For someone whose Hollywood career has flourished playing an ageless superhero with body-rejuvenating superpowers, Hugh Jackman doesn’t worry too much about getting older. “I’m a big believer in the idea that age is more about how you feel about life than about chronological age or whether you have a black-and-white beard or wrinkles.”
Jackman isn’t reflecting on the aging process here simply because he’s due to play Wolverine for an eighth time in yet another spin-off from the lucrative X-Men franchise. He’s referring to the themes of his new film, Pan, a blockbuster origins story directed by Atonement’s Joe Wright and based on the characters “introduced” – as the title credits have it – by JM Barrie in Peter Pan.
“What JM Barrie wrote,” continues Jackman, who plays the villainous pirate, Blackbeard, in the new film, “was almost a cautionary tale about not losing that sense of childhood wonder. Somewhere around the age of adolescence we decide to be cool and start looking at what other people think and that’s the danger. That’s what makes you grow old.”
Being cool is the last thing Jackman could be accused of striving for in the film. Playing Blackbeard with pantomime-like gusto – replete with shaved head (and occasional pompadour wig), hipster-silly moustache, pointy goatee, and a devilish glint in his eye – the character offered him an opportunity to exploit the professional Peter Pan Complex intrinsic to all actors. “Maturity-wise I stopped about the age of eight or nine and am happy to stay there,” he says.
Playing a pirate (“a dream come true”, according to the actor) is obviously related to that, although Blackbeard isn’t some drunken Jack Sparrow-ish rogue, and nor is he a prototype for Barrie’s own crocodile-fearing Captain Hook (played here by Garret Hedlund and re-imagined as an Indiana Jones-esque hero, albeit one with a few prominent character defects). Instead, Blackbeard is a ridiculously over-the-top villain who is also quite tortured, someone who hides his advanced years by using a special rejuvenation contraption because he fears he will be supplanted by Peter Pan – the boy who wouldn’t grow up.
“The thing I love about Joe,” says Jackman, referring to his director, “is that as much as we’re going for it with the costumes and the speeches, there was a beautiful scene in the middle where Joe said, ‘Let’s really explore the loneliness and the soulfulness of this character, who has been around for a long time and is partly terrified of losing what he’s worked hard to get, but who might also be a little bit relieved to let it go.’ There are few directors who, on a movie of this scale for a family audience, would allow an actor to go there.”
There have, of course, been multiple big screen interpretations and re-interpretations of Barrie’s play since it was first performed in 1904 and published as a novel in 1911. Indeed there’s already been an origins story of sorts in Finding Neverland, a biopic of Barrie starring a Scots-accented Johnny Depp that explored the real life influences that fed into the Scottish author’s oft-reproduced tale. When Joe Wright signed on to direct Pan, though, he didn’t bother looking into this side of the story. “I read and re-read the book of Peter Pan, but I didn’t research Barrie as a human being that much. But I was fascinated by the world he created, which felt very strange to me and psychologically acute. I think it’s no surprise that he was writing at the same time as Freud.”
For his take on the fairytale, which begins with an orphaned Peter (played by newcomer Levi Miller) living through a Blitz-ravaged London, Wright wanted everything to feel like it was being projected from the mind of his protagonist, Wizard of Oz-style. “I wanted to make the film from the point of view of an 11-year-old kid and I wanted to make a film that was full of colour,” he says. “We kept trying to make connections between things, so in the classic surrealist manner we’d take disparate ideas and put them together to try and create new meaning.”
Landscape ideas, for instance, were taken from copies of National Geographic magazine and the scraggly, multi-coloured Never Bird – the fantastical bird that first appeared in Barrie’s book – was designed, Wright says, to resemble road kill. “It was all very much trying to find stuff that an 11-year-old boy growing up in London might have glimpsed.”
This thinking extended to the way the adults in the film were conceived. Controversially cast as Tiger Lily, a racially problematic character to begin with (Barrie describes her as part of a “Piccaninny tribe” in the book), Rooney Mara says she was surprised to be offered the part, given that it has frequently been interpreted in other adaptations as a Native American warrior princess. “I didn’t think there was anything for me,” she says. “But Joe showed me all the images he had put together and how he saw the Native Village, and it just really made sense to me…
“It’s like Joe says,‘Neverland is Peter’s imagination, so we wanted the natives of Neverland to be natives of Peter’s imagination.’”
Jackman had similar conversations with Wright about Blackbeard. “Joe did say that Neverland is a child’s imagination, and all the adults, which basically means all the pirates, have to be the way kids see adults: frightening and ridiculous. For Blackbeard, that meant there had to be bigger portion that was frightening than ridiculous, but there still had to be some ridiculous in there. Once you’re operating from that point of view, which is not that different from The Wizard of Oz,” Jackman says, “then there’s a freedom to play and have fun.”
Wright, of course, is used to playing around with classic texts, having brought subversive new versions of Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina to the big screen in recent years. The freedom of doing a prequel to Peter Pan, though, rather than another version of the same story, seems to have emboldened him even further. For Blackbeard’s entrance, he has Jackman come on to the anachronistic sound of hundreds of Lost Boys singing an a cappella version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, with Blackbeard himself joining in.
“Kurt Cobain was the ultimate Lost Boy,” says Wright of his reasoning behind using the late Nirvana singer’s most famous song in the film.
For Jackman, though, the appeal of using Nirvana was simpler. “You’re getting a window into my egocentric nature, but when you have hundreds of kids singing Nirvana when you enter, that’s a moment that I was never gonna forget.”
Not that this was in the script. “We turned up one day and we were all handed the lyrics to Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jackman reveals. “I presumed it was a vocal warm-up or some kind of improv, but Joe said: ‘Let’s try this out. Maybe this is your entrance.’ And I was like: ‘YES!’ It was Joe’s idea and it was funny having 11-year-olds singing those words, really having no idea what they’re about.
“If I had to say what my favourite moment was on set,” says Jackman. “That was it.”
• Pan is on general release from Friday