From award-winning screenwriter Andrew Davies, the latest dramatic adaptation of Les Misérables (airing on Masterpiece on PBS) is a six-part epic story that delves deep into the many layers of Victor Hugo’s classic story. Exploring the cat-and-mouse relationship between Jean Valjean (Dominic West) and Javert (David Oyelowo) with a modern relevancy in its powerful themes, plotting, and characterizations, all set against the backdrop of France at a time of civil unrest.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actor David Oyelowo (who was also an executive producer on the project) talked about bringing this incredible story to life, what it means to him to get to be a part of Les Misérables, how he views Javert, what both excited him and made him nervous about playing the character, and his first introduction to the story. He also talked about what makes a project appealing to him, studying human beings and human nature for a living, his desire to do more comedy, and the experience he had working with Angelina Jolie, as they played the parents of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland for the upcoming film Come Away.
Collider: This is absolutely beautiful to look at, and I can’t imagine how amazing it must have been to be able to shoot this. What was this experience like?
DAVID OYELOWO: When I first read the scripts, the ambition of the show was very apparent, but you never really know if that’s going to translate to the screen, to the production design, to the costumes, and to the casting. It was so clear what it wanted to be on the page, but that almost felt un-achievable because it was so sweeping and epic, and emotionally visceral and engaging. Soon after I started talking to Tom Shankland, our director, it became very apparent that what was on the page was commensurate with the folks involved and their ambition for it. Consistently, with everyone I met and talked to, and every time a new piece of costume would come in, you would go, “Oh, wow, this may just go on to be everything that we hope.” It’s just my opinion, but the joy of shooting it was that we were certainly doing our best to rise to the level of the material.
Had you ever thought about doing Les Mis before?
OYELOWO: No, and not only never thought about doing Les Mis, but having grown up in the UK, watching beautiful period dramas, at some point, you just come to terms with the fact that, certainly for me, I wouldn’t get to be in those. When I was approached about this, I was floored by that. I was elated by it, but I’ll be honest, I was also very emotional about it because I wish my 12-year-old self had the opportunity to see someone like me, getting to be in this kind of drama. It’s very, very meaningful to me.
And it makes the story more relatable, to see a world that represents our own.
OYELOWO: The more that I thought about it, it feels like a very natural extension of what we’ve done to the French novel. It’s a 150-year-old French novel, that we’ve transposed into the English language for a broad English speaking audience. It’s about accessing an audience with a French piece, in a way that they can relate to, so you do that with both the language and the folks in it. We like to think that what we’ve made reflects the people that we hope are going to see it, and the people who may not have necessarily thought that this story was for them, also.
You’re also a producer on this.
OYELOWO: I am, yeah.
Was that something that you intentionally sought out?
OYELOWO: Yes. I was approached about it, and I was glad to be approached, but something that I was very keen on was that I wouldn’t be the only one. I wanted there to be more people of color, in order for the show to feel integrated and organic to that time. To be perfectly frank, people of color have been a part of European life for centuries, not just decades. So, yes, that was something that I definitely kept an eye on. Thankfully, it wasn’t something that I had to be Draconian about, but that was part of my producer involvement. I also wanted to make sure that, whoever picked it up, here in the States, would do well by it. I had a hand in the PBS Masterpiece of it all. If I’m going to be away from my kids and my wife for six months, I want to make sure that as many people get to see it as possible.
Because this is such a remarkable production, did you have a moment on set, where you were realized that the script was really being brought to life, in a way that lived up to the high bar that was set.
OYELOWO: At some point, you let go of all of that excitement and get on with the business of doing the work. Almost consistently, once a day and maybe twice, I would pause and look at all of the extras, or the amazing sets, or the phenomenal actors, some of whom I have admired from when I was a kid, and there would be so many pinch me moments. It would be me, riding on horse through the fields, going, “What is going on?!” And that feeling was pretty consistent.
Did you ever see Javert as a villain, or do you avoid looking at characters that way?
OYELOWO: I don’t think you can play a villain as a villain, at least for me anyway, because you are immediately going to fall into the trap of judging the character, and of playing an archetype, a stereotype, a caricature, or a cliché, in the same way that you can’t play a hero. You can’t think, moment to moment, “I’m a hero.” If you do that, you’ll alienate the audience and you won’t serve the story. My job is to try to understand why he does what he does, from moment to moment, and his rationale for doing what he does is actually very synonymous with his job. He’s a law keeper, so he sees Jean Valjean as someone who broke the law and is a criminal. But there’s a layer on top of that, which is that Javert was born in prison, to criminal parents, and he hates that part of his own history. Therefore, his vehemence with keeping criminals at bay, especially this man who somehow feels like a mirror of himself, is something that he does, to an obsessive degree, but moment to moment, it’s entirely rationalized by the fact that his job is to be a keeper of the law.
There’s a righteousness in his behavior and his actions that makes it so interesting.
OYELOWO: He’s Old Testament, which in and itself, is not a bad thing. It’s just not a very human thing to do. It’s very legalistic. It’s a very judgmental, inhuman way to treat, not only other people, but yourself, and to leave no room for grace, redemption, love, generosity, or tolerance, all of which are things that he just doesn’t feel he can afford to give anyone.
What most excited you about playing this character, and what made you most nervous about him?
OYELOWO: It’s the same answer for both questions. What made me both excited and nervous was bringing complexity to a character who, though iconic, has historically been thought of as the villain. Is there anything one can do, in the telling of the story? When you read the book, you can tell, very clearly, that [Victor] Hugo did not think of Javert as just the villain of the piece. He fits that archetype, if you’re trying to compartmentalize the characters, but that’s a really lazy phrase, in relation to the book. I love the musical, but I would say that because a musical, by its nature, has to paint things in slightly more primary colors, you go, “Okay, so we have our hero in Jean Valjean, and we have the innocent ingenue in Fantine, and we have the villain in Javert.” Whereas the opportunity that I relished was to be able to up-end some off that assumption and nervousness that I felt. Six hours of just being the villain would have gotten pretty dull.
Having six hours to tell this story really helps because you do get a chance to really get to know who these characters are, in a way that you can’t with less time.
OYELOWO: That was the opportunity being afforded. If we were doing a two-hour movie it would, to be perfectly frank, be less necessary because the musical film had just done a pretty good job of boiling that 1,500 page novel down to a two-hour film, though with songs. The opportunity that’s afforded with this is that you get to see Fantine before she’s the toothless lady who has to sell herself to protect her daughter. You get to see her fall in love, you get to see her have a baby, and you get to see her filled with hope, before it all goes downhill. With this, you get to set to see Jean Valjean in prison, and you get to see him as a criminal before Javert’s relentless pursuit of him, so that you, at least, have context for what that’s about. You get to see huge swaths of time passing. You get to see that my character was born in a prison to criminal parents, which gives that bit of context, as to why he’s so obsessed with this guy who is a mirror image of himself. All of that makes the story so much richer.