Interview: Hugh Jackman of all trades

Hugh Jackman has had a busy old week. That’s what happens when you’re promoting a movie above the title of which there sits only one name.
Actor Hugh Jackman, star of The Wolverine. Picture: Getty ImagesActor Hugh Jackman, star of The Wolverine. Picture: Getty Images
Actor Hugh Jackman, star of The Wolverine. Picture: Getty Images

In The Wolverine, the latest spin-off of The X-Men franchise, Jackman is the main man, the undeniable, indisputable star. He’s been getting out of flash sportscars on red carpets, and getting into mid-priced saloon cars to race around the track on Top Gear. He’s been interviewed relentlessly and photographed endlessly. Weirdly, though, when Jackman says that although things have been “hectic”, it’s been fun too, I believe him.

At over six feet tall, Jackman, when you see him in the flesh, looks even bigger. He’s a truly imposing figure. Then there’s the tan and the dazzling white teeth, the glowing skin and the twinkling eyes. He always looks expensively buffed and scrubbed and dressed in the best, albeit in a low key kind of a way – jackets that envelope those bulging muscles without making him look bulky, jeans that show off his long legs. Jackman’s real star quality though is his affability. This is a man who always seems glad to talk, for whom every question is interesting, every request to tell a story that he’s already told a million times, is welcomed as though he just can’t wait. It’s not phoney charm, it’s all done in the best, down-to-earth Aussie style. Jackman has all the sincerity and easy-going ways of the bloke next door, he just happens to be the lynchpin of a billion-dollar mutant superhero movie franchise.

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When Russell Crowe describes you as a “triple threat” – Jackman can sing, he can dance and he can act – you’ve got to know that you’re on to something. But it’s odd, then, that Jackman has had to struggle to be taken seriously. I don’t mean to overstate it, the fact is, he’s been a movie star for more than a decade, he’s been the romantic lead (Kate and Leopold), he’s got the Tony (for The Boy from Oz on Broadway), he’s hosted the Oscars (in 2009), he’s got the star on Hollywood Walk of Fame (number 2,487 if you’re interested) and he’s the key player in a massively successful movie series as the sideburn-sporting Logan/Wolverine (a character he’s played six times). But still, for a man as prodigiously talented as Jackman it hasn’t come quite as easily as you might expect.

“I kept hearing that I was losing out on parts,” he says of the bad old days, “or my agent would come back and say, ‘they’re not going to see you’ and I’d be like ‘what not even meet me?’ And it was always the same reason: ‘they think you’re the musicals guy’.”

Jackman’s first degree was in journalism and then he studied classical theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. The first role he landed when he graduated was in a 10-part TV show called Corelli, which starred Deborra-Lee Furness.

(Jackman and Furness married in 1996. They’ve got two children, Oscar, 13, and Ava, eight, and they live in New York.) But after that, he was picked to star as Curly in Oklahoma at the National Theatre in London.

“They assumed because I was in musicals I wasn’t an actor but a kind of jazz-hands entertainer,” he says. “It was crazy. I mean, there’s nothing more difficult than pulling off a musical. That’s when I decided that I had not to do any more musicals but concentrate on acting and getting into movies.”

It makes me think that Jackman has been bullied twice for his love of musicals – as an actor trying to land dramatic roles in movies, but long before that when he was a kid and he announced to his brother that he wanted to learn to dance. It was like Billy Elliot only a decade or so earlier and down under rather than here.

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Jackman was born in Sydney in 1968. His parents were English, Ten Pound Poms, who headed to the southern hemisphere for a better life. It ended up being a bit more complicated for the Jackmans, though. When Hugh, the youngest of five, was eight years old, his mother, Grace, sent him off to school and when he got home she was gone. She had returned to England, leaving Hugh and his siblings with their father, Chris.

“When I grew up in Australia I remember a school teacher saying to me when I was 11 you’ve got some talent with dancing – we had all been dancing in the end of year concerts – you should go and do some classes.”

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Knowing that he really enjoyed dancing, Jackman went home and announced that he might like to join a class. The response, particularly from his brothers, was far from positive.

“‘You poof’ was what was said and I didn’t even know what that meant,” he says. “I kind of veered away from it which was a real shame. I picked it up later when I was 18. I think for this generation shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Pop Idol mean that it’s become cool again to sing and dance, but when I was young it was different.

“When I was growing up, all the girls danced in a circle with their handbags in the middle and the guys stood around the edge swaying with a can of beer in their hand.” He laughs. “It was very weird and thankfully it’s changed.”

Now, though, after an Oscar-nominated performance as Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper’s lauded Les Miserables last year, surely his career opportunities have opened up?

“I think being in Les Mis probably has changed perceptions,” he admits. “Maybe it’s just that Jean Valjean has no jazz hands, maybe that’s what helped.”

