A Conversation with the Stars of LES MIS

Les Mis. Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, for over twenty eight years, the musical phenomenon has been seen by more than 60 million people in forty-two countries and in twenty-one languages. On Christmas Day, this beloved musical will open as one of the most highly anticipated films of the year.

Paula K. Parker attended a recent press conference in New York City, where Les Mis stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks and Amanda Seyfried, spoke about their experiences being a part of this beloved musical.

Q: How did you prepare for your roles?

Anne Hathaway: In my case, there is no way that I could relate to what my character was going through. I have a successful, happy life and I don’t have any children. What I did was try to get inside the reality of her story as it exists in our world. To do that, I read a lot of articles and watched a lot of documentaries and news clips about sexual slavery.

I remember a police raid on one of the brothels and a camera crew went along. There was a crawl space up in one of the ceilings and fourteen girls came out of it. They were all so tiny and scrunched up there together. 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. My heart broke for them.

There was another piece where a woman – her face was blacked out, because she didn’t want her identity revealed – 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. She raised her hand to her forehead and it was the most despairing gesture I’ve ever seen. That was the moment I realized I wasn’t playing a character.

This woman deserves to have her voice heard. 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, and the betrayal and the rage you feel at life. Because of that, you’ve gone into a place that, by the way I don’t believe 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 let herself die. So, it all just added up to be…Fantine is so heartbreaking and it all layered within me.

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, so every day that I was her, I 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 all of our lifetimes, we see it end.

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean

Hugh Jackman: Tom Hooper [the director] and I talked from the beginning that a very big part of the story that Javert had with Valjean and they know each other right through the story. When they meet in the play, it’s probably five minute where they re-meet nine years later and Javert has no idea who this guy is and it’s plainly clear to everyone [in the audience] that this guy has just taken a fake beard off and put on a greyer wig.

Tom said, ‘We actually have an opportunity here for all the characters to show time, scale, all these things. I want to make you unrecognizable and if people in your life aren’t saying, “Man, you’re sick. Something’s wrong. What’s going on,” then you 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 thirty pound journey from the beginning. But I have to say that all of that pales compared to what this lady next to me [indicates Anne] did, because at least I had time to prepare and do that. Annie was doing it over fourteen days.

I can share a little story. I had my hair cut off with the gashes in it. Annie had been talking about cutting her hair. She came in for the consultation with Tom. 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. As she was talking to Tom and her hair stylist, I remember Annie saying, ‘Now, by the way; if you end up cutting my scalp and there’s blood, fantastic! Let’s go for it!

I put my hand up and said, ‘For the record, I would like makeup. Fake scars please.’ [They all laugh.]

Jean Valjean is obviously one of the great literary characters and I see him as sort of a hero; quiet, humble. Annie and I were just talking about the New York City cop who bought the boots for the homeless man. Jean Valjean comes from a place of the greatest hardship that I could never imagine, I doubt that any of us here could, and manages to transform himself from the inside. Obviously on film we wanted to show the outside changes as well, but Victor Hugo uses the word, ‘transfiguration;’ it’s more than a transformation, because he becomes more god-like, it’s religious, it’s a spiritual change. It’s something that happens from within.

To me, it’s one of the most beautiful journeys ever written. I didn’t talk the responsibility of playing 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 that Jean Valjean is, I’ll be a very a happy man.

Q: That is a great lead in to my question. One of the most powerful, and I think, culminating lyrics is, ‘To love another person is to see the face of God.’ I wanted your personal thoughts on that.

Amanda Seyfried: I think it’s the most profound thing that you could ever hear someone say; for it to be sung is just that much more powerful. It’s what we’re left with at the end and I think that is why Les Mis has been such a phenomenon for so many years, because of the theme – what it’s really about – in the end. Love and through Claude Michel [Schongberg]’s music, it’s a culmination of everything we’ve watched and we all kind of are looking for.

Samantha Barks: I agree, it’s that theme of redemption and hope and the lyric ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’ I felt, for my character, growing up in the world of the Thenardiers’, however hilarious they are, they are twisted, dark people. For a character like Eponine, who’s never experienced good people, when she meets someone like Marius – he is a good man – that kind of effect on her and love actually redeeming her. In one scene, she does choose the natural path for her – she’s a criminal, so it’s not the correct path to go down – but in the end, she does do the right thing, because love has actually redeemed her. Although her ending is tragic, she does do the right thing. Love redeems her.

Eddie Redmayne: I felt like a sense as well, relating it to Claude Michel’s score, that that tune that the Bishop sings to Jean Valjean, at that moment in which God is placed into Jean Valjean’s life for the first time, how that recapitulates throughout the piece. When I saw the film, what absolutely stunned me was when Valjean and the child Cossette are running away from Javert and they come to the convent, you suddenly hear these nuns singing that piece and it’s suddenly a choral piece. This idea that Tom has woven in religious imagery throughout the piece and suddenly to hear this music in an ecclesiastical setting; that something transcendental hit me in that moment. I think that was something Tom was very conscious about. In some ways I think that Claude Michele and Alain [Boublil] and Herbert [Kretzmer] in the last moments of the film, conclude with something they’ve woven throughout the entire piece.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine

Anne Hathaway: I think it’s the answer to the question that Jean Valjean asks in the prologue, ‘What spirit comes to move my life?’ He spends the rest of the film answering that question.

Hugh Jackman: I think you’ve hit on the most powerful line of the musical and what Victor Hugo was talking about. Of course, for Victor Hugo, there’s a large comment in the book about the church at the time; it made him very unpopular when he wrote it. It was a big behemoth, powerful, distant, quite excluding thing. There was 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. It’s never been more relevant; we saw it in the street with the New York City cop. There could be a fair dose of that right now in the Middle East, dare I say it. For all of us, the idea that the philosophy that you don’t need to go to the top of a mountain in Tibet to find self-realization. You don’t need to do great things or listen to spiritual leaders or whatever it is. The first thing we have to do is be present and know what you stand for in life and face what is in front of you. As Annie reminded me this morning, that’s that cop in Times Square; the humanity of seeing what was required. That’s real love and, according to Victor Hugo – and I agree with him – the answer to life.