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Hugh Jackman: The Wolverine Makes Nice

The actor shows what it takes to achieve and maintain real success.
Mike Zimmerman

I first met Hugh Jackman in 2006. I flew to Los Angeles to interview him on his physical preparations for X-Men 3: The Last Stand. Getting to him was half the fun: He was in the middle of filming The Prestige, the underrated Christopher Nolan magician film, and one thing Nolan is known for other than cinematic excellence is the secrecy of his productions—no outsiders on set, and those working the set have to turn in their phones and cameras.

So, just after sunset, a black sedan arrives outside the Universal Studios gate where I’d been told to wait. I slide in. The guy behind the wheel, Jackman’s driver on this film, takes me through and into a maze of deserted 19th century facades to a small grouping of trailers. An assistant hurries me into a trailer to wait for Hugh. I’m not supposed to leave the bare-bones trailer, so I hang for a while. And the clock ticks; I have a 10 p.m. red-eye out of LAX and it’s now fully dark.

Then Jackman arrives, and he does not disappoint. He’s dressed in full 19th century finery, a long purple velvet topcoat, matching top hat, the works. Between his stature (6-foot-2) and his effortless theatricality, the guy owns his space more naturally than any other actor I’ve encountered. It’s easy to see how he’s become the performer he is. Or, as director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Fountain) put it to me a couple weeks before that interview, “Hugh will be a global superstar. I have no doubt.”

As the years have passed, I’ve had other opportunities to interview the 44-year-old Aussie and some of the folks he’s worked with. His gentlemanly nature and generosity are a matter of public record in the entertainment industry (Broadway and film). So is his bottomless supply of energy and drive. He seems to be where he’s needed at any given time (note his timely save of Jennifer Lawrence at the last Academy Awards, when she tripped over her gown while walking up the steps to accept her award). I can attest to all of these qualities. After that first interview when I had to wait on him, he had his driver speed me to LAX so I wouldn’t miss my flight. A simple gesture, but one not many others would make.

And now here we are again, talking about his sixth go at his signature character in this summer’s The Wolverine.

“You must be bored, mate,” he says with a chuckle. “I think you know everything by now.”

I tell him I’m sure we can find some new things to talk about.

 

One thing about Jackman I can say has not changed over the years: No one works harder to get it right. There are no crumbs left when he leaves the job.

Cases in point: When I first met him, we talked about his physical transformation to become Wolverine. He lifted tons (quite literally) of weight to forge the bulky superhero physique. But his physical transformations for each role have become even more intense and require even more discipline. For Jean Valjean in last year’s Les Misérables, he had to drop 30 pounds to resemble a man who had been in a labor camp. “I was as lean and strong as I think I’ve ever been,” he says. “I had sunken cheeks, this sallow look.” It took him three months to get to that point, and then, while filming, he had to reverse course and put the 30 pounds back on to play Valjean nine years older.

And now, listen to what he put himself through to become Wolverine once again immediately after Les Miz: “I’m competitive, whether I play golf or cricket or rugby, whatever it is, but especially with myself. I want to be in better shape every time I play Wolverine. So I started earlier. And look, at my age, 44, nothing happens too quickly anymore. I trained harder. I did three hours a day in two sessions, which I’ve never really done before.”

Twice-a-day workouts require proper fuel, and he also wanted to bulk up. So Jackman turned to a fellow action-hero for advice: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. “He kindly shared with me his diet, which is basically 6,000 calories a day, which is…” and here Jackman just laughs. “Let me tell you, that’s harder than the workout itself.”

He ate six or seven full meals a day, mostly lean meats and fish with unlimited vegetables, adding in bonuses like hummus, avocado and protein shakes. “My main activity every day was digesting food.”

Any sensible person would say, “Why would any sensible person do this?” Well, Wolverine, the character, and The Wolverine, the movie, are Jackman’s babies now. Look at the results: Physically, you can argue that Jackman has never looked more jacked. He’s prepared for his role so he can play it to the hilt of his indestructible “adamantium” claws.

Jackman has melded talent with superhuman discipline to wring every last drop of potential out of himself. He has an interesting take on how he’s done that: “I don’t set goals in life. In this country, people are all about goal-setting. And I concede, to a point, how it can help you get going. But we limit ourselves with goals. We have far more ability [to do the extraordinary] than we give ourselves credit for. You see that in people under pressure. For me, it’s, ‘All right, let’s see if you can do this.’ ”

 

Saying The Wolverine is Jackman’s baby is no exaggeration. He’s risen to producer level on his films now, caretaker of the entire brand, and he’s got a lot riding on its success. X3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were decent financial successes, but critical piñatas. The plot for this one comes from one of the most beloved storylines in the comics—Wolverine’s adventure in Japan—so fans are drooling. Plus, the Marvel films and Nolan’s Batman trilogy have raised the bar in the genre. A billion-dollar worldwide gross is the benchmark now. The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and this summer’s Iron Man 3 all did it, so the suits are drooling. Now it’s on Jackman. “When you’re playing Wolverine in a movie called The Wolverine, the buck pretty much stops at you, you know?”

To Jackman, the secret to making that amazing film, that jaw-dropping theater experience, to delivering what his audience is dying to see, comes down to one thing: good people. “You’ve got 200, 300 people working on a film so you can’t be on top of everything all the time. These people have to be good. I am naturally interested in the business side of things, but I don’t have a lot of experience, so I’m smart enough to know the things I don’t know a lot about. I wasn’t ringing up crane companies, doing deals with them, getting a better rate on a crane or anything like that. There are good people who know exactly how to do that.”

