WHILE raising a glass to the New Year in the early hours of 2012, I never dreamt that in the coming months I’d be a beggar or sharing a film set with Hollywood hellraiser Russell Crowe. Nor that Hugh Jackman would ask me if I was the queue for the loo!
It all began in February when a friend forwarded an email calling for extras to take part in the forthcoming film version of the multi-award winning stage musical Les Misérables. “No experience necessary, just the ability to take direction.”
It was a no-brainer. I love everything about this show, the music, the story and, despite never having acted, felt this was an opportunity too good to miss.
So it was that my husband, John, and I joined more than 1,000 other hopefuls and queued for nearly four hours on a cold, damp Sunday morning for the open casting at London’s Barbican.
Once inside, all we had to do was complete a personal details form and have a photograph taken.
Men were told to grow their beards and women not to cut their hair. Other than that, it was “we’ll let you know” and that was that. Talk about an anti-climax.
Filming was due to take place in March but when we hadn’t heard anything by the middle of the month, we decided we hadn’t been successful and went off to France for two weeks.
It was while we were on the motorway returning home on the last day of the month that John got the call: would he be available to play a beggar for filming starting in April? You bet he would. Just as well he hadn’t trimmed his beard.
As for me, it looked as if I’d not made it (dammit!) and I went to the hairdresser for a trim.
The next day I got a text asking if I, too, was available for beggardom on 13 dates, starting the following day, Good Friday, and lasting well into June. I had to commit to all 13, otherwise none at all.
The following day we presented ourselves at Pinewood Studios for a costume fitting and a rehearsal of chorus numbers we would be singing on location at Greenwich Old Naval College.
This musical differs from other filmed musicals in that all the songs (sung by the chorus and principals) are performed live. Normally, numbers are pre-recorded and then dubbed into the final edit during the post production process. By doing it this way, the principals could express more emotion (so they have said since).
It was drummed into us that we had to know the words off by heart because if we didn’t and the camera caught us out, it could mess up the shot.
Once we had learnt the songs, we had to sing them “in character”, dropping our aitches, pronouncing “the” as “f” and flattening out vowel sounds. Voice coaches, who John termed “the voice police”, were on set each morning when we rehearsed.
And so to Greenwich and days which began most mornings at around 5.30 in the make-up tent where some 50 make-up artists transformed us into human flotsam.
Believe me, nothing lowers the self-esteem more at that hour than seeing your face aged about 30 years with darker shadows and deeper wrinkles, enhanced here and there with open, suppurating sores, livid bruises and manky teeth.
God, I looked a sight but so, too, did the other 80 beggars. We all had filthy hands, arms and faces and, for those poor devils with no shoes, legs and feet too.
Still, we were a cheerful gang and there was a lot of camaraderie — indeed, I think the 150-odd soldiers and the toffs in their fine silks, bonnets and toppers really did believe we were lowlife and actively avoided us in the mess tent. Filming at the old naval college was an experience which will stay with me forever — rain, always freezing cold, but on the brightest, sunniest day, the smell of frankincense from campfires in the beggars’ compound infusing a touch of realism to 19th century Paris which, sadly, won’t be apparent on screen.
As extras, we weren’t merely required to be background wallpaper, just walking about or pretending to chat while the action was going on elsewhere.
We were very much part of the action: marching in the huge iconic funeral scene, climbing the barricade in the finale, dodging horses’ hooves and carriage wheels in our begging scene, fleeing from thundering horses and horsemen brandishing weapons. “Lots of energy, guys,” the assistant director urged. With those terrifying horses bearing down on us, we hardly needed to be told.
It was here while shivering in my rags on the coldest day, trying to warm myself on a radiator outside the (indoor) loos, that Jackman (Jean Valjean) asked me if I was queueing. He looked cold too, although he was wearing a huge overcoat.
Crowe came on set on our third day at Greenwich and was everything I had not expected him to be. He was friendly, a great hit with the kids and got on well with the crew (“Let’s have a drag of your fag, mate,” he was heard to say in between takes).
And, yes, he really does have great presence.
At Pinewood, where we filmed after Greenwich, he went off to find water for a “beggar” baby who was thirsty in the intense heat of the studio.
The child was clearly upset and crying at being put into the arms of one of us beggars (not surprising given how horrendous we must have looked to her) but Crowe showed his paternal side by chatting to the child and her mum, who by now was wearing beggar gear too.
Both John and I did about 10 days filming at Pinewood (not always together) in the new Richard Attenborough Stage which had been transformed into a 19th century Parisian street. Later, I would be one of three beggars spending the day curled up on its wet cobbles. On another day, in what our focused director Tom Hooper required as “abject poverty”, all us beggars had to go barefoot on those same cobbles, which were also a thoroughfare for horses and a cow and you can imagine what else!
As a journalist, I hesitate to use such hyperbole as “awesome” and “privilege” when describing my experience working on this movie, especially since I’m relatively inexperienced.
My previous experience includes being a wedding guest in The Wedding Video and having my legs reflected in the door of a hearse in an episode of Midsomer Murders.
But even seasoned extras on set admitted that this was something special. One of them, a veteran of more than 60 major films, including Bond and Pirates Of The Caribbean, described Les Misérables as “remarkable”.
Members of the stage show wanting to be involved came to Greenwich to film the finale along with producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, both of whom were kitted out as Parisian citizens to climb the barricade.
I’ve already seen the film at a pre-premiere screening for cast and crew in London and it’s stunning, with not a dry eye in the house. I guarantee the same again when I see it again next week.