Among the many challenges director Tom Hooper confronted in bringing "Les Miserables" from the stage to the silver screen, none was more integral to the film's success—commercially and artistically—than finding actors who could actually sing.
Making that task even more daunting was that Hooper wanted all the singing to be done live, which is to say when you're watching the movie, you're watching them as they sing the rendition of the song you're hearing.
The two most important roles to get right were Jean Valjean, the hero, and Fontine, singer of the show's signature song, "Dreamed a Dream." As luck would have it, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman basically auditioned for Hooper without being asked.
"It was funny because I was sitting in the Oscars two years ago and I was in the difficult decision of whether or not to do 'Les Mis,' and at one point Anne Hathaway sings to Hugh Jackman," explained Hooper during a recent press conference.
"That was the first time I got to see Annie sing live. She has this utter feeling of naturalness about her that puts you at ease. I wanted people who were so comfortable expressing themselves through song that they didn't have to break into dialogue."
Hooper had seen Jackman in his one-man show and he'd seen Sasha Baron-Cohen sing in Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd," but he still put them and the rest of the cast through an arduous auditioning process.
"Everyone had to go through auditions and they were quite extensive. And these are actors like Russell Crowe (who plays Javert), who you usually offer a role to," said Hooper. "But since I was doing it live, they needed to prove to me that they could handle that. And I wasn't just looking for great singing and great acting but act through the singing of a song. There's a sort of necessary minimalism in film acting that they had to combine with the requirements of serving a song musically. And all of the actors showed me they could do that process."
Singing and acting is hard enough, singing and crying requires a whole other level of concentration.
"I don't know that there's any secrets to it it's just a pulse, it's a vein that you follow," said Hathaway, who wept her way through "I Dreamed a Dream."
"I came at it from the point of view that I had done this show as a theater production," explained Samantha Banks, who, as Eponine, had to shed a tear though "A Little Fall of Rain." "There's rain coming at your face and you're crying and you have to leave your vocal vanity at the door. It allows you to be so intimate but trying to add that to your voice adds to the emotion of it.
Once he had his cast in place, Hooper made sure his stars had all the time they needed to get their parts down cold.
"I come from the theater so rehearsals is a vital way of life," said Jackman. "With a musical you have to. We would rehearse full-out. Tom would move his chair to an uncomfortably close place and do this (frames hands) the whole time. By the time we got to the set it was not uncomfortable for the camera to be that close. I'm so grateful to Tom that they spent the money and time on that."
Though everyone had proven themselves to Hooper's satisfaction, none of the actors had ever worked on a project quite like this. It was Russell Crowe who ultimately brought the cast together by hiring a pianist so they could spend nights together off the set singing just for the fun of it.
"Honestly the person who was the beginning of the glue is Russell. You cannot underestimate Russell's contribution to this cast," said Hathaway. "That was such a key part of the process. Through those nights Russell let us approach (singing) with a different perspective – this is the language that we speak, this is our shared experience. It made me so much more invested in the totality of the film. I wanted to know how these songs turned out. It cemented the bond between us. And now we say we're Camp 'Les Mis.'"