Anne Hathaway arrived on screen as a princess-in-training, in 2001’s The Princess Diaries. A fine career could have been made on her ebullient charms. Instead, she’s forgone the safe path, choosing parts like Brokeback Mountain’s brittle, higher-the-hair-closer-to-God rodeo rider Lureen Newsome, who marries the closeted Jack Twist. Or Kym, the ex-junkie who sabotages her sister’s nuptials with a relentless egomania in 2008’s Rachel Getting Married. Or playing Catwoman with less camp and more Pussy Riot in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises.
And now she’s the iconic Fantine, in Tom Hooper’s innovative, live-sung-to-camera adaptation of Les Misérables. Her portrayal of the doomed mother—selling her jewelry, then hair, then teeth, and finally her own body, all to pay for her daughter’s room and board—is remarkable not only for her technical chops but for the sheer force of her rage. Like so much of Hooper’s film, this Fantine blazes with the intensity of real life.
TIME sat down with Hathaway in a Manhattan hotel, overlooking the storm-ravaged Central Park, for a conversation that moved, much like her career, between the dark and delightful.
TIME: You’ve talked about looking into the political context of Fantine. What was the connection between your research and the performance?
Anne Hathaway: Tom and I spent a lot of time talking about how, even in her decimated state, Fantine was still working out: “How do I stay alive for my child?” There’s also the emotional research that I did, watching news interviews with sex slaves, reading accounts of sex slaves. I mean, I don’t have an imagination for that kind of stuff—just the most damaging things you could ever hear. I saw these photos of a woman’s arm, who was a sex slave, and she cut herself, and the wounds were so deep and spaced out a millimeter apart, and they went all the way down her arm—and I just thought, that’s how she feels, that’s where her heart lives right now. And that’s Fantine. She’s alive.
I was really struck by how politically engaged this iteration is. It’s really a work about spirituality and class, not the sort of Susan Boyle, elementary-school-musical-theater, iconographic Les Miz.
I saw Les Miz when I was seven. I wouldn’t take a seven year-old to see this film!
I mean, maybe 11 is the cutoff? And that’s with a conversation, and only after the parents have seen it first! But the reason the film works on this more nuanced level, exploring poverty and politics and social hierarchies, is because Victor Hugo wrote it so well. He didn’t invent it; he recorded it and put it in undeniable terms. And he wrote about things that are true, like idealism. What 20 year-old hasn’t wanted to change the world? In this particular case, he wrote about 20 year-olds who are willing to die for that cause, but you look around the world and that is going on. So the universality of the story doesn’t mean that it’s broad. The universality of the emotion allowed us to get really specific in the film.
And the specificity of a mother and her charge.
Motherhood is a sacred position. And although I’m not a mother myself, I talked to my mother about this. You know, my mom played Fantine. That was the second time I saw the show—the first time she played a factory girl in the ensemble, but the second time I saw the show she played Fantine. That was the last role she had before she gave up acting to be a mother. So I had no problem believing that mothers made extraordinary sacrifices. I don’t know of any mother who wouldn’t do anything for her children.
So did you grow up imagining that you would play Cosette?
I did! I was kind of nervous about telling my mom I was auditioning for the part. I didn’t know if she’d be cool with it, which was silly of me because she was actually the happiest person in the world for me.
Les Miz is such a work about faith—what does that mean to you? You’ve had a very religious upbringing, and at one point wanted to be a nun…
I love religion. I love human’s yearning for something divine and our need to communicate. One of the things religion is is a shared experience of how to get closer to God. And that’s something I believe in wholeheartedly. Someone said that there’s a religious undertone to this film, and I know there are crosses everywhere, but I mean, the religion of this film is love. And Fantine’s such a mystical figure. I believe that she burns with the same energy that the martyrs burned with, that Joan of Arc burned with. That kind of love and self-sacrifice, it’s uncommon. I needed to make sure that Tom would be cool with my approach, so at our first meeting after I got the role, I made him meet me at my yoga studio for aryuvedic porridge. [laughs]
And how did he take that?
I’d thought he would be very stiff and English. He seems reserved but he’s very open to new experiences, and I just wanted to throw him into the deep end of my weirdness and quirkiness and he totally went with it! Which was great, because then when I was on set and having to go these places, I felt like I was with someone who regarded me with love and who I could trust.
How was the experience of having to perform live? I spoke with sound mixer Simon Hayes earlier—
Oh, thank you, Simon Hayes! Please, please, please give him an Oscar. It’s a breakthrough, and I don’t know anyone else who could have done it. I’ve never been in this situation before, where 99% of the performances are what’s used in the film.
How did you forget that there were, in a sense, no second chances?
Well, first of all, we had nine weeks of rehearsal, which was such a gift and so rare in film. I was able to work out kinks and try things and feel very safe. And we had extensive vocal training—we literally had vocal coaches at our disposal 24 hours a day. Your vocal chords are about the size of a dime. So they get tired. So we needed to build up our stamina, much the way an opera singer needs to build up stamina. An opera singer can take a year to prepare for a role. We didn’t have a year. But that psychologically calmed us down a lot. And with a multicamera approach, you can relax just that little more, because if you follow a feeling down a rabbit hole in one take, you know that it won’t be cut together with another take where that feeling wasn’t present. My first experience with a multi-camera approach was on Rachel Getting Married.
Which was also so much about music!
And family, and love. With that format, I felt like I’d come home. You will never do a scene the same way twice because time will never repeat itself in that way. Even if it’s the same lines, there’s always something new. So knowing that there’s a master, the loose closeup and the tight closeup all happening at once—it lets my control freak shut up and maybe take a day off! [laughs]
And it’s closer to the stage.
Right, which I think will make fans of the stage play really feel that it captures that kind of once-in-a-lifetime, lightning-in-a-bottle experience of going to the theater. But it also, for people who maybe aren’t fans of musicals, it takes away the artificiality by saying “No, no, no, no, no, we’re not overdubbing. This is a live performance that happens to be captured on film.” Hugh’s performance is one of my all-time favorites, especially in the prologue—talk about being hit square in your chest by someone’s talent! When he crumbles, he doesn’t just crumble physically, he crumbles vocally. He goes into the emotional and vulnerable place in his voice, and he rides that right to the end of the song until [she starts shouting] he totally pulls these notes out of nowhere!! It was one of the most thrilling and visceral experiences I’ve ever had in a film, the first time I saw it. And the second time too, actually!