Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried take on the star-crossed lovers Marius and Cosette.
While Hugh Jackman's bitter ex-con turned benevolent businessman, Jean Valjean, commands much of the action in the movie version of the musical Les Misérables, the youthful love triangle formed by newcomer Samantha Barks as Éponine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette serves to heighten the emotional punch of the story. USA TODAY speaks to the actors about their roles in the film, which opens Christmas Day.
Amanda Seyfried, 27, as the older Cosette
Musical background: The star of such diverse films as Mean Girls, Dear John and Red Riding Hood took opera lessons and studied with a Broadway coach as a teen. But her best training in the art of acting through song came from playing Meryl Streep's bride-to-be daughter in 2008's Mamma Mia!, the ABBA-inspired Broadway hit that is one of the top-grossing musicals of all time. Says Les Mis co-star Jackman of her work ethic: "Amanda is a perfectionist."
Q: When did you first become enchanted by Les Misérables?
A: I first saw it when I was 11 in Philadelphia. My mom says it was the first time she's ever seen me focus on something for more than a couple minutes. I was literally at the edge of my seat the whole time. On My Own is just an iconic piece for every young aspiring singer, which I was at that point. Until I was 15, I was singing On My Own all the time as my song for class. At my first recital, I sang Heart Full of Love.
Q: Why do you think so many are passionate about Les Mis?
A:It's darker, but not as twisted as Sweeney Todd. And more emotionally charged. A lot of musicals are meant to entertain in the comedic sense, but Les Mis is meant to thrill and draw you into an amazing emotional state as you watch Jean Valjean go from prisoner to hero.
Q: The role of Cosette involves soprano vocals that are technically difficult, more so than any other Les Mis role. How did you prepare?
A:I wish I had a year to prepare. I took classical training until I was 17. I was a soprano, a coloratura, and sang Don Giovanni. It was like a whole different world back then for me, and getting back there was really tough. Thank God I studied so hard. It did come back.
Q: How does being in Les Mis compare to being in Mamma Mia?
A:Singing for Mamma Mia! as Sophie just felt natural, even though I was singing ABBA. The vocals were pre-recorded, and we sang along to a track. There is no hint of classical training, because it is pop. This is a true singing challenge. Performing live on camera with all the dialogue sung, I sometimes forgot that I was singing. Tom (Hooper, the director) kept reinforcing that if you sing live, it will feel real. My voice wasn't quite there, though. I've been taking twice-a-week lessons since August, so I'm working for future endeavors.
Q: How does it feel to be able to be part of Les Mis now?
A:I was pinching myself every time I was on the set. I am such a fan of this show, and I was actually working alongside the creators of it.
Eddie Redmayne, 30, as Marius
Musical background: Redmayne began on stage, earning a 2010 featured-actor Tony for Red, a play about painter Mark Rothko. But his first brush with musicals came at age 11 or so, when he was in Cameron Mackintosh's production of Oliver!, directed by Sam Mendes. He has done TV (including HBO's Elizabeth I, directed by Les Misérables' Tom Hooper) and films including The Other Boleyn Girl and My Week With Marilyn.
Q: You have some music in your background, but until now, your résumé barely reflects that.
A:I did Oliver! onstage during the 1994 revival in London. For a long time, I always claimed I worked with Sam Mendes. But the reality of it was, I was workhouse boy No. 40, and I never met Sam. I always sung as a kid at university, but then I focused on acting.
Q: When did you first see Les Misérables?
A:My parents took me to see it when I was about 7 with my brother. We went as a family, and the CD was always on in the car. I grew up listening to it. When I found out they were doing a movie, I was actually in North Carolina doing a film and was in my trailer. I decided to do an audition tape on my iPhone. I sang Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. From there, it became a very rigorous process, sort of like American Idol or X Factor. Originally, it was just Tom and the casting director, but by the end, it was a whole big panel including Cameron.
Q: Why does Les Mis affect people so deeply?
A:It is so multifaceted. Whatever age or sex you are, there is something you can passionately connect to. When I was 7 and saw this, I just wanted to be Gavroche (the young boy who hangs out with the students). I thought he was the coolest little kid. He was strong and brave and got to run around the barricade and hang out with adults. It was the same way that girlfriends of mine wanted to be the little Cosette, being beautiful and singing about castles. There is romance, action, moments everyone can tap into.
Q: You were worried that Marius might come off as a drip on-screen. How did you avoid that?
A:There are a lot of aspects to his character that are deeply irritating. Various extraordinary people die for him. Everyone is giving up their lives, and he is sort of blindly going through. In our adaptation, he is this romantic prototype, but there needed to be something else in him so that the audience doesn't want to slap him from the word go. We went back to the novel, where he ends up taking a keg of powder and is willing to kill himself and all the people around him for the cause. We added that back in. He's not in any way a hero. He is complicated. So in the end, he is human and flawed but goes through this extraordinary transition from boy to manhood. That's what I cared about.
Q: One of the scenes in the film that you probably wished was done more like the play is when Hugh as Valjean is forced to carry your limp, injured body through sewers awash in slimy liquid — which aren't part of the stage version.
A:Tom tried to pretend it was chocolate, but I was not so sure. It was a horrible, grotty mix of stuff. Halfway through the day, it was freezing cold. Hugh had to go through so much. He had to carry my lumpen load through all that stuff. I was just there playing dead. It was hard and grueling. My makeup artist said it was made of clay, and it was going to be good for our skin. Like I give a toss.
Q: Amanda says you sneaked in a kiss during the wedding scene that was not scripted.
A:Yeah, she blamed that one on me.