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X-posing Hugh Jackman

He’s the breakout star of X-Men, but the Aussie actor behind Wolverine’s bad temper and slashing claws springs surprises all his own

Hugh Jackman, X-Men

Hugh Jackman in a scene from the film 'X-Men', 2000.

20th Century-Fox/Getty

He’s a superhairy freak-of-nature dude with long, rapierlike claws that can suddenly schoonk out of his forearms, slicing and dicing. That’s Wolverine, the perpetually pissed-off mutant superhero from the Marvel Comics series X-Men. That’s not Hugh Jackman, the perpetually pleasant Australian musical-comedy actor who plays Wolverine in the X-Men movie, the $75 million special-effects epic that Jackman steals right out from under his co-stars, including heavyweights like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.

Jackman is not the pissed-off sort. He’s the kind of guy who, for example, takes special pride in being able to do just about anything. Among other things, he can loop-the-loop a yo-yo thirty-five times, belt out a Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune, joke about liking to wear dirty diapers and get over his fear of heights by jumping off a cliff and dropping fifty feet into mysterious blue depths. That’s what Jackman does. And he does it easily, without a lot of sweat. So it came as quite a shock to him not long ago when he found himself thoroughly mystified by melancholy.

This took place early on during the making of X-Men. Initially, Hugh and his wife, Deb, had been unsure how swift a move it was for him to play some clawing creature in a shrink-wrap costume. Reading the X-Men script, Deb said, “You can’t do this! Hugh, this is ridiculous!” But multitalented-type individuals do not get to be that way by fearing ridicule and the chance to join a potentially huge moneymaking movie franchise, so he committed himself to the project. And he was happy enough being Wolverine with the character’s big, fat mutton-chop whiskers. But then director Bryan Singer began saying things to him like, “What you’re doing is fine.” Oh, that was too much. “Fine.” Fine? Fine! Fine. It ate at Jackman, him doing fine, and he eventually asked himself several pointed questions: “Am I in a sea of mediocrity? In my first big American movie? In my big break? When I am going to be an action-figure toy and my face is going to be on pillowcases around the country? ‘Fine’? Oh, no!”

Yet lost he was, adrift, unable to be more than OK.

And then Jackman realized that maybe the problem stemmed partly from his own native charm, which is considerable. Perhaps that was screwing around with his ability to find the true inner essence of a really angry mutant. To help him get a grip and start his day off badly, he began taking cold showers in the morning. When he got to the set, he wouldn’t look anyone in the eye, not even Singer, whom he would refer to as “the director.” A longtime transcendental meditator, Jackman swore off the calm-giving mantra stuff. At one point he even gave up water, which really turned him into a jerk: “I didn’t give a fuck about talking to you, about meeting you, about being charming, about shaking your hand, about remembering your name, all that stuff.”

But what helped Jackman the most was going back and watching countryman Mel Gibson as Mad Max in the Road Warrior movie. That’s where he suddenly saw what was missing. And what was missing was melancholia.

“Mel doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in the movie,” Jackman says. “But he’s got anger, and he’s got melancholy. Melancholy is the thing I think I wasn’t drawing on. I hadn’t focused on asking, ‘If you were this guy Wolverine, and you had no memory of your own history, then what are you like in your quiet moments?’ Underneath everything about him is this unsettledness, this melancholy. It’s a very difficult thing to inhabit.”

One reason for Jackman’s difficulty might be that he hasn’t had a lot of experience with that particular emotion himself. Or if he has, maybe he has hidden it away somewhere and let it be covered up by his natural charm. Which is, after all, considerable.

One afternoon, Jackman from Australia stops by Lulu’s Café, in Los Angeles, for an Oriental chicken salad and perhaps some exploration of his own quieter moments.

“I really like this place,” he says, looking around, smiling. “Reminds me of a place back home: simple walls, good food, uncomplicated.”

