To approach playing such an iconic character, David Oyelowo focused on Inspector Javert’s loneliness.
It seems that a million men have played Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. Since the iconic musical debuted in 1985 in the West End (and then in 1987 on Broadway), many men have sung through Javert’s obsession with capturing the elusive Jean Valjean. Straight adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel have rarely been brought to the small screen, but this season PBS and BBC’s miniseries event features a quiet and intense performance from David Oyelowo.
Oyelowo has always brought an intense level of emotion to his performances, but, as Javert, he exudes a fierce intelligence that must make other characters uneasy. The way he watches other people talk and think makes the viewer downright uncomfortable, and you know his mind is occupied with dissecting every interaction. I’ve never seen someone play Javert with a loneliness before.
As the series goes on, he becomes so obsessed with discovering Valjean that it becomes his singular goal. You can almost see the fire in his eyes but he tries his hardest to not let you see it. Oyelowo is positively brilliant in his portrayal as a man who doesn’t even know how much he has sacrificed for Valjean, a man who has dedicated his life to becoming good.
A lot of men have played Javert and Jean Valjean. What did you want to bring to this iconic character?
For me, the opportunity was about contextualizing the level of self loathing that this man clearly has by the end of his trajectory but to also give context to why. Why the pursuit of Jean Valjean. I’ve enjoyed the musical like millions of people, but it almost feels like those two elements—the why of the pursuit and the why of his violent end at his own hand—are sort of glossed over. Understandably so because the musical only has so much time to delve into a 1500 page novel written by Victor Hugo. When I read the script by Andrew Davis, I had the challenge to explore that. By delving into him that it was rooted in this self-loathing and Javert’s hatred of his own upbringing. He was brought up by two criminal parents and he had a specific relationship with criminality as a result. When he realizes that the pursuit is erroneous, he can’t live with himself. It was just a great opportunity to contextualize all that.
Javert’s perspective on right and wrong feels like night and day. You have a line early in the series where you describe another character and say, ‘He has a criminal mentality. He’s a degenerate—he’s wicked.’
You’re absolutely right. He is Old Testament and Jean Valjean is New Testament. Everything is completely black and white. There is no room for nuance or gray with him and that’s his tactic.
In the first episode, Jean Valjean is changing out of his prison uniform, and Javert quietly glances at him when he’s naked. What’s going on in that moment?
There is. There is an acute jealousy that Javert has towards Valjean. It has to do with his physical strength. Javert’s life is easier to digest if he dismissed all criminals as bad. He’s fascinated by this human being. You can see it when Javert sees Valjean breaking the rocks earlier in the first episode. I’m sure there is a jealousy to do with his strength and the prowess in the genital region. There is an element where there is no room of sexuality or to love another person. When you see how obsessed Javert is with this guy you have to wonder if there is an attraction beyond fascination. One of the things we wanted to do was to bring nuance in subtle ways, and that was one of those moments. Is he just obsessed with him? Are you attracted to him? Do you want to be him?
You want to sort of grab Javert and shake him and ask what his deal is.
How do you make something like Les Miserables relevant to a modern audience. You mentioned the musical, and I’m sure everyone knows it’s been around forever.
I really have to take my hat off to Tom Shankland. We talk in very real terms of why Les Mis and why now? The why now—especially since we had a very good version of the musical as a film—is that it’s a much deeper dive into the characters. I don’t think since the Civil Rights Movement that we’ve had this many protests, this much upheaval with racial issues, socioeconomic issues, religious issues, political issues. You only have to look at the Yellow Vests in Paris and the upheaval in that city. It’s also the difference between the have and the have nots is exemplified by Fantine, played by Lily Collins. You realize how quickly someone can slip through the cracks in society. Anyone who lives through the economic crash of 2008 and had too much money in their homes will tell you how easy it is to find yourself at the bottom of the barrel and struggling.
When I came on board, I was very clear, as a person of color, that there was no way I’d be part of this narrative if it was going to be perceived as tokenism. I’ve studied the history and I know that people of color were a part of society at this time and before. We so seldom see them in integrated ways in society. I feel like they could sense my passion not just for that but just the narrative in general so I came on as producer. What I truly believe makes a piece feel relevant is that people who will watch the show will feel themselves reflected in the show. Thankfully, that has become something that has been celebrated about our rendition of Les Miserables. It’s not just me, but it’s Gavroche, Eponine, Thenardier. Lots of people in there. It wasn’t made a big deal but just integrated in. That is something that audiences are glomming onto.
This is a version of this story that has a big emotional heft that you don’t see in the musical. Going back to what you said about the socioeconomic issues, I love that the last shot is of these poor kids sitting on the sidewalk of the street.
I love watching Javert listen to other people talk—you exude this fierce intelligence when you interrogate people. What can you tell me about Javert’s stillness or quietness?
Absolutely. When I read the book, there was a line that really, really stuck out to me. Victor Hugo describes Javert as ‘the wolf cub in the pack that the mother would never leave with his siblings.’
That is a very poignant when it comes to any character description. A wolf cub who may kill his own siblings? I really held onto that–Javert being an animal of prey, or I should say an animal constantly circling his prey. If you look at predators, there is a stillness to them—a concentration around waiting for the moment to attack. That, to me, is Javert, especially when you see him in scenes with Jean Valjean. He’s waiting for the opening and the gap where he is proved right. And, like most good predators, Javert is willing to be patient and wait it out. That’s the only explanation that he won’t relent in his pursuit for well over a decade. That characteristic dictated a lot of the physicality of how to play the role. He’s not someone who is fronting. He’s patient but it manifests in a brooding stillness. That was I hoped to do anyway.
This was the first time that I really got Javert’s loneliness. How was it to be in that singular head space the entire time you were filming this?
Lonely. It genuinely was. We had a huge cast of over 100 speaking parts, and I made a choice to keep myself to myself. I am a true believer in that you can have great dialogue and great direction, but so much of giving a good performance is about your state of mind and the head space that you can afford yourself. I stayed well away from everyone else in terms of my living quarters, because I wanted that loneliness to manifest. I truly believe that’s also why he ends himself at the end. To focus on that point of view for so long and then be wrong—not just about this man but about what he should dedicate his life to. Javert has defined himself as someone who enforces the law. He has watched this man, who was a criminal, become able to have compassion, able to love, and able to forgive. That’s the thing that makes Javert’s head spin. The foundation on which he has built his life has crumbled beneath him, and then there’s no one to love and no one to be loved by. That, going back to your first question, was the challenge. Give me context and a level of understanding, and maybe I will be able to segue into compassion for this man. The loneliness is a huge part of understanding what he does to himself.