He sings, he dances, he acts. And he’s looking to get back in the saddle.
With his grueling schedule, a mere mortal would snap — or at least look like hell. But the amazing Hugh Jackman shows up looking, well, amazing. Definitely not like he’s been on an exhausting nonstop media tour for weeks, hitting Japan, South Korea, and London among many other locations to promote his new movie, The Wolverine, the sixth X-Men installment in which he plays the clawed and flawed mutant superhero.
True to his reputation as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, the Australian superstar arrives at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles composed (in black jeans and boots), gracious (in spite of the fact that he has just flown in from Comic-Con in San Diego), and accommodating for a couple of hours of face time with C&I before literally jetting off to New York for the premiere of his new movie and a little time at home.
While his wife, Deb, and their children, Ava and Oscar, enjoy gourmet cupcakes at Sprinkles in Beverly Hills, Jackman genuinely charms his way through wardrobe, makeup, and four different photo setups, one of which has him climbing slippery rocks in brand-new cowboy boots to pose in front of a waterfall. Even with the ticktock pressure of catching a plane that’s wheels up in just a couple of hours, Jackman makes time for personal conversations with museum staff. He’s never been to The Autry before, and, obviously impressed with the Western collections, he plans to take the museum up on its offer to open on a Monday just for his family on a return visit.
You’d never know it from his ego-free manner, but Hugh Jackman might just be the hottest entertainment property on the planet. With his daredevil grin, gorgeous green eyes, fit physique, and all-around jaw-dropping singing, dancing, and acting talents, he’s already garnered an Emmy, two Tonys, and a Golden Globe among numerous other awards. And with the July release of the blockbuster The Wolverine, the September release of Prisoners, and the summer 2014 release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, the superstar/superhero shows no signs of slowing down.
Although his choice of roles appears surprisingly diverse, we suggest to Jackman during a recent interview that he seems to pick characters who right wrongs — roles that have a cowboy sensibility, whether the part calls for boots and a horse or not. Case in point, the most recent installment in the X-Men saga.
“It’s funny that you mention cowboy,” Jackman says. “When James Mangold, the director of 3:10 to Yuma, came on board to direct The Wolverine he told me that he really saw this movie as The Outlaw Josey Wales.” The protagonists of both stories are antiheroes in search of their identities after the violent deaths of their loved ones, but the comparison was initially lost on Jackman.
“I felt a bit embarrassed because I’d never seen the movie, so of course he made me sit down and watch it. There certainly is that el-ement to Wolverine — the classic outsider who comes into town. In this instance the ‘town’ is Japan [where Jackman’s character is training with a samurai warrior], and you can definitely find western components in the story. I’ve always seen Wolverine as very three-dimensional. Yes, there is a lot of action, and, yes, there are special effects, but I see him as more story-driven than most of the other X-Men characters.”
In Prisoners, the actor stars as Keller Dover, a working-class Boston father who kidnaps the man he suspects is behind the disappearance of his young daughter and her best friend. “The beauty of Prisoners is that it does live in the gray areas of right and wrong,” Jackman says. “There are some great twists and turns and some very bad people in the film, but the director really focused on what happens to families and other people involved in that situation — how they cope under that extreme pressure. Anyone who is a parent realizes that they are capable of doing almost anything to find their child — whether it be inside or outside of the law.” To wit, the desperate dad he plays in the high-powered cast (Maria Bello as his wife, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the parents of the other missing girl, Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective on the case) takes matters into his own hands in an almost frontier-justice kind of way.
You could say it’s another manly role in the long list of gray-area heroic types Jackman has played over the years, including the Down Under trail boss, The Drover, in Australia; the vigilante monster hunter, Van Helsing, in the movie of the same name; and, of course, the tormented superhero Wolverine. And who can forget Jackman’s recent turn as the emaciated Jean Valjean, who tries to return to a normal life after being imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children in the film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, a role that netted him a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination.
You could hardly ask for a more multi-faceted superstar. Which begs the question everyone seems to ask about Hugh Jackman: Is there anything the guy can’t do?
The Jackman mystique began in Oklahoma! Born in Sydney in 1968, he got his start in Australian musical theater productions. But it was his “sensational star-making performance” as Curly in the critically acclaimed 1998 London revival of Oklahoma! (filmed for PBS) that brought him international recognition and an Olivier Award nomination for best actor.
