Russell Crowe, an Academy winner for his brilliant performance in Gladiator, is known for his total commitment to a role, whether it’s playing a boxer (Cinderella Man), a Roman general/ slave (Gladiator) or a tortured mathematics genius (A Beautiful Mind). Les Misérables was no different. He threw himself into the project with typical gusto.
Crowe was born in New Zealand and raised, mostly, in Australia. He first acted as a child, appearing in an episode of the Australian TV show Spyforce when he was 6 years old. His first musical was Grease at the Independent theatre in Auckland and he won various acting awards in Australia before making his first Hollywood film, The Quick and the Dead, with Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman and Leonardo DiCaprio in 1995.
In 2000 he received the first of three consecutive Oscar nominations for playing tobacco industry whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann’s The Insider, his second came for Gladiator and the following year he was nominated again for his portrayal of troubled mathematics genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.
His forthcoming films include Man of Steel, Broken City and Noah.
Q and A follows:
You’ve been a musician and singer all of your adult life. But was Les Miserables different?
Yes, it was. It wasn’t something that I knew. I knew of the show but I had never seen the show. The type of singing style was just not in my field of experience. This isn’t at all about being a bloke who sings songs.
Did you see the show?
I went to see the show in London and what struck me was that it was a really stirring performance and an inspiring evening in the theatre. It's an unusual piece because it’s not broken down into hit songs, it’s a series of beautiful melodies that evolve into and out of songs and those songs became standards immediately as opposed to having radio success or chart success. In a way part of it is because it’s operatic, it’s like one piece -Les Miserables, as epic and heart breaking as it is, it’s a beautiful long breath. People that tend to like Les Miserables like it from start to finish, you know, and they love the experience of it. And you find people who are obsessed with this musical in a way that I’ve never known people be obsessed by a musical before.
Had you met Cameron Mackintosh before this project?
Sometime over the years I must have met Cameron. When I was doing musical theatre in Australia we had a number of friends in common and stuff but the first serious conversations I had with Cameron about work was last year when we started talking about Les Mis. I had a friend from primary school, Matthew Dalco and he was just one of those kids I was very close with and he always believed in me, we were just mates. His Mum worked for the Australian opera, and he ended up working for Cameron and becoming very successful in Australia and then went to London to work for Cameron. And Matthew was just one of those guys who believed in me and he would contact me about the possibility of me doing one of their shows – usually entirely unsuitable (laughs), but he was always thinking of me when auditions came around. And tragically, Matthew died very young. Very sad. He was a lovely guy. So there has been a connection with me and Cameron going back a long way, a kind of back of the mind thing.
Cameron said that at one point he thought you would have been a great Valjean and Hugh Jackman would have been a perfect Javert. What do you think?
I don’t think that would have worked. I’m a natural bass baritone with a couple of extra notes on top but I don’t think I could do Valjean the service he requires. Hugh has a different voice. He has a beautiful voice – so expressive and controlled. This way round is the right way. This is the way it should be. Hugh is going to be magnificent in this role. I was constantly impressed with him every day – his level of preparation, his concentration, his commitment, what he did physically to transform himself. It was a very pleasant experience for me and I was so impressed with the way that Hugh led the actors and set the right tone and example. I was proud to be on the same set with him because he was doing the job and doing it very, very well.
So when they first approached you for the role of Javert what did you think?
After I had seen the show I sat down with Tom and to be honest, I was thinking, ‘it’s not for me..’ And I was thinking of the politest way to bow out. As much as I loved it, it wasn’t for me. And Tom and I went for a walk in Hyde Park and we started breaking the character down and talking about the limitations of the theatre in terms of the characters’ journey. And we talked in some depth about how he would approach the film. You have to find a basis for the way in which the character makes decisions. And I was really impressed with Tom – he didn’t have all the answers but he had a determination and a clear commitment.
And you know, it’s a massive ask because this much loved musical is so successful and the transition to a completely different medium requires complexity and vision. He had that. He was really open too, and I liked the guy.
He threw me into the deep end and I was engaged intellectually and it became important to me. And it’s funny, because it switches then, from them pursuing you for the role and you are now pursuing the part. I really wanted to do it.
How did you prepare?
I started working with singing teachers – in Sydney, LA, Illinois, Vancouver wherever I was, I aimed to sing every day. Singing teachers are a breed unto themselves and each one has a different way of working. They have a language of their own – a shorthand you need to learn. One of them was Roberta and we just clicked. Roberta Duchak has a long career as a performer and she is a gifted teacher. Hugh started working with her too when we started shooting, so we shared her, she worked like a Trojan and never complained. I was really lucky to find Roberta – she just made it all seem possible.
And then you met up with Tom and Cameron for the audition in New York. What was that like?
You have to get yourself in the right sort of Zen place for an audition like that – you have to channel your nerves and your adrenaline and it’s kind of like you have to meditate to the point of clarity. You have to use it. And it had been a long time since I had faced that kind of auditioning process where there was a lot on the line for something that I had really engaged with. I went into the audition having worked for months on two songs, The Confrontation which comes at the end of Fantine’s death, and is a duet with Valjean, and Stars, the principle ballad of the Javert character and I had never, ever sung Stars properly. So I was walking into that room knowing that I hadn't yet sung that song properly.
How did it go?
You know, all those months of preparation, the belief that Tom had in me, it all paid off. And the song came out exactly as I hoped it would. I got all the notes down and I was flying. And then they said, ‘OK, let’s do it again..’ And I did. I sang it a third time, a fourth time and it was there every time. Tom was making me use my voice over and over again and although I’m not sure that the others knew at the time, stamina was part of what he was looking for. Not only did he want to know that I had the ability to sing it, he wanted to know that I could sing it over and over again.
Because he knew you would have to sing it live on set?
Yes and it’s not like doing a Broadway show. You do a Broadway show and you might sing seven minutes, you might sing 21 minutes if you are a leading character, and you’ll sing your song and you’ll hit your notes once, but on a film set, we’re talking about being on a film set singing a very challenging song 23 times from beginning to end – or a group of us sing Fantine's Arrest 40 something times. It was rock n roll kind of stamina, where you are singing the full concert everyday. At odd times too, sometimes you'd be singing at 7am at the beginning of a day, or 2am at the end of a day.
And what was it like when you all gathered at Pinewood to start filming?
There was uniformity to the way people approached this as they arrived on set – everybody was terrified but everybody was prepared to claim it. We had an unusually long rehearsal time and that gave us opportunity to get to know each other, to chill out in the environment and understand what was required. What Tom is doing with this is engaging the heart, not just engaging the mind. There is no way in the world that anything I say will prepare you for what Anne and Hugh are doing in this movie. They will blow you away.
It sounds like a great experience?
I have to say it was the most fully absorbing experience right from the time of the auditions, working with the voice coach, rehearsals, doing the movie, and there’s part of me that in the future whenever I’m starting a movie I’ll wish that I was starting Les Mis again. That’s how big that experience was.
“Les Miserables” Now Showing Nationwide released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar Entertainment Corp.