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The Hugh Advantage

For Jean Valjean (far left), the character he’s playing in Les Miserables, Hugh Jackman went on a near-starving diet and did rigorous workout, not drinking a drop of water 30 hours before the shoot of his soliloquy scene, thus looking so dehydrated that even his wife and good friend Barbra Streisand didn’t recognize him when they watched the movie  

TOKYO — The first question that I popped on Hugh Jackman during this Conversation at a suite of Ritz Carlton (Roppongi Hills) was the same one I asked of the other members of the Les Miserables cast (Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Amanda Seyfried as the grown-up Cosette), and the talents behind this $61M film version of the long-enduring musical, co-producer Cameron Mackintosh and director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) — did the movie make him cry?

The hunky Australian actor, who’s playing Jean Valjean, broke into a smile as wide as his favorite beach in his native Sydney and admitted, “Yes, I did — more than I thought I would. I’ve seen it once, not so much my own stuff, and when I saw Anne in the scene where she’s singing I Dreamed A Dream I must admit that I became misty-eyed. Sometimes the music alone can make me emotional. It’s so beautiful!”

In Les Miz (or Les Mis), you still see a Wolverine-like Hugh Jackman but with a big difference: Inside the big man beats a big, loving heart, exactly the way Jean Valjean is portrayed in the 1832 Victor Hugo novel about (not the French Revolution as often misconstrued but) the barricade set up in the streets of Paris by a group of mostly students demanding for change in a vastly economically-divided society. The theater-trained Jackman fleshes out Valjean with his own unique touch, sacrificing so much both physically and emotionally for what he considers one of the most demanding roles in his career.

Fans used to seeing Jackman as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise will be pleasantly surprised to know that Jackman has an extensive theater background. For his portrayal as the 1970s singer/songwriter Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz, he won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and the Drama Desk, Drama League, Outer Critics Circle and Theater World awards. His other theater credits include Carousel (at Carnegie Hall in New York); Oklahoma! (at the National Theater in London, for which he got an Olivier Award nomination); Sunset Boulevard (for which he won an Australian “MO” Award; and Beauty and the Beast, for which he also received an Australian “MO” nomination.

In the flesh, Jackman was just as engaging and engrossing as he always is on stage or in film. He’s a dream interviewee who gives the interviewer maybe the same attention and importance that he gives his every role. Stay tuned. (Also starring, among others, Russell Crowe as Javert, Samantha Barks as Eponine and Isabelle Allen as the little Cosette, Les Miserables is opening nationwide on Wednesday, Jan. 16, released locally by Solar Entertainment.)

According to Mackintosh and Hooper, you can do anything, just anything. What scene in Les Miz was the most difficult to do?

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(Thinks a while) “I think all the scenes were difficult; there’s not an easy scene in Les Miz. In some way, I think they are all difficult. The soliloquy at the very beginning of the film was one of the first scenes that we shot. Tom and I talked a lot about it. It’s important that you see a man who has gone as low as he can go. And by the end of that three-minute song, you have to believe that he can do anything. So it has to touch a place that is deep, emotionally, and at the same time, vocally, it’s about two to two-and-a-half octave rhyme. It’s a very challenging song. The ending is difficult as well because I’m playing someone who’s 40 years old without any prosthetic make-up…and I have to make the audience believe that I am sick and still singing.”

Anne Hathaway lost 25 pounds for Fantine and you, too, shed about that much for Valjean. You now look fit and fabulous. Are you back to your normal shape?

“Hmmmm, I’m probably normal right now.” (Laughs) “I don’t know what normal is anymore. Really, to be honest, being normal is tall and very skinny. Losing weight was probably easy for me. But Jean Valjean is most known for his strength. In fact, Javert years later only remembers Valjean when he sees Valjean lifting a very heavy piece of wood. Valjean is probably the strongest man on the planet.”

How did you lose all those pounds for you to look emaciated?

“It was a most difficult kind of body to get. I was in the gym for three hours every day and eating no carbohydrates for months. It was a very strict diet. Thirty hours before we shot that first scene (showing Valjean carrying the heavy piece of wood), I didn’t drink water and the effect was that my eyes look sunken and my cheeks shrunken. When my wife saw that first scene, she could barely look at it because she was really worried for me.”