Jackman’s Hollywood break soon followed when he was cast as Wolverine in Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). The movie catapulted him to mainstream nonmusical stardom, and he has since reprised the role in box office hits X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: First Class (the film franchise has made nearly $2 billion worldwide, not to mention the millions it is sure to earn from The Wolverine and next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past).
Despite his considerable stardom, Jackman has defied celebrity odds, remaining committed to his wife of 17 years, Deborra-Lee Furness, whom Jackman calls “the greatest woman I’ve ever met” and with whom he has adopted two children, Oscar and Ava. It really does seem like there’s nothing the actor, father, and husband can’t do. Including riding a horse convincingly.
But that wasn’t always the case.
When Jackman was cast in the role of The Drover opposite Nicole Kidman in director Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008, and by the way, the second highest-grossing Australian movie of all time, behind — what else? — “Crocodile” Dundee), he knew he’d have to up his game in the saddle. Set in northern Australia at the beginning of World War II, the movie tells the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), an English aristocrat who inherits a cattle station the size of Maryland. With no ranching experience, and plagued with ongoing rustlings, Lady Ashley partners with The Drover to drive her 2,000 head of cattle to safety. The role required tremendous riding ability, which Jackman frankly admits he didn’t possess. Up to that point, his experience on a horse consisted of working with a trainer for six weeks, six years earlier, to prepare for the riding sequences in 2001’s time-travel romance with Meg Ryan, Kate & Leopold.
“I felt that I rode fine in Kate & Leopold, but when it came to my role in Australia, it was clear to me that I had to ride at a whole different level,” Jackman says. “I spent close to a year training, including riding for several months in Texas working with Roger Wagner, an Aussie guy, in fact, who’s a trainer and rider of champion cutting horses. It was so great and I’ll never forget it. We also rode in Australia every day for weeks before filming started, and even during production we developed a morning ritual of riding every day and the studio set us up with paddocks to be near the horses.”
Relatively new on the set, and a definite novice to the sport of cutting, Jackman was watching Wagner, who was on a beautiful horse cutting cattle. The first thing Wagner said to him was, “You’ve got the spurs on the bloody wrong way, mate.” Feeling a bit incompetent, Jackman took it on the chin when he followed up with, “I’m not wasting fresh cattle on you, mate. You can wait.” After working with the cattle until the beasts were tired, Wagner finally let Jackman try his hand.
“About five or six days into the shoot he told me to put my reins down, not to move my legs or the reins, and to focus my attention on one cow,” Jackman says. “So I did what I was told and focused on one with a white patch on his head, and my horse started to walk immediately toward him. We were so in sync that it was like drinking a great wine for the first time.”
As refined an actor on stage and screen as Jackman is, there’s plenty in his background to suggest he would adapt well to driving cattle or almost any other frontier pursuit. Jackman’s British parents moved from the United Kingdom to Australia before he was born as part of a postwar government program to try to populate the country. “After the war the government was looking for well-educated white professionals to move to Australia. It was ‘Populate or Perish,’ ” Jackman says, referring to the Ten Pound Poms program that subsidized passage for immigrating British subjects.
Five children into doing their patriotic repopulation duty in Australia, his parents split up. Jackman’s mother returned to England with his two sisters; he stayed in Australia with his father and two brothers. For the next 10 years, his dad, a Cambridge-educated accountant, raised the boys.
As a kid, Jackman enjoyed the outdoors, especially camping and trips to the beach. At the age of 18 he had an experience that would help him prepare for many of his arduous acting roles, when he went to live in the outback for three months. “I lived in an aboriginal community, literally hunting with bows and arrows and boomerangs, and thought that I was never going to come back. My father had to convince me to come home and finish college.”
After earning a degree in communications from the University of Technology, Sydney, Jackman continued his education at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University, graduating at the age of 26. He started to work immediately in Aus-tralian soap operas and miniseries, landing a role in the short-lived television series Correlli, where he met Furness, his future wife, who was an Australian actress, director, and producer.
The next year he starred as Duncan Jones in five episodes of Snowy River: The Mc-Gregor Saga. Based on Aussie bush poet A.B. “Banjo” Pater-son’s poem “The Man From Snowy River,” the series told the story of the hardships of an Australian family during the late 1800s in the mountains near Melbourne.
