At the age of 26, John Owen-Jones was the youngest actor to play Valjean in Les Misérables. On March 1, he returns to Broadway with a new perspective. His wife and children will join him later in the year ("It's going to be great fun," he says), but we caught up with the now 44-year-old while he relaxed alone in his Manhattan studio.
We're excited to have you join the cast of Les Misérables!
John Owen-Jones: Do you know, I bet I’m more excited to be here than you are to have me.
What is it about the role of Jean Valjean that makes it worth revisiting, re-examining over and over again?
JOJ: It is enormously satisfying to play because the character goes on such a satisfying journey arc. As an actor, you get to experience all sort of different levels of emotion and immersion in the role. You know, you have to age gracefully and really quickly throughout the show. You have to show range, anger, love, compassion, you have to bottle rage, you have to show duplicity, and it’s all sorts of lovely little things like that. Plus, it’s a really challenging and actually fun role to sing if the role sits in your voice comfortably, which it does with me, I’m lucky to say. It’s really enjoyable to sing that. I’ve just finished playing Phantom in the West End and that is such a challenging role to sing when you’re—I would say I’m a bari-tenor. I can go up high, but I can’t settle quite low. Phantom is only, like, 30 to 40 minutes of singing, but it’s actually much harder than Jean Valjean because of the rangy nature of that.
The most enjoyable aspect of playing Jean Valjean is, actually, working with the other people. When you’re playing a role like Phantom, it’s just you and the two other leads. You never really see anyone else, but because Les Miz was conceived as an ensemble piece, Valjean, he’s the leading role, [but] he is also part of the ensemble. You get to work with loads of different people, there’s all sorts of different energies and understudies—it’s just exciting.
How has your perspective as Valjean changed since being the youngest at 26? Now, you have your own children. What does that do to your performance?
JOJ: I’ll tell you, when I was younger and I watched the show, I wasn’t moved by Gavroche’s death, okay? And then I have kids, and then suddenly, that is the bit I can’t watch. I found that heart wrenching when I saw it after I’d had kids. I didn’t realize how it had informed my performance, because I thought I was more or less doing the same kind of thing. Kate Flatt, the original movement choreographer [on] the original version of the show, said, “My God, it’s totally different what you’re doing.” I was like, “Really? It doesn’t feel any different.” It’s just because I’d changed as a person. I didn’t even realize that my performance was being colored differently. As an actor, you get better as you get older because you mature like a wine.
JOJ: What is really interesting, having done concerts all over the world now: I’ve stood on stage as myself for two hours and sung for two hours, two-and-a-half hours sometimes, and then I come into a show as Valjean, and there’s actually not enough for me to do. The stamina changes, and the perspective of the size of the role changes. ... I could say this now: I think I probably was too young to play a role like Valjean. Looking back, I probably was. But if the world’s most powerful and influential and creative theatre producer offers you the chance of a lifetime at 26, you take it.
I’m one of those kind of guys that if a door opens, and I think it’s appropriate, I’ll go through it. Life is too short to not take chances and opportunities when they present themselves, because you never know where you’re going to end up. It was like a blink of an eye, and [I] never once questioned the fact that I was too young. That was something that we worked on a lot [of years ago] because of my youth and my vitality, the aging of my character. The weight that I needed, you know, the earthiness and the roundness wasn’t there, and that’s something that they directed with me over the time that I started. They put a lot of investment into me. There’s a guy understudying me now in the show, he’s 27. I saw him do some of it, and he’s great. I’m just like, “Wow. Was I that young?”
I was too young, but my God, I’m glad I did it.
Well, all that investment that they put into you clearly paid off. They’ve gotten 18 years on and off with you.
JOJ: I often think to myself they should really have a school for Valjeans. If they’d set up a school for Valjeans 20 years ago, they’d have an endless supply of people to play the role.
What would they teach you in the School for Valjean, specifically?
JOJ: How to age, how to sing high, how to sustain the drama and the intensity through a long run. But it’s one of those things that you only really learn on the job, you know? I spent three years in drama school, but you never get to learn how to do eight shows a week. Maybe that’s why they haven’t bothered with a School for Valjeans.
Is there a piece of Valjean that you feel is most like yourself?
