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Josh O'Connor: Why The Durrells is more fun than Les Mis

Josh O'Connor and Ellie Bamber
(Image credit: BBC)

The popular actor on taking on the famous role of Marius

If you remember seeing Michael Ball playing Marius in the original West End stage production of Les Miserables, or Eddie Redmayne singing Empty Chairs and Empty Tables in the Hollywood film, the current BBC adaptation might have thrown you. After all Marius entered in episode one as a small boy!

Last time we say him, young Marius was being poisoned against his father by his belligerent granddad, played by David Bradley. Now he’s grown up and is a law student with a mind of his own, played by The Durrells star Josh O’ Connor. And he’s starting to question the political prejudices he was fed as a child.

Josh O'Connor

Josh O'Connor in Les Miserables

As he begins to understand that his much-maligned dad was a war hero, not a national traitor, Marius falls out with his grandfather and goes to live in a squalid part of Paris, in the same neighbourhood as the relocated innkeepers, the scheming Thenardiers (Olivia Colman and Adeel Akhtar).

Here Josh O'Connor, who is also playing Prince Charles in series three of Netflix hit The Crown, chats to TV Times on set in Brussels and tells us why his mum will inevitably be disappointed in his performance, and why he’s got no sympathy for co-star Dominic West…

We hear you’ve wanted to play this role for quite some time?

Josh O' Connor: "Yes, my first ever audition after drama school was to play Marius in the film. They chose Eddie Redmayne in the end, but I got this one, hopefully nobody will compare me to him. Although my mum has already said, ‘Oh but that Eddie Redmayne is so beautiful in the film’, so she’s probably not going to like my performance!

"This is a very fresh approach to the story, the musical has to cram a lot into a short space of time, but there’s so much in the novel. Marius is complex, he comes from a very well-to-do background then he turns into a socialist and fights for the people."

We see him meet Cosette this week, what can you tell us about their relationship?

Josh: "He falls madly in love with Cosette but then there’s a beautiful relationship with Eponine (the Thenardiers’ daughter) that creeps up on him. It’s a love triangle, but his love for Eponine is more like a sibling."

Marius becomes a big part of the student uprising, joining the revolution against the establishment. Were those scenes fun to film?

Josh: "Yes, we built a barricade in an actual street, it felt so rough and ready. It wasn’t really a set, it was a proper barricade –we climbed over it with guns and it was pretty exciting. I was in Ripper Street a few years ago and they taught me how to use similar guns there."

Tell us about the moment Dominic West (who plays Jean Valjean) had to carry you over his shoulder…

Josh "Those were brilliant scenes… for me! I walked into rehearsals and Dom went pale as he realised I was a 6ft2in man he was going to have to drag around – that’s not just a turn of phrase, he went white! The scene is set in the sewers so we did three full days of filming with me on his back, wading through fake sewage. Sometimes he would drag me through freezing cold water and everyone would say, ‘Dom are you alright?’ He was fine, I was cold and wet!"

How emotionally demanding did you find this job?

Josh: "There have been a hell of a lot of tears, it’s so sad. It’s a novel about an over-arching social injustice and then these beautiful characters and very meaningful stories that will continue to live on because they will always be relevant. It’s no wonder we were crying our eyes out. I definitely couldn’t wait to get back to filming in Corfu!"