Maybe it has. And maybe too there’s a discernible ease about Hugh Jackman because he’s now played the role of Valjean, his dream role, one that allowed him to use his full range. He might not have won the Oscar (every actor nominated in the same year as Daniel Day Lewis must know they’re going to struggle) but he earned rave reviews. More than that, the role allowed him to pull together everything he’s done so far – the musicals, the drama, the theatre work, the blockbusters – into one barnstorming performance. It’s as though he’s proved himself. And now, with that done, he can get on being the multi-talented Hugh Jackman.

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“I feel lucky,” he says. “I love acting. I love it more than ever right now. I’ve had great opportunities, particularly in film, but it’s only been in the last two or three years that I’ve felt equally at home on a sound stage as on a theatrical stage. Theatre is what I grew up doing and what I studied. We only did six weeks of camera techniques, the rest was all theatre-based. In film, you’re very lucky if you do any scene that’s longer than two minutes. It’s much more stop start and technical. It’s taken me much longer to get the flow that you get on stage.”

Correct me if I am wrong, but that was Hugh Jackman contemplating that maybe, just maybe, he hasn’t always been firing on all cylinders and now he’s really starting to? Can you remember the last time you heard an A-lister admit something like that? Nope, me neither. And just to be clear, he explains some more, “Maybe I’m living up to my surname, Jack of all trades. My opinion about myself was probably what was different or interesting about me was the variety of things I could do, I was never particularly great at any particular one but I worked hard at all of them.”

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There’s also the fact that although he’s bold enough to say that he thinks his performance as Wolverine in this latest movie is his best, he instantly credits it to director James Mangold, the man behind 3:10 to Yuma, Girl Interrupted and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. “He pushed me every single day,” Jackman says. “If I can be objective I think it’s my best performance as the character and that’s not me, that’s down to him.”

I think Mangold would probably disagree. Jackman is right that this is his best performance as Logan, but there’s also no doubting the huge physical commitment he undertakes every time he plays the mutant with the mutton chops and the claws. Tough regimes are fairly standard for Jackman – for Valjean it was no coffee, no dairy, flying with a damp flannel on his face (something to do with his vocal chords) and days of vocal rest, also known as silence, to keep his singing voice intact. For Wolverine it’s high calorie, high protein diets – lots and lots of chicken and a dozen eggs a day – with 4am workouts thrown in for good measure. He must surely be glad to be off that diet?

“I’m not,” he says glumly. “I’m already shooting X-Men: Days of Future Past, although I’ll be completely honest, when I go on these tours I do go a little off the reservation on the old diet. I do eat 6,000 calories but all the wrong kind of calories. It’s not 6,000 calories all in food let me tell you. I also get it in beer at the cricket and a few other things.”

Jackman has to gain 25lb in 12 weeks. He also has to make his tall, lean frame look stocky and strong. Part of the trick of pulling off that deception is learning how to move. Jackman studied the boxer Mike Tyson in the ring to learn how to copy his movement. It’s worked too. Jackman as Logan/Wolverine is a snarling, seething, extremely hirsute ball of rage. I can only imagine that for his kids having a dad who is Wolverine must be the coolest thing in the world?

“It’s very interesting, my kids very rarely give it up to me that they think it’s cool but I have overheard them talking to their friends. I’ve overheard my son talk to a girl and say, ‘my dad’s Wolverine’, but they’re very reluctant to tell me. I knew it the other day, though, when I went to see the movie, it was the show just before the press screening so I said, ‘guys if you want to see the movie it starts at 7am so you need to get up early’. It’s summer vacation but my son got up before me at 6:15am so that’s when you know he thinks it’s cool because a 13-year-old does not wake up at 6:15am during his summer holiday unless he really wants to.”

So what was his verdict? “I knew better than to ask him straight away,” he says, “but later that night just in passing I said, ‘what did you think of the movie?’ and he said,” he affects a bored-sounding teenager, “‘yeah, awesome’. I think it’s the first compliment he’s ever given me.” He laughs.

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Jackman sounds like a man hitting his stride. He’s loving his work more than ever and he’s happy to say that on the back of his recent performances the range of roles he’s being offered is more varied than ever. No longer is he Mr Jazz Hands.

“It’s really gratifying, I must admit. One thing that you have to fight for, and I’ve definitely fought for, is to have a wide range of choices. I feel very lucky at the moment that it’s a real variety of things that are coming my way.

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“People have often said to me are you worried about being pigeon-holed as Wolverine but that hasn’t been my experience. My experience has been working with Woody Allen and Chris Nolan or hosting the Oscars. It’s been a wider range than I ever could’ve expected.”

And, of course, this being Jackman, he adds a final word of self-deprecation.

“Some people only get one chance and I’ve had more than my fair share. I’ve been lucky.”

The Wolverine (15) is in cinemas now