JOJ: In all my years, I’ve never been asked that question. There’s a part of Valjean’s role, when he’s the mayor of the factory, when he kind of has everything, but he still doesn’t quite believe that he’s got everything. He feels quite blessed and lucky to be where he is, and I think that’s me. I’m currently in my studio apartment, and I can see the Chrysler Building, and it’s a dream that I’m here. It’s the same as Valjean. I keep thinking that there’s somebody coming up behind me, like a Javert character to say, “Hang on, you shouldn’t be there.”
Yes. I know that feeling where you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
JOJ: But you know what I realized a while back? It was when Obama was elected. It occurred to me that nobody knows what they’re doing. There’s nobody telling Obama how to be the President of the United States. He just had to be that. When I got to about 40, I kind of suddenly realized that everybody is making it up as they go along. Everyone is winging it. Everyone’s making it up, and that was such a satisfying thing to realize.
That’s kind of where I am. I sometimes have to pinch myself and say, “My God, here I am.” I’m rehearsing on the stage of the Imperial where the show was first done in New York. I’ve rehearsed with Claude-Michel Schönberg backstage of the Barbican, where the show was first done in London, the Palace when it was first done in the West End, and I did the very first version of this brand-new, revolutionary way of doing the show. You know, I was there.
You just came off this run as The Phantom, another role you’ve done many times. Colm Wilkinson was almost our original Phantom. You made an interesting comparison of how the roles are so different, but what is it about those two roles that attract the same type of actor?
JOJ: There’s a certain type of actor, like Colm Wilkinson, who’s kind of a theatre animal. I am, myself. I mean, I love it, and those two roles are enormously theatrical, but also contrasting, but satisfying in different ways. I think that’s what attracts people to it, just the challenge of keeping it fresh, and there are certain actors who love that challenge, so I guess I consider myself one of them. I don’t…I never really rest on my laurels when I’m performing. I think that’s the kind of actor you have to be to play roles like Valjean and the Phantom.
As an actor looking for work, I couldn’t really be happier. I could be scrabbling around auditioning constantly and trying to see where the next job’s coming from. Cameron, he’s always going to look to me or people like me to fill these roles, and they’re always going to be there, hopefully. He’s kind of like a pension plan.
Do you ever feel pigeonholed into the two roles?
JOJ: It’s difficult, and I could be pigeonholed as a Shakespearean actor, you know? People have to put labels and boundaries on people because it’s easier to then think about them and put them in little compartments in your brain, and say, ”Oh, Benedict Cumberbatch, oh, he’s Sherlock Holmes.” He’s not, of course. Every single actor gets pigeonholed. I just look at every job offer I get and how it affects me and my family at that period of time
And lucky, you know, you sang with Colm and Alfie Boe and Simon Bowman in this grand “Bring Him Home” quartet. How does it feel to be a part of that group and that legacy?
JOJ: It was awesome to be asked, and then also awesome to be asked to do the 25th of Phantom, as well. Cameron is really good at throwing parties, and both those shows and the celebrations for the 25th anniversaries were huge parties for the cast and the audience. Also, Colm, when you get to know him, he’s the loveliest fellow, and he has so many funny stories. We were doing the 30th anniversary of Les Miz in London, and Colm was there and I was there, and we were talking at the side of the stage, and he started telling me this anecdote, but then we had to go onstage, and he never got a chance to finish it. So the next day, he came to the theatre where I was playing Phantom just to tell me the rest of the story. He’s a storyteller, and he’s a legend and lovely bloke.
I read a quote from you that your ambitions were at one point to play Valjean in the West End, to work at the National Theatre, to work with Sondheim, and then you were fortunate and talented enough to do all of those things. What are your ambitions now?
JOJ: When I nailed those ambitions, I had to make up new ones. If you want something, you’ve got to go and get it, but the opportunity has to be there. I’m ridiculously grateful and ridiculously excited, but actually, it has been a lot of hard work, and I have gone out and got the stuff I wanted, but there’s always more to do. The town I lived in [in Wales] had 10,000 people living in it, and now I’m living and working in one of the most exciting and dynamic cities in the world, and I can’t quite believe I’ve got here, you know. The journey to get here was long, but I had great fun on the way.