It’s beginning to look like Hugh Jackman can do anything. He has played an Elvis-singing penguin, a posh mouse who’s flushed down a toilet, a cutthroat magician (in Christopher Nolan’s magnificent The Prestige) and, of course, Wolverine. He’s hosted the Tonys three times, once while actually winning one. And now he’s triumphed in the role of a lifetime, as the thief turned savior Jean Valjean, in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. Another thing he can do? Give a great interview. TIME talked to the actor about everything from his years as a selfish teenager to the perils of playing a saint.
TIME: What has your relationship to Les Misérables been?
Jackman: I was a late teenager when it came out, so I knew the score really well. Everybody did, it was playing everywhere, and my mate used to blare it in his car all the time — he was one of my only friends who had a car, so we heard it nonstop. I’ve seen it about five times. I’ve always been a massive fan. One of the first auditions I had for a musical was for Beauty and the Beast, and I sang “Stars,” and the guy said, “Well, you can throw that away — you’ll never be in that! So there you go.” Actually Cameron [Mackintosh, Les Misérables’ producer] did ask me to play Inspector Javert several times in the past, so there!
How’s it been playing Jean Valjean, then?
To me, it’s a much better role for me than Javert. I think I was the first person Tom [Hooper, Les Misérables’ director] auditioned, so it was more like a workshop — he was still getting his head around it. He picked up his chair, moved about five feet from me and said, “Imagine I have the camera. Let’s just make it work here in this intimate space.” One thing all of us needed to work on was that sometimes when you’re singing, you contort your face in some weird ways. In a close-up on a 40-ft. screen, that can be very distracting, so that took some practice. It was more important to make the songs work in this intimate space — especially the solos, which are intensely personal, and private, really. We didn’t want to make them declamatory, big, operatic arias, but still make sense of the lyric.
Your father raised you and your family more or less on his own. I wonder if you see any of Valjean in your own father?
I was the youngest, so from when I was about 8. My oldest sister was 16 or 17, so from that point on, yes. It’s funny you mention that. The more I looked into Valjean, the more I saw him in Dad. The really admirable thing I see in both of them is that real humility. I’ve never heard him say a bad word about anyone. When I was growing up, I thought he was quiet, uncommunicative, he didn’t talk much. But in the end, I suppose he had no need to talk about himself and what he’s done. He’s done many great things, and didn’t have the need to fish for compliments or any kind of acknowledgement of the incredible job he did. He never bemoaned or whined at any point, and what he did was Herculean, to bring up five kids with a full-time job. I don’t think he ever had time for himself.
I remember very clearly, a distant cousin came to stay with us, and he pulled me aside and said, “You guys are out of line!” — meaning me and my brother. “Your father got home from work at 7 o’clock and went straight into the kitchen to cook for you. And never did you say, ‘Hi, Dad, how was your day?’” It was a real wakeup call for me. I was about 14, and it really struck me what my father had done and what he did every day in his life. And the other thing they had in common is that my father is a deeply religious man. He was converted in the Billy Graham crusade, and he didn’t have deep exposure to religion until then. So church was a big part of our lives, though I don’t think I ever really heard my father talk about God or religion necessarily. He was just one of those quietly religious people who believed actions spoke louder than words.
(MORE: They Dreamed a Dream: Les Misérables Is a Whole New Kind of Movie Musical)
I was struck in this iteration of Les Miz by how religious a story it is.
I like to think of it in modern-day sense — of course Hugo talks about Valjean undergoing not just a transformation but a transfiguration. He transforms in such a complete way that it’s religious in nature, not just emotional or physical. I think in some ways Hugo was attacking the church at that point, for being so exclusive. For Hugo, the line was “To love another person is to see the face of God” — that religion needed to be less about rules and sermons and more about practical love and the example of Jesus Christ. That’s the last line in the musical. I think it really annoyed the church! It was quite an attack.
Is Valjean someone we should learn from?
Yes, and for me, it’s the same example I got from my father. It’s a great honor to play someone like Jean Valjean, but it’s a daily reminder of how far you have to go as a person. It’s a really weird thing, playing Valjean and in between breaks going to your luxurious trailer just off set, like, Where the hell is my Evian? [Laughs.]
Tom Hooper said that it’s always difficult to play the good guy. How do you introduce complications to a character like that?
The trap with Valjean is that he can become kind of boring and saintlike after the first 10 minutes. He has a pretty massive transformation early on, going from being wrongfully imprisoned but still a kind of animal-like, voracious figure, and stealing from the man who gives him clemency and feeling the shame of that. The easy thing would be to play the saintlike figure throughout. That’s kind of dull. One thing that Hugo writes about at incredible length in the second half is Valjean’s relationship with [his adopted daughter] Cosette, and how complicated it is. Here’s this man at 51 who experiences love for the first time in his life — an avalanche of feeling and all the complications that come with that. As we all know, as human beings, once you know happiness, you’re terrified of losing it.