For nearly 21 years Inspector Javert has been keeping law and order in the West End. The purveyor of justice in long-running French revolutionary musical Les Misérables has long been a looming antihero of the London stage. But for the first time in his two-decade reign, an actor who has previously played his nemesis and arguably Les Misérables’s hero, Jean Valjean, has stepped into the policeman’s large, doom-ridden boots. That actor is the Belgian Hans Peter Janssens, whom Matthew Amer met at the Queen’s…
Hans Peter Janssens’s Javert bristles with wide-eyed commitment to the cause. He is a strapping tower of a man who believes in one thing and one thing only: justice. He’s not the kind of guy you would enjoy some friendly banter with in a bar. Janssens, by contrast, is much more laid back. In his dressing room at the Queen’s he is undergoing the Javert transformation, applying ‘crow’s-feet’ to the sides of his eyes and emphasising the lines of his mouth for full gothic impact. In front of him lies a wealth of brushes, powders, sponges and creams that would make a Boots concession stand look badly stocked. “It’s a good way of relaxing,” he says of applying make-up, “and getting into character.”
Having played Jean Valjean before, it is somewhat surprising that Janssens has always thought of himself as Javert. When he originally auditioned for the Belgian production of Les Mis, he was convinced to sing for Valjean by those around him, though he thought the part of the policeman was more suited to his natural style. There is a lot of darkness about his previous roles – Dracula, The Phantom Of The Opera, Jekyll And Hyde – that suggests a natural affinity with such gloom and horror. Quite why, it is hard to say, as Janssens is nothing if not upbeat and full of life, a mile away from someone who might suck your blood or trap you in their sewer dwelling.
"He's the sort of person who thinks you should chew your food 16 times"
“I hope I’m trying to make him a bit more human than it can be played,” Janssens says of Javert. “He’s not a bad person, he just believes in the law. It’s made him a very disciplined and strict person, the sort of person who thinks you should chew your food 16 times before you swallow it.”
Though he is enjoying playing the character he always felt he should play, Janssens admits that every now and then his mind wanders back to playing the good guy, Jean Valjean, a role currently performed by John Owen Jones. “If I miss anything about Valjean it’s [tear-jerking post-barricade number] Bring Him Home and the last ten minutes,” he says, before adding “the last ten minutes, as an actor, you’re so grateful to be able to do that.”
Les Misérables really has, to Janssens’s mind, changed his life, and not just because he has spent four years starring in it. It is the ensemble ethos of the piece that so appeals to the deceptively tall Belgian, the fact that though the plot is often driven by Valjean and Javert, there are five or six other main characters that also share the story, while the entire cast is even larger. “It’s always nicer to play football than tennis,” he says, managing to combine his love of sport with his passion for musical theatre. “This is such an ensemble piece that you feel like you’re winning the cup with a group of people and not by yourself, which makes it exhilarating for both the audience and the people on stage. Les Mis is all about the ensemble.”
This is what makes being the first person to play both male leads in London so special to Janssens: “I think anybody who’s ever been in Les Mis knows that it’s a life-changing experience. To be part of it is nice because you do realise that you’re stepping into a legendary show. To be a small part of that legend by being the first person to do both leads here; I find it quite fun. I’m honoured.”
And it is not just Les Mis that he is honoured to be appearing in, he is equally enamoured with the West End: “People come to the West End and expect a certain level of quality and I’ve always felt that you should be grateful of being here and give all you’ve got. For me, as a foreigner, it’s probably a different experience to what these kids here have because, if you’re from Belgium or Holland you go to school, you get your degree, you audition, you get a job and you’re in your local municipal theatre. Here you do an audition and you’re on the West End, which for us is like the Mecca of musicals. For us it’s really important because we expect to see the best here. I do feel that the public has that as well; they spend a lot of money to get here, save a lot of money and buy these great tickets and I think they deserve the best; they probably think that as well.”
"If there wouldn’t be any music, I wouldn’t be on the stage"
It is hard not to like a man who is so humble in such familiar surroundings. The man behind Javert’s make up – which is still being applied, but at a much slower rate – is just as committed and stubborn as the inspector, but with a different set of priorities. At a time when so much is taken for granted, it can take an outside view to make the picture clearer. It gets more impressive too. “I always give 120% because I know that if I don’t, I don’t enjoy it,” he says of his performance. The mere suggestion that it might be tough to give such an intense performance eight times a week is pooh-poohed with the claim that if he doesn’t give his all, he doesn’t get the same thrill from it. This is just Janssens’s nature, the same applies to his sporting activities: “If I think I suck or haven’t given my best then I can’t enjoy it, but I don’t mind losing to a better player as long as it’s been a good match.”
A good match is what one might expect from the teaming of Janssens opposite John Owen Jones on the Queen’s stage. Both have played Valjean – or are currently playing Valjean in Owen Jones’s case – and both have previously played the Phantom. Both are also regarded among the highest echelon of actors to perform these roles. With Janssens’s competitive spirit and the nature of the two performers’ parallel careers it’s just possible that the onstage rivalry might surpass that of the characters they play. Janssens disagrees: “It’s not a competition. You just take from each other’s energy; if the person across from you is giving a lot, then you can give back a lot. When we’re together it’s quite a clash, which this show needs.”
Janssens, like so many others, was introduced to the arts by his parents and, at the age of ten, was singing along to opera in his family’s garage – “Carmen, Rigoletto, all that stuff”. He studied in Belgium, London and Santa Barbara, and entered the world of opera, singing with Flemish Opera and English Touring Opera. He may have stayed in opera too, were it not for his time in Santa Barbara, which enlightened him to the scope of opportunities available in musicals. Even then he may not have explored this route had it not been for a Royal Ballet of Flanders production of The Man Of La Mancha. Janssens had always been interested in Don Quixote, so auditioned: “It was a musical but I thought ‘What the heck.’” He hasn’t sung a professional opera since.
That doesn’t mean that a return to the operatic stage has been ruled out as, young though he is at the moment, he is aware that age carries its problems: “I don’t think there are many parts [in musicals] as you get older and older, but in opera you can work longer,” he says, though straight acting is not on the agenda as he adamantly declares, “If there wouldn’t be any music, I wouldn’t be on the stage.”
"I don’t do it for the media attention, I do it because I want to be good at what I’m doing"
It is this stubborn and focussed attitude, along with his success, that saw Janssens honoured with a Golden Exclusief earlier this year. The mention of the award, given by Belgian magazine Exclusief, brings a renewed vigour to Janssens, who was delighted to be honoured in such a way. The magazine hands out two awards each year, one to a Belgian winner and one to a Dutch winner, to recognise people who have excelled in their chosen field without compromising their ideals. “Back home I get ‘Why don’t you do soap? Why don’t you do this or that’,” Janssens says. “I’m not interested. I could get a lot more media attention by doing that, but I don’t do it for the media attention, I do it because I want to be good at what I’m doing, and I just need the music.”
It is easier to see now why Janssens always thought he was more of a Javert than a Valjean. The blinkered determination and commitment flows through both character and actor alike, though the fictional member of the pair is still more likely to get handy with a truncheon. This doesn’t mean Janssens will pull any punches, certainly where future parts are concerned. “You wouldn’t see me as Dr Doolittle or whatever his face is in My Fair Lady,” he says. And with his visage now fully Javert-ed up, you wouldn’t want to argue.