Landing on Christmas Day, one of the most anticipated films of the year is Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the beloved and enduringly popular stage musical Les Miserables based of course on the Victor Hugo novel. Told completely in song, the story follows a group of characters against the backdrop of revolutionary upheaval in early 19th-Century France. Eddie Redmayne plays the character Marius, a young student turned revolutionary who falls in love with Cosette, played in the film by Amanda Seyfried.
A veteran of stage, screen and Television, the Cambridge-educated Redmayne is probably best known in the United States for last year’s performance as Colin Clark opposite Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. With Les Miserables having screened for critics, the press push is just starting to kick into gear and I had the opportunity to speak with the actor at the historic Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Freckled, fair, polite and quietly articulate, Mr. Redmayne’s still got a little bit of the shy English schoolboy in him even at 30 and, because the cast hasn’t yet been run repeatedly through the awards press gauntlet, he came across as energetic and enthused about the work he’d just done.
Craig Kennedy: Les Miserables is your first big experience in a professional musical, isn’t it?
Eddie Redmayne: I did one musical, actually a Cameron Mackintosh musical, when I was about 11 or 12, which was Oliver. I was like sort of the 46th urchin or something, so that was my only professional experience, but I remember the production was directed by Sam Mendes. I don’t think I ever got to meet Sam Mendes, but it remained on my CV for a long time (laughs). Other than that, I’ve never done any professional musicals, no.
Craig: Isn’t it a little crazy to jump in to one of the highest profile and most anticipated musicals of all time?
Eddie Redmayne: (laughs) Um, I saw this when I was a kid, when I was like 9, and I wanted to be Gavroche. I’d enjoyed singing when I was younger, I had sung when I was a kid and I haven’t sung for 10, 15 years, but I thought I’d give it a shot because I loved the material so much.
Craig: What do you suppose it is about this story that still resonates 150 years after Victor Hugo wrote it or even 30 years after the original musical was staged?
Eddie: As I said, I fell in love with it at age 9 wanting to play Gavroche. I think Amanda Seyfried probably fell in love with it at age 9 wanting to be Young Cosette. My parents loved it because they related to the idea of parenthood and that sense of undying love for a child. I think that there’s something for every generation to access. Like, now I’m older, the idea of the student stuff, fighting for what you believe in, all those things in relation to Wall Street, to what happened in St. Paul’s in London or the Arab Spring and this idea of people fighting for what they believe in and small groups of people catalyzing, it does seem incredibly resonant. But also at the heart of it is Hugh Jackman’s character and it’s a story of redemption, of finding love. So I feel like, weirdly, there’s something universal in it. And yet, despite it taking you to these places of tense emotion, you also have amazing comedic relief and at the end there’s a euphoric hope that comes. So, I suppose it’s quite all encompassing. It seems to touch on many parts of us.
Craig: What was the casting process like? There must have been some intense competition from a lot of people with a lot of musical theater experience.
Eddie: I was making a film in North Carolina with Chloe Moretz (Hick) playing this sort of Texan meth-addict cowboy, and it was a night shoot and I had some time off so I was in my trailer and I just thought I’d put myself on tape on my iPhone, just singing the character’s main song unaccompanied, basically just to show to my agents that I enjoyed singing and that I’d love to try and pursue this. I don’t think they’d opened up auditions yet, but I’d heard that Tom who I’d worked with before (the Elizabeth I TV mini-series) was directing it, and my agent Josh sent the recording I did to Working Title and that was how it started. And then it was quite a rigorous process of auditioning with Tom and Nina Gold the casting director and then this American Idol sort of X-Factor-style audition thing with Tom and Nina, and behind the table were Cameron Mackintosh, the Working Title producers, the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, you know, so it was a really intimidating room (laughs). And it was through that process that I got it, but what was astounding is that that was what everyone went through – Hugh was put through that, Russell Crowe was put through that, Anne Hathaway was put through that and so this film felt like, for everyone involved, a film on a big scale but with the intimacy of it being a passion project. When we arrived on set, we all felt like we’d been put through the mill to get there and I think that bound us together.
Craig: How much rehearsal or preparation time did you have from the moment you were cast to the day cameras started rolling?
