TECHNICALLY, there’s only one Hugh Jackman – the dashing, muscle-packed actor who gave sideburns a boost when he played Wolverine in the X-Men movies.
But when he’s not combing villains with his adamantium claws, Jackman is also known for Broadway hoofing, and a love of a good musical.
This ambidextrous career was recently highlighted by the US comedy show Saturday Night Live in a sketch called The Best of Both Worlds with Hugh Jackman. The Australian’s success with badass superheroes and Broadway roles such as the sequinned singer-songwriter Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz earned him the billing of “the most masculine AND the most feminine man in the world”. Jackman was sporting enough to join in on the joke, turning up to play a cameo role as Daniel Radcliffe.
With Les Misérables released at the peak of the awards season, and Wolverine returning later in 2013, he’s still splitting his time between musicals and macho movies, even though this versatility causes some Wolverine fans a little anguish. “There’s a scene in Boy From Oz where I kiss my boyfriend onstage,” Jackman recalls. “And one night, just as I was going in, someone yelled out, ‘Don’t do it, Wolverine’. It could have been a 13-year-old, but it sounded more like 30.” In any case, it turned the moment into the longest stage kiss on Broadway. “I was laughing so much I couldn’t pull away until I could trust myself again.”
Since 2000, 44-year-old Jackman has played the furious wolf man in five films, including two prequels. Yet if Dougray Scott had not been held up by Mission Impossible 2, the story could have been a different, Fife-inflected one. Instead, the Scots actor was forced to step aside and Jackman pounced. “I’ve met Dougray and apologised to him,” says Jackman. “I didn’t quite have the guts to thank him, but Dougray was very gracious, and understood that these things happen.”
Jackman has just finished filming the Wolverine movie in Australia and his body is still deflating from the mutant’s cartoonishly oversized musculature. He arrived in London the previous night for the world premiere of Les Misérables, and although he’s a little jet-lagged and apprehensive, the buzz around the film is so good he’s cautiously chipper.
So after the Broadway version of Spider-Man, perhaps he could unite his best-known trademarks and do Wolverine: The Musical? “I don’t see why not,” says Jackman, grinning. “They did Jerry Springer: The Opera.”
Maybe you could walk on singing, “Oh what a beautiful mauling”?
“You know, that’s the best idea I’ve ever heard,” says Jackman, feigning delight. “Although that could end with me getting spat on in the street. They’re pretty intense, Wolverine fans.”
Even when tired, Hugh Jackman is instinctively adroit, settling you into an interview like a friendly host, and with the actor’s knack of looking spellbound by everything you say. His sincerity excises cynicism. His Les Mis co-star Anne Hathaway puts his easy manner in a nutshell. “It’s been my experience that when someone is as charming and likable as Hugh, it’s usually because they are overcompensating for a lack of talent – or they are a psychopath,” she notes. “But I’ve worked with Hugh a few times now, so I know this is not the case here.”
Why is Jackman so studiously courteous? He says his parents’ separation left him keen to please, and he taught himself to mask any negative feelings after his mother walked out on the family when he was eight to return to England. “Of course I wanted my mum back, and for a long time I thought she was coming back. My parents tried to reconcile when I was 12 but it was shortlived and when that fell apart, I was very angry.”
He also felt embarrassed. His devout Christian parents had migrated on the £10 Pom scheme designed to bring more white, educated, English-speaking people into Australia. Divorce was rare in the 1970s, so people were sympathetic but he resented standing out for that reason. He stresses that he never lost touch with his mother, that he never felt she didn’t love him, and she is very much part of his life now, but his main influence when he was growing up was his father. “There’s still a little boy in me that loves to have Dad there. Maybe that’s what this acting thing is: me calling out, ‘Dad, Dad’.”
Chris Jackman raised five children on his own while working as an accountant. He’d leave the house at 7:30am, and kept the house ticking over by assigning household duties to everyone on a rota before returning to take over the main meal at 7pm. Hugh washed and ironed his clothes from the age of eight, and in the kitchen the golden rule was that if someone cooked, someone else cleaned up after them.
“I never heard him complain. It was never, ‘Do you realise what I do for you all?’ In fact, I remember we had a distant cousin come stay with us once, and he pulled us aside and said, ‘You are the most ungrateful kids I’ve ever seen. Your father came home, he cooked you a meal, and all you said to him was, ‘When’s dinner, Dad?’ No-one said, ‘Can I help?’ It was the first time it hit me what his life was. For a decade, I don’t think my father had a moment to himself. He used to take business trips occasionally and getting on that plane must have been a holiday for him.”
He flashes a grin that reaches his eyes. “As a dad now, I can relate to the point when you get on a plane without your kids. You watch a movie, somebody feeds you, someone else tidies up. It’s like a spa.”
Jackman has been remarkably candid over the years about the struggle he and his wife Deborra-lee Furness had trying to conceive before adopting Oscar, now 12, and Ava, seven. At home he says he takes the role of the disciplinarian, and Supernanny Jo Frost has been a huge influence. “Time out, naughty step – we’ve done all that stuff – but I’m way more openly affectionate with my children. My father is classically English and not very demonstrative, so I’ve sort of had to teach him to be openly affectionate. When I was 18, I went away to England for a year, and when I came back he met me at the airport and stuck out his hand to shake mine. I gave him a big hug instead and I think he was quite uncomfortable, but that’s part what he is, and part his upbringing and actually now, having a 12 and a seven-year-old, I think we meddle a little too much. We tinker too much, we worry too much, we talk too much. We could use a little of his generation’s ‘love ’em and feed ’em and they’ll be OK’.”
