Les Misérables, which got eight Oscar nominations in total, will likely win only one major one on Sunday — Anne Hathaway is the clear favorite to win Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the doomed Fantine. But even if its Academy Award hopes have largely faded, the movie, directed by Tom Hooper, has been a box office success, and has reignited interest worldwide in the musical.
I recently interviewed Frances Ruffelle, who originated the part of Eponine both in Les Miz’s first London production and on Broadway. She was one of only two of the British cast — the other was Jean Valjean himself, Colm Wilkinson — to be in both versions. She was only 21 when she won the Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for the role of Eponine; and then she got pregnant, got horrible morning sickness, and had to drop out of the production. (She was dating, and later married, the show’s co-director, John Caird.)
A mother of three, including of the British pop star Eliza Doolittle, Ruffelle, 47, has worked steadily, if not achieving the heights of that Broadway debut. She is a Les Miz fan favorite, so producer Cameron Mackintosh cast her in a cameo in the film during the, as she put it, “whore scene” where Fantine’s life crashes into misery — she has “two and a half lines,” she said.
I should disclose that I am a Les Misérables maniac. The musical, not the movie, sadly. And having seen Ruffelle in the Broadway production while it was in previews way back when — well, keep reading. My embarrassing confessions are below. Ruffelle, who this week opened as Edith Piaf in Piaf in Leicester, and I met for breakfast in Los Angeles last month when she was on vacation.
Kate Aurthur: What do you think of the movie?
Frances Ruffelle: I love the movie. I think the storytelling is really good. It’s different — some of it goes back to things in the book. I think there should be more Eponine!
KA: It’s my favorite musical. With the movie, I think the first half is great. And then, the barricades — there’s just so much of it. Not my favorite part. And then there’s nothing you can do about the ending! I think that works on the stage in a way that it doesn’t on film.
FR: I agree with you. I think the group singing works better on stage. It’s harder to do that in the movie. The barricades work better on stage because they feel big — when you don’t see the opponents, you feel like the kids might have a chance.
KA: How did it happen that you’re in it?
FR: Cameron announced that I was in it before he even approached me. It was four days of filming which shows you why it works so well, I think.
KA: What were your two and a half lines?
FR: “That bit of skirt/she’s the one sold her hair.” And then I say: “Come on, dearie, why all the fuss?” And then I say “make money in your sleep.” And that’s it.
KA: You sang that to Anne Hathaway. I’ve heard there are people who don’t like her.
FR: Have you? No, she was lovely. I admired watching her work, actually. She was very sweet to me, because she grew up with Les Miz — her mum was in the national tour in America. She listened to the original Broadway album. She would skip along into the rehearsals that we were doing; there were eight days of rehearsal as well. She would say, “I’ve been listening to you this morning.” It was really cute.
KA: That’s a lot of rehearsal.
FR: They were just trying to work out how to perform musical theater in film. It was almost like guinea pigs. They were really disorganized, actually. I was in a show in London, as were many of the people. Sometimes we were busy. They’d call you at quarter of six in the evening and say, “We’ll pick you up at 10.” I’m like, what? So I missed some. I think I had about four and a half lines before that! What difference does it make?
KA: There were 10 minutes when Taylor Swift was going to play Eponine. Were you paying attention to that?
FR: Yeah, I did. But I didn’t know who she was. I figured it out because a lot of people were writing about it. I know Samantha Barks — I’ve known her for quite a few years. Cameron asked me and Samantha to sing “On My Own” together for a duet. Weird title for a duet. And that was just when she was in rehearsals to play it in the West End. That was kind of cute, she was only about 19 — I think she was the age I was when I was in rehearsals.
KA: How do you sing “On My Own” with another person?
FR: Ha, I know, it’s weird. It’s actually really lovely. We did harmony as well. I try not to sing it, to be honest. People always expect me to sing “On My Own” whenever I do a show. I don’t really sing it these days.
KA: So you were in the original production of Les Miz in London. They announced it was going to Broadway. You were one of two who went. How did that work?
FR: They announced it was going to Broadway, and obviously, the whole cast wants to go. They said no one could, which was quite disappointing. Then we heard that Colm was going — he was amazing in the show. They even cast Eponine. But she turned it down for a lead in another show. They were looking for someone else, but they didn’t find anyone they liked as much as me. They already started rehearsals without casting. I had already done a year. And I think I was just about to stay on for another six months of contract. And that’s when they said, “Would you like to go to Broadway? And can you pack your bags, because I need you there on Monday?”
KA: So you moved to New York. Where did you live?
