“That nice guy stuff is boring!” avows Hugh Jackman in a bellowing, blood-and-thunder baritone, chased posthaste by an ebullient chuckle, self-deprecating, authentic, and childlike at once.
If any 21st century movie star is likely to know the tedium of niceness, the 47-year old Jackman is most certainly that guy. Which is to say: besides his matinee idol visage and divinely hewn physique, his equal aptitude at swordplay, soft-shoe, show tunes, and stagecraft, his preternatural proficiency at choosing roles both commercially and artistically satisfying (yes, that would be $5.5-billion at the global box office, thanks to the immortal comic book anti-hero, the enigmatic prestidigitator, the providence-led ex-convict in 19th century France, the time-traveling duke, and the monster-slaying bounty hunter he’s portrayed to date), and his unflagging commitment to regularly treading the boards of the world’s finest playhouses in order to satisfy a spirit he calls “perpetually curious and hungry, wanting to get better,” Hugh Jackman is also one of the nicest human beings you’ll ever meet. For example, some 14 years after his first big studio press junket (in support of the action-thriller Swordfish), the Aussie superstar still remembers a journalist’s name – and the number of children he has and their approximate ages. He also considers philanthropic work “a true vocation, a responsibility that feels much more like a privilege,” and visibly blushes when waxing rhapsodic about Deborra-Lee Furness, his wife of 20 years. By comparison, Jackman, arguably, makes Mother Teresa look like a miscreant.
It seems no problem at all for the general public that Jackman is perennially marinating in “nice,” though in the transcendent, delightful Pan, a reimagining of the Victorian fairy tale about the boy who refuses to grow up (written by Jason Fuchs, directed by Joe Wright, in theaters now), the protean talent endeavors to unburden himself of all gallantry and decorum, imbuing his Blackbeard – the film’s titanic, rococo villain – with a wickedness irresistible, a physicality untamed, and a sartorial flair positively unhinged (think Captain Jack Sparrow by way of Cee Lo Green). It’s intoxicating, baring witness to Jackman’s giddy vandalizing of his signature rectitude, particularly as he rambles, shambles, gambols, and howls his way through piratanical renditions of hits by Nirvana and The Ramones. Jackman’s performance is the demolition of all habitude as fine champagne, the actor’s strong waters an exorbitant, prismatic torrent of turpitude that appears to be tickling Jackman as much as it enchants filmgoers.
It’s only been about 15 years since American audiences have become acquainted with you, though you worked for some time in Australia before that. When did you know acting was something you had to pursue?
Well, the first thing I ever remember singing, I was 5, doing some kind of show in my grade school, and I sang “Camelot” from the big musical (by Lerner & Loewe). All I remember from that is when they’d come to place the crown on my head, because I was King Arthur of course, it was too big, and it would slip right down around my neck. I don’t think that was supposed to be a comedic moment in a musical comedy, but somehow it turned into one. (Laughs) But no matter how much you enjoyed being on stage in Sydney, it wasn’t something taken very seriously as a career path. It wasn’t until I was 21 or 22 that I decided to chuck all that wisdom and live my own life.
Where does one muster the courage to do that?
It may sound silly, but I believe that it’s important for all of us to keep our hearts and eyes open to new wisdom, to the truths that speak to us. When I was 18 or so, I read (Herman Hesse’s) Siddhartha for the first time and it really changed my life. It really got me thinking more about the inner journey of life at an age when everything is very often about the outer journey. I still read that book every 10 years or so. I just read it again, in fact, and it keeps meaning different things to me at different ages. So maybe that book had something to do with my so-called courage. I’m not sure that’s what other people would have called it!
Many years ago, when you were only barely known in Australia, you declared that your dream role was portraying a certain hockey-masked maniac.
(Laughs) Yes! Yes! That’s true! More than anything, I wanted to play Jason in one of the Friday the 13th movies. I’ve watched all of those movies, and my mates and me would reenact them all – even the really bad one in 3D. I suppose in some odd way, those movies are why I wanted to become an actor. It’s amazing to me the wonderful actors who started out in those films. But does the world need a Jason who sings and dances? We’ll see. It’s probably all Jason hasn’t done.
Instead of wielding a machete in your big studio debut, you were outfitted with Adamantium claws, playing Wolverine in 1999’s X-Men. What did you learn on that film?
Well, I guess in some ways, it created in me an empathy that I would only fully understand when appearing in a film inspired by Peter Pan. Captain Hook did not have an easy time of it! (Laughs) Truly, those claws were dangerous, dangerous things. The claws we had on that first film were metal; they’d cut into my hands, I kept stabbing myself in the thighs and scratching up my face. I’d put them on and just walk around my house for hours at a time, trying to figure out how to walk without murdering myself. But as the series has progressed, movie magic has come well into play. I now have the Rolls Royce of claws – which, believe me, is a fine form of progress. Now they are molded, literally, to my hand. It’s like Cinderella’s slipper. No one else is putting on my claws.
