Colm Wilkinson and Producer Cameron Mackintosh Talk Les Miserables, available now on Blu-ray and DVD
Heading into Easter Weekend, the Oscar-winning film Les Miserables is available on Blu-ray and DVD, the perfect musical to get you in the mood for this upcoming Holiday. We recently caught up with one of the producers on the film Cameron Mackintosh, and the man who perfected Jean Valjean on stage before taking the role of the Bishop on screen, Colm Wilkinson. Both have a long and storied history with the production, from its stage roots to its place as one of cinema's great musicals. Here's our exclusive conversation.
Actor Colm Wilkinson
Les Mis was originally supposed to be turned into a film musical nearly twenty-five years ago. It didn't happen. Were you involved with the first incarnations of this project's life as a movie?
Colm Wilkinson: No. We never talked. It never got that far, to be quite honest. I was just saying to somebody, I remember Steven Spielberg coming to one of the London productions. I think he had in mind to do something with it. There was some other director, the guy that made Mississippi Burning. An English director...There were a couple of directors interested in it, but it never amounted to anything. Once this project started to gather momentum, and eventually became a definite, they got the green flag, and I decided I wanted to be involved in it, personally, for myself. I was fifty-fifty about getting involved. It was interesting that it should now be definite after so many false starts. For different reasons. I think they thought the box office of the movie would take away from the box office of the road show. Which they found was wrong, it actually added fuel to the road box office. So, the answer to your question is no, I was never involved in any of the previous efforts to bring Les Miserables to the screen. It was only this one that I put my name in for.
I've heard Hugh Jackman talk about how valuable it was to have you on set. What sort of advice or wisdom did you impart to him?
Colm Wilkinson: He was very generous with that. It was nice. There was a respect for me being the originator of the role, and the originator of the stage version. I have been so long associated with Les Miserables, going on the past twenty-eight years. Hugh Jackman was great. As I've said before, I wouldn't presume that I need to give anyone advice. We did chat. I said, "Do you want me to talk to you about this thing musically or vocally?" And he said, "Yeah." We talked about different aspects of a couple of the songs he sang, that he was a little bit worried about in terms of how he would approach them. But he is a very astute guy. And a great actor and a singer. He knows what he has to do. Where he needs to be. The main piece of advice I gave him, which seemed to delight him, was I said, "Don't try and copy me. Do your own version of this. Find your own way of doing this. That is the only way you are going to be original." He knows that about himself. It was obvious. But I said it anyway, "Don't copy me, just do your own version of it, and do it honestly." He was respectful of me. I have to say. I was touched by it, and so delighted to have Hugh Jackman on set.
Having a twenty-eight year relationship with the stage show, even though you originated the role of Jean Valjean, were you familiar enough with the Bishop to just ease into that role, or was this about learning something new all over again?
Colm Wilkinson: I always loved the Bishop. I know the book quite well. There are fifty pages about the Bishop himself, personally. Then the next fifty pages are about him meeting Valjean, and giving him these candlesticks, and sending him off on this path in life. Its probably one of the most powerful characters next to Valjean. He is as close to a saint, in the catholic sense, that you could get. He is unbelievably kind. He had a connection to the poor. That was his whole thing. He gave up his palace, and lived in a cottage. He traded the Bishop's palace for a hospital, and he treated the poor with respect and dignity. Once he treated Valjean that way, it became Valjean's mission in life to do the same thing. So I have huge respect for the Bishop's role. But it wasn't explored, because we didn't have time. In the three hours that the musical lasts, there was no time to do that. I was delighted that Tom Hooper had decided to bring him back at the end. Throughout his life, in the movie and in the book, Valjean kept the candlesticks. He was supposed to sell the candlesticks. That's why the Bishop gave them to him. But he respected the Bishop so much, he kept the candlesticks. And they were a constant lingerer. If you notice, every time there is a crisis with Valjean, he goes back to the candlesticks. They are a symbol of the Bishop, and his ideas, and his righteousness. It's his spirit, and that's what he lived by. For me, it was such a wonderful character.
Those candlesticks kind of represent the relationship between you and Hugh Jackman as actors, as well...
