What was your first experience with Les Miserables?
Anne Hathaway: My first experience was seeing my mom in the show. I was 7 and she was cast in the first national tour as the factory girl who gets Fantine fired. And she [understudied] for Fantine. So my first time seeing the show was when she was the factory girl, and my second time seeing the show was when she played Fantine.
You’re joining the family business!
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] I’ve been hired into the family business – of simulating prostitution and death.
There are some grim parts of this story for a little kid. How did you feel watching it, especially since it’s your own mother playing the desperate, ailing mother of another small girl?
It was intense seeing it. It felt overbearing when I saw my mom do it. I was so emotional when she suffered. I knew it was a combination of being 7 and watching my mother [in pain], but also being incredibly moved by the unfairness of the story.
When you were trying to land the role, did your mother have any useful guidance?
I didn’t know if I should even tell her I was auditioning, just because the pressure was big enough already. I knew she would want me to get it even more than me wanting to get it. But then I thought, no I can’t do that. That’s wrong. So I told her about it. She was so excited.
And were you right? Did that add more pressure?
She kept it together so as not to freak me out. [Laughs.] We talked about the song [“I Dreamed a Dream”], and she gave me a deeper understanding of it. She told me that whenever she would sing “Cosette, it’s past your bedtime / You’ve played the day away …” that she always thought of me, and kept a picture of me in her dressing room to visualize as Cossette. That’s just the coolest thing ever. Somehow knowing it was so deeply in my blood, I was able to really relax for the audition. I felt like I had almost a 20-year head-start over every other actor.
The defining thing is that Fantine is a mother – the ultimate caregiver, willing to do anything for her child. It’s nice that your own mom was able to sort of pass something from the role on to you.
That’s the other thing. I don’t have children yet – though God-willing, I will someday soon – but I was able to feel such a strong connection with the material through my mother. Especially knowing this was the last performance my mother ever gave before retiring from acting and becoming a full-time mother. Knowing that was her sacrifice made the emotions very accessible and brought them to the surface very quickly.
You experienced the play early, but did you read the book when you were younger?
The thing that most upset about when I read the book was I haven’t read it sooner. I was a precocious youngster, and tried to read it when I was 13, I think mainly to show people I was reading Les Miserables. [Laughs.] But I couldn’t get past the first 15 pages. I put it down and picked it up occasionally.
I’ve had some books like that too. I tried to read Look Homeward Angel when I was that age, probably for the same reason.
Did you finish it?
I spent the whole summer working on that book, but by the time I got to the end I could hardly remember how it started.
Well done. [Laughs.] I did that with Vonnegut one summer. I read every single Vonnegut book, and it was all for nothing because now they’re all kind of fused into one book in my head.
What useful thing did you eventually discover in the Victor Hugo’s novel?
There’s a beautiful part of the book that describes what happens to Jean Valjean because of Cossette comes into his life. For the first time, he learns to love. He had a kind of a detached love for humanity, in terms of ‘I must do right, I must do right,’ but it’s not connected to a feeling. It’s more intellectual. And Cosette is really what allows his heart to melt. My character is the beginning of that story.