Since it premiered in 1980, Les Misérables has become one of the most successful, longest-running stage musicals ever produced. It was almost inevitable, then, that there would one day be a big screen adaptation – not that it didn’t take a lot of work to finally get Claude-Michel Schönberg’s award-winning show to the screen. Director Tom Hooper’s film was a critical and commercial success in 2012 and won three Oscars – but did you know the following facts about the epic musical?
25. Hugh Jackman stopped drinking water to play Jean Valjean as a prisoner
In his signature role as musclebound mutant Wolverine in the X-Men movies, Hugh Jackman is used to packing on the muscle. In the case of Les Misérables, however, the Australian actor had to change his body in completely the opposite way. When first we meet Jackman’s character Valjean, he is a starved prisoner – and the actor went to extremes to convey this.
On top of dropping 15 pounds in weight, Jackman even denied himself water for a 36-hour period. This gave Valjean that gaunt look in the scene at the hulks, but it also reportedly left Jackman suffering with intense headaches. Then, to play a more comfortable Jean Valjean in his later years, Hugh Jackman gained some 30 pounds, a result of the actor “eating anything I could” during filming.
24. Anne Hathaway’s rapid weight loss left her depressed and “really sick”
For the key supporting role of Fantine, Anne Hathaway was only shooting scenes on Les Misérables for 13 days. Even so, the actress’s dedication to embodying the role saw her go to arguably even greater extremes than her co-star Hugh Jackman. Over five weeks before her work on the film began, Hathaway lost 25 pounds by eating very little.
Once shooting began, the actress apparently ate nothing but two thin squares of baked ‘oatmeal paste’ a day. She also had her hair cut off for real. Predictably, this had a negative effect on Hathaway’s health. In a 2019 interview with People, the actress admitted she was left mentally drained and physically “really sick… I’d lost an unhealthy amount of weight in two weeks. I didn’t know anything about nutrition. I taxed my body, and my brain bore the brunt of it for a while.”
23. Taylor Swift and Scarlett Johansson were considered to play Eponine
As the casting process got underway, everyone in Hollywood – and beyond – lined up for a chance to appear in Les Misérables. Big name actresses including Scarlett Johansson and Evan Rachel Wood were considered to play Eponine. On top of this, the casting team also logically looked to the world of popular music for their star.
Along with Miley Cyrus and Glee’s Lea Michele, Taylor Swift was also on the Eponine shortlist. In the end, Samantha Barks, who had played Eponine on the stage, was cast in the role. Anne Hathaway also had some serious competition for Fantine: other actresses considered included Jessica Biel, Rebecca Hall, Oscar nominee Amy Adams, and Oscar winners Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet.
22. All the singing was recorded live on set
It’s commonplace in film musicals for all the vocal performances to be recorded separately and dubbed in afterwards. In a departure from the usual way of doing things, director Tom Hooper elected to have the cast of his musical sing live on set. Rather than miming only to be dubbed over later by studio recordings, the cast sang live to piano pieces played to them through an earpiece.
Hooper took this unconventional route so as to give his cast more freedom, and to not distract them from performance with the challenge of believably lip-syncing. This was also considered to give the performances a more raw, emotional feel – which was definitely key to Anne Hathaway winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work on the film.
21. Samantha Barks’ vocal warm ups involved meowing
Surely the most vital part of an actor’s arsenal is their voice – and this is never more true than on a musical. Vocal strength was of particular importance on Les Misérables, given that the singing was all done live on set. Some of the vocal warm up exercises used by the actors on the set of Les Misérables were odd, to say the least.
With hours passing in between takes, the actors had to keep their voices primed – something which Samantha Barks became notorious for. Behind the scenes videos exist of the cast implementing more familiar tongue and lip exercises, on which Barks can be heard meowing in preparation for the next scene. It got to the point where, according to Barks herself, the cast and crew knew whenever the actress was approaching from the sound of incoming meows alone.
