Samantha Barks has played Éponine hundreds of times onstage. She was even recorded in the role for the 25th-anniversary concert of “Les Misérables.” But before March 2012, she had never set foot on a film set.
“There’s nothing like live performance, that buzz of connecting with an audience and sharing your character’s story,” says Barks, who makes her silver-screen debut as Éponine in the film adaptation of “Les Miz.” “For doing this film, the best thing is being able to be completely true and real and intimate because the camera is reading every emotion. What I feel like this film did was merge the two worlds.”
If there was one thing producer Cameron Mackintosh did not want to do, however, it was immortalize the production. “We wanted to take the material of the stage show and reinvent it for the movies,” says Mackintosh, who has been with the musical since it premiered in the U.K. in 1985 and teamed up with Working Title Films to produce the movie. And for the film’s director, Tom Hooper, the key to cinematizing the theater is discovering the intimate truth behind the instantly recognizable score by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg.
“I was interested to see how the greater realism that film allows you to achieve would inform one’s understanding of the characters,” says Hooper. “I was excited that film would offer an even more direct way into people’s state of mind that would allow you to identify with their hardships and the journeys they’re going to go on.”
Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, “Les Miz” follows convict-on-the-run Jean Valjean as he navigates the perils of 19th-century France around the time of the student revolution. Hooper spent nine weeks in rehearsal with the cast, discussing the characters, re-imagining the story, and encouraging the actors to revisit Hugo’s novel to unearth the idiosyncrasies of the characters. He worked less on the songs during this time in order to keep the performances fresh. After all, Hooper planned to capture those musical inner monologues using “the language of the close-up,” pointing to Anne Hathaway’s heart-wrenching rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” filmed in one unwavering shot, as an example.
“The only way to find that illumination is through the study of her face,” he says. “The physical epic landscapes of the film were ever-changing, from countryside to the urban landscapes, but then also this other epic, the epic of the human face and the human heart as it’s revealed through the
Hooper also used the groundbreaking tactic of requiring the cast to sing the entire libretto live on the shoot, with 5 a.m. call times, period costumes, and the other elements to handle. “It was just as grueling as doing a show onstage,” says Broadway star Aaron Tveit, who plays revolutionary Enjolras. Portions of other films, such as “Evita” and “The Commitments,” have used this approach in some musical numbers, but it’s never been done for the entirety of a project.
“You’ve got to kind of allow those real situations to affect your voice because I think in that lies some raw emotion that’s really exciting to discover,” says Barks. “You’ve got to leave your vocal vanity at the door a little bit and just go with it.”
Finding the “raw emotion” for actors like Barks may have been more difficult, Hooper suggests. “She had the muscle memory of hundreds of performances of the show, and I wanted to do it in a different way,” he says. “I had to really work with her to break out of the patterns that were sort of imprinted in her, and she was brilliant in seizing this opportunity to reinvent the role. But it was a very necessary reinvention. Even if you had done it before onstage, you had to unlearn what you’d learned in order to make it work on film.”
Barks was not the only cast member to have done the stage musical; in the ensemble are several other “Les Miz” vets, including original Jean Valjean Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne, who forgives Valjean’s wrongdoings at the start of the story and sends him on his journey. Hugh Jackman, Valjean in the film, was initially nervous to reinvent the role in the presence of Wilkinson, says Working Title producer Eric Fellner.
“Colm basically said to [Hugh], ‘Listen, I created it for myself, and I was the first, so nobody knew whether I’d created it right or wrong. You have to ignore all of this, and you’ve got to create it for yourself,’ ” Fellner says. “And Hugh said it gave him enormous freedom to then be able to play his way into the role without looking over his shoulder. And I think all of the actors felt that. This is a film, and they need to own the roles in the way they would own any role in any movie.”