Interview: Les Miserables’ Eddie Redmayne

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).

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25 Comments

  1. Bryce Forestieri
    December 6, 2012

    Gorgeous and talented. I’m so in LOVE. The only fucking reason I ever saw My Week with Marylin. <3<3<3

  2. December 6, 2012

    If he didn’t come across so genial, I’d be atrociously jealous of him.

  3. naruse
    December 6, 2012

    Did not know that he was the boy toy of Marilyn from “my week with marilyn”.
    Marius was a thankless role in the musical and in most film adaptations. Eager to see where the buzz came from.

  4. December 6, 2012

    Tremendous interview by the peerless Mr. Kennedy! Loved hearing that Redmayne was passionate about Gavroche at age 9 and that he both has Shakespearean experience and might go the musical route again. He’s clearly thrilled at what he’s done here and of the potential of the film to connect with audiences when it opens on Christmas Day. Fascinating talk with a gifted young man. Wonderful questions!

  5. steve50
    December 6, 2012

    I’m not sure about the rest of the film, but his voice in one of the advance clips knocked me out of my chair.

    He’s building quite a repertoire – definitely has a long future with that range.

    Good interview.

  6. Nic V
    December 6, 2012

    He was actually the best thing about My Week With Marilyn.

  7. Curtis
    December 6, 2012

    Sadly the film is getting mixed reviews and no where near Best Picture level.

  8. December 6, 2012

    Funny thing for me is that I’m not really the target audience for this film. Some of my favorite movies are musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret) but I just never grew an affinity for the Les Miz phenomenon. Nonetheless, It was great fun to chat with Redmayne and also Samantha Barks who plays Eponine (coming soon). Redmayne because he was probably the least practiced singer of the bunch, but you’d have never known it and I admire someone who throws themselves at such a massive challenge. Barks is oozing talent, but her appeal… well I’ll have more to say about her when the interview posts. Suffice it to say she’s great and I will be surprised if she doesn’t become a star.

  9. houstonrufus
    December 6, 2012

    Lovely chap.

    Yeah, it appears Sasha was right. The initial reactions may have been overcooked. The reviews that have trickled in so far are mixed. My heart sank when I started reading them. I don’t base my opinion on others, but I hoped and wanted the film to be great and well received. I sense that slipping away. Ah, well.

  10. Houstonrufus
    December 6, 2012

    Craig, one of my favorite movies of all time is Singin in the Rain. And when it comes to musicals, I’m more of a Sondheim kind of guy. Not so much a fan of Andrew Lloyd Weber style musicals, but I do have a soft spot for Les Mis. I always felt like there was great cinematic possibility for a film adaptation of Les Mis. I guess I’ll soon find out where I fall on Hooper’s effort.

  11. Tero Heikkinen
    December 6, 2012

    He’s a good-looking guy in a rather funny way. I’d fuck him.

    The point is, I know Eddie can act, so his possible nomination wouldn’t hurt. Normally you need to keep singing contests out of the acting contests. We already have 2 winners from the most recent decade where the singing sealed the deal – not acting. And that blows. Yeah, blowing.

    Eddie, you may blow me.

  12. Tero Heikkinen
    December 6, 2012

    In other words, he is very talented, IMO.

  13. December 6, 2012

    Houstonrufus, I don’t know that initial reactions were overcooked, but I do think it’s a film that’s going to divide people. Some people just aren’t going to make that leap to a heightened, all-singing, all-emoting drama, but I bet a huge majority of Les Miz fans are going to go apeshit for it. I felt from the start that divide would probably keep it from big Oscar wins, but so what? That shouldn’t detract from it for people who dig.

  14. Pierre de Plume
    December 7, 2012

    It seems obvious that Redmayne enjoyed your interview questions, which are intelligent and engaging. I was a bit surprised to learn that he didn’t attend drama school as he seems like such an accomplished performer. For example, his contributions to My Week With Marilyn made the film believable as his character was crucial – aside from Marilyn, of course – for the entire thing to work.

