So Many Questions: 20 years of ‘Les Mis’ leaves its mark on actor Ivan Rutherford
When you play a character more than 2,000 times, the role has a way of leaving an impression on you.
Just ask Ivan Rutherford, whose turn as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” has spanned 20 years of his life. But it never gets old, he says. “In the beginning, I don’t know what I was thinking. I was a young guy trying to play an old man.”
These days, he gets it: Valjean isn’t some saint. He’s flawed. And that, says Rutherford, makes it easier to connect.
The Broadway veteran will be performing during the Family Guidance Gala on March 20 at the Fairmont, Downtown. Details: familyguidance.net
Question: When a show ends, is it hard to say goodbye to your character?
Answer: Yes, sometimes! It depends on whether you think you’ll do it again. I know that each time, using “Les Mis” as an example, each time that my run closes, I feel I’ve brought to it everything that I have at that stage of my life. I think I make peace with that. Because I feel like I’ve put something of myself into it, and playing the character of someone especially as deep as Jean Valjean changes me in some ways. So, I take something away from it, too.
Q: What’s the process for letting him go?
A: Well, I feel like I’m putting my signature on something. And it has changed me in some ways, so I start feeling that I’ve been uplifted in some way or my eyes have been opened to other things that I may have been closed off to before through that character. I find little things about characters that I want to change in myself. I find some of my personality traits have changed some of the character in the way that I play it, which makes it really specific as far as having my fingerprints on the role. I think that’s really important for actors: to not just ever think they need to step in and do what the last person did — stay true to the role but also bring something from yourself to it. The last thing we’d ever want to be is generic in anything that we do. But, the process, for me, is just realizing I’ve changed, I’ve personally changed, the role has changed a little bit, and the next person coming in will have their own take on it. I think one of the little giggles that I got out of watching people do my roles later on is I would see something that maybe I created personally and I would see them do that. And I’d think, “Wow, I left a mark on that somewhere.” Somewhere, somebody said, “I like that — let’s keep it.” And so, I feel like I’ve left a part of me in that. So, that’s a nice feeling.
Q: Is it ever hard to watch someone else step into your role?
A: Yes! Especially if they’re better than you! And especially if they have better abs than you — Ramin Karimloo must spend all of his time off stage doing sit-ups. That’s always intimidating. No, I really enjoy it, to be honest with you. I enjoy seeing someone else’s take on things and it might be something I really love that, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “I’m stealing that.”
Q: What role has changed you the most as a person?
A: Oh, I’d have to say Jean Valjean. Because I spent 19 years of my life … actually, 20 this year, reinventing, rediscovering, and like I said, every year as I got older and my life changed, I found a different level of understanding in that role about sacrifice and unconditional love and letting go. And I still feel like there’s so much more in that role to discover.
Q: What do you look forward to discovering the most?
A: I notice what evolved for me in that role, was that I was very young when I started that. And the way I look at it, how I played him was kind of one-dimensional. I just saw him as this saintly character, and he was the antithesis of the darker character, Javert. And as I grew into the role and into the show and understanding, I tried to find real human elements in him — a flawed character — and I explore that more and more as I reinvent that for myself. He’s not a saint. He’s looking for redemption, and there are temptations along the way. And that makes it easier to connect — when he’s flawed. Like everyone is.