I once asked Donald Sutherland what it was like filming the famous naked love scene with Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now. He said, ‘It was just so horrible.’ I was telling this anecdote over a bacon sandwich to the freckled actor Eddie Redmayne, who, if he is hit by a bus tomorrow, will be remembered for the very rude sex scene he did in the telly adaptation of the novel Birdsong. He had to make love to the radiant French actress Clémence Poésy. What can that have been like?
‘The only thing I can say is: imagine if you had to do it. Her nipples had tape on while your bits are stuffed into a sock and there are 20 strangers watching you both. Then someone shouts “Action!” It’s horrendous! There’s a famous sex scene in the book we had to recreate and we had to find a way in which it wasn’t going to be utterly awkward for both of us; it involved taping a cherry-flavour Haribo to her inner thigh and I would kiss that and no further. Honestly, it’s as embarrassing as it gets.’
The 30-year-old actor (and model for Burberry) was back in bed again recently for My Week with Marilyn, co-starring as Colin Clark (Alan’s brother), the humble set gofer who had a fling with Monroe when she filmed The Prince and the Showgirl in England. But now he is in the fresh air and on the barricades in the new film of Les Misérables.
Redmayne is an Old Etonian, a breed now more common in showbiz than in the City or the army. Directors love them. They are confident without overdoing it, cool, shabby but very at home in period clobber. He didn’t go to theatre school and owes his training, he says, entirely to Simon Dormandy, the school’s drama beak, a former actor who ran the department as if it were a professional theatre. ‘It was like the real world. So when I turned up for my debut in Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance it was like school.’
His big break on stage came in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, Edward Albee’s play about an architect having a passionate affair with a goat called Sylvia. It was a very weird play — no butts about it. Redmayne was the gay son. He won awards for the part both here and in New York and went on to play the artist Rothko’s assistant in the play Red, followed by the daunting title role in Richard II for which the Guardian critic thought he wasn’t quite ready.
Les Misérables should suit him well, seeing as he was a choral scholar at Cambridge. He remembers being taken to see the show when he was eight. The film version is a Working Title production in cahoots with the impresario Cameron Mackintosh who gave Redmayne his first job in the musical Oliver! when Eddie was a nipper. He was Urchin No. 15.
The Les Mis movie has an amazing cast. Russell Crowe is the ruthless Inspector Javert and in the same hat he wore in Master and Commander. Hugh Jackman is the hunted Jean Valjean; Anne Hathaway plays Fantine. Further down the bill (‘way further down’ he points out) is Eddie as Marius Pontmercy, the student revolutionary in love with Cosette. His big solo number is ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’.
When Redmayne heard they were making the screen version, ‘I did something I have never done before. I filmed myself singing on my iPhone, sent it to my agent and ended up getting an audition. It was terrifying. I didn’t go in blasting it. I tried to show them something else. You’ve got to use what you’ve learned in the theatre and see how it can supplement the music.’ Whatever he did, it worked. ‘After that audition I suddenly had so much respect for people who do The X Factor!’
It all sounds like a cop-chase movie — only with muskets and songs. The numbers are all undubbed, the hope being they will have more of a live quality and less of that horrid aural gloss common in film musicals. ‘When you sing live on set, you have an earpiece through which an electric piano is playing 20 metres away audible only in my ear. What we [actors] sing to is that piano. But then later in the studio there’s a 100-piece orchestra and the film is up in front of them, playing to us singing it. Every edit requires a new orchestration. And it’s quite operatic Les Mis, so it’s hard. If one day you are doing a barricade scene shouting “Vive La République!”, when you turn up the next day you’ve no voice to sing your solo. You have to plan very logistically.’
Tom Hooper, who did The King’s Speech, is directing. He had a massive Parisian boulevard built at Pinewood. The cast of revolutionaries then smashed it up to build a barricade, chucking everything — even a piano — out of the windows on to the cobbles. ‘It was the most incredible, adrenaline-fuelled, brilliant ten minutes of my life. It was live theatre,’ says its ringleader.
Morale was good on set. ‘None of us has really sung on film before. Russell [Crowe] gave me a lot of help with the horse riding — he’s a total genius at it. And of course with the fighting.’ Who better to teach you fighting than Gladiator himself?
For the moment all Redmayne has to do is fly around the world promoting the film, which opens in the New Year. There’s no other job on the horizon. ‘I am not being coy. I genuinely haven’t anything to tell you about,’ he says. So we talked about Julie Christie’s erotic effect on a previous generation. She has, he says, no greater fan than his businessman father. ‘He’s obsessed with her. When she played my grand-aunt in a film, I got her to sign Dr Zhivago. It was the best Christmas present he’s ever had!’
I forgot to ask whether there was a naked love scene in Les Mis but let’s hope there isn’t. Never mind Birdsong, there was a moment in a recent film, Savage Grace, when he played a gay son who has sex with his own mother! Les Mis will be a relief for his poor parents, I suggest, from that sort of filth. He chuckles that they’re used to it. ‘Bless them, they’re very supportive: “as long as you’re employed and happy, dear”.’