Eddie: We had I think maybe 8 weeks which is a long time for film. It involved having the script which Bill Nicholson had written, but then rigorously going through Victor Hugo’s book and finding additional elements. I was particularly worried that Marius on stage is an incredible romantic, but these people sort of die for him and it’s like he’s blind to a lot of it. So, I wanted to find ways of making the political element stronger for example. There’s a bit in the book at the barricade where, after the girl he’s fallen in love with disappears, he takes a thing of gunpowder and is basically willing to explode himself and all his friends with him for the sake of his cause which is something that Bill Nicholson had added back in. So, all these elements of trying to tighten up moments that, in the musical, the music carries you through, but on film there’s too much of an intimacy to let those things just pass. So, weirdly, it was textual work and coming up with new ideas. Claude-Michel and Alain and Herbie Kretzmer were writing new lyrics for things. Tom added in the element of my grandfather so that you see that this guy has given up wealth to go and live in a tiny little bedsit for the sake of his political agenda, you know, so the guy had a bit more of the complexities that are in the book but were impossible to do on stage.
Craig: Subtle stuff that builds character on a page or a screen, but might not come across on stage…
Eddie: Yeah, exactly that.
Craig: You’ve done Shakespeare which has a musicality to it and the dialogue has a heavily stylized quality. To what extent did your experiences with that apply to doing a musical where you’re singing your lines?
Eddie: That’s an absolutely brilliant question because, while I was auditioning for this, I was playing Richard II at the Donmar in London which is all in verse. So, you start a sentence and, as with anything, the thought has to come and be real even if it’s in verse. You have to be able to seemingly invent in the moment, in the present tense, these extraordinary similes and metaphors and rhymes. Certainly I found that really helpful when going into Les Miz. It felt like the same thing, trying to make a thought seem fresh in a song that you then have to rhyme with in two lines. So, I found it incredibly helpful just having come off the back of doing a Shakespeare play.
Craig: As someone who doesn’t sing or act, I think of having to carry a tune, but that’s not really the hard part of musical theater, is it? You’ve got to feel it and act it and sing it all at the same time.
Eddie: Yeah. When I play parts that aren’t in my own accent, I use a dialogue coach to work with me on the technical stuff for a month or two beforehand. You start with literally technical things like vowel sounds and getting that all right so that, by the time you come to the shooting, all of that is gone. It’s in your muscle memory and you can make it live and be real and spontaneous. This felt like the equivalent of that. You’re literally training your tongue muscles at the back of your throat. I had this amazing singing teacher called Mark Meylan who completely transformed the physical makeup of the back of my throat in order to be able to hit some of this stuff. But, by the time you got on set, that was all hopefully automatic and all I cared about was the character and the storytelling and finding the truth in the thing. In some ways, whether it was song or not became irrelevant.
Craig: You’re no longer necessarily singing, you’re just acting.
Eddie: Yeah, like that. It’s almost like it’s an accent.
Craig: What part did you play in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night? That just happened to be my favorite Shakespeare comedy from college.
Eddie: I played Viola.
Craig: Oh, really? You had men in the parts of women just like in Shakespeare’s day?
Eddie: Yeah, with Mark Rylance (The Other Boleyn Girl). It was the 400th anniversary and it was done as an all-male production of Shakespeare and they invited The Globe Theatre to come and do it again. Marky Rylance played Olivia and I played Viola. It was my first ever job.
Craig: That sounds amazing.
Eddie: You’re not going to London anytime soon are you?
Craig: I wish!
Eddie: Oh, mate… maybe it’ll come to Broadway, but do you know Mark Rylance who won a Tony for Jerusalem last year?
Craig: I know of him but I’ve never met him.
Eddie: 10 years after we originally did it, he’s doing it again in London playing Olivia and I just went and saw it last week and it is the most extraordinary production, so if you can see it, you should.
Craig: I have a pet theory that one of the reasons there are so many great English actors is because of Shakespeare. Any thoughts on that?
Eddie: I don’t know. I think it is a big part of your syllabus as a kid when you’re doing English. You learn a lot about it and it is a massive part of our culture. I didn’t go to drama school, but I think it’s also a massive part of drama school. Certainly, for me, my first job having been that and recently 10 years after that having done another Shakespeare play, it certainly feeds the soul and each time you come at it again, you learn something more from it. Because it’s so complicated, I feel like I always come out of having done Shakespeare having felt challenged and probably having slightly bettered myself.
Craig: Do you feel like you’re part of a continuum with all the people who’ve played these parts over the decades whether it’s Viola or Richard II in Shakespeare or Marius in Les Miserables?
