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Interview: Hugh Jackman

BY James Mottram

7th Mar 2023 Celebrities

Interview: Hugh Jackman

Affable Australian film star Hugh Jackman explains how his new film, The Son, changed him, as well as talking about the musicals and Marvel character that are key to his career

The pink-walled Excelsior Hotel, on Venice’s Lido, is more than used to famous film stars mingling on its terraces. Since the Italian city’s celebrated film festival began, it’s played host to everyone from Greta Garbo to Clark Gable. Today it’s the turn of Hugh Jackman. The genial Australian star is, depending on your tastes, famed for the razor-clawed superhero Wolverine in the X-Men films or barnstorming Broadway-sized performances in musical movies like The Greatest Showman.

We’re seated in the downstairs restaurant, overlooking the sun-dappled waters of the Adriatic Sea. Jackman, 54, sporting a navy suit and white shirt, is trim and toned. We’ve met sporadically over the years, right back to 1999 when he starred in a little-seen film, Paperback Hero—playing a truck driver who writes romance novels. He’d just come off a breakout turn as Curly in an Olivier-winning revival of Oklahoma! “Hollywood to me is not a Holy Grail,” he told me, earnestly. But Wolverine was waiting in the wings, the role that would turn him into a star.

Starring in The Son

Interview: Hugh Jackman photo by Ben Watts
Hugh Jackman is loved for his roles in musicals and as a Marvel character. Photo: Ben Watts

Between showtunes and superheroes, Jackman has never quite managed a role like his new film, The Son. It comes adapted from the 2018 play by Florian Zeller, who previously exploded onto the movie scene with another take on one of his own stage dramas, The Father. While that dealt with Alzheimer’s—something Jackman’s own father lived with for years—this looks at another mental health issue. Jackman plays Peter, a workaholic divorcee whose world implodes when his adolescent son begins to suffer from debilitating bouts of depression.

He gives a gun-wrenching performance, one that more than merits a second Oscar nomination of his career (following his bread-stealing revolutionary in 2012’s Les Misérables). “I think what was most interesting to me about Peter was [that] it was important to him to feel that he is a strong and capable man,” says Jackman. “And that made it harder for him to admit that maybe he’s not equipped, maybe he didn’t know what to do. Some guilt about leaving the family home, that is unresolved, makes him even more determined to be the one who can fix things, save his son—be the father that his father was not.”

To say the film got under Jackman’s skin would be an understatement. “I think it’s still working its way through me, as we talk about it and relive it and understand it,” he admits. “And when I watched it, I found myself very emotional. I’m not just talking about just the story. I think it was a process that required a lot of, I guess, trust and revealing.” At the Venice world premiere, where the audience gave the film a ten-minute standing ovation, Jackman was visibly moved by the thunderous reception.

Mental health

Hugh Jackman starring in the film The SonHugh Jackman starring in The Son

He admits the film changed his attitude to mental health. “It gave me a lot of empathy,” he says. “It made me understand.” He started therapy during the filming – an interior clean-out that most in their middle-age years could probably do with. It also reframed his own relationships with his children. Married since 1996 to actress Deborra-Lee Furness, Jackman and his wife later adopted a son, Oscar (now 22) and daughter, Ava (17). “I’m different since doing this film,” he says. “I’m more open about my vulnerability with them, with my kids.”

"I’m different since doing this film, 'The Son'—I’m more open about my vulnerability with my kids"

While Jackman has worked for some of the world’s biggest directors, including Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) and Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain), he’s not always been recognised for his dramatic chops, and had to campaign his director for the role. “I had to call him and say, ‘Please have me!’ and email him and put my hand up for the part.” Zeller remembers their communication, as the actor quietly requested ten minutes of his time to explain just why he felt he was right to play the part. “I was really moved, I have to say, by his humility, his honesty, and his capacity to express his desire.”

During the shoot in London, Jackman’s raw emotions even took Zeller by surprise. “He was not trying to hide himself behind the character. He was open to explore his own emotions, in order to be as truthful as possible, which is very courageous for an actor.” It was a tremendously difficult time for Jackman; his father Chris, a former accountant whose health had been deteriorating for some time, died during production. The actor, who’d visited his father shortly before filming began, stayed on to complete the film, partly to help him through the grieving process.

