[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from Episode 2 of “Les Misérables” on PBS.]
“I Dreamed a Dream” is perhaps one of the most well-known tunes from the musical version of “Les Misérables,” but without leaning on those songs, PBS’ six-part non-musical series based on Victor Hugo’s novel goes deeper with its storytelling. Lily Collins, who plays the lowly grisette Fantine, was able to reveal more backstory when her character falls in love and becomes pregnant by a rich student (Johnny Flynn), who abandoned her.
In an interview with IndieWire and during a panel for “Les Misérables” earlier this year, Collins shared her thoughts about this version of Fantine.
“I was really excited to get to show a side of Fantine that we really haven’t seen before. Usually, you cut into her storyline when she’s already in the factory,” she said. “You don’t get to see her fall in love, and be naive, and fun-loving, and having fun. You don’t get to see her laugh, really. So this was a really interesting opportunity to get to show a side of a character that we haven’t. We got to take a lyric in a song and make it an episode.
“There are certain situations that she has gone through that I can’t relate to. But for young women out there, I think most of us know what ghosting is, or having a guy just disappear on you. That’s not a modern phenomenon.”
Episode 2 details Fantine’s swift downfall after she loses her job at a factory run by Jean Valjean’s alter ego Mayor Madeleine (Dominic West). “This was definitely a challenge. It’s the most raw I’ve ever just had to be in the moment, especially mostly when Fantine’s demise starts,” said Collins. “Physically and emotionally, it was the most grueling for me that I’ve ever done. So that was fearful in and of itself. But I thrive off that fear, and I think that fear teaches me something.”
In the most harrowing scene Collins had to perform, she actually got hurt after struggling with David Oyelowo, who plays the forbidding and unbending police investigator Javert.
“It’s the scene where she gets assaulted by one of the men, jumps on him to protect herself, and then gets dragged off by Javert through the streets,” said Collins. “It was in the middle of the night we were shooting. I didn’t have any padding on it at the beginning because we didn’t think it would be that stunt-heavy.
“I was flung across cobblestones and really in pain and I ended up bruised all over. They used a mid shot of me flying and hitting the floor. I really slammed into my hip bone. The whole thing was so realistic that I think it lent itself more to the story because I got to really feel in the moment more as Fantine.”
This pain just amplifies the physical discomfort Fantine has already endured, wearing the thinnest of garments in the cold. “She has no clothes, or it’s very limited. It really had snowed that day, awful snow. It was minus 13 or minus 15 degrees,” said Collins.
Another detail that PBS’ series includes that’s often left out of the musical version is Fantine selling her two front teeth to a peddler for money, in addition to selling her hair. The loss of her beauty is a physical blow, made more dramatic by the gaping hole in her mouth.
“We did it two different ways. We first started out with a retainer of sorts that had two green front teeth. It was supposed to be green-screened out, but that’s a very expensive process, so they ended up just blacking them out,” she said.
“Then in all of the scenes on the street when I’m begging for my life… we blacked out those and then in post[-production] they fuzzed them a little bit. But I had to keep thinking, ‘If you don’t have your two front teeth, you’re going to have a lisp. And you have a lisp with an accent. And if you have a lisp with an accent choking on blood and not being able to breathe.’”
Starving, freezing, and then the physical distress of losing her teeth isn’t the end of her travails though. Fantine comes down with tuberculosis and is left wasting away on her deathbed hoping to eventually be reunited with her daughter.
Collins has lived a charmed life compared to Fantine’s tragic tale, and yet the 30-year-old actress has an introspective quality that helps her find more commonalities than differences between people. It’s this soul-searching that had led her to write her memoirs, “Unfiltered,” but also find the beauty and grace in Fantine’s story.
“No matter what she’s thrown during her short life, she endures it with such morality and she’s driven by this love of her daughter and wanting to provide for the future,” said Collins.
“It teaches us, even when you have such a short time potentially, on this earth, you can leave a great legacy. She is this beacon of hope, of light that long surpasses her time on this earth. If she wasn’t who she was, Jean Valjean wouldn’t have had something to fight for as much.”
“Les Misérables” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”