Eddie: Yeah, it’s interesting, when you play Marius you know that Michael Ball has played it and a lot of the actors who were the students in the film had played Marius on stage in London. Everyone was going, “Oh God, the stakes are so high. Are you not terrified?” and I felt a bit like when I did Richard II and Ian McKellen came and saw it, and Derek Jacobi came and saw it, and Ben Wishaw who’d just done it came and saw it. They’d all played the part, but I think the acting community is much more generous spirited than it’s often gotten credit for and it’s lovely to be a part of that and to keep finding new ways of interpreting the same part.
Craig: I can’t imagine Ian McKellen coming to watch me do anything, let alone something that he’s already rightly famous for.
Eddie: (laughs) Yeah, something he’s already nailed. Exactly. It’s terrifying.
Craig: How would you compare and contrast your experiences on stage and on screen? Are they as different as they seem or is there more about them that is similar?
Eddie: I think there’s a lot more similar, interestingly. People always have this sort of snobby thing of thinking you need to go back to theater to train your muscles and I actually think it’s bullshit. I sort of think it’s the other way around for me. I started in theater and I remember when I did my first few films and I had no idea what I was doing and you have to learn from your mistakes. With the scrutiny of the camera and the truth telling, there’s no room for anything peripheral or excessive. That channeling down and trying to find something that’s inherently true meant that, when I came back to doing stage work four years later, I think that it had absolutely educated me for the stage. Before, I was doing all of this stuff rather than just telling the truth. So, I find jumping between the two incredibly helpful because I think each time I go back into the other, it seems to access something that helps me change as a performer.
Craig: Do you have a preference for one over the other?
Eddie: They’re different as far as the lifestyle is concerned. You know, when you’re filming you’re living on location. It’s all encompassing. It’s virtually 7 days a week. Theatre is a different beast, but I love the variety of life that they both give, so I quite like being able to shake it up and do both. I did the play Red on Broadway and people would ask me how I could do it for as long as I did it and the answer is because you never get it right so you never feel satisfied, but with theatre you can come in the next day and try to sort what you screwed up the day before. The tricky thing with film, and it’s why I sort of kept making Tom do it again and again, is you have to wait six months and see what the thing looks like. You know you’re never going to be satisfied, but at least if you’ve poured everything that you have into it, you can’t beat yourself up too much. You have to learn to accept what you’ve done and put your faith in the director.
Craig: Film though is interesting because you don’t have to give the whole performance each time, you could theoretically just work on one line at a time until you get it right.
Eddie: Interestingly, what was amazing about the way that Tom worked on this is that it felt theatrical in its through-run. For example, in the scene in which we build the barricade, he had five cameramen dressed up as peasants and all these shops filled with furniture. He had 30 students and like 50 peasants and he said, “Alright, build a barricade. Action.” And you didn’t know where the cameras were and there were things falling and it was completely true. The shots that he uses for virtually all of those solos are from one take even if it was multi-coverage. So that was more theatrical than the normal where you’re sort of splicing things together from everything you’ve got.
Craig: What did this whole process of working on Les Miserables teach you about acting or how do you think it made you grow as an actor?
Eddie: That’s interesting. I think it’s so specific to what it was that it meant that you had to use everything that you’ve ever learned – whether it was on film, Shakespeare, theater, singing when you were a kid – you had to just try and take all of that stuff and accumulate it. It felt like taking 30 years of experience or whatever and trying for a specific role. There’s something that Amanda Seyfried said actually that often when you’re doing something emotional on a set, you’ll listen to music to get you to a place or to keep you in a place between takes to try and retain that sense of being ready and yet here you actually have the music playing in your ear. What’s tricky is that it’s only a tinny piano that you can barely hear and you have to imagine that it’s a massive swelling orchestra, but it does help having something there. The music does add an element. Perhaps it’s easier to access emotion when you have music there supporting it.
Craig: Do you think there are more musicals in your future or was this just a one time thing?
Eddie: I’d definitely never say never. I did enjoy the experience hugely, but I’ve not lived that life of a musical theater performer. I think it’s probably incredibly rigorous and I’m not sure that I’m capable of it, but I did enjoy this experience a lot. I loved meeting all those people who worked in that word and it’s certainly an interesting one, but I’m not sure I’d be able to (laughs).