Colm Wilkinson: (Laughs) That's a great analogy, thank you for saying that. It is passing the baton. I was passing the baton onto him, and handing him the candlesticks was the original Valjean passing it onto the new Valjean. Yeah, it was. There is symbolism there, in a way. My approach to this was the same, basically. Its come full circle for me. The movie has called it closed. I'm not saying I won't ever listen to Les Miserables again. But it closed the door for me. It's gone its own way. I was connected in a different way before the movie. Now, doing the Bishop, and all of this, it's been long enough. Its time to move on. Maybe in a different way.
What do you think singing the songs on set brought to the movie that lip-syncing wouldn't have?
Colm Wilkinson: This is difficult. There are two ways to look at it. I think this was a first, but it was very, very difficult. I didn't have a huge amount to do. I didn't have what Hugh Jackman had to do, or Anne Hathaway. But singing live with an electric piano, it sounded great, but that was all you got. And they had this tiny earpiece. It was tiny, tiny. You had to bury it deep in your ear, because the camera could not see it. You see some people on stage today, and they have these huge ear monitors. We had to bury these tiny little earpieces in our head. The sound was so quiet. I just can't comprehend how Hugh Jackman could do all of that music listening to that. On stage, you have the strings that will take you to another place, musically. But he didn't have that. He just had that little earpiece. But he had the ambition, and the drive to do what he did. Amazing work ethic. You wouldn't believe what that man did, physically and vocally.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh
Do you have a cure for getting these songs out of your head after seeing the movie?
Cameron Mackintosh: I think drink a lot. And get a hangover. That is all I can tell you.
Drink a lot. That's the easy way to forget everything.
Cameron Mackintosh: Yes. You need to get yourself an amnesia-based spirit.
What did the film version of Les Miserables allow you to do creatively that the stage version didn't offer you as an artist?
Cameron Mackintosh: To Tom Hooper's credit, with the original screenplay, he wanted to get all of the new ideas that were in the screenplay, and get them to the original form that we had on stage. That, we did. We pulled the stage show apart, and we put all the new material in that he thought was necessary to tell the story properly in a film way, and for us, that was a real joy. To reexamine the material, and see that it was cinematic. We in no way wanted to just put the stage show up. We didn't want to just film the stage show. We knew it would have to have a different sensibility. It was great working with Tom Hooper, who encouraged us to do that. I think that has been one of the main reasons the film has been successful. It feels cinematic. It feels like you are watching a real movie that happens to be telling its story through music.
Do you think the genre has been reinvented enough over the years, especially with shows like Glee and Smashed, that you are able to take the musical, and have more freedom with it?
Cameron Mackintosh: Undoubtedly. It was a stroke of luck for us twenty-five years ago that the film we were originally going to do didn't happen. In fact, now, because of these musicals, and the fact that they are very coursing, and young people want to go see them in a way they never did before...There is no doubt that the success that started, I believe with Baz Luhrmann and Moulin Rouge, and Chicago...And then, of course, we have Glee on television, and the popularity of Smash...And then, of course, there was Mamma Mia!...We entered a period where people would take a gamble on making a film like Les Miserables. I don't think this would have happened had we been making the movie at a different time.
Can you take me behind the scenes of the casting? Were these actors that were always attached to the project. Did you seek them out? Did they seek you out?
Cameron Mackintosh: The first big ones...Tom Hooper came on board, and he came to us. It wasn't visa versa. He went to see the show. He'd never seen it before. He had heard it was being turned into a movie. He wanted to come and meet me, and he wanted to do the film. At that point, The King's Speech was still doing the rounds at the film festivals. I met him and thought he was exceptionally bright. I thought he had a great vision for the film, so I recommended him. We go with him. Of course, at that point, we all put our favorite names down on a list of whom we'd like to see in the film. But when people heard we were going to make the film, so many actors came in from different agents. Huge amounts of people wanted to be involved in Les Miserables. It was a very special thing for actors who could sing. To be a part of a piece like this. It has always been something that attracts new generations of talent. So, I think that several of the names that were on our lists wound up in the film, but at the same time, several others put their hands up to be seen. What was great was that people put themselves through the audition process. When I said that we needed to audition everyone, they all looked at me rather strangely. I said, "Well, I always audition people for musicals." You need to find out if they can pull it off. You can't wait to find that out later. There is no proper course. Led by people like Hugh Jackman, who normally does audition for musicals, and I'd already done another project with him...He started out in musicals, as did most of the people that ended up in the movie.
