David Oyleowo is the latest actor to bring his interpretation to the villainous Javert in PBS’s new limited series of “Les Miserables.” Oyleowo is a previous Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated actor for his performances in projects like “Nightingale” and “Selma.”
Oyelowo recently chatted with Gold Derby contributing editor Rob Licuria about taking on such an iconic literary role as Javert, the most difficult scenes in this iteration of “Les Miserables” and one time he embarrassed himself in front of Meryl Streep. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: David, this series sets itself apart from previous adaptations because there’s no music. It’s not a musical. Did that attract you to taking on this role?
David Oyelowo: Actually, what attracted me more was the fact that unlike the musical, it was an opportunity to spend more time with what Victor Hugo had actually written. Victor Hugo’s book, as people may know, is a 1,500-page tome of a novel and the musical beautifully distills that down to what amounts to about two and a bit hours. But in having three times that amount of time in terms of a six-hour limited series, we had the opportunity to really dive into these fascinating characters. So for me, a character like Javert, who in the musical can, you could argue, come off as one-dimensional, very easily dismissible as the villain of the piece, I just found in reading Victor Hugo’s book and then Andrew Davies’ scripts that there was so much more going on. Of course, as an actor, that was an opportunity I really relished. I love the songs in “Les Mis” but what I loved even more was the opportunity to bring real context to Javert.
GD: He’s often seen as a villain. He’s iconic for being a villain but he absolutely is so much more than that. Anyone who’s read the book would know that. He believes in the rule of law and justice and punishment but because it’s to such an extreme degree, he can’t see through that and see reason and feel empathy. That’s my take on him. What’s, ultimately, your take on him? You obviously needed to form a view so that you could embody him.
DO: The amazing thing about Victor Hugo’s book is that he gives you all the clues you need. Where I arrived is that Javert suffers from an acute case of self-loathing. He is born to criminal parents. He grew up in prison. He hates that part of his own upbringing and the minute he makes the choice that he is not gonna be like his parents, he basically has set himself in opposition to the part of himself that he hates and he transposes that onto Jean Valjean because in some way he recognizes something in Jean Valjean that is reminiscent of himself. My theory is that he is trying to kill himself, and what I mean by that is the self in him that he loathes that he has transposed onto Jean Valjean and when he realizes that he has made a mistake in doing that, when he realizes that this is a man who is worthy of redemption, who is someone who is additive to society, who is impossible to purely dismiss as a criminal, he realizes that his pursuit has been futile and so, therefore, the foundation on which he’s built his life has been wrong. If he’s not going to destroy this other human being, the only option he has, as he sees it, is to turn that judgment that he harbors on himself. Victor Hugo describes Javert as the cub in a litter of wolves that the mother would never leave alone with his siblings. That is because he is intent upon destruction of anything that he sees coming in the way of what he deems to be justice and as you say, the rule of law.
GD: All of that culminates. It’s so poetic, really. Javert spends his whole life on this relentless cat and mouse chase and then for a lot of it, directs it towards his nemesis, so to speak, Valjean. Eventually, as you say, when he realizes the futility, he turns and throws himself into the Seine. That is so iconic in literature and obviously in all the other adaptations. I was so looking forward to seeing how this was going to be done in this series and I thought it was probably one of your absolute highlights. Take us back to shooting that scene.
DO: Whenever you do a piece of work that feels weighty, what makes it feel weighty is these moments, these moments where you know if we don’t stick the landing on that moment or these handful of moments, the structure will not hold. The audience will not feel satisfied. We will have not done justice to the story. In my opinion, in other iterations of this story that have less time to spend with the characters and the narrative, that moment of Javert destroying himself can kind of come out of nowhere. “Why did he do that? Why does he pursue this man obsessively? Why does he kill himself?” It never really lands emotionally. It just gets dismissed as, “Oh, well, he’s that weird guy and so he did something weird to himself,” whereas the challenge for us and the challenge for me was, “Can we earn that ending? Can we bring enough context that when we get to that moment, the audience may even be able to have a degree of empathy?” They may even be able to attribute a degree of humanity to Javert as opposed to, “Okay, well, quite right.” I don’t know think anyone who does that to themselves is someone who should be very easily dismissed when it comes to the complexity of the emotional life that led to that choice. When we were doing that scene on that day, and as you know, these things are often shot out of order, I always knew that whether it was coming early in the shoot, in the middle or at the end, the important thing was the buildup to that moment. It has its own power, that scene, but really, it was about whether we could earn that scene.