He arrives perfectly well arranged in nice gray slacks and a nice button-down red shirt. He is thirty-one, and overseas he’s already a bona fide star both onstage and onscreen. He places on the table a pair of dark wraparound shades, and you can see that his fingernails are neatly trimmed, their cuticles smooth and pink. And any Hollywood type looking at Jackman would naturally think, in that native shorthand that gets across so much so easily, “OK, all right, Mel Gibson in his humorous Lethal Weapon years, Sean Connery in his suave 007 years, Clint Eastwood in his raw, rugged and beguiling Man With No Name years.” He has all those angles and attitudes about him and compounds them with the utter congeniality of his smile. Indeed, what those who worked with him in X-Men say about him — “He’s a down-to-earth guy, a well-grounded guy, a zero-ego guy, with none of the bullshit that a lot of people have in this town,” says executive producer Tom DeSanto — seems almost inevitably true, all of it, upon the instant of first hearing the lyric abracadabra of his accent.

For a while, then, Jackman diverts by telling the business of how he came to get the X-Men role of Wolverine.

“It was strange,” he says.

He’d first tested for it in London a year ago, during his acclaimed run as Curly in the Trevor Nunn-directed revival of Oklahoma!, but lost out to Dougray Scott, who himself lost out when he had to abandon Wolverine to stay in Australia and finish up M:1-2. By this time, the shooting of X-Men had already begun, in frigid, subzero Toronto. Singer had to have been losing his marbles. And so the call went out for Jackman, who was in Los Angeles with Deb on vacation, to haul himself up there pronto for more tests. Arriving in shorts and Birkenstocks, Jackman showed his stuff, and when Singer said, “Yeah, um, just, just do it again, a bit more, I don’t know, just do it again,” Jackman thought, “I am underwhelming him, this is embarrassing, let me just get out the door.” And when at the end Singer came up to him, tossed a hug around him and said, “I’m rrreally excited,” Jackman, both thrilled and confused, thought, “Now this would be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?”

Waiting for the waitress, Jackman takes a moment to say that, no, he isn’t a fan of comic books and certainly knew less than nothing about the long and glorious history of X-Men, which is the most successful comic-book series of all time: 30 million copies of ten different X-Men titles sold each year, in seventy-five countries, in twenty-two languages. Or how the comic, which first hit the stands in 1963, traces its metaphoric roots back to the early civil-rights struggle. Or how Wolverine’s body can heal itself of all wounds; that his claws are made of a substance called Adamantium and are unbendable, unbreakable and unyielding before flesh.

What Jackman does know, however, is that vast numbers of rabid X-Men fans are insanely upset that Wolverine doesn’t wear his comic-book costume (“He’s got no blue and yellow span-dex!”) and that Jackman is too tall (“Wolvie’s five feet three inches tall, not freaking six feet-plus!”). “People are even pissed off that in my previous life I’d done some singing. [“It’s bullshit! Wolverine wouldn’t sing!”] Hmm. Maybe I’ll get the press I need if I start talking about my abused childhood or something.” He pauses, looks over, then continues, “But in the present day I don’t think mine would be anything you could write a novel about. I mean, yes, my parents split up when I was eight, and that was not easy, because my mom left Australia and moved to England. So that was not easy. Because she wasn’t around and, yeah, that was hard.”

Then, inside Lulu’s, Jackman turns to one of the simple walls and looks at it.

“Yeah, it was weird,” he says. “I, funnily enough… I seem to recall knowing….” He stops, then comes back around again. “I remember the morning she left… like a film. Why would your brain record that? I remember bits of coming home and her not being there — bits. But the morning of… I remember the last five minutes before leaving for school, and the order of the five of us going out the door, and Mum being at the door, with a towel wrapped around her head and just saying goodbye.”

All this happened with no warning. One morning she was there, at the door. But when Jackman returned to that same door in the afternoon, she’d vanished, having prepared no one for this, not even her husband.

“I think she must have thought she was probably just leaving for a week, and then it just turned into twenty-two years ago now,” Jackman goes on. “I’m not angry. I just don’t have a lot of anger and never have had. I don’t know why. And it amazes me sometimes.”

He stops looking at the wall, stops the film in his head and his reflections on it, and returns to Lulu’s with a shrug and a grin.

