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Time to Turn the Page

Happy to move on from the awards circuit, Geoffrey Rush takes up the heartless villain Javert in 'Les Miserables.'

April 26, 1998|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Australian actor Geoffrey Rush was catapulted into the limelight with the 1996 release of Scott Hicks' debut film, "Shine." Cast as musical prodigy David Helfgott, Rush won an Academy Award for his work in the picture--which, needless to say, makes "Shine" a hard act to follow.

This week Rush attempts to beat the sophomore jinx with the release of "Les Miserables." Directed by Bille August and co-starring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes, this latest version of the Victor Hugo classic finds Rush cast as Javert, the diabolically obsessed officer of the law who makes it his life's work to hound Neeson's Jean Valjean--a man condemned to a life on the run after hunger drives him to steal a loaf of bread.

Born in Toowoomba, Australia, in 1951, Rush had a solid career in Australian theater for two decades before winning the Oscar. Though his options expanded considerably with the success of "Shine," Rush continues to live in a modest home in Melbourne with his wife, actress Jane Menelaus, and their two young children. Recently in L.A. to attend to various bits of business, Rush reflected on his life of the past few years over breakfast at a Beverly Hills hotel.

Question: What attracted you to "Les Miserables"?

Answer: I met Bille August in 1996 on one of my first trips to America to promote "Shine" and liked him very much. A week later we met in London and he said, "I want you to do this role." I told him I couldn't see myself as Javert because playing that kind of heavyweight just wasn't in my repertoire, and Bille said, "Forget about thinking of him as a villain--Javert is a guy with a lot of demons." And that I understand.

Q: What are Javert's demons?

A: It's a curiously written character because you don't get much of Javert's back story in the novel. Every time he appears on the page there's very little description--it's as if this implacable force simply appears: "There was the cold-hearted, marble face of Javert," and that's it.

I think his demons are rooted in the fact that his moral system is so inflexible and controlling that he can't help but be in conflict with the real world. You've got to be able to roll with the punches in life, but Javert is incapable of that.

Q: In preparing for the shoot did you watch any of the other film versions of the novel?

A: No, but I did see the musical several years ago when a friend of mine was in a production of it in Sydney, and I liked it very much. It's got a big, thumping score, people get to sing some great songs and there was a fantastic feeling in the audience. You might ask who cares about a story about a convict in the 1830s? It's remote and has nothing to do with life today--but that's why the classics are so good. They're emblematic stories that continue to connect with people.

Q: What is the myth at the heart of "Les Miserables" that continues to speak to people?

A: I think it's the sheer scale of the story that's given it such longevity. I've been mostly in much lower-budget films, and on the set of "Les Miserables" I found myself shooting scenes where the background is textured with 400 extras--that rarely happens on Australian films, because budgets there simply can't accommodate production values like that.

Even in the intimate scenes between Valjean and Javert, you're aware of crowds of people working in the background in factories and in the streets, and they build up a rhythm that tells you something's gonna snap. We shot the film roughly in sequence and when Claire Danes came on the set, Liam and I were both struck by the fact that the second part of the story is about an entirely new generation that struggles with the same conflicts. The power of our sins and troubles travels undimmed down through the generations.

Q: One interpretation of the novel is that Hugo is attempting to illustrate a belief central to all his writing: that man is perfectible. Do you agree?

A: For me, the story centers on the question: What does it take for a man to be good? Valjean has been victimized and humiliated by this savage penal system, and throughout the story he asks himself: Can someone be redeemed and made to feel whole again?

Q: Hugo also believed that it wasn't enough for literature to simply be beautiful and entertaining; he felt it had a duty to serve society. Does film have a similar responsibility?

A: One is reluctant to assign specific responsibilities to art. It's true that in the book Hugo goes on extraordinary rants--he'll do several pages on the condition of the Parisian sewer system, for instance, or an entire chapter on the impact of the battle at Waterloo. Did his rant about the sewer system actually bring about any improvement in it? I think it probably did, but I doubt that it was noticeably direct, because society is conservative and slow. It takes a few forward-thinking and unusually humane people to say let's legislate to improve things for this or that group of people. Legislating change in human behavior is a slow process.

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