We really pushed each other. That rivalry at the beginning, it really is a constant throughout. It had to be strong, and it’s really one of the spines of the story, that runs from beginning to end.
Was there rivalry in real life between you?
[Laughs.] Russell and I actually became very close friends. We were good friends before. We knew each other a lot. And Russell has given me advice several times at key moments in my life that helped with my career. I also owe him because two of the biggest roles I’ve ever had in my life, he turned down – and suggested me for them.
Which ones were those?
On X-Men, he was Bryan Singer’s first choice for Wolverine, and he mentioned me also for [Baz Luhrmann’s] Australia. He really is incredibly smart, and generous. It was a joy to work with him. The whole cast it was a great sense of ensemble. We all had that feeling it was going to take everything.
So Les Mis is too demanding for one-upsmanship?
It’s a real challenge, and we were there for each other. Some days I’d be doing a song, and he’d come support me. And vice versa. We got to know each other really well and go around together, having sing-alongs [off-set]. It’s actually one of the great bonuses of this job was getting to know Russell better. I remember him saying, ‘I feel a feeling I haven’t for a long time doing this movie — kind of good-scared.’ This is the scared you want to be, where it takes everything from you.
There are a lot of characters in this story, but it really comes down to these two, doesn’t it? As the audience, maybe we want to be like Valjean, but find ourselves more often acting like Javert – being uncompromising.
This is very much Victor Hugo’s thesis about Javert being so intractable and full of rules and seemingly without mercy. Valjean is obviously closer to Hugo’s belief — and closer to my belief — that love has to be spontaneous and that judgment for people has to be toward mercy and love, and not just black and white.
It’s about generosity vs. survival – but you can’t be fully one or the other. You need them both, right?
To me it’s one of the most fascinating parts of Les Mis. At what point does discipline become too harsh, and at what point is it really your friend? When does it go from a friend to an enemy? There is no answer to this, but that’s what interests me.