    Good job, Craig!

  15. December 7, 2012

    Pierre, I was surprised too he hadn’t come up through the usual path of the typical actor, yet here he is rocking it. As others have said he was solid in My Week With Marilyn even if most don’t rate the movie highly.

  16. LSUduck
    December 7, 2012

    Houstonrufus, as Criag has said, just because some people don’t like it and/or can’t handle the intensity of a completely sung-through operatic musical for 2 1/2 hours doesn’t mean it’s not great. This style of musical is not for everyone and this fact should have dawned on me earlier. It’s far more demanding than say Chicago or Moulin Rouge pace and story wise.

    Honestly, I think some of the harsher reviews are just because of a backlash against all of the frontrunner talk. So many of the negative reviews have a line saying “I liked it but…” or “I’m not saying I didn’t like it” so I think they are all going half a star lower than they would have given it had the hype been a little more controlled.

  17. December 7, 2012

    All the same, LSUduck, with this many middling-to-negative reviews for Les Mis, it’s got an uphill battle on its hands versus films like Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, which have few if any such reviews. The industry found it easy to turn their back on The Social Network because The King’s Speech was so well-received; they’ll find it a lot tougher if Les Mis doesn’t start raking in a massive haul of raves, particularly considering the fact that just about no-one wants to see Tom Hooper win again.

  18. houstonrufus
    December 7, 2012

    Craig, fair enough. And I agree. I’ll see it and reviews, bad or good, won’t determine my enjoyment.

    For the record, Lincoln is the horse I’m supporting in the oscar race, at least until I see Zero Dark Thirty. Even if Les Mis knocked my socks off, I’m pretty devoted to Lincoln, as far as awards go. I guess I just wanted Les Mis to be more of a contender. And while I know reviews don’t determine oscar fates, Les Mis is going to have to get much better reviews to be taken seriously in the awards race. The only exception to this seems to be Hathaway who has been universally praised. I hate to play the metacritic numbers game, but it’s current score sits at 59. I know it’s very early, but some indicators are showing it’s score would be lucky to even get in the 70′s. Neither of the EW critics placed the film in their top 10 list. A tweet from Schwarzbaum suggested she didn’t like the film at all. Stephanie Zecharek at Salon gave the film a D+. So more negative reviews are going to be figured in that score.

    Again, I hate to rely on the metacritic numbers, but Dreamgirls settled at 76 and Chicago at 82. I didn’t want Les Mis or Hooper to be oscar winners this time to be clear, but I at least wanted the film to be good enough to contend.

  19. December 7, 2012

    I’m rooting for Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln (haven’t seen Django yet), but I think Les Miz is more deserving than King’s Speech was. If nothing else, I admire Hooper’s ambition and the huge risk he took. That deserves recognition.

  20. LSUduck
    December 7, 2012

    Paddy,

    I know it’s basically screwed from winning BP. It’s about salvaging a nomination now.

  21. December 7, 2012

    To some of the others here who are somewhat disappointed by the good but not stupendous review concensus thus far, I would just like to add that it’s way too early to come to any conclusions. When we approach Christmas, we’ll have a more definitive critical picture. I do agree that the hype may have adversely affected the honesty of some of the responses by way of a slightly lower grade. I have seen MC, but RT (a far less effective barometer I know) shows stronger cumulative averages by far. As a huge fan of the Broadway show I am of course rooting for a spectacular success, and feel if it gets in the 70′s (even the low 70′s) it is guaranteed a Best Picture nomination. I adore LINCOLN, and like everyone else am expecting great things from ZERO DARK THIRTY. I saw the EW lists, and read Zahareck’s review for sure. But again we need a wider critical scope, ands I’m predicting the numbers will improve considerably.

  22. December 7, 2012

    Yeah, the Metacritic score only includes 2 critics of real note. I’ll bet that number comes way up when more real critics start weighing in.

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