Though you’ve been in countless studio blockbusters, you’ve also taken significant amounts of time off to return to the stage. Why is that important for you?
It’s that bliss thing, you know. I wish someone had told me earlier in my life that it’s okay – actually, important – to follow my bliss. There were points in my life and career where I probably acted strategically, rather than from my heart, where I took a job or two for the wrong reasons, but I don’t think I’ll ever make those mistakes again. The stage is my first home. The stage holds such bliss for me. Doing the Broadway musical The Boy From Oz (2003-2004) was a big turning point for me. My film career was going very well, and here was this 18-month commitment in New York playing a flamboyantly gay character. It wasn’t what anyone considered a good career move, but I just knew it was the right thing to do. I knew the piece moved me and I knew it would move audiences, so I just truly committed to it. Whatever we do in this life, if it’s done for the right reasons, from the heart, the result almost becomes irrelevant; it’s the journey that matters. I’ll only follow my heart from here on out – which is why I have to return to the stage every now and then.
Speaking of following one’s bliss, you seem to be having the time of your life in Pan. What was the appeal for you of playing Blackbeard – a character most of us do not connect with the Peter Pan mythos.
Well, I’d always wanted to play a role like this – the swashbuckling, sword-fighting, pirate-adventure stuff. I loved that kind of thing when I was a little boy, and it turns out it was tremendous fun to do as a grown man! A lot of it really had to do with (Atonement filmmaker) Joe Wright directing the piece. There’s really no one quite like him making movies these days, and I am so eternally thankful to Joe for the collaboration that we shared.
Share an example of that creative collaboration.
Well, it mostly had to do with me sharing ideas I thought were extraordinary, and then Joe saying, “Um, thank you for your fine thoughts,” and then coming up with something that actually was extraordinary! (Laughs) When Joe and I met for the first time, I had already done a bit of research on Blackbeard and had learned that he was this rather amazing character in real life. I told Joe how Blackbeard used to stick incense into his big, bushy beard and then light the incense sticks before going into battle, which made it look like his head was on fire. And Joe said, “Well, actually, I was thinking of something a little bit different.” And he turned around this iPad and it had my face on the screen with this horrifying white, cracked make-up and the wig of Marie Antoinette and the costume of Louis XIV. (Laughs) It was entirely unexpected, really rather astonishing, and it gave me this enormous smile. I knew right then I really had to do this movie. I felt like 80% of my work as an actor on Pan had been done by Joe Wright’s vision for the character, which just allowed me to dig in and bring up my inner ham – which is actually never very far below the surface!
They really did deck you out in this film!
Oh, the costumes are just brilliant, aren’t they? It gives you such a clear sense of who this man is. It’s funny, because on every studio film, the actors get a dresser — someone to help them in and out of their wardrobe — and on a lot of films, I’m like, “Oh, come on now! I can put on a pair of jeans!” But this was a film where I felt we just might need an extra dresser! The costume was layers upon layers upon layers and handmade and just astonishing, really. From the moment I put that on, I felt like a show pony-pirate who loves the pomp and ceremony and adoration of being a legendary pirate.
It’s quite a surprise when Blackbeard and his band of rapscallions burst into song, crooning “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” no less. How did that come about?
That came entirely from Joe. I remember the day Joe and I were trying it out on set, figuring out how the singing should work, and as it happened, we had some executives from the studio who were visiting that day. I kept a very keen eye on them the entire time because “musical” is not a studio executive’s favorite word. I kept thinking they were going to lose their minds, like, “What? I didn’t know we were doing a musical!” (Laughs) But like with everything, Joe just said to me, “Let’s try it! If it works, great. If it doesn’t we tried.” I love that kind of spirit so much. So then we filmed the musical numbers and we were stomping around in our big boots and that just destroyed the audio of our vocals. All you could hear were our banging, clattering boots, no vocals. So we pirates all had to go into this recording studio in London to re-record our vocals so they could be dropped into the film, and we went into the booth to record, one by one, and did our thing. Finally, it was my turn to go in and I went into the recording booth and recorded a take and I felt very good about it, like I’d really hit my notes and done my job, and this very polite audio engineer in the other room, piped up over the studio intercom, “Um, Mr. Jackman, lovely. Just lovely. But, um, it’s sounding, uh, maybe a little bit Broadway. . .” (Laughs) So I had to do another take – and actually act a little bit!
You and your wife have two children. What did they think of Pan?
My kids are 15 and 10, and they said to me, “Oh, Dad, we really love this one!” Which made me wonder about all of the other movies I’d been in! (Laughs) Then they said they wanted to bring all of their friends to see it, which they’d never said before. So what I’m saying is: our children can be really tough critics! (Laughs)