Jackman has portrayed his share of iconic characters already, but in this instance, he was keenly aware and almost reverent of Valjean's cultural status and value as a moral symbol. "He’s obviously one of the great literary character and I see him as a real hero; quiet and humble," the Australian actor explained. "Annie and I were just talking. There has been such a great reminder of the New York City cop who bought shoes for the homeless man, to me Jean Valjean comes from a place of the greatest hardship that I could ever imagine. I don’t think any of us could. He manages to transform himself from the inside. Obviously, on film, we wanted to show the inside changes as well but, actually Victor Hugo uses the term ‘transfiguration’. It’s more than a transformation because he becomes more godlike, it’s a spiritual change. It’s something that happens from within. It’s, to me, one of the most beautiful journeys ever written and I didn’t take the responsibility of playing the role lightly. I think it is one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had and if I’m a tenth of the man Jean Valjean is, I’ll be a very happy man."
For Hathaway, connecting to the agonies endured by Fantine presented a particular challenge. She said, "In my case, there’s no way that I could relate to what my character was going through. I have a very successful life and don’t have any children that I could give up or keep so what I did was tried 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. For me, for this particular story, I came to the realization that I was thinking of 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, like today, we see it end."
Elaborating on the research she did into modern human trafficking and slavery, Hathaway explained, "I just started Googling and reading various articles. It stays with you. I read things that are unimaginable to think that human beings have experienced them. I remember there was a police raid on one of the brothels and a camera crew went along and there was a small crawl space up in the ceiling. Oh my God, fourteen girls came out of it and they were all so tiny and crunched up and 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 and my heart broke for them. There was another piece where there was a woman who didn’t want her identify revealed and she sat there and kept repeating ‘I come from a good family. We lost everything and I have children so now I do this.' And she doesn’t want to do this but it’s the only way the 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 that 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. I’ll never know who she is but she was really the one who made me understand when Fantine says ‘shame’ what it’s like not just to go to a dark place but to have fallen from a place where you didn’t imagine anything bad was going to happen to you and the betrayal and rage you feel at life. You’ve gone into a place that, by the way, I don’t believe this woman would have gone to, that Fantine would not have gone to if she didn’t have children to support. I think she would have let herself die. So, Fantine is so heartbreaking and it all just layered within me."
While most major films like Les Misérables don't usually have especially lengthy rehearsals, a musical requires intense preparation, and Jackman related, that meant extensive rehearsals. "Tom Hooper told us all there were going to be rehearsals," he said. "I don’t think any of us expected nine weeks of rehearsals and I’ve been on a film where the entire cast signs up for the entire time. I come from the theater so, for me, rehearsal is vital and a way of life. There are many film directors who don’t believe and some actors to don’t like to rehearse but, with a musical, you have to. And, with Tom, we would rehearse full out. It wasn’t a halfhearted thing. Tom would be sitting here (close-by). He’d move his chair, often, to a very uncomfortably close place (laughter) and do this (leaning in) the whole way. So everything we ended up doing, it was brilliant. By the time we got to the set, it was not uncomfortable having the camera that close. There had been times when I or Anne or all of us had done a version of the song where there was snot coming out of our noses and Tom would say ‘All right. That’s a little too much’ so everything was tested properly. I mention that because I’m so grateful to Tom and everyone at Working Title and Universal that they spent the money and time on that to make it possible."
Unlike the stage play, this film provided the opportunity to fully dramatize the changes in Valjean's appearance in the long stretches of time between his encounters with Inspector Javert, played by Crowe. Jackman said, "It’s a very big part of the story, the relationship Valjean has with Javert and they know each other right through the story. When they meet in the play it’s probably five minutes in when they re-meet nine years later and Javert has no idea who this guy is. It’s clear to everyone that the guy has taken a fake beard off and put on a grayer wig and it’s exactly the same guy. Tom said we actually have an opportunity here for all the characters to show time, scale and all these things so he said ‘I want to make you unrecognizable and if people in your life aren’t saying you’re sick then something is wrong and we haven’t gone far enough’. So, I did lose a lot of weight and had the joy of putting weight on which was a 30 pound journey from the beginning."
"But I have to say all that pales in comparison to what this lady next to me did," he continued, singling out Hathaway. "Because at least I had time to prepare and do that. Annie was doing it in fourteen days. You lost about 300 pounds in fourteen days? (laughs) I’ll just share a little story, then I’ll shut up. I had my hair cut off with those gashes and Annie had been talking about cutting her hair. She came in for a consultation with Tom and she walked in to the make-up 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 with Tom and her makeup artist. If you watch the movie, he is a man but obviously, in the film was dressed in a dress because you needed an actual hair stylist to cut her hair, so if you notice man-hands in a dress, you’ll see why. I remember Anne saying ‘If you end up cutting my scalp and there is blood, fantastic, let’s go for it’. I put up my hand and said ‘For the record, I would like make-up. Fake scars, please!’"
"I offered Tom the option of cutting my hair," Hathaway said. "I always knew in the back of my mind, it was something I was willing to do for a character if it was the right thing to do. So, when I got cast and got the script and knew they were keeping the hair cutting in and I’d read the book and it’s such a devastating scene in the book, I thought that doing it for real might raise the stakes a bit for the character. I guess, in the back of my mind, I thought if it was a painful experience watching her hair be cut, then watching her teeth get pulled would be really painful and, of course, when she becomes a prostitute, I thought they (the audience) are going to be with her feeling that alongside of her and, as an actor, it was great to authentically communicate a physical transformation."
The cast on this iteration of Les Misérables became an uncommonly close team over the course of production, and Hathaway asserted that Russell Crowe was instrumental in fostering an environment of supportive teamwork, saying, "You can not underestimate Russell’s contribution and influence on this cast. He was the first one to say ‘Hey, come to my house Friday night. My voice teacher is gonna play piano. We’ll have a couple of drinks and sing’. That was such a key part of the process. Up to that point, we were in rehearsals with each other. We were very serious and spending all day crying but in between, I don’t think we had gotten to the point where we thought of song as a way of communicating with each other. I think we thought ‘This is a technical thing we have to accomplish’ and through those nights, Russell let us approach it from a completely different perspective. This is the way we are going to communicate. This is the language we speak. These are our shared experiences. I know, for me, it made me so much more invested in the totality of the film and being in such a small part of the film that I am, I could have easily gone home and forgotten about it all but I cared so much that I needed to know ‘How did “On My Own” go?’ or “In My Life”, how did that turn out? I think it really cemented the bond between us. Now we kind of say we’re ‘Camp Les Mis.'"
"I remember one of the first day’s of filming," Jackman said. "I was singing that soliloquy in the church and it was this beautiful real, old church in London and I was coming up the steps and Annie was at the top there and came over and had tears in her eyes and was hugging me and saying ‘I’m not going to miss this for the world’ and it was like that. I’ve never known that on a film before. We were all kind of there for each other. It had the feeling of the closest stage show I’ve ever been involved with but it was a film which is unusual. We’ll be bonded for life with all we’ve been through."
Les Misérables opens nationwide on Tuesday, December 25th.