How do you find those good people? Jackman’s secret? Working in the industry for 20 years and knowing who the good people are, for one. And two, don’t just dangle the prospect of a good job; tempt them with the prospect of quality work. There’s a difference, and it will dictate the talent you attract.

“A lot of people thought superhero movies were a fad that would pass,” he says. “But what’s happened is they’ve grown to attract better and better talent all around, in front of and behind the camera.” He specifically mentions The Wolverine director James Mangold, James Bond and Skyfall director Sam Mendes, along with Skyfall director of photography Roger Deakins, all of whom are Oscar-level talent.

“They’re attracted to the extraordinary challenge that’s presented,” Jackman says. “I mean, pulling something off that is visually stunning and fun and dramatic and dramatically complex is about as tough as it gets in entertainment.” Then he laughs. “Except for the movie musical.”

That high level of quality, as with most any product, is laid like a solid foundation in the early planning stages. “For me, it has to be on the page. It’s OK to tell really interesting, intricate human stories. Just because they’re superheroes doesn’t mean they don’t have to be layered and complex. [Director] Bryan Singer really started that: X-Men was the first. But Nolan has just made some fantastic dramas that happen to be superhero movies. If you look at Avengers and Dark Knight and even Bond, they have to be fun and entertaining, but never at the expense of good storytelling. I’m sure all those movies started with a great script.”

After that stage, the real challenge begins—again, same as with any product—when you start talking about how much it’s going to cost to make. And Jackman’s role as producer comes to the fore. “Entertainment is a business of fantasy, but it’s also a business of compromise,” he says. “We could have this amazing sequence on the page, and everyone involved says, ‘Wow, this is amazing, just amazing…. But we can’t afford it. What else can we do?’ I’ll fight for certain things, but I understand that it’s not my money I’m putting up. That’s when we really all need to work together. That’s when having great people around will give other options with the potential to be better than what we originally had.”

 

The best part (or worst, depending on your worldview) about Jackman’s hyper-success is that he does it all while being effortlessly nice. One reason has to do with the way he was raised. He’s told the story of his childhood many times, how his mother left the family in Australia when Hugh was 8 years old. She moved to England, leaving behind Jackman, four siblings and his father. He’s since made peace with this, but as his father was the primary parent growing up, Jackman mentions him often as a powerful influence.

A good example: “My father taught me that losing your temper is a self-indulgent act,” he says. Jackman once told me about a really bad moment on the set of the first X-Men when a stunt went wrong and he accidentally punched a stuntwoman in the chin, knocking her unconscious. He hadn’t felt right about the stunt from the beginning, but the not-yet-famous Jackman had no on-set clout to argue against it, so when the stunt failed, he lost it. A classic Hollywood tantrum. He hated himself for it and never repeated it. “I learned a lot that day. Film is important. The people making the film are more  important.”

Another lesson was the concept of philanthropy. Jackman uses a more generous definition of the word. “I think philanthropy, or giving back, or whatever you want to call it, is a part of everyday life with every person you come in contact with,” he says. “I was taught that even if you don’t have money, give whatever you have—expertise, time, advice. There are always other ways to give.”

Jackman has his own charity—Laughing Man Worldwide, which supports education, community development and entrepreneurship. Laughing Man Coffee & Tea is the first business created through this initiative, and 100 percent of its profits go to charity. Jackman’s inspiration for Laughing Man was an Ethiopian coffee farmer he met in 2009 while touring the country as an ambassador with World Vision, a relief and development  organization.

He also looks at his job as a way to give back. He strives to create something that will last beyond his lifetime, and he looks up to other performers who do that while also building philanthropic enterprises. “I’ll want to look back on stories that have made a difference, that have touched people. Make people smile, think, question, reflect, or just to arouse emotions. That, to me, is part of the mystery of why we’re all here. George Clooney is someone who has used his success to do that, to give back via charity and also to tell greater and greater stories. Paul Newman is another one I look up to. Newman’s Own is smart and generous and has outlasted him. Add that to his body of work and he’s truly left something of value to us all.”

Growing up with his father—and without a mother figure—has also influenced how Jackman approaches fatherhood. Jackman and his wife, actress Deborra-Lee Furness, have two adopted children, Oscar, 13, and Ava, 8. They influence every professional and personal decision he makes. “I call it The Dance,” he says, referring to work-life balance. “It never feels set; it’s never a formula. The path always changes. My wife and I have a very simple template: When you reach any crossroads, ask, ‘Is this good or bad for the marriage?’ It’s a simple question with a quick answer. If it’s good you do it, if it’s not, you don’t. That has meant sacrificing things along the way. But it’s also revealing because it forces you to show your true priorities. If they’re off just a little bit, it will show.”

As we wrap up our interview—“At least until next time,” he says—I throw out one last question, one of those big “life overview” questions.

“What’s the one trait that’s contributed most to your success?” As he has every time we’ve spoken before, Jackman doesn’t disappoint. In fact, he manages to pull together every conversational thread we had over the course of this interview—his intense dedication to physical transformation, to authenticity, to making a fantasy become a reality, and even one last great lesson from Dad.

“I always remember what he taught me,” he says. “ ‘The key to any endeavor in life is to be educated.’ I don’t mean education in terms of strictly university, or maybe it is for you, or drama school for me, which I did. I now know what he really meant. You want to open as many doors as possible. There are so many variables in life where things have to line up for things to happen. In all of that, your preparation is everything. Learn whatever you have to learn, train however you have to train, to get the best out of yourself. That, my friend, is the No. 1 ingredient.”

Post date: 
Jul 8, 2013

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