20. To preserve their voices, the cast were not allowed to drink alcohol
The strength of the central cast’s voices was also of paramount concern to the director and producers of Les Misérables. On many movies, the stress and long hours of shooting often results in actors partying hard in their time off. On Les Misérables, however, director Tom Hooper put his foot down hard where that sort of behaviour was concerned.
All the central actors were forbidden from having even a drop of alcohol during the shoot, which ran from early March to late June 2012. This wasn’t just the director being a party-pooper; alcohol is known for having a detrimental effect on the vocal cords. The dry shoot proved to be a bit of a challenge for many on the film, including but not limited to notorious boozer Russell Crowe.
19. The film took 24 years to get made
Les Misérables started life as a concept album, which then formed the basis of the stage musical in 1980. After the show became a worldwide phenomenon, plans for a film adaptation weren’t far behind. In 1988, Alan Parker was approached to direct a big screen adaptation of Les Misérables.
Parker had some history in musicals, having called the shots on Bugsy Malone, Fame and The Commitments. However, by 1991 Parker was out, and Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) signed on to direct – but this version also failed to gain momentum. It would be another two decades before Tom Hooper signed on to the project, and finally managed to get it off the ground.
18. Paul Bettany almost played Javert
Gladiator Oscar-winner Russell Crowe wasn’t always sold on taking a role in Les Misérables. Initially, the actor was hesitant about playing Javert after having a “negative response” to the stage version of the character. Before Crowe finally came round to the idea of playing the dogged inspector, Crowe’s friend and sometime co-star Paul Bettany (now best known as Marvel’s Vision) was in the running.
Crowe and Bettany had previously appeared side-by-side in A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. With Jackman already cast, in June 2011 it was reported that Bettany was being considered for the film, having done a reading and performed songs from the stage musical for producers. Ultimately, however, Bettany backed out and Crowe changed his mind, deciding to take the part after all.
17. A whole new song was created just for the film
Les Misérables is incredibly faithful to the original stage musical, incorporating most, although not quite all of the existing songs. Only two songs from the stage version – I Saw Him Once and Dog Eats Dog – are missing from the film. Otherwise, the film features every song from the Claude-Michel Schönberg musical – plus one more.
Schönberg and his Les Misérables lyricists Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil created new song Suddenly just for the film. Performed by Hugh Jackman, the song was well received enough to be nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. Unfortunately for Schönberg and company, the Oscar went to Skyfall, title song to the James Bond movie, performed and co-written by Adele.
16. The film was almost four hours long
Director Tom Hooper’s film aims to be as loyal as possible to the stage musical and its source novel. As is often the case, however, the first cut produced of the film was considerably longer than the version ultimately released. Certain concessions had to be made in order to get the film down to a size considered manageable for typical filmgoers.
Hooper’s original cut of Les Misérables ran for four hours, and included a battle sequence running 15 minutes. Sent back to the editing bay, Hooper trimmed songs to bring his film down to a theatrical cut running 2 hours 38 minutes. Luckily for super-fans, the director has talked about bringing the extended version of his film to home video one day.
15. Samantha Barks learned she had been cast as Eponine in an awesome way
The part of Eponine was played by Samantha Barks, and it was the first film role she had ever got. Before the part she was predominantly a theatre actress, and caught the attention of the director thanks to her work playing Eponine in both the Queen’s Theatre London production and the 25th Anniversary Concert. Before then, Barks had competed on I’d Do Anything, a TV talent contest designed to find a new actress to play Nancy from the show Oliver out of a sea of unknown actresses. Barks wasn’t the winner, but placed third on the show overall, and went on to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret instead.
Barks did eventually get to play the part of Nancy in a UK touring production of Oliver, but her time in the show was cut short by her taking the part of Eponine. She found out she had been given the part during the curtain call of one performance of Oliver, when the director of the movie got up onstage to tell her she had been given the role. Barks left the tour to film Les Misérables and was replaced, but returned immediately once shooting on the movie had wrapped up. She picked up right where she had left off and finished the tour, and balanced that with doing press for the movie.
