Colm Wilkinson originated the role of Jean Valjean, the hero of the wildly popular musical based on the novel Les Miserables. In Tom Hooper's film version of Les Mis, Wilkinson found himself stepping out of the Valjean role to play the Bishop. "The Bishop’s character in the musical was never fully explored because of the time element we had on stage — it’s the first 200 pages of the book, about the bishop and Valjean and their relationship," Wilkinson told Uinterview exclusively, while answering fan questions. "I thought he was really just a great character. Mostly, I was excited about getting to work with [Hugh] Jackman and [Anne] Hathaway, there were certainly great people in there."
Watching Jackman take the familiar role of Valjean, Wilkinson had a few sage words for his successor. “I just said, ‘Look, my advice to you is just do it your way,” he told Uinterview. “Don’t emulate me or copy me.”
The Les Miserable Blu-Ray and DVD is on sale now.
- Q You've played Jean Valjean in Les Mis over the years. How did it feel being cast for the role of the Bishop in the movie? - Haley Hugo
- A It was obviously quite different. Obviously, when I heard that the movie was happening and I got the part of the Bishop, it was great. It was great to be part of the project. In regard to playing it, I was 50/50 about it initially to be quite honest. Mainly because, you know, I had created that role [Jean Valjean]. I thought to myself that maybe it was a step backwards. But actually, I began to see that it would be great to be associated with the project on a couple of levels, and I already studied the Bishop’s character. The Bishop’s character in the musical was never fully explored because of the time element we had on stage — it’s the first 200 pages of the book, about the Bishop and Valjean and their relationship. I thought he was really just a great character. Mostly, I was excited about getting to work with Jackman and Hathaway, there were certainly great people in there. It was an attraction to me as well and a publicity get for me as well. I had a great experience on the movie. They were very gracious to me. Obviously, they knew who I was, the original Valjean. It was great to be part of that.
- Q How much different was it for you to shoot the movie from a stage production of Les Miserables? - Jackie Paxson Jackson
- A It was very different. As I said, we get on stage, we get into character. You walk on stage to play this man and you start your emotional journey, and you start your journey musically and you set out on that journey for about a two and half hour period of time. When we were doing the movie, we sort of shot out of sequence. Hugh Jackman, when he walks towards the Bishop in the end, we jumped out of sequence. I think it’s very difficult to jump backward and forward emotionally. You have to get used to doing that. I would find that that is one huge difference. Another huge difference I found was, let’s say you are a theatrical person and in the theater they expect you to project even though that was never a part of what I did on stage. I always try to play with the characters around me; create what we created on stage, an emotional theme around which the audience can gravitate. A lot of people get out there and they sort of gravitate towards the audience instead of around the people on stage. I never found that an emotionally proper way to work. What I’m getting to is in a movie — the camera is your audience. You don’t have to project that much. You have to learn to discipline yourself in the process of defining, defining, defining all the time. Once the emotion shows in your face, the camera gets it, you don’t have to overdo it, which is actually something you learn in the theater as well. You have to be very, very real and aware and you have to make sure you do not overplay the part. That was a huge difference. You have to be very careful with that.
- Q Has the part of the Bishop or Jean Valjean directly affected your personal faith? - Paul Sanchez
- A Well, playing a guy like the Bishop, he’s fictional, of course, but there are very few people like that around now. In the Catholic religion, there are some, but it’s hard to find someone with his humility and his generosity towards everybody around him. He’s just an amazing character. You look at people like that and you think, 'Do they actually exist in real life?' And the way you would describe him, he does exist and he did exist. I think a lot of people also forget that even if it is a fictional piece, the book, the actual historic period that he describes is very factual. [Victor Hugo] talks about the poverty, he talks about prostitution, he talks about all of that. It had a huge effect on him I’m sure. He wrote to a certain degree in honesty. In regard to it affecting my life, I’m sure it has had a direct effect on me because you always learn from characters. You always learn from characters like Valjean and overcoming all the adversity that he had, to become the man he became at the end. A great thing about the Bishop’s role also was that he always kept the candlesticks. I thought it was great to be the Bishop in the end when he dies and Valjean starts having this conversation with him, and instead of throwing them away, he keeps the candlesticks. He actually keeps the candlesticks as a reminder of this man, and this man’s goodness. He tries to live this life as the way this man wanted him to live, like a mentor. I think you look things like that and think, 'You know, what is the possibility that someone like that did exist, they actually do exist and it makes you think twice about life and twice about adversity.' As I said, it’s historically factual to life. It makes you think about the people in those days who suffered those kinds of indignities, and to actually be very grateful and very thankful for what you have. Love your life. That’s one of the things that came to me. Another thing about that musical, I got a lot of emails from people who were actually sort of galvanized by seeing that show who saw this is a great sort of inspirational theme and not only Valjean. For instance, the political things in the movie – that’s what happened in the streets at that time and it’s still happening today. What happened in the novel, the poverty and prostitution that clearly still exist in life but in a different way. Things have not changed that much. It’s just presented differently now.
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