Oh, she didn’t recognize you!

“No, she didn’t. I just heard from my friend who watched the movie that Barbra Streisand, who’s my good friend, also watched the movie and it was only 20 minutes into the movie that she realized that it was me. So that’s a good sign.”

What’s your regular diet and workout?

“Again, I’m not sure what it is anymore because for 10 or 12 years I’ve been playing Wolverine. My Wolverine diet involves eating more often; I used to eat three meals a day…breakfast, lunch and dinner…and now I’m taking five to six small meals a day. My energy is much better. Even when I was losing weight for Les Miz, I was eating six or seven times a day because that way your metabolism keeps going.”

The scene showing the love between Valjean and Cosette is very moving. What was on your mind when you were doing that scene?

“Well, I’m a father. That’s where I differ from Valjean. He says that when he meets Cosette, he experiences love for the first time in his life. He’s 51 years old. He has never had a girlfriend, a wife, parent, sister or brother. None of them. So it actually describes the love as an avalanche of feeling, an overflow of love — the love of a father, of a brother, of everything! When I was playing that scene, it was not just I was imagining as a father and Cosette as my daughter, I was imagining myself as a father, a wife, a parent, a sister, a brother…everything! Anything and anybody that you care about in one instant, all rolled into one.”

Talking about being a father and a husband…what’s your priority, being an actor or being a family man?

“Ever heard of the saying you can’t serve two masters at the same time? The Bible talks about you can’t have two gods. You know, it’s very true. So in life, you have to choose which is No. 1 and to me, it’s my family. So at any point along the way, I just ask a simple question, ‘Is this good or bad for my family?’ If that means I have to slow down or not choose a job or whatever…I mean, by the way, it doesn’t mean that I won’t work at all because that would make me very unhappy, and my family and I also have to eat, you know.” (Laughs) “It’s just a matter of deciding what’s your priority. Actually, I’m happy with what I’m doing so I don’t feel like I’m working at all.”

The scene showing Valjean and Javert singing together is, well, very impressive.

“We rehearsed that scene several times, two months before we shot it. Russell and I were syncopating what we were doing with the sword and the wood which were going against the singing. And Russell really beautifully choreographed that. He has a very, very good reaction; he was very musical. It was one of the most exciting scenes that we did. The first time we rehearsed, Russell rang me up at 10:30 in the evening and said, ‘Come to my house; let’s start rehearsing.’ I said, ‘It’s 10:30!’ and he said, ‘So what?’ So I quickly drove to his house.”

Fame and fortune have a way of sweeping stars off their feet. I wonder, how do you keep yourself grounded?

“One of the joys of doing Les Miz is you get to read this great piece of literature. It’s about human nature and about happiness. And that life is not actually about the tiny things, life is not about possession…life is about loving the people around you. It has nothing to do with fame and fortune. None of that makes any difference. And if you have the first 60 pages of Victor Hugo’s novel, he paints a portrait of a man, one of the most beautiful portraits of a human being I’ve ever read. Material stuff or possession or power, ultimately will never bring you happiness. True happiness comes from within.”

And how do you protect your voice?

“That’s the most difficult of all. No coffee. For six months no coffee. And I love coffee! Because coffee is dehydrating. Your vocal cords are this big (Drawing a small circle in the air), and you are relying on a muscle that big for 12 hours a day. My singing teacher has been telling me, ‘Your vocal cords must be like a rainforest.’ If you ever see a singer, like an opera singer, on a plane she holds her wet hands close to her nose and starts breathing in moisture. Of course, you have to eat the right food and get enough sleep. I’ve been having singing lessons once a week but leading up to the shoot of Les Miz I did it thrice a week.”

So it’s true what great singers say that singing in the shower is good for the vocal cords.

“I always warm up in the shower because the breathing in the steam is very good for your voice. I don’t know why. Everybody sings in the shower, right? It’s a good place to start a band. If showers were invented in 1932, we could have done the whole thing in the shower.”

(And then, to cap the enjoyable Conversation, Hugh launched into a song, performance-level like he did in all his scenes in Les Miz.)

(E-mail reactions at entphilstar@yahoo.com. You may also send your questions to askrickylo@gmail.com. For more updates, photos and videos visit www.philstar.com/funfare or follow me on www.twitter/therealrickylo.)

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