14. Many of the cast had appeared in the show on stage beforehand
Samantha Barks was the only principal actor in Les Misérables who had never made a movie before. However, she wasn’t the only actor in the film to have previously performed the musical on stage. For example, Amanda Seyfriend had played young Cosette at just seven years old, when she was given the role as part of a Christmas concert.
Not only that, but Colm Wilkinson, who played the forgiving Bishop in the movie, started out playing Jean Valjean. Wilkinson had in fact originated the part in both the London production and on Broadway, as well as returning to play the part in several concert versions. Alistair Brammer, who played the student protestor Prouvaire in the movie, also played the role on the West End and in the 25th anniversary concert, where he starred alongside Barks.
13. It took eight hours to film “I Dreamed A Dream”
Even before the casting for Les Mis had begun, Anne Hathaway was familiar with the songs of the show, because she had sung I Dreamed A Dream before. In fact, she even sung the song opposite her future co-star Hugh Jackman, as part of a skit the two did at the Academy Awards. Later, when Hugh Jackman was in talks to play the part of Jean Valjean, he suggested that casting directors approached Anne Hathaway to play the part of Fantine. Hathaway blew everyone away in the audition, leaving everyone who was in the room at the time in tears.
Despite knowing the song inside and out by that point, the shooting of I Dreamed A Dream was still a lengthy process. Hathaway apparently nailed the song on the first take, but insisted on doing it again and again, leading to the song taking eight hours to shoot in total. Hathaway later explained her decision, saying that she needed longer to reach the true emotions of the track. She was right in the end, since the take eventually used was her fourth or fifth go at the song.
12. Helena Bonham-Carter has a strange link to Les Misérables author Victor Hugo
Helena Bonham Carter has starred in two adaptations of West End shows, appearing in both 2012’s Les Misérables and 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This career trajectory echoes that of Jenny Galloway but in reverse, since she started out originating the role of Madame Thenardier and then moved on to playing the part of Mrs Lovett on Broadway.
However, that is not the only interesting coincidence surrounding Bonham Carter and Les Mis. The actress also has a connection to the author of the book the show is based on, Victor Hugo. Helena Bonham Carter is a first cousin five times removed from Achille Fould, a famous French politician who existed at the time Les Mis was being written. Fould famously clashed with Hugo publicly on a number of his occasions, due to Fould’s support for the French Emperor Napoleon III.
11. The horse-riding scene was added in as a punishment for Eddie Redmayne
Les Misérables is a movie filled with impactful moments, but one of the most memorable is when Eddie Redmayne rides through the streets of Paris on a horse, carrying a giant red flag and encouraging others to join the revolution. However, this scene doesn’t appear anywhere in the source material of the book or the stage production, and wasn’t originally supposed to be in the movie either. It was added by the movie’s director Tom Hopper, who had an ongoing equine vendetta against Redmayne.
Redmayne and Hopper had previously worked together on 2005 TV mini-series Elizabeth I, and had said during in his audition that he was a skilled horse rider. He got the part, and then it came out that he had lied through his teeth, and could barely ride a horse at all. The first take of his horse-riding scene was a disaster, with the horse running wild through the set, and even putting co-star Helen Mirren at risk. Redmayne was sent to riding camp as punishment, and a horse riding scene was added into Les Mis to see what (if anything) the actor had learned from his mistake.
10. The actor playing Gavroche was accidentally dropped on set
Les Mis is a grim musical with no shortage of sad moments, and most audiences could name at least two or three scenes that reduced them to tears. However, one of the most agreed upon moments was Gavroche’s death, which even takes the other characters in the story by surprise. To get pivotal moment right, the scene was shot numerous times and in numerous ways, positioning the actors and camera differently to see which would get the emotion across best.
