Hugh Jackman is a major star in Australia and in the United States, on Broadway and in the movies alike. The dashing, 44-year-old Aussie can act, sing and dance with the best of them, and right now is high on many people's list to earn an Oscar nomination as 'Best Actor' for his performance as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables."
Jackman was no sure thing even to land the role in Tom Hooper's big-screen version of the beloved Broadway musical, itself based on the classic Victor Hugo novel. The actor details his bumpy road to playing Valjean, the fugitive ex-convict whose quest for redemption drives Hugo's epic saga of 1830s Paris.
"I was very aggressive," Jackman says, settling into a chair. "The first I heard about it was from my agent. I asked Tom for a meeting. I'd met him a couple of months before, at the (2011) Oscars. He'd just won his Oscar (for The King's Speech).
"I had a good chat with him," the actor continues. "I said, 'So, I really want to play Jean Valjean. I want to audition for you.' Tom said, 'Hang on, fella. I don't know what you've heard, but I haven't signed on for this yet. I'm thinking about it as one of a few things.'
"We had our chat and I thought, 'Ahh, maybe I'm being a bit too aggressive.'
"A month later he was on it and I auditioned," Jackman recalls, shaking his head bemusedly. "It started with an hour with the musical director, just to go over the songs, and then it was three hours with Tom."
Even then, he adds, he was the one who broke up the audition.
"I remember saying to him, 'Mate, it's 8 o'clock. I've really got to put my kids to bed,"' Jackman says with a smile. "I don't think I'd ever asked to leave an audition before."
Jackman got the part — and ran head-on into a monument. Every hour of every day, somewhere in the world, somebody is reading Hugo's book or seeing the Boublil/Schonberg musical on stage. The show opened in Paris in 1980, in London in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987, where it ran for 16 years and more than 6,000 performances. Bringing so classic a story to the screen — never mind the seven previous versions of the book — conjures almost insuperable expectations for the film, which will open in the US for Christmas.
"The book is obviously a classic, and classics endure because something about them is timeless," Jackman says. "I think Hugo's portrait of the human condition is as true and accurate a one as I've ever read. Seemingly what he was talking about then, which was very pointed for the period, is just as relevant today. The themes still relate. The characters are phenomenal and fantastic, and always will be phenomenal and fantastic.
Hooper shot the film's musical numbers live. When Jackman crooned "Who Am I?" or Anne Hathaway, playing the doomed Fantine, sang I Dreamed a Dream, they did so in real time, singing and acting all at once, with no cutaways and no lip-syncing.
"You can tell it's live," Jackman says, "so you have the best of the theatrical and moviegoing experiences. Not only were the scenes live, but, to be clear, the accompaniment was live. They were effectively watching us on monitor and were playing piano off in the next room, and we were leading that too.
"The problem with that was that sometimes we'd change the rhythm," he adds. "We just went with whatever we felt, which made cutting difficult. What Tom did was shoot entire songs with two or three cameras. This way, if he wanted to cut, he could use the same take, because it might've been slightly off otherwise.
"So there were a lot of vocal challenges," Jackman continues. "I've done shows with vocal challenges, but on this we were sometimes in difficult locations to do things vocally, like the tops of mountains or in below-freezing conditions, or we were singing for 12 hours a day.
Thank God no one got sick. But the gain was infinitely greater than the challenges."