Playing a character driven by obsession is not an easy task. When that role is driven by an all-consuming, dogged pursuit of another person, it can make for a tricky relationship on set.
In the case of the recent TV adaptation of “Les Misérables,” Jean Valjean actor Dominic West was a little confused by David Oyelowo’s standoffishness in the role of Javert. In a Masterpiece interview, West talked about some of their initial reactions during production.
“At first, I thought David was rather unfriendly, but I didn’t realize he was being in character!” West said. “He’s an amazing actor, but he’s an amazing human being, in terms of his discipline. I’m a big admirer.”
The distance that the actors had from each other while the cameras were rolling speaks not only to Oyelowo’s acting techniques, but the underlying driving force of the novel. Though a large portion of audiences are familiar with Victor Hugo’s story in its musical form, Oyelowo explains that this limited series gives viewers a better understanding of the conflicting emotions driving Javert’s endless pursuit of Valjean.
“He had a real sense of loathing about criminality, which in effect meant his upbringing, maybe even himself,” Oyelowo said of Javert. “It became clear to me that Jean Valjean in some way was a reflection of himself, to himself. So, in a sense he’s pursuing and hunting himself.”
As difficult as the prospect of playing such a dangerously focused character like Valjean may be for a performer, it’s also a challenge for the person tasked with crafting the man on the page. “Les Misérables” series writer Andrew Davies also offers his input on shaping his interpretation of the character. “Javert has decided that his options were to enforce the law or to be a criminal himself. He’s taken it with a kind of religious intensity,” Davies said.
Watch a collection of all three discussions of Javert’s many layers below:
“Les Misérables” airs Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. on Masterpiece on PBS, culminating with the finale on May 19. Past and future episodes can be found on PBS.org, the PBS Video App, or with PBS Passport.