Over time, a few things become clear. Jackman’s wife is a good number of years older than he is, though she doesn’t look it at all. People have made comments about the difference in their ages, wondering whether Jackman isn’t working out a mother issue. This notion entertains Jackman…. He has no superstitions or phobias that he knows of…. If someone wants to know whether he has any weird sexual things going on, Jackman will guffaw and say, “That I’m going to tell you about?” Then he’ll narrow his sparkling emerald eyes into an approximation of shrewdness and say, “I really like dressing in diapers and shitting in them.” Then he will pause for the air to congeal around him and say, “Haven’t you heard about that one? People pay to dress up as babies, and you go, ‘Ewww,’ and suck on their nipples, and if you shit in your diaper they clean you and they bathe you and — well, I’m not into that. I just know a lot about it. Ha, ha!”

Rarely will Jackman speak more than eight or nine sentences without invoking Deb’s name and revealing his feelings for her. In Australia, this has been well remarked upon, how in love with her he is…. Before marrying Jackman, Deb once lived in Los Angeles, and when Nicole Kidman came here to seek her future, she roomed with Deb. Now, Jackman, Deb, Nicole and Tom Cruise will occasionally see one another, and Cruise will give Jackman baby-raising advice.

A week ago, the Jackmans adopted a baby. Deb wanted to name him Balthazar. Jackman eventually prevailed with Oscar, Oscar Maximilian, the translation of which he found out too late is “great spear of God,” as in, fifteen years from today, “What do you mean you haven’t done your homework, Great Spear of God?!”

For the past eight years, Jackman has been studying philosophy at the Philosophy School, which has branches all over the world and which is where he learned meditation….

“My favorite thing when I was dating women,” he says, “if there was ever a question of your place or mine, it was always your place. I’m very inquisitive about women. I love nothing better than being in their lair, in their bedroom, and shutting their door and whatever their ritual was — I love being seduced by a woman and seeing how they wanted to attract me, what it was like in their place, how they made love in their space, how they made breakfast in their place, what their place was like. I’m unbelievably inquisitive about all of that. And I would fall in love with the differences in the lair, I think, as much as anything.”

Jackman’s favorite play is Shakespeare’s Henry V, and his favorite line in that play is delivered by Prince Hal just before he and his men are to face death.

“We few,” Hal says. “We happy few.”

In a Mercedes, Deb Shows up outside Lulu’s, with her own mum and tiny Oscar Maximilian. Jackman hops out the door, speaks into the car’s front window, and then wedges his head inside the half-open rear window to give his boy a love. He looks at him and says, fondly and humorously, “He’s looking more and more like me every day.”

Jackman doesn’t like Los Angeles that much, all the cars everywhere, the lack of public transportation (“I am a person who judges cities on their public transport”), the Pacific so dirty, the lack of real community, the cold surfaces. He much prefers New York. He is only renting a place in California now and believes he will soon move to Manhattan. He doesn’t think he wants to become an international movie star, exactly.

Back inside, he pokes his fork into his salad and tells of how he came to be represented by the colossal talent agency CAA. About a year ago, during a hiatus in the Oklahoma! run, he came to L.A., thinking he might sometime like to tackle acting in the States. He went to meetings at all the agencies, and finally, on the day before returning to London, he ended up at a conference table inside CAA, thinking he’d never go with CAA, that it was too big, he was too small. But then superslick CAA top dog Kevin Huvane entered the room.

“Tom and Nicole have spoken to me about you,” Huvane said, “and Tom’s seen you, and Tom’s said we’ve got to take you on. So what do you think? So what do you want me to do? Get down on my knees? What’s going on? Are we going to sign you or what?”

Huvane impressed Jackman with his tenacity and passion. Indeed, he left Jackman with his head spinning and his pen dripping signatory ink.

Later, after he got the Wolverine part, Jackman went to a meeting at CAA, and everyone in the office stopped what they were doing to give him high-fives. “Wolverine!” they chanted. “Wolverine!”

“I don’t want to spend years not onstage,” Jackman told his primary agent, Patrick Whitesell. “I’m going to want to go back to the stage.”

