The 30-year-old Brit’s clear singing voice and passionate delivery of songs such as “In My Life” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” has earned him lots of Whoa, I didn’t know he could sing buzz from gimlet-eyed film critics and Les Mis geeks alike.
His acting credits include the 2011 films My Week With Marilyn and Hick, the U.K. TV series Birdsong and a host of stage work including the play Red, for which he won a Tony Award in 2010.
Redmayne — who’s gregarious, unfailingly polite and “the description of the word ‘gentleman,'” according to his Les Mis co-star Samantha Barks — talks to The Hollywood Reporter about his anxiety-inducing, X Factor-like audition for Marius, and what it was like to act opposite Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean.
The Hollywood Reporter: You got bit by the Les Mis bug early on — tell me about wanting to play Gavroche.
Eddie Redmayne: I saw it at age eight. Gavroche basically is this urchin. He builds dens in barricades. He kind of rules the city… I was like, how a little kid can take such control over the circumstance, and he was a rock star and I wanted to be him. So when you listen to something when you’re that young, it kind of sits in you. And as you get older, the thing about Les Mis is that there are other characters that you start to relate to, depending on where you are in your life. And so when I found out they were making a film I was really excited to try and be a part of it. And I pursued it.
THR: Tell us about your audition.
Redmayne: I was making Hick with Chloe Moretz and Blake Lively in North Carolina. One night, we went over to Blake’s and they turned on some music, and everyone was singing along. At the time, Les Mis was being played, and they said, “You should audition for that.” Two nights later, I was in the middle of a field in North Carolina in my trailer and thought, “Why not give it a shot?” [He ended up filming a video audition “dressed as a cowboy,” singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”] I sent it to my agent, [CAA’s] Josh Lieberman, who sent it to Eric Fellner. The last audition was X Factor style, in a room above the Queen’s Theatre in the West End, where Les Mis is playing. And behind a panel were the Working Title producers, Cameron Mackintosh, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Tom Hooper and Nina Gold, the music director. I never felt so terrified in my life.
THR: What did you sing?
Redmayne: I sang “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and [Les Mis composer] Claude-Michel sort of jumped up and said, “I need to hear you sing this other note in ‘One Day More.’ … I want to check that you can sing this, I want to see that you can sing this – can you sing this?!” And I was like, I don’t know whether I can sing this … come on Eddie, this is your moment to see whether you’ve got it or not. So it was rigorous.
THR: Did Hooper’s idea to film you singing live take the pressure off a little bit – as in, you were expected to be perfect every time? You didn’t always have to hit those high notes?
Redmayne: He had to check that we could deliver. If he wanted to do 20 takes of a song, he needed to know that we could do that. But I felt that it meant that the stakes were higher in some ways because we had to learn to retrain your musculature, literally, in the back of your throat and your tongue to be able to change the shape of your mouth in order to be able to sing continuously. And also… it felt like a workout, it was like training to be a marathon runner, almost, with this vocal coach. … He would put me in front of a mirror and make me sing in front of a mirror so you learn to belt the high notes, the loud ones, without contorting your face, because it still has to hold a close-up. … By the time you’re on set, it was kind of second nature. And that’s what I wanted it to be because then you’re just playing a character. You don’t even think about the fact that you’re doing a song.
THR: What was it like being carried through the sewers by Hugh Jackman?
That’s what my girlfriend said: “Tell me about being carried in Hugh Jackman’s bicep! What was that like?” What Hugh had to go through was insane. He’s an extraordinary leader, and we all committed to his level. But it’s very physical. How do you protect your voice? Tom also gave us great freedom to stop thinking about it: “If crying blocks up your nose, do that. Let the exertion affect your voice.”
THR: The cast really bonded on this film.
Redmayne: Actors always pretend to be .. “oh you’re so great!” but this one was a weird one because we had nine weeks’ rehearsal, which was sitting around a table, talking about the text, weaving things from the book back into the film. Firstly, we were bonded by the fact we’d all went through this rigorous audition process, and all had to sort of prove ourselves through that. Secondly, none of us knew what we were doing. It was a new process. … There were sort of interesting tensions everywhere, and combinations everywhere, and so we were all winging it. And so that meant that if Hugh learned something from day one, a song, I would go and ask him advice as to how to do that, or from Russell [Crowe] or from Annie [Hathaway]. We were all out to help each other. Although it’s an epic film, it really felt like a passion project for everyone involved. It felt intimate, actually, in the way it was created.
THR: Talk about fake falling in love with Amanda Seyfried.
Redmayne: Amanda [as Cosette] just brings this lightness – I mean, she’s so beautiful and she has this wonderful mixture of sort of fragility and strength that is so perfect for the part. “In My Life” was interesting, because in this way of recording live, most of the moments it was about finding the lines of thoughts in your head and making them sound spontaneous and real. One of the bits I really struggled with was when he’s running down the street singing something as poetic as, “In my life she has burst like the music of angels, the light of the sun.” It’s so, you know, florid … Tom was like, “And I think here, although we’re shooting this gritty, real film, I think this is a moment where we have to hop back to old-school movie musicals. We have to do West Side Story. You have to run down the street, swinging from the lampposts, as it were. Just commit to the music and go for it.” And it was interesting – the second you committed 100 percent of it, it sort of worked.
THR: What’s the biggest appeal of Les Mis?
Redmayne: I think people love it because there’s this over-arching message of hope, and redemption, and the idea of loving the person next to you. Starting your own revolution just by loving the people close to you. … As you get older, the reason people keep going back to Les Mis is because they keep the score, this beautiful music, in their heart and their souls.
THR: Would you play Marius on stage?
Redmayne: I don’t necessarily have the chops to do that, and it’s probably a completely different beast. … Never say never, but the 7-year-old in me would be quite excited by that prospect.