“You’re going to love this story,” Jackman says, laughing at the thought of his Snowy River experience. “I showed up on the set and the producers asked me if I could ride. Of course I said yes even though I really hadn’t ridden at all. So I had a riding lesson and it became obvious that I hadn’t been on a horse before, so my character was changed from a rancher to a sailor. During the scenes where I was supposed to ride, other characters would say things like, ‘Don’t let him get on a horse. He’s been away from the ranch for 20 years!’ ”
Although he didn’t break out as an actor in Australia until his late 20s, Jackman, who turns 45 on October 12, started to succeed soon after relocating to America and landing the role of Logan/Wolverine in the first X-Men film. At the time, he had never heard of the X-Men comic book series, but, he says, “It was the only offer on the table then.”
Thinking that Wolverine must in fact look and act like the animal he is ostensibly named after, Jackman went to an IMAX documentary about wolves and saw how they keep their heads down and raise their eyebrows, making them look quite menacing. “So I developed an almost hunched look in my body with nose to the ground, looking up through my eyebrows,” Jackman says. “I remember the director saying, ‘Hey, man, what are you doing?’ I then went into this whole conversation about researching wolves, and he told me that I wasn’t a wolf — I was a wolverine [the largest member of the weasel family]. I thought, Bloody, hell! I’m from Australia, the land of unusual creatures, and I had never heard of a wolverine.”
But for Jackman, it’s not just about the action roles. His strong singing voice has been featured in the Royal National Theatre’s Oklahoma! in London’s West End, The Boy From Oz on Broadway (for which he won a Tony in 2004), a Melbourne production of Sunset Boulevard (as hack screenwriter Joe Gillis), and in Carousel at Carnegie Hall.
Most recently he sang nonstop, while struggling to live, as the starving Jean Valjean in 2012’s award-winning musical Les Misérables. In spite of the grueling demands of the role — the actor went without food and water for 36 hours to get those gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes — Jackman says he loved the character. “He is a good man, constantly fighting demons, and the road he travels is so difficult and arduous. Nothing comes easily to him. He found love at 50 when he took in the young Cosette and raised her as his daughter. In many ways Valjean reminds me of my father, a man who was diligent in his work and never had a bad word to say about anyone.”
Next? Jackman is currently looking at an upcoming western project that he hopes will get off the ground: Madeleine Stowe’s directorial debut, Unbound Captives. The screenplay, written by Stowe and her husband, Brian Benben, tells the story of a woman (Rachel Weisz is rumored for the part) whose two children are kidnapped and husband is killed by a Comanche war party in 1859. Stowe, who starred in The Last of the Mohicans and until recently had a ranch in the Texas Hill Country, will direct with Jackman, who is slated to star in the film as a frontiersman who helps search for the kidnapped children.
It sounds reminiscent of the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped in 1836 at age 9 in a Comanche raid on her family’s Texas settlement. Parker eventually bore Chieftain Peta Nocona three children (one of whom was the Quahadi Comanche chief Quanah Parker) and tried to return to her Comanche tribe after being “rescued” at age 34 by Texas Rangers. Stowe likely came across the story in her extensive research. “Madeleine has told me stories about children who were kept captive for years and when found didn’t want to go back to their parents,” Jackman says.
Jackman loves the project’s Native element, all the more so because the topic intrigues his son, too. “My 13-year-old son knows all about this project and keeps asking me, ‘When are we going to go and live with the American Indians?’ He knows all the nuances — who the tribes are and where they lived. It’s fascinating to me.”
It may prove to be Jackman’s chance to fulfill a dream he shares with many other male actors: to star in a traditional western and show up for work every day wearing a hat, boots, and a set of Colt .45s. And, of course, to get back in the saddle.
“One of the reasons I’m so interested in Unbound Captives is that I really want to get back on a horse again,” Jackman admits. “When you come to riding as an adult as I did ... I really learned how to work with a horse in my 30s and was much more cautious than if I’d ridden as a boy or young man. But when you ride cutting horses every day for months like I did in Australia, even falling off a few of them, I discovered that I genuinely loved being on a horse and now have to find a reason to get back out to the West and ride again.”
From the October 2013 issue.