Fantine’s misery forces Valjean to reevaluate his own existence, and try to rescue Cosette, this poor woman’s daughter. She takes doing the right thing out of the abstract for Valjean, but is that enough to prevent her story from being a somewhat hopeless one?
I’ve read a lot of criticism of the book, and a lot of critics talked about how Fantine and Cosette are just general women, that there’s not really a whole lot to each character. I take issue with that, because I was so grateful to Hugo for humanizing what can often just be an archetype – the Fallen Woman. He shows that there are layers underneath what you see in the world, without making Fantine a total victim … Well, I shouldn’t say that. She is a total victim. But the Fantine you meet when she’s a prostitute is not the Fantine you meet at the beginning.
And there’s a strong callous streak in people that says, well help yourself if you are poor and suffering, but it’s not always that easy.
It’s not the world that has its way with us; it’s the people in the world. I felt I knew Fantine. I felt so sorry for her. Then doing more research I found the story echoed again and again and again in the world today. There are Fantines all around us. There are Jean Valjeans among us.
Fantine’s signature song is “I Dreamed a Dream.” [Featured in the trailer above.] What was it like while filming that sequence?
It was like splitting yourself open, and not as much being naked as letting your innards be seen.
Those who know it only as Susan Boyle’s signature song will be surprised to see its true origins as a kind of bitter and cynical scoff, sung by a woman who is basically telling life to f–k off.
It wasn’t a happy recollection, as I’ve seen it played off. [This version] was making God accountable, saying ‘How bad, really, was my sin?’ The part of me outside myself was aware of the greatness of the task at hand. The part of me that had to actually sing the song was so unspeakably angry.
You all sang live on set instead of recording the songs in advance and lip-synching during the shoot, so how did that change the way you performed “I Dreamed a Dream”?
I had decided on the broad strokes of the performance, I wasn’t going to sing it like you would have to in a theater. I didn’t have to convey the message to the back of the house. I had to put the message in my eyes and let the emotion live in my voice, as opposed to trying to sing the song in a way that would be, um, aurally pleasing.
It’s filmed all in one take. How many times did you have to do it while maintaining that intense breakdown?
I did the first take – and wasn’t happy with it. I started the second take, and stopped. We had these earpieces [feeding the music], and it wasn’t my favorite thing. It was great when you had dialogue scenes. But when it’s just you and a piano, they couldn’t turn them up to a volume that would drown out your voice in your head.
Why was that a problem?
I realized I was listening to myself, and that was going to be the death of everything. We normally only wore one earpiece, but I asked for another one and I stuffed them so far down into my ear that I couldn’t hear what I was doing. And I just let it rip.
Did that help?
I felt myself take off — not the way I wanted to. But still, I left the ground, and finished. Tom came up to me and said, ‘I’m good.’ And I wanted to try to push for better than that so I did another eight takes and it never, never left the ground again. [Laughs.] So at the end of the day, I was like well that’s the performance! I have no idea if I was on pitch, but I certainly did feel it. I was quite nervous about it, but then my parents came to visit a few weeks later and watched it and said it was good.
Why did you not want to hear it yourself while performing, or watch it after?
I’m just your average actor with all your hangs up and neuroses. I was just trying to get out of my own way.