Hugh Jackman: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
He’s a Broadway star, an action hero, and once got the better of Mick Jagger in love. But there is one thing this Aussie actor can’t do: gain weight
Hugh Jackman has just wolfed down 12 ounces of filet mignon and steamed green beans. It’s 4pm, and this is his fifth meal of the day. One of Hollywood’s consummate shape-shifters, Jackman is currently beefing up to once again play Wolverine, animalistic star of the X-Men films. He tells me he has three different wardrobes, which he rotates according to the type of film he’s making: “thin suits, Hugh suits and fat suits”.
We meet in a creamy-coloured hotel suite in Beverly Hills. Jackman is wearing a T-shirt, dark jeans, and looks lean and chiselled. Unusually for an actor, he doesn’t take himself at all seriously and has not an ounce of self-consciousness. Which is a good thing, considering what his new film is about. Real Steel is set in a near-future in which giant robots box each other to the death for the entertainment of the masses. Jackman plays an underdog trainer rebuilding his relationship with his son as they work together on rebuilding a robot. Of course he does.
I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too. But Real Steel is an unexpected delight, a mix of RoboCop and The Champ filled with heart, and Jackman’s screen charisma. It seems the man who makes Broadway hoofing seem macho can also give steel warmth.
Jackman understands my scepticism. “For a year and a half people have been saying to me, ‘What are you doing? A robot boxing movie?’” he says, turning his nose up in an expression of mock befuddlement. “But it’s a tale of redemption. My character gets a second chance but sometimes that second chance is more frightening than the first because you know what to expect.” Does he mean he’s more comfortable with pain than with trying to succeed?
“Exactly. That’s what fascinated me about Charlie [his character], and that’s what happens to all of us. We repeat behaviour and start blaming everything outside ourselves for why things are going this way. It’s much easier dealing with disappointment.” Does he think he’s ever done that? “Yeah. In some ways we’re all like that.” He searches unprompted for an example. “This is the first thing that comes to mind. I’ve been asked a couple of times to sing and I get quite nervous.
“And it took me a while before I’d go to get help and take singing lessons. I was singing and getting away with it but I wasn’t enjoying it, and I knew if I got singing lessons I’d be able to work through it but I was scared to get help. It was weird. I knew how to deal with it. I’d go in there, get scared, get over it and forget about it. About two years ago I made the choice to get lessons.”
Wait a minute. He’d already wowed Broadway with Oklahoma! and won a Tony Award for portraying gay singer-songwriter Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz. And in 2009 he presented and sang at the most well-loved Oscar ceremony of the decade. And then he gets singing lessons?
“Yeah. I had to relearn the wheel a bit. I had had a few lessons but nothing sustained. I used to get really nervous going to my singing lessons. I knew it was going to be hard work and I sang every day for a long time and it’s been really rewarding.” He’s currently about to start a new run of his one-man show, having just finished a run in San Francisco and Toronto. He sings, dances, “and I tell stories. I do a lot of improvisation. I wanted to have a vehicle where I enjoyed what I was doing and I have a fear that if you’re not singing and dancing and being on stage you lose the muscles for it. I’ve seen that happen to people. It’s a difficult thing if all of a sudden you just lose it.” He kept being asked to sing at charity events, but felt he didn’t have the repertoire. Then he asked a friend for advice. That friend, Sting, told him to have the lessons.
Jackman, who will be 43 next month, never meant to become a song and dance man. Though he’s proudly Australian, his boyhood dream was to be in the National Theatre, in London. “I have a photo of me outside of the theatre with my hands together saying, ‘One day’,” he says. “Hollywood wasn’t on my radar and I can’t remember why the musical thing happened. Maybe because Australia is a little different to England. You just take it as it comes. In Australia you have to go to extremes to make a living. Russell Crowe was in musicals before movies. You just do everything. I’m glad.” One of his first jobs was co-hosting a cable television show called In Fashion. Even though he knew nothing about fashion. “I’d go, ‘Manolo who?’” Then, in 1992, inevitably, he was offered a role in Neighbours; but he decided to go to drama school instead.
“My little sister, who was in England, was 12 or 13 at the time and was very excited. She told everyone her brother was going to be in Neighbours. I forgot to tell her that I wasn’t going to be in it.” His parents, both devout Christians converted by Billy Graham after they were married, were English but emigrated to Australia in the Sixties as part of the “£10 Pom” scheme, a drive to bring more white, educated English-speaking people to the country. “My dad was perfect,” says Jackman.
“He’d been to Cambridge, was an accountant, no criminal record and three kids. It was red-carpet city. They rolled it out. Your whole family for £10.” It would have stayed “red-carpet city” had his mother not found it crippling to be away from her family in England. She left to return to the UK when Jackman was eight. “I saw her every year. She would come over. It would be like a family holiday. I remember going to the beach. There was a chance of a reconciliation at that point but she didn’t come back for good.” That must have been difficult. “Yeah. It was difficult for everyone really,” he says with a mix of pain and understanding in his voice. His father was left looking after five children – three boys, two girls – on his own, including a “feral” Jackman. “It was Herculean,” he says. “Obviously my mum and I have made our peace and she wishes she had done things differently, but that’s the way things panned out. I never felt she didn’t love me or anything.” Did it affect his relationships with women? The prototype was on, off, together then distant? He nods. “I am very comfortable with distance.