GD: Yeah, absolutely. It is so effective because I found myself quite shocked at how I felt for him and I empathized with the mustache-twirling Javert that we’re accustomed to seeing. So that’s wonderful. I wanna go back to the beginning. How did this role come about for you?
DO: The fairly orthodox way. I was approached through my reps. I was quite surprised to see that another version of “Les Mis” was being done but very quickly after reading the script I could absolutely see why this was different to what had come before and a great opportunity for me. Also, growing up in the U.K. on period dramas that I loved but never got to see someone who looks like me in them, I was taken aback by the fact that I was approached to play Javert. That really grabbed my attention and then it became the thing that I always look for in roles I play, which is I didn’t immediately see how I was gonna play him. It wasn’t obvious to me. It was clearly going to be a challenge and that’s what I always look for. The combination of all those things, I just felt very fortunate that I was approached.
GD: It’s funny that you say that. When I saw “Les Mis” is out again and this is something that I’m gonna watch, it’s my assignment as a journalist, I’m gonna watch this, I thought, “Do I really wanna go there again? I’ve seen it so many times.” It is such a different spin. It’s its own piece of work which is really refreshing. I wondered, for people who are playing these roles, did it ever weigh on you to not revisit previous versions of Javert so you could bring your own spin to him?
DO: I’ve been very fortunate to play a number of Shakespearean roles also, to play real-life historical figures. In both of those situations you’re always dealing with a preconceived idea of how those characters should be played, who they were, who played them best in the past, so I’ve dealt with it before and come to the point where you realize that if you are fortunate enough to be cast, you just have to get on with the job of bringing your interpretation, your level of hard work and just knowing you’re never gonna please everyone but hopefully you’ll please a lot more than you displease by virtue of the truthfulness of your portrayal. So for all of us, because it was very clear that we were trying to do something different and trying to do something that really speaks to the now, you see that in the casting. You see that in the very gritty, raw, sweaty, smelly, chewy way we do it. There’s nothing chocolate box about this production. We really lean into those elements that are very evocative of what you’re seeing in the news right now whether it’s to do to with socioeconomic disparity, whether it’s to do with the class struggle, whether it’s to do with a revolution and protest and marches against the status quo, along political lines, socioeconomic lines. One of the reasons I came onboard this project as a producer was I was very vocal about the fact that I’m not gonna be a token in this as a person of color. I truly believe that Victor Hugo set out to speak to a broad audience and the audience now looks like you and me and everything in between. That should be reflected not only in the show but also it should reflect what actually was the reality in Europe at the time. We’ve done a very bad job of really being honest about how much people of color factored into European life. The opportunity to do all of these things in this piece that is so beloved but we knew we were gonna be defying expectation just made it a no-brainer, really.
GD: That is so spot-on. “Les Miserables” is so relevant to today and this particular production really brought that to the fore for me. There’s a lot of takeaways you can take from this work. For me, in particular, it’s about redemption. That’s what I most appreciate about it and I could talk about it forever and I won’t bore you to death. I’m just wondering, what is your ultimate takeaway apart from what you’ve already so kindly explained? What do you think is the takeaway from Victor Hugo’s novel about this epic, sweeping story about poverty and class?
