No Limits

Photo/Lorenzo Agius

From playing a superhero with anger management problems to singing show tunes at the Oscars, Hugh Jackman only regrets the things he doesn't try

The top hat? It's just a little too much—even when the model is Hugh Jackman. Jackman's tuxedo appears as if he were born to wear it for this photo shoot. But the hat is more accessory than this scene will accommodate. The photographer's team has provided a selection of backdrops, chairs and props, so Jackman reaches for a fedora instead to match the impeccably cut tux that is fitted to his lean, not-quite-lanky frame. The iTunes playlist jumps to life with blues and jazz, and Jackman moves to the beat, as though dancing his way through this session.

It's a sunny late-November morning in Manhattan's Soho, in a bare loft that cuts a top-floor swath between Mercer and Broadway. It's an event space—all raw brick, unfinished wood and stamped-tin ceilings, with a handful of skylights—and Jackman is on center stage.

If Jackman seems larger-than-life on the movie screen—where he burst forth almost out of nowhere in 2000's X-Men and has been a star ever since—he's no less impressive in person. Broad-shouldered at 6-foot 2-plus, the 46-year-old seems to control the very space he's in, even as he casually strikes poses meant to convey a suave certainty for the camera. His smile for the lens—take your pick between rakish, raffish, roguish—remains when the camera is off and he's simply chatting with the crew.

What does that smile say? Mostly: "Wow." There's a genuine excitement for life in Jackman's personality that's 180 degrees from the volcanically angry Wolverine, the Marvel comic-book hero he's brought to life in seven films. Wolverine wouldn't be caught dead smiling, let alone wearing the open-faced grin that accompanies Jackman's genuine disbelief at his own good fortune, on a day when the photoshoot is but one item in a packed schedule that will culminate with his performance in a Broadway play that evening.

Jackman still can't quite process how big his career has been, much bigger than he ever imagined it might be. It's not just his multimillion-dollar movie salary—it's having the chance to work in movies that would earn him an Oscar nomination, for directors as diverse as Woody Allen, Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. It's the standing-room-only crowds that clamor to see him every time he's on Broadway. It's winning the Emmy for hosting the Tony Awards, and getting the chance to host the Oscars. The list, he admits, feels unbelievably long, given how little actual planning he does with his career.

"My career has far exceeded my expectations—so maybe goals can be limiting," he says. "I try to get by by saying yes to things. My philosophy is that you only regret the things you don't do. When they asked me to host the Tonys, it's not like I'd shown I could do it. But I said yes.

"I remember talking to Chris Nolan. He was between two Batman movies, and he knew exactly what he was doing next and after that. That's not me. I respond to what comes my way. If you asked me which plays or musicals I'd like to do, well, I know there are lots of them but what's next? I have no idea what it is."

His enthusiasm for those opportunities? It seems like Jackman has an endless supply.

"No midlife crisis yet," he says with a laugh.

Gordon Sumner, better known as rock singer Sting, has known Jackman for more than a decade. "It's almost old-fashioned, really," he says. "He's the guy who can do everything. He can act, he can sing, he can dance. These days, it's almost looked down upon to be able to do more than one specific thing. But it's a wonderful gift, and he does it all with grace and commitment. You can't deny how special it is."

Actor Ryan Reynolds, who's been friends with Jackman since they worked together on 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, points to the humility with which Jackman goes about his work.

"Hugh has this deep appreciation and gratitude for what he's got," Reynolds says. "He's never going to be the guy slapping the camera out of someone's hand in a restaurant while he's got a mouthful of food. I don't want to canonize the guy, but he's like a living, breathing saint."

In the Soho loft, Jackman sheds the tuxedo coat, unfastens the tie and moves to another area. A cigar and the fedora become his props as he moves from a director's chair to a small portable staircase-ladder. The music shifts from Howlin' Wolf's "Evil" to Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and Jackman responds, using the cigar to add a touch of sass or slink to his imposing physicality.

Cigars, he notes, are crucial to the character of Wolverine. A member of the X-Men group of mutant superheroes, Wolverine is a loner, a sensitive soul inside a rugged shell who has a chip on his shoulder and an impulse-control problem—and who always seems to have a half-smoked stogie screwed into the corner of his mouth.

"It's a symbol of manliness," Jackman says. "It's the kind of thing you automatically associate with tough, rebellious guys.

"The cigar is great for that character. He's the most politically incorrect, non-rule-following person out there. The more something is considered bad, the more he'd do it. It's funny: Cigar smoking is something that, seemingly, relaxes you. The cigar made me think that Wolverine always has this relaxed exterior—but, deep down, he's the opposite, very tightly wound. I like that juxtaposition."

Jackman is a cigar lover himself, but his own cigar smoking is quite different than that of his comic book alter ego. Where Wolverine is always puffing and is often seen smoking alone, Jackman classifies himself as an occasional—and eminently social—cigar smoker.