The family are based in New York, where people are generally more relaxed when they spot a film star. Not always though: on one occasion when he was out with the family, a strange woman walked up to Jackman and kissed him on the mouth. “Why is that woman kissing my daddy?” asked Oscar.
“When I was growing up my dad was an accountant,” points out Jackman. “I thought the fact he had a fax machine was pretty was cool and the other kids didn’t. My childhood had a normality that my kids don’t experience, and that’s a pity.” On the other hand, Oscar has discovered the fringe benefits. “He was talking to a girl on the beach once, and I did hear him say, ‘My dad’s Wolverine,’ so on that level I suppose he finds it cool.”
Jackman met his wife in 1995, when he was fresh out of drama school and Deborra-lee was already a well-established film and TV actress in Australia. They were both cast in a TV series called Correlli, with Furness as a female prison counsellor and Jackman, then 26, was the latest inmate. He tells a funny story about being invited back to her house for dinner and being introduced to her mother, who recoiled slightly at his character’s tattoos and jailbird haircut. Then after Furness cooked the meal, Jackman’s childhood training kicked in and, unasked, he cleaned up. While he worked his way through the dishes, Furness’ mother took her aside and hissed, “Definitely marry this one.”
Nevertheless, Furness hesitated. Jackman was 13 years her junior. He did not. “I wanted to propose after two weeks, but in the end I waited six months before asking her.” They tied the knot a year later. It was Furness who introduced Jackman to her friend Nicole Kidman, who later co-starred with him in Baz Luhrmann’s dotty indigenous romantic epic Australia. Another actor he met through Debs was Russell Crowe, and when I tell Jackman it’s hard to imagine two Antipodean actors with more different reputations, he smiles politely. Apparently their matey double presentation at the last Bafta awards (“Rusty?” “Jacko!”) wasn’t an act; they really are good friends.
“He’s very loyal, very thoughtful and I’ve asked his advice on several occasions,” according to Jackman. In fact, Crowe was offered Wolverine first by X-Men director Bryan Singer, and while turning it down, suggested they should look to Jackman instead.
Onscreen in Les Misérables they play mortal enemies Javert and Valjean; Crowe’s character represents pursuit, judgment and vengeance, while Jackman embodies redemption and forgiveness. They could have maintained that mood by keeping their distance during filming, but Crowe quickly discarded that notion. Jackman was settling down for an early night when Crowe rang, telling him to come over for a bit of music. “I said, ‘Mate, it’s 10:30pm and you know I’m a lightweight – I’ve got to go to bed.’ But he just said, ‘Jacko, harden up and get over here.’ Which is why by 11pm, we’re singing.”
Jackman’s deep and slightly nerdy love of show tunes reaches a peak of sorts with the motion-picture adaptation of this global stage sensation. “Whenever we see a musical, my wife is always like, ‘My God, can you just sit back down in your seat? You’re absolutely desperate to get up there.’ And I am,” he says. When he heard that Tom Hooper was thinking of tackling Les Misérables, he immediately contacted the King’s Speech director for a meeting. Hooper had ideas of his own to discuss; instead of acting scenes for the camera and recording their singing separately, everyone would sing live, with only a pianist for accompaniment, delivered via a radio earpiece.
“Singing like that is a little like a nude scene. At first you feel a bit exposed and self-conscious, but after an hour you get a bit more comfortable and it feels more normal. In the end, even the crew were singing.”
At odds with his easy manner is Jackman’s self- discipline. Wolverine’s veiny buffness in the new film was built from long daily workouts and getting up in the middle of the night to eat portions of his 4,000 calorie allowance – “all fish, chicken and steak, and steamed veg, none of the fun stuff like alcohol or sugar”.
On the other hand, to play an emaciated Valjean at the start of Les Mis, he buzzed his hair into a brutal cut and shed almost three stones. Even his favourite coffee disappeared for six months because the dehydrating effect of caffeine was bad for the vocal chords.
So when did he last feel sorry for himself? “Oh God, I’m an actor so – most mornings,” he parries, but later he admits, “That’s an indulgence I don’t allow myself. On any scale, you could look at my life and feel I’m pretty blessed.”
With the few minutes we have left, he agrees to a pop quiz. So I ask him for his worst role. “The worst thing I’ve ever had to do is dress up in a six-foot koala suit,” he says. “First of all, because I’m six foot two, it hurt quite a bit and, secondly, it’s very hot in a koala suit in Australia and 14-year-olds the world over think there’s nothing funnier than punching you in the kidneys.”
Had he always wanted to be an actor?
“When I was 13, my dad took me to see an evangelist preacher, and I was very impressed by the showmanship, so for a while I thought it meant I should be a minister,” he says. “But now I think it was really the theatricality and the performance that appealed to me.”
Can he name his guilty pleasure?
“Judge Judy. And food. Late at night, I like Coco Pops. And I love wine, though my dad would blanche at me ordering way-too-expensive wine at dinner.”
Have you ever thought of buying a vineyard?
“No. I’ve been around long enough to know that you don’t buy your own boat, you don’t buy your own vineyard and you don’t buy your own football team. Even though I love football, wine and boats.”
I suddenly remember something. Doesn’t Russell Crowe own a football team?
“Yeah,” says Jackman with a grin. “I’ve learnt a lot from Russell.”
• Les Misérables is released on Friday