DO: I agree with you. I think it is the most incredible redemption story, not least because you have a character like Javert who is incredibly legalistic, who is very Old Testament, but you also have Jean Valjean who similarly sees himself as a criminal, similarly sees himself as not worthy of redemption and you watch this amazing arc of transformation which begins through the Bishop of Digne, as played so beautifully by Derek Jacobi in this iteration, whereby his eyes are opened to the potential of redemption in a society that has had to be fairly black and white because of all the sociopolitical unrest. They’re just coming out of a huge revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the schism between the haves and the have-nots. It is a time of black and white. There is no gray. You are either on one side of the aisle or the other, not unlike we’re seeing a lot in the political climate now. So for this man in that climate to be able to evolve to the place where he’s not only able to embrace his own redemption but is truly additive to society, he is someone who finds the ability to love, to give, to raise this other child as his own and to show a level of kindness to Marius towards the end that is something that shocks Javert. He has never seen anything like it, which is why it has such a profound effect on Javert. Showing kindness to someone whose goal is to do something detrimental to you, which is how Jean Valjean saw Marius and how Javert understood the dynamic between Marius and Jean Valjean and yet, you are going to save this man’s life. That is just mind-blowing. That is the byproduct of redemption is that redeemed people redeem people in the same way abused people abuse people. To me, that is the beauty of the narrative even though you have this massive backdrop of the politics and the wars and all of that stuff. At the end of the day, it’s about this man’s journey towards redemption, which I believe is something we can all relate to.
GD: Speaking about the production, we’ve discussed the Seine jumping scene. Are there any scenes in particular that come to mind that went against your expectations or that you were most concerned about or you thought were the most challenging?
DO: Hugo’s book relies a lot on coincidence. Jean Valjean and Javert find themselves in the same town several years after their initial interaction on the prison hulks. Not only do they find themselves in the same town, they find themselves in a dynamic that is the reverse of what was the case earlier on in their relationship. The setup for drama is perfect but when you are seeing it visually as opposed to in a novel, it’s less forgiving, in a sense. A lot of my conversation with both Dominic West, who plays Jean Valjean, Tom Shankland, our director, was, “How do we overcome the fact that the audience may also think, ‘Well, how on earth can they interact several miles away from Paris, several years later on in the same place, these two people?’” You could argue it’s fate but what we ended up landing on is that rather than exactly what Hugo did in the novel, there’s a real cat and mouse within the scenes. So they are kind of acknowledging the shock of being together again while pretending they don’t know who the other person is and judiciously having moments where we the audience and between the characters might be letting each other know, “I know who you are but I’m gonna pretend I don’t know who you are, because the dynamic has changed and I’m not gonna show my cards fully until I have a full sense of where this is gonna go.” That became an amazing thing to play with Dominic because it was three layers deep. It’s what was actually happening, the subtext of what was happening and the element that we were hiding from each other. Those were the scenes I was most nervous about but ended up having the most fun playing.
GD: If you don’t mind, we’re gonna get slightly superficial because here at Gold Derby we just can’t help ourselves and talk about awards all the time. You’ve been nominated at the Globes twice, you’ve actually been nominated and received all kinds of different awards but in the U.S., the Globes are very high-profile. I always wonder what it’s like to be in that ballroom with all those ridiculous celebrities that you probably admire yourself. What was it like those two times, for “Nightingale” and for “Selma”?
DO: Oh, gosh. One of the times I was nominated it was for “Selma” and I was in that ridiculous room, as you describe it, and it’s apt, and ridiculous because it is a who’s who. At the end of the day, what we do, I like to think, isn’t for that but it’s fun. I was in that room and Meryl Streep of all people saw me and made a beeline for me and I just couldn’t understand what was happening. She had seen “Selma,” she told me that, “I bought a ticket. I went to see it in a movie theater,” she was very complimentary about my performance and I am almost certain I said a bunch of stuff that was really incoherent, not very cool and had her furrowing her brow going, “Oh, bless him. He really doesn’t know how to handle his moment.” I would say she was probably right. I didn’t know how to handle it. This is one of the greatest living actors, arguably the greatest actor of all time, so the fact that she had seen work of mine let alone was complimentary about it was insane. I will handle it better if I’m in that room again but that was definitely a moment.
GD: So exciting. David, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your performance in “Les Miserables.”
DO: Thank you.