"It's always with people, usually involving a glass of red wine at the end of the night," he says. "Occasionally, I get into the thing my dad did: a Sunday afternoon, time to himself, sitting on his own, having a couple of hours to smoke a cigar. For me, though, it's mainly a social thing.

"It's a very social thing to do. I'm not a huge drinker, but it's a little like the old version of going to the pub with your mates. I'll smoke whatever cigar is offered; I'm not much of an aficionado. Still, I do love a Montecristo No. 2. And I like Cohibas. I like to take my time over it. I figure, if I'm going to do it, let's go for it."

One time he did go for it was on a trip to Cuba. "I did spend the millennium in Havana," he says. "I think I smoked more cigars there in 10 days than I have in my entire life."

The photo session winds down to one final setup. Then Jackman pops into a makeshift dressing room, changes into a trim gray suit and pauses long enough to grab a quick lunch, a predictable and unexciting dish of broiled chicken breast, brown rice and spinach. Jackman eats it regularly.

"I'm very careful about food," he says. "I want to be picky. I'm quite religious about what and when I eat. It's easier to stay in shape than to get in shape."

That's something director Bryan Singer witnessed firsthand in working with Jackman over the years. Singer cast Jackman as Wolverine in that first X-Men. Jackman came to the role straight from playing Curly in Oklahoma! on London's West End—fit, but hardly in superhero shape.

"So we were shooting at such an angle as to avoid his love handles," Singer recalls. "Then we were going to shoot the opening of the film, which has Wolverine in a cage match. Hugh wanted to do it with his shirt off.

And, being the hardest-working man on stage and screen, he went away and came back a week later absolutely ripped. And he's never gone back.

"I think he's learned to love training. He may have crossed the Rubicon, though I don't know if I'd say he was addicted to it. But he's perfected it—and he's very rigorous about it. He eats a giant protein meal every two hours, and he stops eating at 6 p.m. I remember one night in Montreal, when we were doing X-Men: Days of Future Past, we went to dinner. This amazing restaurant, where we drank great wine, had a great meal—and Hugh didn't have any of it. He just watched us eat, and narrated our meal."

Bringing a comic-book hero to life on screen not only demands a Spartan diet, but a heroic amount of time in the gym as well. "When I'm doing a film as Wolverine, I'm up at 3:30 training. Then I'll have another training session in the afternoon," says Jackman. "And it's not getting easier; in fact, it's always a little bit harder. But I always want to be in better shape than I was for the last one. I don't believe in stagnation. People say they try to maintain the status quo. But I believe the natural cycle means you're either advancing and getting closer to something or you're receding. Every time I play Wolverine I want to go further, physically and emotionally."

Wolverine is very much on Jackman's dance card in the years ahead, in a 2016 X-Men film and a 2017 film built around the character. And he already has two films in the can for 2015: Chappie, which opens in March and is directed by District 9 auteur Neill Blomkamp, and Pan, a spin on Peter Pan in which he plays the vicious pirate Blackbeard. A film version of Carousel and a film in which he plays P.T. Barnum are still in the planning stages. His time is very much in demand—but that doesn't stop him from putting everything on hold for several months while he works in the theater.

In his current engagement Jackman stars in the Broadway debut of a new British play, Jez Butterworth's The River, which runs into February. Where most of his previous outings on the Great White Way involved singing and dancing, the most strenuous thing Jackman does each night onstage in The River is to gut and fillet an actual trout, preparing it for a later appearance as a perfectly cooked meal.

"This is the first play I've ever done where I don't need to shower afterward," Jackman says. "It's quiet and intimate, with no real physical requirements. The challenge is not about making it different each night. It's about finding deeper levels."

The intimate, three-character drama focuses on Jackman's character, called simply The Man, who has brought a young woman (or, more accurately, two different women on two different nights) to his fishing cabin for a rare annual experience that involves fishing in the moonlight. The play may be quiet, but it's not without its physical hazards. In previews, Jackman twice required stitches after cutting himself onstage: once while preparing the trout, once when a hook securing his rubber waders sliced his hand while shedding the garment.

In both cases, Jackman improvised as if it were part of the action: He patched himself up onstage, bandaged it in an offstage moment and finished the play, a bit bloodier but unbowed.

"The one with the wader took five stitches," Jackman says. "Both times, I didn't think it was that bad, but one of them bled like a ‘Saturday Night Live' sketch. I go a little slower with the cutting now."

Jackman proved his ability to sell tickets in his very first foray to Broadway, winning the Tony as lead performer in 2003's hot-ticket musical, The Boy from Oz. At this point, he could choose any play or musical in the canon and take it to Broadway. It's easy to imagine him in everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim, from Eugene O'Neill to Neil Simon.

Jackman chose Butterworth's quiet, mysterious The River (which previously only had a limited London run starring Dominic West in 2012) precisely because it challenged him—as well as the audience.

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