Russell Crowe isn't know for musicals. Were you a fan of his band, Fifty Odd Foot of Grunts?
Cameron Mackintosh: I knew he was from musicals! I'd seen him doing The Blues Brothers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I had an office in Australia during the early part of his career. He only appeared in musicals.
Who did he play in Rocky Horror?
Cameron Mackintosh: I'm pretty sure he either played Brad or he played Rocky.
Rocky makes sense.
I knew he was a singer. Had you kept up with his current career in rock music?
Cameron Mackintosh: No! of course not! But I always remembered him doing it on stage. For years, I first thought about him for the show when I saw Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World. I thought, "Oh, my god!" At that point, I couldn't remember where his voice went to. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe were always the two leads in my mind whom I thought could do this. But believe me, I had them the other way around in terms of their pipes, and that was before I went through the audition process. I had thought of Russell Crowe as Jean Valjean. It was fated that they played the right roles at the right time. Hugh Jackman had a really good baritone. A film baritone. He has moved to a high baritone since he worked for me in the past.
Everyone that sees the movie always has their story about watching Anne Hathaway's performance for the first time. What was your experience like watching that in a theater for the first time?
Cameron Mackintosh: I wasn't in the theater when I watched her do it. Not the first time she actually sang. It was at a piano at Pinewood during rehearsal that I first heard her do it. I thought she was fantastic. When she first met Tom Hooper in New York, when she auditioned...A lot of other actors put their hand up to come audition the part...I knew that she gave a marvelous performance. It was the beginning of the performance we have on screen. But I knew Anne Hathaway for many years before this film. Because her mother had played Fantine for me in one of the national tours through America. So, she has been brought up since a child with the music of Les Miserables. It's in her blood. But originally, when I was auditioning for this, I saw her as either Cosette or Eponine in one of my big concerts. She always wanted to play it, but it never worked out because of her film career. Of course, now, at first I didn't think she was old enough to play Fantine. But of course, she was.
Why do you think this story still resonates with people today so strongly?
Cameron Mackintosh: That's the genius of Victor Hugo. He wrote a novel, which was not just about France, but it was about people in any country. He famously wrote to his publisher saying, "This is a French novel for the French, but it's also a nod to the Italians and the Americans, and the whole world." The characters that he wrote about are completely timeless. It goes back to language and country. Everybody understands these characters. Its why the school productions of Les Miserables, which there have been thousands upon thousands of school children playing these parts brilliantly...I am amazed at these productions when I go and see them occasionally. They really grasp the characters. In every school, there is a pair of Thénardiers, and there's an Eponine, and there is a Cosette. The characters are timeless. The message of it, about the survival of the human spirit, and the way they devote their lives to what they believe in. All of these themes resonate. How often do I see images in the newspaper of people rioting, standing up for what they believe in? I think, "Oh, my God, how did we get a picture of tonight's production of Les Miserables into the newspaper?" And of course, its because human nature doesn't change. If anything, the story resonates more now as we understand what's going on in all four corners of the planet. Because Victor Hugo was so prescient. This story will never go out of date. Therefore, an audience's reaction to it will never tire. It's not like the normal musical. I don't think any other musical has ever had such a strong story.
Are you going to continue working in film, or are you headed back to the stage?
Cameron Mackintosh: I have never left the theater. I give three drops of blood, and it's exhausting. I enjoyed making the movie, hugely, but it put quite a strain on my production life as well, which is enormously successful at the moment, to my pleasant surprise. But, you know, I will make another movie. But it won't be tomorrow.
We always hear threats that they are planning a Little Shop of Horrors remake. Will you have a hand in that if it goes forward?
Cameron Mackintosh: No. I did the show originally. I produced the show off-Broadway. But, I was never involved in the movie. I'm delighted that the stage show still gets done. But a remake of the movie is not something I would want to do. Its been done, and with a level of greatness. There is a lot of good in that movie. There are quite a few musicals that I was with the first time, but I think they will see me out. (Laughs)