The bad boy of X-Men and nice guy of Hollywood Hugh Jackman tells Roe McDermott about playing Jean Valjean in the epic musical, Les Mis
He has played a vigilante monster hunter in ‘Val Helsing’, a professional hacker in the excellent thriller ‘Swordfish’, a rural cattle drover in ‘Australia’– and of course everyone’s favourite X-Men bad boy, Wolverine. Now Hugh Jackman is playing the iconic role of Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables. It feels like fate for the accomplished actor, who actually used a song from Les Mis in his first ever theatre audition.
“I sang ‘Stars,’ which is Javert’s song,” explains the utterly charming star. “The audition was for ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and the guy said ‘Eh, why did you sing that song for this, it’s not very appropriate?’ and I said ‘To be honest, it was the only thing I had music for.’ He said ‘Yeah, well you can throw that away because you’ll never be in that show.’”
Look who’s laughing now. But though playing the former prisoner turned mayor Valjean may be a dream come true for Jackman, getting into character was far from an easy experience. Adding to his already formidable fitness regime and literally starving himself before shooting to give himself a gaunt, harrowed look, Jackman admits that the role was hugely challenging. Dealing with such harrowing material and constantly singing, his performance turned out to be one of the most demanding of his career; physically, mentally and emotionally.
“I’ve done a lot of physical roles, obviously playing Wolverine and stuff. In a way this was the most challenging because my character undergoes such a transformation during the movie. So for the first part I play a prisoner and the prison camps back then were so brutal. And Tom wanted me to be unrecognisable. It’s part of the plot of the story, but also to show the change in him from this incredibly angry soul to ultimately a loving soul. So the physicality is a massive part of it, but also emotionally it’s probably as deep as I’ve ever been required to go. And vocally too, so it’s one of those roles that’s really hard.
In order to heighten the emotional intensity and realism of the performances, director Tom Hooper took the unprecedented move of eschewing any dubbing, instead asking the actors to sing live for every single take. Though all of the actors admit the process was difficult, Jackman says that immersing themselves in the emotion of the music for each take was hugely beneficial to all the actors’ performances. This is seen particularly in Anne Hathaway’s incredible performance of the iconic ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, which captures the raw despair of the song; and Jackman’s emotional rendition of ‘Bring Him Home’, where Valjean emotively prays for the lives of young revolutionists to be saved. “We were singing live, but the accompaniment was live as well. We had a little earpiece, and the guys were just upstage playing. So every take when they called action it was as if for the first time, and we would always run the entire song through, we’d never do bits and pieces. So we got to live the song. And the thing with Les Mis is that it’s so beautifully written. The decisions and crisis points and real emotional moments happen within the song. So being able to be free with it and be spontaneous was a great gift.”
There was never any doubt that Jackman would put in a stunning musical performance. In 2004, the actor won a Tony award and widespread critical acclaim for his portrayal of flamboyant performer and influential gay icon Peter Allen in ‘The Boy from Oz’. Jackman also delighted audiences at the 2009 Oscars with his cheeky and charming hosting skills – which of course included several musical numbers. But performing a filmed musical is a very different beast. The close-ups allowed the actors to explore the subtler nuances of character, instead of focusing on grand gestures, as is the norm for stage performances. Both Jackman and director Tom Hooper realised the emotional power that this more intimate approach could harness.
“What Tom Hooper realised is that you want it to feel live, you want it to feel like it’s happening, and the beauty of theatre is that you’re experiencing that with the actor – you’re going through that emotion with them and hearing the emotion at the same time. So what Tom does, if you look at Anne Hathaway’s scene, he holds that close-up for three minutes and you know it’s live singing, you can feel it. Normally when you’re on stage you always have to be aware of the back row, and that could be one hundred feet away. So you always have to pitch your performance to that person. But when the camera’s here,” he says, gesturing right in front of his face, “it can be internal and private and allow the words to be close to you. Even when you sing it, you get way more variety and freedom of expression.”
The overriding theme of Jean Valjean’s character arc is second chances. The theme has got Jackman thinking about his own career, and any missed opportunities he wishes he could revisit. In the past he has turned down some intriguing parts, such as that of a German Nazi dissenter in ‘Good’, a role that eventually went to Viggo Mortensen. He also passed on the chance to play the lead in Drive, Nicolas Winding-Refn’s critically claimed neo-noir thriller that eventually starred Ryan Gosling.
“Yes, good points to both of those!” Jackman agrees, moaning regretfully. “But more than anything, I was offered a role in ‘Chicago’, playing Richard Gere’s part. But I was too young for the role, I was thirty and I kept getting to the line ‘I’ve seen it all, kid’, and I thought ‘You know what, me delivering that line to Renée Zellweger is just not going to be believable. But then I get to that point in the movie and I think “I should have just put make-up on! Maybe the sequel!”
Interview by Roe McDermott
Les Misérables is in cinemas from January 11th