“I want you to, too,” said Whitesell.

Jackman could, however, against his own wishes, become a high-priced movie star, generating lots of bonusmaking juicy commissions, and then one wonders how great CAA will feel about Jackman going off and spending a year or two playing goddamn Hamlet. And then it will be interesting to see what becomes of Jackman, when he meets more of the Hollywood people who can dish it out like Kevin Huvane and can show him more of Hollywood’s glorious riches, its cavalcade of soulsucking sluts, its phalanx of brave, enterprising sycophants.

“I want to be an actor,” says Jackman over his salad. “I don’t have the energy, the will, to be a star. I think it would really run me down.” He also says, “I’m excited that the movie might bring more interesting work to the table. But I feel a little bit of fear, of things getting carried away or of being overwhelmed.”

So far, serendipity, luck, happy coincidence and accidental good fortune seem to have followed Jackman everywhere, with the exception of that sad business with his mum and maybe a thing or two else.

After she left, Jackman’s father, Chris, throughout his career an accountant for Price Waterhouse, had to run the house — in it were two girls and three boys, Hugh being the youngest of all — which he did firmly and fairly. Jackman attended an upper-crusty kind of college-preparatory school called Knox Grammar in Wahroonga, a suburb of Sydney, where he was known fondly as Worm, for how skinny he was then. He did great in his classes, did great on the cricket and rugby and swimming teams, did great in all the plays and school musicals (he was Henry Higgins in a production of My Fair Lady). He did a little shoplifting, did that great, too, but since he never got caught, he never got in trouble.

“I was annoyingly all-arounder-ish and pretty dull,” Jackman says. “And I had absolutely no awareness of myself.”

Upon graduation, he enrolled in Sydney’s University of Technology, where he thought he might likely become a television journalist, a public-relations man or a talk-show host. But something wouldn’t let him do it. He liked to act, had always acted, something about acting spoke to him, didn’t know what, but there it was, so he ended up following this feeling into a time of strangeness and growth.

First, in 1991, he decided to just test the waters by applying to a yearlong evening program at the Actors Center in Sydney that cost $3,500. He didn’t have that kind of money. But several months earlier, his grandmother had died, and on the very day that the money was due, an inheritance check arrived in his hands, for $3,500.

Toward the end of the class, he applied to the full-time three-year acting program at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Then, through a series of introductions and auditions, he was offered a role on the hugely popular soap opera Neighbors, a two-year contract and an initial salary of $2,000 a week. A day after that, however, he also learned that he’d been accepted by WAAPA.

Jackman being Jackman, he chose acting school over the 2,000 clams a week, with his friends saying, “You’re an idiot, man, what are you doing?” But he has always known that he made the right choice.

“I’ve never felt so fulfilled and so challenged,” he says, “so depressed, so happy, so shucked around, so taken off my center, so no-longer-the-school-captain-who-will-always-land-on-his-feet, so lonely. Until then, in my early twenties, I don’t think I’d ever felt lonely before. I’d created a world in which I’d never feel lonely. And you’d think, going into acting — fun! But the first surprise: The first thing I was was lonely. Oh, fuck — it doesn’t matter what you’ve achieved in other schools. All that matters is that moment you’re onstage. And for me it was an opportunity to find out what’s underneath all that very presentable side of Hugh Jackman. Those three years are when I grew up.”

After growing up — indeed, on the very night that he gave his graduation performance at the school — he got a phone call. He’d just been cast in a popular Australian TV show called Corelli. So he played a tough jailbird on the show, fell in love with co-star Deborra-lee Furness, chuckled warmly over a phone call from his dad (“Hugh, I just want to ask you: Is this a maternal thing?”), married her in Australia’s 1996 showbiz wedding of the year and four years later wound up in L.A., in a restaurant named Lulu’s that reminds him of home.

“In a sense, I’ve found a career that I feel is sort of my best medicine against me,” he is saying. “I can be a bit cavalier, d’you know what I mean? A bit of a charmer? That kind of guy.”

