Colm Wilkinson isn’t especially well-known to film fans, with only one credit to his title. That credit happens to be the Bishop of Digne in the latest big-screen adaption of Les Miserables: setting Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean on the path to righteousness. Wilkinson originated the role of Valjean during the musical’s West End production, then reprised it when Les Miserables came to Broadway. He’s also played prominent roles in The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, and Jesus Christ Superstar among others. A renowned singer who continues to perform well into his 60s, he spoke with us in an exclusive interview as a part of the promotion of Les Miserables’ release on Blu-ray.
Question: You played Jean Valjean so many times on stage. What was it like to change roles and take on the part of the priest in that key scene?
Colm Wilkinson: You just have to look at the part in an individual way. I was thrilled to be a part of the movie, and I always loved the part of the Bishop. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do him justice in the musical because we didn’t have the time. He has a vast story to tell, and he was relegated to the top of the show and that was it. Tom [Hooper] brought him back at the end in the movie, which I thought was a really nice touch. Tom brought a lot of Victor Hugo back into the movie, a lot of the elements that we didn’t have time for in the musical. In regards to the character himself, it was wonderful to do. As much as I loved playing Valjean, the Bishop is the guy who sends him on the path to redemption.
Q: Was the intimacy of the film a challenge? The difference between performing in a big theater and performing for a camera that’s right next to you?
CW: I primarily do musical theater, and I’ve learned to project. I was never entirely comfortable with projection, I always wanted to perform to the people around you, not out. I always sang to the person in front of me and then through them to the audience; that was the angle I took. I created what I thought was a character onstage and then let the audience come to that character. You need to project, of course, but that was never how I played it.
The difference with film is learning to pull back, learning to refine the performance. The camera does a lot of the work. You just find the emotion and the camera will project that for you. The camera is the audience and they’re that close to you. I learned that you didn’t have to project a lot of emotion. I tried to pull back and minimize that as much as I could. That was the discipline I learned for the move.
Q: How about working with Hugh Jackman in the Valjean role?
CW: There wasn’t a lot of discussion, which is how it should be. You just let the work tell the story. If you can attach yourself to the work in an honest way and try to do justice to the character, you don’t discuss dynamics with the actors around you. The piece was powerful enough, the music and the lines. If you know what you’re doing, you don’t need to talk about it a lot, and Hugh certainly knows what he’s doing.
Q: What’s the core appeal of this musical? What is it about this story that has made it so resonant for a musical treatment?
CW: Did you know that Hitchcock said that they should do the book as a musical? No joke. He was one of the very first people to recognize the potential for a musical in Victor Hugo’s story. It’s a very uplifting story. It’s the story of a man’s redemption. It’s the story of another man’s aid to another man, to put him on the path to redemption. I think that’s particularly resonant in this day and age. Helping each other, looking out for each other, seems to be a lost art. I’m not saying that greed is everywhere, but this is a Me Generation and it’s getting worse I fear.
I never doubted that Les Miserables would work as a musical. I thought it was very special. I thought the drama side-stepped the song and dance thing, which was wonderful. It’s very sad in places and very troubling, but it’s ultimately uplifting. You know, Hugo wasn’t writing fiction. The penal system really was that brutal, and poverty really was that brutal. Poverty was rampant, with people literally dying in the streets. Hugo was writing fact, and to see someone redeemed in the midst of that fact – to see a love story and to see Valjean rescue Marius and even hold his hand out to Javert – it can really be moving.
People identify with what it has to say. They identify with the seriousness, but then they feel uplifted by the conclusion. It’s staggering, it’s humbling. There’s a momentum to it as well. I hear from school kids who see the concert or hear the record and say how much it inspires them. I’ve gotten a lot of letters over the years from people in jail, people serving time, who tell me they’ve read the book and that it’s spoken to them. That’s the secret to longevity, speaking to new people over time. It goes back to Hugo, whose story has been around for hundreds of years, and the theatrical production was blessed, I think, to capture some of what he had. It’s just a grand story. It never gets old and it still has things to say about who and what we are.