows whether you’re dancing or not, physically it’s the most difficult thing you can do. The demands that Tom made of me… he said ‘I want you to look unrecognisable and if people do recognise you, I want your friends to think you’re sick at the beginning’. So, it was a fairly massive change from there to then becoming the mayor and Jean Valjean in later life where I’d put on probably 15 kilos.
So, I’d probably lost 15 and then put 15 back on – that bit was fun, by the way. But what a lot of people don’t understand about singing is that singing is very physical. It’s less about here [gestures to mouth] and way more about here [gestures towards chest and stomach], so all of those things combined, as well as emotionally and vocally, it’s the most challenging – and usually all at once. So, it’s the kind of thing you want as an actor. You always want to be challenged and it’s good to feel uncomfortable. Cameron’s always saying: “It’s not always a good thing for the key to be the comfortable key for you, because if you’re dealing with emotions and situations that are far from comfortable, it’s good to have something to work against.” And he’s absolutely right. But I’m really grateful, and that’s the overwhelming feeling that I have, because Valjean is like a Hamlet. It’s one of those parts that you hope one day you’re going to get to play. So, I’m very, very grateful.
Q. I read on the Internet that you owe Russell Crowe two of the biggest breaks in your career. Is that true? And also are you annoyed that he didn’t pass on Gladiator at the beginning?
Hugh Jackman: [Laughs] Russell did pass on Wolverine and did suggest me to the director. It was one of the greater, most generous acts, for me I can imagine. And also the role I played in Australia. But beyond that and beyond what you might read on the Internet, Russell has been a great friend to me and particularly early on in my career. I rang him on several occasions for advice and he was definitely a mentor to me. And what was so exciting was to work with Russell. There’s the old adage that great actors can make other actors look good, so trust me… if you’re ever in a movie and you can get Russell opposite you, it’s a good thing. He just brought so much. I remember day one of rehearsals when we met up, he said: “Man, this is what you wait for. This is the feeling.” Everyone, even Russell, everyone in the cast knew we were doing something that hadn’t been done before. So, there was that buzz in the air of this is for the first time. It was just so exciting.
Q. You share a scene with one of the great Valjeans in Colm Wilkinson. How was that? And did he pass on any advice to you about the role?
Hugh Jackman: Colm Wilkinson, as I’m sure you all know, played the role originally and defined the role. I was in awe of him growing up. His version of Valjean was implanted in my head. It’s one of the great performances. And I met him back-stage when I was doing my one-man show in Toronto and he said he was going to go for the bishop. And that felt 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. If you read the book, it’s about the first 60 pages and for the rest of the novel the bishop exists for Valjean as some kind of goal to attain and to live up to. And Colm was a little like that for me.
And it turned out, on the first day of filming I was with Colm. He was there with his wife and we shot a day or two at the dinner table, coming in, and then I shot the soliloquy on the second or third day, and I came upstairs from the church and his wife was there and she hugged me and she was very complimentary. And I said: “Where’s Colm?” And she said: “He thought today might be better if he waited in his trailer.” And I think it’s one of the most generous acts any actor has ever made. And he did give me advice. He 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.”
Q. What was your favourite song to perform?
Hugh Jackman: Oh gosh, it’s so hard. For me, the soliloquy was like being shot out of a cannon because it was the third day of filming and it was a very, very intense scene. Tom and I knew the kind of thing we were going for. But possibly because it was so early, I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure if I enjoyed it as much as I found it challenging. Who Am I? is one of my favourite songs. But I’ve got to tell you, never before in my life have I had a song written for me. And from the day I sung it in front of Cameron [Mackintosh], Claude-Michel [Schonberg] and Alain [Boublil], it was like I’d been singing it my entire life. These guys are such geniuses… they came to see my one-man show and got my voice and wrote a song for me. And singing it with beautiful Isabelle [Allen], who plays the young Cosette, was a really special moment. It was around about three quarters of the way through filming and I was relaxed enough to be able to enjoy it.
Q. What was the mood like on set? Was it kept light to alleviate some of the more depressing aspects of the story?
Hugh Jackman: There were some scenes where it’s challenging and you know that you’re being asked things of you as an actor that you haven’t been asked before… so, I’m not a method actor as we all understand the term but sometimes it’s easy to stay in the ball-park. I’m sure with Eddie and Empty Chairs or me with Bring Him Home it was… I certainly said to Tom that whatever we do with Bring Him Home please don’t take a lunch break because I don’t want to go away from it, come back and have to warm up again. So, it was probably six hours from beginning to end. At that time, it felt like 10 minutes to me but it was easy to stay in the zone.
I think it’s also important to know that we had nine weeks of rehearsal. It was as intense a rehearsal period as any theatrical show. In fact, that was really the model. There was no… normally on a film rehearsals can be a little half-hearted with discussions and people give half performances. But this was not like that. Tom was literally moving his chair to be three feet away from us, bringing the camera right from the very beginning, so we did a lot of exploring and a lot of rehearsal, which made on-set very focused and to the point.
Q. You say that in the book your character is helped by the decency of a priest and his life changes as a consequence. Can you point to a moment in your life where your life has changed?
Hugh Jackman: Have you got kids? Well, there’s no greater change in your life than the moment that happens [smiles]. And when I met my wife. But the first thing that popped into my mind when you asked that question was… I’m very, very blessed to have a father who was really very much Jean Valjean like in many ways… who he is, to his core… in fact without him I don’t think I could play this role. That’s not an overnight thing but just having that experience.
Q. Can I just ask you what about your father makes him Valjean-like?
Hugh Jackman: My father is quite a religious man. He was converted by Billy Graham when he was about 30, so a bit like Jean Valjean, not really religious growing up, but had some kind of epiphany. But as a religious man I never heard him talk about religion. I remember saying to him once, because he was an accountant at Price Waterhouse, ‘does everyone at work know you’re a Christian? Is that ever an issue for you?’ And he said: “Religion you talk about means nothing; religion that is in your actions means everything.” And there’s no greater example of Jean Valjean than my father really.
- Read our review
- Hugh Jackman interview
- Anne Hathaway interview
- Tom Hooper interview
- Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne interview
- Samantha Barks interview
- Cameron Mackintosh interview
- Les Miserables Photo Gallery
- Character poster photo gallery
- Watch the trailer