Today, he speaks fondly of his father’s quirks. Like how he’d tell him off as a youngster. “[He’d say] ‘I’m very disappointed in you, young man!’ I remember getting that one. But my dad was very English. He had a bunch of others like, ‘Buck your ideas up!’ Things like that. Just really English.” Jackman’s parents were both British and had come to Australia in 1967 as part of an immigration scheme. The youngest of five, Jackman was eight when his parents split; after that, his mother returned to England with his two sisters.

Growing up

Jackman half-jokes that he “wanted to be a rock star” growing up, but the real seed for his career was planted elsewhere. A born-again Christian, Jackman’s devout father had been converted by Billy Graham, the famous American Evangelist, and he used to take his son to Christian Revivals. It may not have entirely influenced his religious beliefs, but the young Jackman was entranced by the showmanship. “I remember when I was 14, 15, going to one of those and having a very strong feeling that I was going to be up on that stage at some point. Calm but very certain.

"I remember when I was young, having a very strong feeling that I was going to be up on that stage at some point. Calm but very certain"

While he starred in a production of My Fair Lady at school, it wasn’t until Jackman took a drama class at university that he began to feel like he’d found his people. Further theatre studies followed, then came a role as Gaston in a stage production of Beauty and the Beast. “It was a bit of a joke. They told me ‘You’re not the best singer around’ but the guy had to be over six foot, and look a bit like me. In my contract, I had to have singing lessons every week. You do that, and you can be tone deaf and you’ll end up alright.”

The Greatest Showman

Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman
As PT Barnum in The Greatest Showman. Photo: Landmark Media / Alamy Stock Photo

He ended up more than alright. He’s twice been nominated for a Tony award, winning for The Boy from Oz. He hosted the Oscars in 2009 and has toured multiple one-man shows, singing Broadway hits to audiences. With all that razzamatazz, is it any wonder he was drawn to a film called The Greatest Showman?

He helped turn it into a $434 million-grossing phenomenon, one that saw thousands flock to repeat "singalong" viewings. “I’m thrilled,” he admits, “and I know how much it touches people and it really, really does mean a lot to them.”

Not taking compliments well

As an actor, he pushes himself every inch of the way. “When a director compliments me, I want to say, ‘Don’t do that, man.’ The next take’s not going to be as good. I react more to giving myself a hard time—it’s exhausting.” Every production, he’s always full of angst before he begins.

"When a director compliments me, I want to say, ‘Don’t do that, man.’ I react more to giving myself a hard time—it’s exhausting"

He remembers meeting tennis legend Roger Federer’s wife once. “She said [that] even after he would lose, he would come home and play table tennis with the kids. He was very philosophical about it all. I’m not quite at that Roger Federer level.”

Wolverine

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in the X-Men filmsJackman as the comic book film hero Wolverine in the X-Men films. Photo: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

If there’s been a constant in his career, then it’s been Wolverine. A role he’s played across nine X-Men movies, Jackman’s soulful turn helped turn comic book movies into the blockbusting behemoths they’ve become. He said goodbye to the character—brilliantly—in 2017’s Logan. “It was a discussion I had with [comedian] Jerry Seinfeld which really sparked off the ending to me. He gave me a surprising answer to why he finished his show; he just said ‘I’m a firm believer that creatively if you leave at the right time you’re propelled into whatever’s next with energy and excitement. But if you stay a little too long, it can be Herculean to give it up.’ And that really rang true to me.”

Herculean indeed. Shortly after we meet, it’s announced that Jackman will return as the character in 2024 in Deadpool 3, seven years on from his last appearance. The temptation of teaming up with Marvel’s most snarky superhero, played by Ryan Reynolds, was clearly too much. As he told The Guardian recently, “I just wanted to do it and I felt it in my gut [and] I get to punch the shit out of Ryan Reynolds every day.” The consummate professional, he clearly remembered that old showbiz adage: always give the audience what they want.

The Son is on Amazon now

Hugh Jackman on the cover of the March 2023 issue of Reader's Digest

Hugh Jackman features on the cover of the March issue of Reader's Digest, out now!

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