Jackman is looking at a wall and playing the film of his childhood again.

“I remember I was scared for a while,” he says, “literally being scared to walk into the house unless there was somebody in it. I would just sit outside on the front steps, from the day she left on.”

A few quiet moments go by, while he contemplates the question of what he has done that most shames him. He could list the times he was mean to someone at Knox Grammar, but he doesn’t give himself a hard time for that. Or maybe he once slept with a girl and then treated her poorly; he is sure he must have done that once. But that’s going to happen to everyone.

Time goes by.

“Actually, for the first year of my life, I didn’t live at home,” he says. “My mother was suffering from bad postnatal depression, and I went to live with my godparents. For years afterward, I don’t think I ever remembered them or rang them. I just went on my merry little way. But now I understand what it must have been like to look after a baby, love that baby and then to just give that baby up. And I never rang them, never said anything to them, and then my godmother died. I found out she’d followed my career and kept things about me and had prayed for me every night of her life.

“I really feel ashamed about how I really just moved on in my life,” he continues, his voice thickening. “That’s the one thing that eats me up the most, and it all could be part of my little bit superficial approach to life. I mean, I’ve had so many lucky breaks. . . .”

According to Jackman, if there is a curse to being him, it exists only very early in the morning, upon that stark moment when his eyes first flip open.

“When I first wake up, I feel like, ‘Oh, God, here we go again.’ I’ve got to” — he sucks in his breath — “live up to what I think my life is: active, positive, worthwhile, enjoyable, conquering. There’s something missing between that first moment when I wake up and the rest of the day. I’ve only been thinking about this the last six months. But that moment of the day says a lot, I reckon.”

He told Deb about this only recently.

“Do you really feel that when you wake up?” she said.

“One out of every second day. I don’t think it’s like a depression, and I don’t think it’s probably abnormal, but why?”

No answers were immediately forthcoming.

In the morning, just at dawn, Jackman heads out for his favorite mountain walk. Twenty minutes later, he’s at the mountaintop, looking across all of L.A. He tries to find the world-famous Hollywood sign, but it’s lost in smog and haze.

“No bowing down to Mecca today,” he says, pushing forward to a precipice. From here, he thinks he can see his apartment building, where Deb and Oscar still sleep.

“Son!” he calls out. “I’m hunting deer! I will feed you!”

Later, over breakfast at the Urth Caffe on Melrose, he recalls, as a kind of admission, that when he was thirteen he did have a temper, would fly off the handle for no good reason and beat up other kids, even sending one to the hospital. “Actually, it was a shocking temper,” he says. “And I was like that for a while. But it seems to have gone.”

Jackman reties his sneakers and speaks from behind black shades. “I’ll tell you, though, I had a dream one night that… I don’t know what this says about me, but I’m kind of restless in my sleep — kick and fidget. It took me a long time, actually, to be able to sleep with my wife or sleep with any of my girlfriends, because I’d twitch and kick and everything. Anyway, I had this dream, and I woke up, and I was actually punching Deb in her back. I don’t remember…. I don’t know…. All I remember is in the dream I was punching as hard as I could, and the look on Deb’s face …” He grins. “Yeah, so maybe the violence thing is still … but it was not deliberate!”

Then he’s home, in his rented apartment, which one day he may leave for life in New York. He’ll be going there soon, to shoot his next movie, Animal Husbandry, also starring Ashley Judd. Everything is moving very fast for Jackman. Really, there’s no time to slow down, no time at all.

Dialect coach Jeff Platt arrives at the apartment. He’s teaching Jackman how to speak like a New Yorker. The two begin discussing who might be named as the other lead actress in the film.

“They wanted Kim Basinger, I think,” says Jackman, “but the latest I heard was Annette Bening for the role.”

“She’d be fantastic,” says Platt.

“Well,” says Jackman, “I don’t think I’d be trying to get out of the movie if either one of them was cast.”

Then he and Platt get back down to work. Jackman is going to practice his New York accent by reading the opening monologue from the movie Dogma. He frowns at the page. He says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you a guilty wretched sinner and…. “

And then he goes on.

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