Within the span of a year, Eddie Redmayne has captured audiences’ attention. First, he won us over with his performance in My Week With Marilyn. Now, he’ll pull at our heart strings as the brave Marius in Tom Hooper‘s adaptation of Les Misérables. His character’s right in the thick of post-revolutionary France as he’s thrust into one last revolt. But the day before his team makes their move, he’s struck by love at first sight. Redmayne’s Marius easily has one of the biggest arcs in the film.
You’ve always been heavily involved in theater. We assume you jumped at the chance for a part in this film?
Eddie Redmayne: Yeah. I first saw this when I was seven or eight and I saw the character Gavroche, the urchin. He was basically everything I wanted to be. I thought that he was a complete rock star and I wanted to be him. So somehow this musical was sort of lodged in me when I was a kid and I could just never let it go. When I heard that they were making a film, indeed I jumped at the opportunity.
You already had a working relationship with Hooper before Les Misérables. Since you’re dealing with a musical, was the dynamic different with him this time around?
Eddie Redmayne: Yes and no. The last thing was an HBO piece about Elizabeth with Helen Mirren, and that was quite a big production, but here the stakes certainly felt higher because Les Mis is so loved. What’s interesting about Tom is he seems unfathomable quality, he has a wonderful brain and an extraordinary strength and taste. He knows what he wants… whenever you work with Tom, you’re always a part of his journey. Although that sounds simple, it’s weirdly rare in filmmaking cause often now there are so many voices in the mix. So what was interesting was seeing — although the scale was much bigger — still his focused attention was kind of the same and had been when I worked with him on Elizabeth.
Was it difficult singing “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables” with the camera so close? It’s a heartfelt and sad song but then there’s the camera, right there.
Eddie Redmayne: Right up on your nose [laughs]. It was funny, we worked on it. Part of my preparation process was not only getting the vocal muscle to change in the back of my throat. Not only did I have to sustain doing that in multiple takes of a song, but also with learning all of that stuff. My vocal coach, my singing coach made me stand in front of a mirror to see what my face was doing. If you’re hitting loud, large sort of operatic as it were notes, that you don’t scrunch your face into something that’s going to kill that close-up. It was a very weird, very technical exercise in preparation.
It’s great comparing and contrasting Hooper’s directing style here with what he did in The King’s Speech.
Eddie Redmayne: Well, I think what’s also interesting is on the film Les Misérables, certain scenes take sort of the directorial style. For instance, we didn’t know how many takes vocally we were going to do the song, often he would have to shoot with multi-cameras. So in that close-up, the take that they use in “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables” is all one take but shot from different angles simultaneously. So the person, the sort of unsung hero of the piece, is Danny Cohen the cinematographer who had to be able to adapt to any situation that we would throw at him, whether it’d be up in the mountains or in a studio. So a man with his capacity to change in an instant was extremely important.
There’s also a love story between your character and Cosette. It’s a breath of fresh air, considering this is one of the most depressing musicals of all-time.
Eddie Redmayne: [laughs] The second Amanda (Seyfried) comes on smiling the film sort of takes a breath of something absolutely. It was so interesting filming this version of the love story, because the love story is he sees her, and then doesn’t see her for seven months. On stage, that is sort of condensed between him dropping a book, her picking it up and they look at each other and stars kind of come out, something changes. What was interesting for me was trying to play love at first sight on film. On film it’s easier to do than it is on stage, because you can see two people discover each other and sort of question each other but through looks, anything unspoken or sung. But certainly the romantic elements of the piece are summed up when they sing “Heart Full of Love” or “In My Life,” when I was trying to find it sound real and new but it wasn’t quite working… He talks about how in my life, she’s the music of angels, the light of the sun. It’s so floric, but I think you have to literally commit to running down the street, swinging from lamp posts, old school West Side Story musical movie fashion and commit to it wholly. We did that and it seemed to work.
You worked with such a talented cast, were there any moments during the production that really stood out for you?
Eddie Redmayne: On this film, more than on any film I’ve ever seen, people were coming in on their days off just to watch your friends singing their songs. I suppose one of the people that I admire the most was actually Amanda in her capacity to that on stage, that part is really thinly sketched. It’s very difficult to get a sense of the love triangle because the audience is kind of like “Oye, Marius, wake up dude! You’ve got this really hot girl who lives down the street from you and is going after you!” What Amanda managed to bring to the thinly written part is this great sense of light but also strength and a girl on the brink of sort of womanhood really. I certainly thought that was amazing. But as far as leading from the front, Hugh Jackman, he’s always the number one on the call sheet. He sort of dictates the kind of vibe and the commitment to the set. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Whether it’s from Port Smith pulling in those boats, having huge amounts of freezing cold water pouring over him to pulling me through the sludge or just his loosing weight, gaining weight. It was an extraordinary thing to witness, and we certainly upped our game to attempt to be on his level.
One of the funniest things we heard coming out of the theater was, “What’s up with Marius fawning over Cosette and he’s got Éponine, this hot chick, over here next door!?”
Eddie Redmayne: I know! The way I always sort of describe it is he thinks of her as a sister. She’s like some sort of younger sister figure and it’s just never really crossed his mind that there’s something romantic there, but also more complicated than that. I think there’s a little part of him, although he’s living this life of poverty to pursue his political agenda, he comes from a wealthy background and ends up back in a wealthy background.
It’s refreshing to see Les Misérables again, especially since we’re in a generation where musicals aren’t the norm anymore.
Eddie Redmayne: I think it’s interesting with the state of musicals… The one or two I know and like, like Cabaret, it can be interpreted. It holds up in a piece like a play. It can be done in different productions and varieties. Some musicals feel like they have to be done in a certain set production. What I loved about this film Les Mis is seeing how strong Victor Hugo’s piece was when it was interpreted into another whole medium. The more you mined it, the more you found how wonderfully full it was. So that was exciting.
There are musicals where songs are placed in every now and again, and then there are musicals like this one where they’re pretty much singing throughout. That’s another thing that might surprise audiences, for better or worse.
Eddie Redmayne: Yeah, it’s not hiding from the fact that it’s a musical! It’s interesting though because that in itself was a bit of a debate. I know originally Tom had a script written by Ray Nicholson that was fifty percent spoken and fifty percent sung. The question was how do you move from speaking into song? That was a disconnect and an emotional disconnect to be found in some old school movie musicals. In the script you have to make a certain contract to the audience so the audience needs to know under what terms you’re going to burst into song. For the most he did with it, the more Tom realized that actually a full sung through musical was probably the better option.
Les Misérables hits theaters Christmas Day.