TORONTO – Broadway legend Colm Wilkinson says he feels “reinvented” by the Oscar-winning film adaptation of “Les Miserables.”
The acclaimed Irish tenor — who originated the role of tragic “Les Mis” hero Jean Valjean onstage in London and later on Broadway — says the star-studded movie version has catapulted his name to a whole new sphere of fame.
“I understood … that it would have a huge impact on me in terms of profile,” Wilkinson said Thursday from his home in Toronto.
“But I didn’t realize it was going to be this big.”
Since the film began a global rollout last December, Wilkinson says he’s been flattered to hear reports of audiences breaking into applause when his face first appears onscreen and again when his name emerges in the closing credits.
“I was very taken with that,” he says, noting the film has “reinvented my name.”
“They actually applauded me in Paris. They actually applauded me when my name came up and when I was on the screen, so that’s lovely.”
Wilkinson takes a supporting role in this version but it’s a key one — he plays the bishop who takes pity on a destitute Valjean, played by Hollywood hunk Hugh Jackman, inspiring the convict to become an honest man.
The film comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on Friday, and in the disc’s extras, director Tom Hooper places great significance on Wilkinson’s brief appearance in the sweeping tale, set in 19th-century France.
“There’s something very moving about the original Jean Valjean inspiring this Jean Valjean — Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean, on his way,” says Hooper, also heaping praise on co-stars Russell Crowe as Javert and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.
When “Les Miserables” collected heaps of nominations at prestigious film galas earlier this year, Wilkinson learned his turn as the original Valjean was treasured by celebrity fans.
He says he was surprised to be fawned upon by the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where “Les Miserables” was up for best cast.
“I was really, really taken with the fact that most of the people knew the musical and they knew who I was and it was just, I have to say I was totally blown away,” he continues.
“Damian Lewis from ‘Homeland,’ he walked over to me and I thought, ‘He’s walking over to me and he has his hand out, who does he think I am?’ That’s what I actually thought!”
The 68-year-old Wilkinson, whose credits include starring in Toronto’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” admits that he called up the “Les Mis” producers to see if there might be a role for him in the film.
“I actually phoned Cameron Mackintosh’s office and made the suggestion. Cameron wasn’t there but I talked to (executive producer) Nick Allott and Nick Allott said when he told Cameron, Cameron started to laugh. I think they were shocked that they even thought I would think about doing it,” he says.
“They thought that I wouldn’t go near it because of the fact I was known as Valjean but I said, ‘You know it’d be a nice way to say goodbye to (the role).’”
Still touring regularly, Wilkinson often includes the powerful “Les Mis” ballad “Bring Him Home” in his repertoire and says he’s considering adding “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” to upcoming set lists.
The DVD and Blu-ray release comes as the 25th anniversary version of “Les Miserables” makes its way to Toronto this fall.
Wilkinson admits he feels like he’s been talking about his ties to “Les Mis” for a good chunk of his life but says he’ll never tire of that.
“How blessed can you be to be associated with one of the best musicals in the world?”