In one version of the scene, Gavroche’s body was picked up by Courfeyrac, one of the student protestors and a big brother figure to Gavroche. Unfortunately, whilst filming the scene Courfeyac actor Fra Fee lost his grip on Gavroche actor Daniel Huttlestone, and almost dropped him. He managed to catch his head to stop it from hitting the ground, but the young actor burst into tears from the shock, and it was agreed to not attempt to reshoot that version of the scene.
9. Anne Hathaway insisted on doing a stunt
It might not occur to anyone to think of Les Mis as a stunt-heavy movie, but there was a decent amount of stunt coordination involved. This was predominantly due to the battle at the barricade, which was originally supposed to be an uncut 15 minute long fight sequence. With that said, another stunt that was filmed involved Fantine, although it was ultimately cut out of the movie in the editing process.
The stunt involved Fantine’s body being thrown out of a window and on to a cart, and a stunt double was hired to do the scene. Once Hathaway knew about the scene however, she was committed to doing it herself. Most people onset were very set against it, since it was a dangerous stunt and they were skeptical of her ability to pull it off. According to interviews, it took her looking her team straight in the eyes and saying “Guys, I’m Catwoman” (referencing her earlier work on the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises) to convince them she could do it.
8. Gavroche appears in the movie as a baby
With his razor sharp wit, and adorable mixed with brutal dialogue, Gavroche is one of the most iconic characters in both the stage show and the movie. That makes it even more surprising that his origins are kept so vague. In the book, it is revealed that he is the son of the Thénardiers, and that he was abandoned by the couple because they couldn’t afford to keep him. In the film however, it is never explained how he came to hang out with the student revolutionaries, or where he lives from day to day.
The film does contain a nod to Gavroche’s true identity though. In the comedic song Master Of The House, the Thénardiers are seen swindling the patrons of their inn, by stealing everything from their wallets to their glasses and fake legs. At one point in the song, Thénardier is seen swapping someone’s luggage for a basket containing a baby. That baby is actually supposed to be Gavroche, who presumably grows up on the street as a result.
7. Anne Hathaway’s mother played Fantine on stage
Anne Hathaway was fascinated with acting from a young age, but was initially discouraged from the career by her parents. This was partly due to the family’s strict catholic beliefs, but also due to the fact that they knew firsthand that acting was a difficult career to make work. They knew this because Hathaway’s mother was an actress, who had done a variety of work on both stage and screen.
This inspired Hathaway, but her mother quit the acting business and became a full-time mother not long into her daughter’s life. However, her acting career left a lasting impact, especially when it came to one character in particular. This is because Anne Hathaway’s mother had starred in the first ever US tour of Les Misérables, and as Fantine no less. When Hathaway got the part, the two of them talked for hours about the characters, and her mother later called her “the perfect Fantine.”
- Credit: Scott Wintrow/Getty Images
6. Amanda Seyfried fainted on set
Filming any movie is a difficult task, but filming a movie can be extra gruelling. Not only that, but Les Mis was an especially taxing movie to work on – due to the fact that everyone was singing live, and moving around in real sets. The pressure got to everyone at one point or another, making them grumpy or exhausted, and this was emphasised by the difficult and dark nature of the actual scenes they were filming.
For Cosette actress Amanda Seyfriend, the pressure manifested when she suddenly collapsed on set one day. When she came around, she was told that she had been caught before she hit the ground, and she hadn’t been hurt at all in the fall. Even better, she awoke to find Hugh Jackman rubbing her shoulders to make her feel better, and Russell Crowe rubbing her feet to try and improve her circulation. She later said in an interview that she was pretty thrilled with the situation, and thought it was well worth fainting for it to happen.
5. Empty Chairs At Empty Tables took 15 takes to get right
The songs are the most important part of any musical, and that’s especially true of a musical like Les Mis. The director insisted everybody sung live, and so the actors had to rely on just an earpiece, which linked to somebody playing piano along with them in another room. That slowed the shooting down a lot, and some tracks (like Look Down) were slowed down even more by the fact that they were shot around water or some other obstacle.
