No Limits

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
| By Marshall Fine | From Hugh Jackman, March/April 2015
No Limits
Photo/Lorenzo Agius

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.

Even before the play opened in November 2014 to reviews that praised Jackman's performance, it was filling the Circle in the Square. The intimate Broadway theater surrounds the stage on three sides with 700 seats, none of which is more than eight rows from the stage.

"I don't read reviews," Jackman, says. "I do want to know vaguely what the temperature is. It's always nerve-racking. But that's why you do a new play. Jez's material is not straightforward so you're never sure how it's going to be taken. But when the audience is that close, you can feel the people.

"Actually, this was the first theater I ever went to when I first came to New York. I bought standing room to see Al Pacino in Hughie. And there was an empty seat down front, so they put me there. There I am—in the second row, watching Al Pacino. I love the intimacy of that, that the back row is only eight rows away. Early on in my career, we'd do theater in all these intimate spaces because small spaces were all we could afford. Film is intimate, ultimately, but it's nothing like having a bunch of people sitting around you while you're doing your thing."

The play, which at times has the qualities of a story being told around a campfire, calls for a different kind of energy from Jackman.

"The play is about searching deep in yourself, about examining the ideas you have of who you are," Jackman says. "I make space during the day to breathe, to walk, to read. About 4 or 5 in the afternoon, I can feel the change come over me. I find myself being quiet. I've been meditating twice a day for 22 years and I always meditate before I go on stage."

Jackman assumed the stage was where he would make his living, when he left his native Australia to star in a 1998 London revival of Oklahoma! That seemed like the pinnacle of what a career could offer to a guy who grew up in Sydney, the son of an accountant. He acted in plays in high school and college, but it wasn't until after college that he decided to really pursue acting. He was accepted at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts, then graduated to an immediate offer of work in an Australian TV series, "Correlli" (where he met his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, with whom he has two children). He became a fixture in Melbourne theater as a musical star, playing leads in shows like Disney's Beauty and the Beast and Sunset Boulevard, even as he worked in a series of small Australian films.

When he was offered the chance to do Oklahoma! at London's Royal National Theater, Jackman figured that was as good as it could get.

"My dream at that point was to go to the Royal National or the Royal Shakespeare Company—that was where I'd wanted to be from early on," Jackman says. "There I was—I was 28 or 29—and I remember thinking, ‘This is as far as my dream has gone.' I hadn't thought beyond that.

"So everything since then has felt like a bonus. It's been a constant surprise. It's still surprising me."

The first surprise was getting the chance to play Wolverine, which almost didn't happen. The film itself, 2000's X-Men, was a struggle to get off the ground, director Bryan Singer recalls, with a variety of preproduction problems and a shifting start date that gave Singer so little prep time that he was convinced the movie would collapse before he could put it on film. Second, the Wolverine role was originally destined to go to Dougray Scott, but he had to drop out because he was still working on Mission: Impossible II and couldn't get free in time. Singer, convinced that this was the final nail in the film's coffin, looked at tape of Jackman in Oklahoma! and, dubiously, agreed to see him in person.

X-Men was already a month into shooting in Canada when Jackman flew in, fresh from the London stage, to audition for Singer: "I was worried we'd never find another actor who was right," Singer recalls. "But the moment Hugh walked in, I thought, well, maybe this film is more possible than I thought. We shot a screen test of him with Anna Paquin and I remember, as I listened to the scene, a custodian in the building where we were shooting came over. He didn't know I was the director, and he whispers, ‘Is that the guy they got to play Wolverine?'

"I hadn't made up my mind until that moment, but I said, ‘Yup.' And he said, ‘Cool.' When the scene was over, I offered Hugh the part. It was the weight of his voice, his look—and he has genuine warmth. As lost and as hard as this character is when Hugh plays him, there's still this great soulfulness."

When the film was released, it was not only a massive hit—it took in nearly $300 million worldwide—but it launched Jackman as a movie star: handsome, dangerous, ready for action. Jackman was unprepared for how much of a game-changer donning the Wolverine claws would turn out to be.

"This was in the early days of the Internet," he says. "I didn't know how big it would be. The opening weekend was double what they thought it would be. It was so wildly off that no one could believe it. It was the first of the Marvel comic-book hits. Then came Spider-Man—and then the rest of them.

"A friend said to me, just before it opened, ‘Word on the street is that the film is gonna die. You want to shoot another film before this one comes out.' So I signed on for Kate & Leopold [a 2001 time-travel romantic comedy]. The day X-Men came out, I was working in New York. I walked out into the street and there were four or five paparazzi pointing cameras at me. I was looking behind me, trying to see who they were taking pictures of; it took me a few seconds to realize it was me."

James Mangold, who directed Jackman in Kate & Leopold and again in 2013's The Wolverine, watched it happen to the actor: "The moment the movie comes out, something starts that just keeps growing until it reaches critical mass," Mangold says. "His world changed dramatically.

