Hugh Jackman threw himself into playing Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, and talks to Screen about the ‘role of a lifetime.’

“I think of Valjean as like a Hamlet,” says Hugh Jackman of his lead role in Les Misérables. The Australian veteran of stage and screen is not being glib when he references Shakespeare. “If you’re lucky enough to get to play [Hamlet], don’t expect them all to be like that for the rest of your life.” Perhaps this is a good thing. Jackman, 44, is known for his work ethic and threw everything into Les Misérables: he lost weight, subjected his voice to rigorous training and pursued director Tom Hooper in the hope of landing what he calls the role of a lifetime.

“It is kind of a gigantic one and it demanded more of me than ever before,” says Jackman, who won the Golden Globe for best performance by an actor in a motion picture - comedy or musical, and is also nominated for best actor at the Baftas and the Oscars. The redemption story of Valjean, who goes from convict to dignified benefactor, is at the heart of Victor Hugo’s sprawling 19th century novel. It has also been an enduring favourite on stage ever since Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil turned it into a musical in 1980.

A labour of love

Jackman initially lobbied Hooper for the role after Jackman’s agent alerted him to the fact the director had lined up Les Misérables to follow The King’s Speech. However their first encounter, although fateful, would prove a disappointment.

“I had wanted to do a musical for a long time and was waiting for the right one to come along,” says Jackman, who studied theatre in Perth and won a Tony Award for The Boy From Oz in 2004. “We met at an after-party on the night Tom was celebrating his Oscar win [in February 2011]. I told him I wanted to audition and he told me to slow down because he hadn’t signed on to do it yet.” Jackman chuckles down the phone from New York as he describes how he persisted: “I was annoying.” When Hooper eventually signed on, the actor was the first to audition. “In a sense that [audition] was all about Tom trying to get his head around how to do this. I prepared with a music director and went in and did four or five songs. I ended up staying there for four hours because Tom had so many ideas.”

Hooper had never directed theatre on stage before and confronted the challenge with his trademark rigour. “[That audition] offered me a small window into how he works. The man is so focused. He’s a consummate storyteller,” Jackman notes. “You see it in his other work, like The King’s Speech, The Damned United and John Adams. No matter what the genre, he’s a wonderful storyteller and you need that with something like Les Misérables, which involves so many characters and themes. He has the ability to have a long intellectual discussion for two hours and then on set he can interject and give you just one sentence that will change a song.”

Jackman had to shed a considerable amount of bulk for the film. When Valjean appears in the opening scene he is emaciated, confined to a penal colony for a minor crime. He toils away beneath the watchful eye of Javert, the harsh enforcer who will become his nemesis and is played with steely authority by Russell Crowe.

The actors rehearsed for nine weeks and once production was underway in London in April 2012, there was a strict regime to follow. Jackman has taken singing lessons in New York for the past 10 years but admits the requirements on Les Misérables were arduous. “We trained hard and took lessons at the end of long rehearsal days. I didn’t drink coffee because it dehydrates you and I consumed six or seven litres of water every day to keep my voice in good shape. The most terrifying thing for all of us was [the notion of] waking up with a cold.” What made everything that much tougher was the fact Hooper and producer Cameron Mackintosh decided early on to shoot the songs live. “There were a lot of takes,” says Jackman. “I would say it got into the teens to 20 for the big songs. Tom let us go for it and for instance he told Eddie [Redmayne] his rendition of Empty Chairs At Empty Tables was fine after seven takes, but I believe it’s take 21 that was in the film.

“There have been a couple of films I believe where people have sung a number live, but it’s never been done [like this] before and five to 10 years ago it would have been considered impossible. A fair bit of the budget went on getting this right because we had to replace the traditional application of microphones, so that instead of burying them, they had to stick out. It was a herculean effort by [production sound mixer] Simon Hayes. We had an earpiece and piano accompaniment. The piano was live as well and the whole set-up allowed us to be spontaneous.”

Up close and personal

The entire cast delivers. “Anne’s [Hathaway] singing was just extraordinary and I was blown away by the cast. I have been a big fan of Eddie for a while and Russell [Crowe] and Samantha [Barks, a 2012 Screen Star of Tomorrow] and Amanda [Seyfried] were amazing. There was an ensemble feeling to this production that I’ve never felt before.” The intimacy of acting on camera, in particular one that is often so tight on the principals’ faces, was different to performing on stage in front of a live audience. For one thing, Jackman realised during early tests in October 2011 that he had several “weird facial ticks” that needed to be eliminated.

“It is very easy to see everything on camera, so the connection between thought and lyric as reflected in the face had to be deep,” he says. “The size of the performance - in order to communicate whatever the song was saying - was more difficult than being on stage.” Jackman’s work chronicling Valjean’s life — from downtrodden convict to mayor to adoptive father of the orphaned Cosette in the run-up to the Paris Uprising of 1832 — is suitably epic. “He is one of the great literary characters. [At first] he’s a man who hates the world and hates what’s happened to him and then he has this incredible transformation.” The actor corrects himself: “Actually it’s more like a transfiguration, because the change is spiritual in nature. He dedicates himself to improving his life and it’s hard because it’s a struggle to be that good.

Throughout production, we kept on going back to the book because it’s got extraordinary detail. Even though there’s incredible historical accuracy, it still resonates today in all its guises.

“There are stories in there of unrequited love, great character journeys and themes of redemption and hope. To have done Les Misérables was beyond a dream. I hope to do another musical,” Jackman says, before a pause.

“Although if I do, I wouldn’t mind if the next one were a little more lighthearted.”