FR: I lived on West 57th. Back in the ’80s, New York wasn’t very safe, not like it is now. I spent all my paycheck on that flat. I was a bit nervous, so that was why I made sure I had a manned building, or whatever it’s called.
KA: A doorman building. I actually grew up in New York. I’m maybe going to freak you out a little bit. I saw Les Miz when it was in previews; I was a senior in high school. My friends and I went for a class, and we loved it so much, and loved you in particular. I was nominated to write you a fan letter —
KA: — and you wrote me back. Twice!
FR: Did I!
KA: Yes! And I went to see it with my mother a couple months later, and I waited for you outside, and introduced myself to you. And you introduced me to John. Don’t get scared! I’m a normal person! I stalk no one. But I do remember you said, “John, this is Kate, the one with the letters.” It was very exciting. In one of the letters, you told me that Terrence Mann, who played Javert, was an asshole.
FR: No! I must have been joking! I would never say that about anyone!
KA: You may have been kidding. But I took it literally.
FR: I love Terrence Mann! I’m sorry, Terrence! I adore him. I don’t know.
KA: I’ve held it against him.
FR: Oh noooooo. Poor Terrence! He’s adorable.
KA: He survived.
FR: Well, that is hilarious. I was good at writing my fan mail. People email me things, and I always think I’m going to write back.
KA: It was very nice of you. Anyway. So obviously Les Miz became a huge thing.
FR: I loved it. But I used to wander around crying a bit. I was quite lonely. I felt so trapped, because I couldn’t get back because there was only one day off a week. It was hard. And then, of course, I did get pregnant, and wanted to have a child. And I was in New York, pregnant at age 21.
KA: So you and John started seeing each other at a certain point.
KA: And he was married.
FR: He was, actually. But let’s not go into that. Although, funnily enough, Annie, his ex-wife, and I are like sisters now. Really good friends. Never imagined that would happen.
KA: And you’re friends with him, still? I see you tweet his reviews.
FR: Yeah, I am. I am friends with John. But I’m more friends with his ex-wife and current wife.
KA: So you got pregnant. And that was — a bummer?
FR: It wasn’t the best timing in the world. I had just won a Tony. Perhaps if I was a bit more career-minded, it would have been a bit silly. But there was no way I was going to not have the baby, so the choice was made for me without making it. The reason I got pregnant, obviously apart from sex — I’d always had no problem with my voice, and I had done eight shows a week for years and years and years. But I got a throat infection, and went to a throat doctor, and was given steroids. It can really mess up your cycle. I don’t know why I’m telling you this!
KA: I love it!
FR: I’ve never told anyone this!
KA: I just told you I stalked you.
FR: I was possibly a little un-careful at the wrong time. I have a beautiful daughter, and I have beautiful kids, and I would never go back on it. And in a funny way, I was quite immature in some ways and I’m not sure I could have handled a bigger career at the time. It was a little bit thrown at me at such a young age.
KA: Did you move back to London?
FR: Yeah, I moved back to London to be with my family. I think my mum was really, really worried about me. But luckily, she’s a great mum and was really helpful. The other thing I did have, which was a bit annoying, is I was very, very sick when I was pregnant. I can’t work when I’m pregnant. When I am pregnant, I am out.
KA: I was looking up old stuff from then, and you were on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
FR: I hate that so much! And it’s so — watched. I burned all my videotapes, I threw them out.
KA: Why do you hate it?
FR: When I look it, I just think I’m so squeaky.
KA: The singing or the talking?
FR: The singing. Talking. The way I looked. Everything. Very ’80s, I guess.
KA: 1987, perhaps not the best year for any of us.
FR: No. And I was pregnant then. I was in hospital that morning on a drip. I had to beg them to let me out so I could do the Johnny Carson show. I remember I threw up in the toilet in the dressing room before I went on to do that.
KA: So you moved back to London, you had Eliza. Were you a fulltime mom?
FR: I still worked. I felt torn between being a good mum and being a good actress. I found it very, very hard to really do both. I was over choosey about what I did. And in hindsight, maybe I should have been less choosey. Because work breeds work.
KA: Do you regret it?
FR: I’ve had a great life, so I can’t really complain. And I’m doing great stuff now. I’m just a working actress, really — not necessarily a star, just a working actress. Also, in London, when I did Les Miz, although I got good reviews and everybody liked it, I wasn’t a big star in London at all. In New York, they treated me much more like a star. It was timing, and also the Tony. In England, I’m just a working actress with a bit of a name.
This interview has been condensed.