"Having known him as long as I have, one of the most remarkable things about Hugh is how little he's changed. His stardom, his power to get movies made, has grown exponentially—but he's still the same guy: this wonderful soul. He's so grateful for where he is, and he's also so incredibly hard working. He manages a much bigger world than most people, with a demanding career schedule, but he's still quite adept at carving out the time to be a husband and a father. There's a purity, an honesty to who he is."

OK—so just how nice is Hugh Jackman?

"So nice he makes ice cream look like the Manson family," says Reynolds. "Nobody works harder than Hugh."

Singer offers an anecdote that illustrates Jackman's nature: "Hugh had come to X-Men from doing a musical, and he was having a little trouble finding the anger in Wolverine, which is a vengeful, rage-filled place. So one night, to help him find that rage, I said, kiddingly, ‘Maybe you should go home and get into a fight with your wife.' And he came in the next day, sort of upset, and took me aside and said he couldn't do it because ‘If I had a fight with my wife, I would have shown up to work in tears.'"

The visibility and box-office success from playing Wolverine enabled Jackman to chase his dream all the way to Broadway. For his debut, he chose a musical that seemed to have several strikes against it: The Boy from Oz, a musical about the turbulent life of the late Australian pop star, Peter Allen, who was never as big a star in the U.S. as he was at home.

"I turned it down initially, when it was being done in Australia," Jackman recalls. "When they mounted the Broadway version, a number of people told me it was a bad idea. But when it came back around, I took it. When the reviews came out, we got killed in The New York Times. But I remember the day after the opening, thinking, I don't have one regret about this. I acted out of a compulsion to be involved with the work, which is always the right reason. And it went on to break box-office records."

Notes Sting, "Seeing him in that show was an amazing revelation. He's a big man, who looks like a matinee idol of old. But I'd never heard him sing before—and I realized he had this beautiful, operatic voice. I've seen him in most of the things he's done on stage and I'm in awe. He's extraordinary."

The Boy from Oz earned Jackman a Tony Award, as well as a shot at hosting the Tony Awards—twice. Which led to the chance to host the 2009 Academy Awards: "When I got that call, I said yes—but I was in shock. I said to my wife, ‘Tonight, you're having dinner with the next host of the Oscars' and she said, ‘Oh, is Billy Crystal here?'

"When I was a kid, we'd watch the Oscars as a family in Australia, but because of the time difference, it was always a delayed broadcast. My father was an accountant who worked for Price-Waterhouse. We'd watch the Oscars, and they'd always bring out the guys from Price-Waterhouse with the results in a briefcase, and we'd always say, ‘Dad, why can't you be on the Oscars?' and laugh. So the idea that a kid from the suburbs of Sydney would be hosting the Oscars is so surreal to me."

He translated his Broadway-musical success into the Oscar-nominated role as Jean Valjean in the 2013 film of the musical, Les Misérables. Director Tom Hooper had the actors singing their roles live on camera, instead of lip-synching to prerecorded tracks, often doing multiple, long takes of each emotion-laced song. Jackman couldn't get enough of it, including his heart-wrenching version of "Who Am I?"

"You wait your whole life for a job like that," Jackman says. "Jean Valjean is like the Hamlet of musical roles. I was nervous and excited. There were mornings where I woke up and thought, ‘When I go to bed tonight, I'll never sing that song again.' We all wanted to get it exactly right, so none of the actors was complaining about doing extra takes."

Selling a musical on the Broadway stage requires a slightly different set of skills from putting it across in a film, Mangold says: "What makes movies different than theater is that there's no place to hide. You have to be truthful; you can't phone it in because you're under a microscope. Hugh gives everything. He gives himself wholly and completely. The kind of intimacy he has with an audience is unique. It's a friendship or bond that Hugh creates with the audience. There's an intensity to his commitment that is a gift to the audience."

At the same time, Singer says, Jackman's commitment serves as a form of leadership on a movie set: "He is the ultimate leading man," Singer notes. "His work ethic is so great; everyone takes their lead from the star. For lack of a better expression, he's a very positive spirit on the movie set.

"He seizes every opportunity to work—there aren't many actors with such a diversity of work to their credit. There aren't a lot of actors who could play Wolverine and Jean Valjean and Peter Allen."

As he was preparing to open The River on Broadway, Jackman happened to see the Oscar-nominated film Birdman, in which Michael Keaton plays an actor who, having played a superhero in the movies, longs for the legitimacy that a serious Broadway role can bring him. The irony did not escape Jackman, given that he has at least two Wolverine projects on his schedule in the next three years.

"That movie blew my mind," Jackman admits. "It was uncomfortable to watch at times, but that thrills me. I would hope that, in my career, I'm not as much in thrall to that character as he was. I said to my wife, ‘The moral is that I should never stop playing Wolverine. I've got to find a way to keep playing him until I die.'

"Playing Wolverine is never boring. The character is a million miles from me. And the people I get to work with as a result thrill me. I don't feel it has limited me. My career has been extremely varied. It's something I'm incredibly blessed and grateful for. If it all went away tomorrow, I'd be OK.

"I know that someday they'll recast the role with another actor. That's inevitable. But they did that with James Bond and Batman and Superman. So I'd be happy if the role was eventually recast. It would mean that it had become iconic."

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, www.hollywoodandfine.com. Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.


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