However, some other tracks, like I Dreamed A Dream, took longer to film just because of the sheer emotion. One song that took a long time to get right was Empty Chairs At Empty Tables, the song where protagonist Marius reflects on the fact that all his friends have perished in the attempted but failed revolution. According to Marius’ actor Eddie Redmayne, the director insisted on doing over 15 takes of the song, with Redmayne getting more distraught and emotional during each one.
4. Hugh Jackman refused to be shirtless
Hugh Jackman is no stranger to the gym, so it didn’t phase him to learn that he would need to be ripped to play Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. This is because Veljean begins the movie as a prisoner, who is forced to do demanding physical labour until he can make parole. In the opening scene of the film, Valjean is seen pulling huge ropes attached to a sailboat, in order to pull the boat safely into shore. The scene is supposed to show Valjean’s formidable strength, but it is mostly there to show the audience how gruelling life as a French prisoner could be.
That is why, when the director suggested he do the scene with just a jacket and no shirt underneath, Jackman refused. The point was to show how hardened and tough life in prison had made him, but Jackman was worried that it would stop the audience from taking him seriously. Not only that, but he thought the audience would assume the scene was his idea, and that it was a clause in his contract to appear bare-chested (as he so often did when playing Wolverine). Because of his, Jackman refused to wear the more revealing version of the costume, although plenty of test shots and promotional material shows him completely shirtless.
3. There’s another Les Mis film adaptation with an all-star cast
2012’s musical Les Misérables might be the most famous onscreen adaptation of the famous book by Victor Hugo, but it’s not the only one. In 1998, another feature-length adaptation of the source material was released in theatres, although this one wasn’t a musical. The film starred Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, and Geoffrey Rush as Inspector Javert. Rounding out the cast was Uma Thurman as Fantine, and Clare Danes as a grown-up Cosette.
The movie followed roughly the same plot as the musical, but had much more of a focus on Fantine, allowing her to live for much more of the runtime than Anne Hathaway does during her stint playing the character. In this version, Fantine gives away her daughter early on, and turns to prostitution as a way to pay for her to be taken care of. The movie did well at the box office and was received well by both critics and audiences alike, in part because of the decision to leave Jean Valjean at the end of the movie.
2. Hugh Jackman bought gifts for everyone
Many celebrities have a reputation that precedes them, and often the rumours being spread about them aren’t kind. However, if Hugh Jackman has a reputation for anything, it’s for being too easy to work with, and treating everyone around him with kindness. This is reflected in the stories about Les Mis. The movie required him to go to a pretty dark place emotionally, as well as pushing his body and voice to the limit for much of the film.
Despite this, he was always friendly and kind to everyone on set. One way in which his niceness manifested was in gift-giving. Because Amanda Seyfried had struggled with the alcohol ban during production, Jackman bought her a bottle of whisky after shooting wrapped to say well done. Not only that, but Jackman also bought every single extra working on the film a lottery ticket, in order to say thank you for their individual hard work.
1. Anne Hathaway nearly played another huge musical theatre part
Les Misérables might be Anne Hathaway’s most famous musical role, but it’s by no means her first. Before she ever took on the role of Fantine, she played a character called Ella in a musical called Ella Enchanted. In the movie, Ella is a girl who was given the gift of obedience by a fairy, and finds that the blessing is more of a curse. The film smashed the box office, and garnered great reviews, leading other directors to take notice of the fact that Anne Hathaway could sing.
As a result of this, Hathaway was approached to star as Christine Daae in the 2004 adaptation of The Phantom Of The Opera musical. She was interested in the part, but had to remove herself from contention because of her commitment to The Princess Diaries 2; Emmy Rossum took the role. This was no great loss for Hathaway, as director Joel Schumacher’s film (which cast Gerard Butler in the title role) was received badly by both critics and fans of the musical.