“I can make friends easily and at the end of the movie I see people struggling because they have to say goodbye and they have become close. I don’t have a problem with that. I get very close, become good friends, have a good time and then they go and that’s OK. I’ll just enjoy you when I see you because there’s no control. Maybe that’s what attracted me to the showbiz world.” Did he find it difficult to form long-term relationships? “Well a little bit. But I fall in love very easily. I used to fall in love very easily and then I could be away from them and not miss it.” All this changed when he met Deborra-Lee Furness, an actress and director eight years his senior, on the set of Correlli, an Australian television series. They married in 1996.
“That was the first time I felt full love, full understanding of each other.
“I am completely myself with her and she knows everything about me and vice versa. We have each other’s backs. Everyone that meets her says, ‘Oh, forget about you. Your wife is awesome’. And she is.” He says this grinning with palpable pride. Did he feel intensely when he first met her? “Totally. We both did. She was the star of the series when I first started working on it. I realised I had a crush on her. I couldn’t talk to her for a week, I was embarrassed. My first job, she’s the leading lady. I thought, ‘she’s going to think I’m an idiot’. But we got on well. I knew we’d be friends for life. I didn’t admit I was falling madly in love with her.”
He got an inkling that his feelings might be returned when she and a few friends were having supper at Jackman’s house and she got a call from one of her friends to say they were with Mick Jagger and Jagger wanted to meet her. She said that she was having dinner with Jackman. “And I thought, ‘wow, this woman’s a keeper’. That was the beginning of our relationship that night. If she’s going to give up meeting Mick Jagger I had to give it a shot.”
They try to protect their relationship from the strain of separation and the fear of what can happen on a movie set. They have a two-week rule. “When I first met Debs she’d done 20 movies. She knew that it can become a habit of spending a lot of time apart. You get used to being apart and I never want to be apart from her. There have been times when it has been difficult.
“Someone had to give up something to go here or there and with kids it gets complicated, but we have not been apart for more than two weeks.” They have homes in Australia and an apartment in New York, where their children go to school. Oscar, 11, and Ava, 6, were adopted after Deb suffered two miscarriages.
Do they want more? “I was really ready to have kids. I was excited. I was 30. I’d had a good run. But on the plane coming here we heard a baby cry and looked at each other, ‘Thank God it’s not ours’. I don’t think we’ll have any more. After Oscar was born it took us five years to get around to the next one. We adopted in America. We couldn’t adopt in Australia. It’s unbelievably backward and the rule is you have to stay in one place for two years. If you work in other cities it means your family is not a priority.” He shakes his head.
Sadly, Jackman works in other cities an awful lot. Soon he’s off to Japan to shoot Wolverine, and after that he’ll make Les Misérables, the movie that Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) will direct in the UK next year, alongside Jackman’s friend Crowe. At some point he’ll return to Broadway for Aaron Sorkin’s show about Houdini.
For Wolverine, he’s packing his box of fat suits. Although he should really call them muscle suits. He’s famous for his punishing diet – no carbs after lunchtime and waking up at 4am for egg whites. He nods solemnly when I mention that if you Google his name the first six things that come up are variations of the Hugh Jackman diet.
Does he care about what people think of him? “Yes. Less than I used to. But yeah, it’s there. It would be nice to be completely free of that but I’m not.
“I don’t like disappointing people. I’m not great at saying no either.” This is why he has three ranges of wardrobe. He doesn’t like to say no to the part and has to make himself fit it. “An occupational hazard,” he says.
He’s even lost his wedding ring three times because it slips off his finger when he loses weight. “I’m not in the habit of putting it on now,” he says. “I wear it only for special occasions because it would slip off.” As you’d expect from such a charmer, Jackman isn’t short of friends. Some make perfect sense (Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman), but others are more surprising. First there’s Rupert Murdoch, a longtime family friend whom Jackman describes as “a very generous, caring family man… It’s a difficult time for him. I’ve sent him my condolences and I haven’t heard back.” Along with Tony Blair, Jackman is godfather to Murdoch’s daughter.
Perhaps more surprising is his friendship with Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.
“He started the whole microcredit phenomenon,” explains Jackman. Inspired by Yunus’s work with Third World farmers, Jackman has founded a drinks business based on the model of Paul Newman’s food company Newman’s Own – a well-run charitable venture. It’s called Laughing Man coffee and tea – “because the one unifying language we have is laughter” – sourced from plantations in Ethiopia. Typically, Jackman has befriended one of the farmers – a man called Ducali – and says the company exists solely to make people like him happy.
But what makes Jackman himself happy? “Being with my family,” he answers without thinking. “The trick of life is measure and it takes many years to work that out. People think if I win the lottery I’ll never work again. Then you won’t be happy. We all need work. We all need to contribute. But we don’t want to work too much.” The only thing that keeps him up at night, he says, is what will happen to his children – all the things he can’t control: “I’m doing this parenting thing for the first time, I’m sure I’m screwing up. I’ll never know till later, right?”
Whatever happens to them, it seems unlikely they’ll follow their father into showbusiness. Oscar once expressed an interest, says Jackman, and when he was seven asked to be an extra in Australia, the historical epic Jackman made with Kidman. So for four days the seven-year-old Oscar walked up and down, walked down some stairs and got on and off a boat. At the end he turned to his father. “Dad, your job is the most boring in the world,” he said. “I never want to do it again.”
‘Real Steel’ is released on October 14