Wolverine's Hugh Jackman replaces one pair of sideburns for another in a movie adaptation of the smash-hit musical Les Miserables. He talks to Susan Griffin about tackling the role of a lifetime.
By Susan Griffin
If you've been known to lather up and enjoy a good old sing-song in the bathroom, then you're in good company.
"I always sing in the shower," says a smiling Hugh Jackman. "I sing most days of my life and the shower's where I spend a good 10 minutes."
He showcases his vocal prowess in the much-anticipated movie adaptation of the long-running musical Les Miserables, playing the story's protagonist, Jean Valjean.
"You follow him for a 20-year span, and throughout that time you see all the ups and downs, the pain and the ecstasy that life brings," says Jackman, who puts in a tour de force performance as the reformed convict which has already garnered him a Golden Globe nomination.
"Valjean's like a Hamlet; he's one of those parts that you hope one day you're going to get to play apart from in your bathroom."
Although best known for his movie roles, notably as X-Men's Wolverine, Jackman, 44, boasts an impressive theatrical background, having starred in productions such as Sunset Boulevard and Oklahoma. Only recently he performed a one-man show on Broadway. He even got to do a few song and dance numbers at the Academy Awards four years ago.
"All the things I've done leading up to [Les Miserables] whether it be on stage or in film, I feel came together in this role. It's the role of a lifetime," says the Australian native, looking ruggedly handsome in a blue jumper and dark trousers.
"I've been in musical theatre for a number of years and I've done movies for a number of years, so there have been two sides of my career that's felt slightly schizophrenic," he explains.
"For a long time I've wanted to combine the two and I'd dreamt of being in a movie musical."
But the Emmy and Tony-award winning actor didn't think a big screen adaptation of Les Miserables was possible.
"It's been around 27 years, it's so iconic and the idea it could be made into a film wasn't even on my radar," he says of the production that's been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and 21 languages.
Then Jackman's agent heard a potential movie was in the pipeline.
"I immediately rang Cameron [Mackintosh, the theatre producer] and said, 'Oh my God, I've got to do this'.
"Then I rang Tom Hooper and said, 'I need a meeting'. I've never been so aggressive going for a part," he says, grinning.
The Oscar-winning director, fresh from his success with The King's Speech, agreed to meet.
"I came into the room and I was like, 'Mate, I'm so excited, I really want to audition for you', and Tom went, 'Woah!'" recalls Jackman, laughing. "He hadn't even signed on [to the film] yet but was thinking about it.
"Anyway, I auditioned for him about a month later and the rest is history."
The director has since described Jackman as "a genius at both acting and singing", but he cringes at the mention of this.
"Good actors don't know that stuff but it's very kind of him to say that," says Jackman, who has two adopted children - Oscar, 12 and Ava, seven - with his wife of 16 years, Deborra-Lee Furness.
"I've certainly learnt from some incredible people. Theatre director Trevor Nunn, who I've done two musicals with, really taught me how to make a lyric of a song feel like dialogue, so it's not just a pretty song any more."
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo and set against the social and political upheavals of 19th century France, Les Miserables is an epic tale about broken dreams, unrequited love and a timeless testament to the endurance of the human spirit.
It begins with prisoner Valjean being released by Javert (Russell Crowe), an officer in charge of the convict workforce who tasks himself with hunting Valjean down when he later breaks his parole and vanishes.
"There's the old adage that great actors make other actors look good, so trust me if you're ever in a movie and you can get Russell opposite you it's a good thing," says Jackman, who credits his fellow Aussie co-star for mentoring him early in his career.
Crowe also recommended Jackman as his replacement when he turned down the role of Wolverine.
"It was one of the great, most generous acts for me I could imagine," says Jackman, who looked to his father, Chris, for inspiration in creating Valjean.
"My father's quite a religious man but, like Valjean, wasn't really religious growing up, and then when he was about 30 had some kind of an epiphany and was converted," says Jackman, who's talked openly about the fact it was left to his father to raise him and his four siblings when their mother walked out.
"I never heard him talk about religion," says Jackman. "He said once, 'Religion you talk about means nothing, religion that's in your actions means everything'."
Though Jackman's bulked up for a series of action roles, the 6ft 2in star insists Les Miserables was one of the most physically demanding roles he's ever undertaken - not least because Hooper wanted him to look unrecognisable in the opening scenes.
"What you can do on film that you can't do on stage, obviously, is show the expanse of time and Valjean's an incredible internal, as well external, transformation," says Jackman.
"He starts as a prisoner filled with hate and even though he's strong, he's emaciated with his head shaved and a long beard, so we just went for it and I lost a lot of weight."
Then the story moves on eight years and Valjean's reinvented himself as a respected mayor and factory owner, which meant Jackman needed to put 15kgs back on.
"That bit was fun," he adds with a grin.
Unusually for a movie musical, the cast - which includes Anne Hathaway as factory worker turned prostitute Fantine, Eddie Redmayne as politically-minded student Marius and Amanda Seyfried as Valjean's ward Cosette - sang live on set.
For that reason Hooper insisted on an intense nine-week rehearsal period before the cameras started rolling.
"Normally on a film, rehearsals can be a little half-hearted but it wasn't like that. Tom was literally moving his chair to be three feet away from us and we did a lot of exploring, which made us really focused on set," says Jackman.
"I remember on day one of rehearsals, Russell said, 'Man this is what you wait for, this is the feeling', because we knew we were doing something that's never been done before. It had that frisson in the air."
But while he enjoyed every minute of the experience, he admits he's never had a role "require more of me, or take as much of an emotional commitment".
It's why he'd spend quiet evenings indulging in a new found passion for jigsaws, not only to wind down but to preserve his voice.
"It's not a sexy pastime but I really enjoyed it. I'd light a fire, do some pastoral mountain scene and find myself engrossed in it," he reveals, before adding with a grin: "Not very rock 'n' roll, is it!"
Extra time - Les Miserables :: Les Miserables opened at the Barbican Theatre on October 8, 1985.
:: In 2006, it surpassed Cats as world's longest-running musical.
:: The movie rights were sold 25 years ago but the option lapsed and the rights reverted to Cameron Mackintosh who agreed this time round, with the assurance the actors would sing live.
:: Anne Hathaway follows in her mother's footsteps playing the tragic heroine Fantine.
:: Eddie Redmayne sang his big solo number Empty Chairs At Empty Tables more than 20 times to ensure he'd nailed it.
:: Les Miserables is released in cinemas on Friday, January 11