Working for 10 years in film and theater, British actor Eddie Redmayne is currently receiving attention and acclaim for his work as Marius in the Academy Award-nominated musical Les Misérables. Honored for that performance, he was presented with a Virtuosos Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), and Collider was there to cover and attend the event.
During the Q&A, the actor talked about what his crazy audition process was like, the ideas he had for his vocal performance, the thing he was most nervous about pulling off, working with co-stars Samantha Barks and Amanda Seyfried, who he’s learned the most from on set, and how the reaction they’ve gotten for the film is the greatest gift that he could ask for. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: There are the legendary stories people have heard about the crazy audition process the actors went through to get in on this movie. What was that process like for you?
EDDIE REDMAYNE: I remember that I was making a film in North Carolina, playing a Texan meth addict, and I hear that Tom [Hooper] was making Les Miz. I had seen it as a kid and absolutely loved it, so I put myself on tape in my trailer, on an iPhone. I sent it to my agent, really just to say that I enjoyed singing because I hadn’t really told my agents that. So, he sent it on to the head of Working Title, and that was the start of my audition process. At that point, I knew Hugh [Jackman] was doing it, and that was it. My audition process, from then, I can only describe as like being something out of The X-Factor. It was a horrible American Idol style nightmare that involved singing these songs that you’ve grown up loving, to the people who wrote them. Claude-Michel Schönberg was the equivalent of Simon Cowell. But, what was interesting was that, even though I loved the piece, I had to come at it, having worked in film, trying to reinterpret it and sing it in a different way, with an intimacy. There was a horrible scary moment, at the end, when there was a silence in the room. But then, I got cast and started auditioning with Samantha [Barks] and Amanda [Seyfried], and various other actors and actresses. It was about getting the chemistry right.
In your heart, did you know that you had this in you, or did you surprise even yourself?
REDMAYNE: I started auditioning for Enjolras, but I think that Tom liked the idea of the students actually being 17, rather than 31. I didn’t know. I don’t think you ever quite know if you have the character in you or not. I knew I had instincts for this. There was something visceral in it. When I first sang the song to myself, in that trailer, I had an idea that, if you pulled it down and made it intimate, you would have somewhere to go and you could draw an audience in. I also came up with the idea of starting it without any accompaniment. The problem with doing musicals on film is that, the second the accompaniment starts, the audience sits back and goes, “Now, I’m ready for the song.” So, the idea of a thought being spontaneous or instinctive is instantly taken away because they’re waiting for the bit when you start. Tom and the composers allowed us to have this freedom to play with it, which Annie Hathaway did most extraordinarily.
REDMAYNE: It’s funny you should say that. There’s a song called “In My Life.” And so much of the lyrics of this musical are brilliant, poetic, real and true, but then there are moments which are operatic. I’m this politically engaged lad, who then sees this girl and decides to throw politics to the wayside for a moment and just change his tact. It’s love at first sight. It’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s operatic in its take. In the book, their courtship is one of seven months. In the film, it’s about seven seconds. So, there’s a moment, after having literally glimpsed this girl, that he runs down a street and goes, “In my life, she has burst like the music of angels, the light of the sun.” I said to Tom, “This bit is so florid. How do I make it work?” When we started, I tried doing it under my breath, as if it was spontaneous, and he came up to me and said, “It’s not working, mate.” I said, “Bugger!,” and he said, “This is one of those moments that’s an old school movie musical moment, where you run down a street, swinging from lamp posts, and give it your all.” So, I ended up doing that. I had to commit 110% to it. That was one of those moments where I had to let it all go, and that was weirdly one of the harder parts.
What was it like to work with Samantha Barks and Amanda Seyfried on this intense love triangle between your characters?
REDMAYNE: We got on fantastically well. It was such an amalgam of actors, this film. On the one hand, you had Amanda and I who had never done it before and who come from a film background. And then, you have Samantha, who had done it on stage to huge success and great acclaim, and she had to unlearn everything she knew. All the guys that played the students had been in the West End production of Les Miz, and on about day three of filming, I realized that 70% of them had played Marius, which was wildly terrifying. I decided, if you can’t beat ‘em, use ‘em, so I asked them for their best bits to see what I could steal. But, they were incredibly generous. They and Samantha were wonderful resources. They said, “This is how we did it on stage. This was our thought process.” None of us knew what we were doing. This singing live on film thing was new to everyone. There was a great sense of comraderie.
With all of the amazing people you’ve worked with, is there someone you feel that you’ve learned a lot from?
REDMAYNE: I find it interesting when people ask, “Who have been the most influential?” It’s not just about the work and their actual technique as actors, but it’s also how they behave, how you live on a film set, how you deal with the notion of status and stature, and how you keep yourself closed and protected, in order to do the work. And I love the variety of film. In theater, you go into a room and the director runs the room, so you all work to his or her method. On film, if an actor or an actress is in for a day or two, the director has to get out of that actor what they need, so they have to change and adapt to that actor’s technique. I’ll never forget doing Savage Grace, which was a film I did where I played Julianne Moore and Stephen Dillane’s son. Julianne is the most spontaneous, instinctive, brilliant actress, and Stephen, who’s also phenomenal, would want to talk about it and rehearse. So, it was this wonderful mixture of watching two completely different actors working completely different ways, and you in the middle, trying to learn from both of them and amalgamate the two.
Robert De Niro directed one of my first films, and the way he works is that, when he’s directing, he’ll often keep the camera rolling. You’ll do one take and finish at an emotional stature, with which you can go back to the beginning of the scene again and tap into that. And so, on “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables,” I asked Tom Hooper if we could put enough film stock in the camera to do four takes in a row. I’d get to the end of “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables” and be at an emotional place, and then try to repress all of that to start the song again. That was helpful, somehow, and [Robert De Niro] was a great influence for that.
REDMAYNE: I don’t know. I’ve been working for 10 years, in film and theater, and it’s so interesting that there’s something that’s unplace-able about this. There’s something alchemic about some films, where you don’t know what it is, but they just fit. And then, there are other films that you think are good, that don’t have a place or don’t hit a zeitgeist. The lovely thing is when you do something you really care about, which I did with Les Miz ‘cause I saw it when I was a kid and I was one of the groupies, and I felt a great responsibility, being a part of this cast, to bring it to screen when they’d tried for 27 years, and the idea that people are reacting emotionally to it is basically the greatest gift that I could ask for.
What was the first professional acting job you ever had?
REDMAYNE: My first job was with Cameron Mackintosh, who produced Les Misérables. I was in a production of Oliver, which is a musical that he produced. I wasn’t Oliver or Dodger, which are the two big parts. I was like Workhouse Boy #63. But, it was directed by Sam Mendes. Even though I don’t think I ever met Sam Mendes, he remained on my [resume] until I actually had to go meet Sam Mendes for a job and I was a bit embarrassed. He was like, “Wait, it says here that I’ve worked with you,” and I was like, “Do you not remember my performance as Workhouse Boy #63?”