IF YOU watched episode one of the BBC’s lavish adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables on Sunday, you might have thought ‘when are they going to sing?’ Here’s a heads up: they won’t. This is Hugo taken back to the original — and star David Oyelowo is delighted.
‘Listen, I love the musical,’ he says with a warm smile as he slips his compact, muscular and smartly suited frame into the seat next to me. ‘But there are elements in the way the story is handled in the musical where you may go, “Hey, where did that come from?” In our drama, I think you can understand much more why the characters do what they do. You see where they are coming from.’
In the case of Oyelowo’s character, the almost psychotically principled Inspector Javert, that can be a tough nut to crack. In his own mind Javert is the moral high ground of Les Misérables, his obsessive determination to bring his nemesis Jean Valjean to justice the stitching thread that binds together an expansive narrative that examines the true nature of redemption.
Jean Valjean, played in this version by Dominic West, is the more famous role, a criminal offered the chance to turn his life around. But Oyelowo would not have swapped places for a moment. An executive producer on the project, he leapt at the opportunity to play Javert, a morally complex man and, for him, a stark change from a run of good-guy roles.
‘I was drawn to Javert because I felt a very real challenge there,’ he says. ‘Andrew Davies has been hugely skilled in drawing out from the book who Javert really is. What you don’t know at first is that Javert was born in a prison, so what marks a man with that background? It’s when he’s overseer at a prison camp that Javert encounters Valjean and the two are mirror images of each other. Valjean reminds Javert of who he might have been; his life’s skewered on that fear.’
In the 2012 film Javier was played by Russell Crowe, and Oyelowo loves that this version of Les Misérables ‘shows the true nature of how multicultural Paris was in the early 19th century. That’s not a modern thing as people tend to assume.’ And though we’re in post-Napoleonic France, he doesn’t fight shy of the ‘is this relevant to today?’ question.
‘That’s why these stories last, that’s why we tell them, because they tell us something about our lives,’ he says. ‘The story is set in a deeply divided country, the people are split.’
Oyelowo’s own childhood was split between Nigeria and the UK but now he and his family — he has four children with Ipswich-born actor wife Jessica Watson — are naturalised Americans. He’s been based there for more than a decade but, impressively, he’s kept his immaculately pressed English accent. The same can’t be said for his kids. ‘I’ve tried, but look, they’ve grown up in California, what can I do?’ he says. But he has no regrets about the switch. ‘If I’m going to live somewhere, then I want in however small a way to be able to have some kind of influence. So it wasn’t a difficult decision to take American citizenship. Look at what’s happening there, we need as many different voices as we can get.’
Different voices and his diverse roots have served him well, switching between acclaimed turns on British TV (Small Island, Spooks) and US movies (Selma, Nightingale), often calling on his African heritage to switch between worlds. He sees his background as a blessing. ‘African roles, American roles, European roles, I have a relationship with all of them,’ he says. ‘I’m lucky.’
It’s back to America for his next role, though, as Sugar Ray Robinson in the film Sweet Thunder. ‘He’s a real icon, to my mind the best boxer who ever lived,’ he says. ‘His line was “Never Been Hit”.’
Six months of training await him in the new year as he bids to emulate Sugar Ray’s silky speed in the ring. ‘I’ve boxed a little bit,’ he adds, ‘but it’s going to take a lot of work to get me in shape…’
The cheery Oyelowo looks slightly daunted but adds: ‘I’m training with Darrell Foster, who worked with Will Smith on Ali, so I’m with the best.’
■ Les Misérables episode one is on iPlayer. New episodes on Sunday on BBC1 at 9pm