More than meets the eye

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MOVIES - By RYAN GIL­BEY

the way Hugh Jack­man tells it, he had to be stopped from giv­ing Wolver­ine jazz hands.

THE day be­fore I am due to in­ter­view Hugh Jack­man, the Aus­tralian ac­tor drops a tan­ta­lis­ing hint on Twit­ter. “Hey tweet­ers, I have some­thing ex­cit­ing to an­nounce soon,” he writes. “What could it be?”

What in­deed? I can’t help but think back to the last time I met him, shortly be­fore the re­lease in 2006 of The Pres­tige. Christo­pher Nolan’s thriller about two ri­val ma­gi­cians (the other was Chris­tian Bale) con­tains Jack­man’s rich­est screen per­for­mance to date: he re­veals hid­den tor­ment be­hind the con­juror’s cur­tain-calls-and-bou­quets per­sona, one that he will know from his par­al­lel ca­reer as a lead ac­tor in mu­si­cal the­atre (an ex­is­tence of which the ma­jor­ity of X-Men fans are prob­a­bly obliv­i­ous).

The Pres­tige was a mys­tery wrapped in an enigma, then pad­locked in a chest and dropped in the ocean. Some peo­ple think the same ap­plies to Jack­man. A friend took me aside and asked whether I re­ally swal­lowed those “or­di­nary, bor­ing fam­ily man” quotes fed to me by Jack­man. Couldn’t I see this was a clas­sic cover story? Jack­man has en­coun­tered such talk over the years, and al­ways has a smil­ing ri­poste at the ready: “You re­ally know you’ve made it when the gay ru­mours start.”

I tell Jack­man that his Twit­ter tease con­vinced me he was about to come out, and he hu­mours this with a rau­cous laugh. Then again, some peo­ple would con­sider his even­tual an­nounce­ment – that he is bring­ing his one-man song-and-dance show to Broad­way in mid-Oc­to­ber – to be tan­ta­mount to bound­ing from the closet, any­way. He laughs at that, too, which is very game of him. He even throws in a slap of the thigh: his thigh, that is, not mine. It all makes for a cheer­ful al­ter­na­tive to the usual “No com­ment”.

He’s been through this be­fore, a long time ago. When he was 10, a teacher ap­proached him af­ter the end-of-year school con­cert to com­pli­ment him on his danc­ing skills and to ad­vise him to sign up for dance class. His fa­ther was all for

the idea, but one of Jack­man’s older broth­ers told him danc­ing was for sissies: “What are ya – a poof?” he jeered.

“I wasn’t 100% sure what that was,” the ac­tor says now. “But I knew it didn’t sound like some­thing I should be. And that was it as far as dance. I shut it down. I was just too em­bar­rassed. I’m the 10-minute Billy El­liot. ‘I wanna dance!’ ‘You poof.’ ‘OK, I’ll be a miner’.”

His brother apol­o­gised when Jack­man was 18. “That re­leased some­thing for me. I signed up for a tap class the day af­ter he’d said sorry.” Slightly sadly, he adds: “Of course, I was fully aware I’d left it too late to turn pro­fes­sional.”

That said, he has to be pos­i­tively re­strained from hoof­ing in pub­lic. Af­ter stints on some mi­nor Aus­tralian TV shows (in­clud­ing Corelli, on whose set he met his wife: she played a prison psy­chi­a­trist, he was a tat­tooed in­mate), his act­ing ca­reer took off in mu­si­cals, be­gin­ning with Trevor Nunn’s national the­atre pro­duc­tion of Ok­la­homa! in 1998.

We are talk­ing dur­ing the Lon­don stopover in the in­ter­na­tional pub­lic­ity tour for Real Steel, the world’s first (and pos­si­bly last) touchy-feely box­ing-ro­bots movie. Some­what im­prob­a­bly, Real Steel is The Champ meets Short Cir­cuit, with a Crazy Heart coun­try-andwest­ern vibe.

Jack­man plays Char­lie, a washed-up ex­fighter who en­ters hulk­ing ro­bots into show­downs at coun­try fairs. Who else but Jack­man could put vim into the ring­side gib­ber­ish he is called on to holler (“Bring it! One, two, over­lord! Shat­ter punch!”)? Who else could pull off Char­lie’s grudg­ing af­fec­tion for his lon­glost son, a blond-haired tyke with Shirley Tem­ple pluck, with­out mak­ing the au­di­ence gag on their pop­corn? But then Jack­man has al­ways ex­celled at bring­ing charm and sin­cer­ity to pic­tures that would sink a lesser show­man.

More in­ter­est­ing than Real Steel’s com­bat se­quences, which re­sem­ble an upris­ing in a car assem­bly plant, is Jack­man’s rel­ish at shed­ding his slick, soft im­age, at least for the film’s first half.

“It was so much fun to see how far we could take Char­lie,” he says. “This is a Dream­Works pic­ture be­ing dis­trib­uted by Dis­ney, and our lead char­ac­ter sells his son in the first 20 min­utes. I re­ally liked that. When we showed it to the stu­dio, I thought they were gonna tell us to reshoot. I’d al­ready asked Shawn (Levy, the di­rec­tor): ‘ Are we mak­ing him too much of an a**hole?’ The stu­dio thought we’d pushed it but that it worked.”

Free of the phys­i­cal heft re­quired of him in Real Steel or the X-Men se­ries, the 42-yearold is tall (1.87m) and lean. Dressed in black shirt and trousers, he re­sem­bles a gi­ant chess piece. His man­ner is as cour­te­ous as a bell­hop who’s bank­ing on a big tip. Per­haps that’s an­other rea­son why he savoured the sleazier aspects of Char­lie’s per­son­al­ity – it gave him a chance to go against the grain of his per­son­al­ity. “Ab­so­lutely. I loved it. I don’t al­low my­self to be like that in life, you see.”

Or on-screen, come to that. Be­neath the snarling and the tantrums, Wolver­ine is just a pussy­cat. The rough-hewn Drover in Baz Luhrmann’s sweep­ing, silly Aus­tralia is es­sen­tially a Play­girl pinup mi­nus the sta­ples. Even when Jack­man tries for sin­is­ter, in De­cep­tion or Woody Allen’s Scoop, it’s the suave front that is more con­vinc­ing than the men­ace be­neath. He has gained a rep­u­ta­tion as the stand-in man – he only got to play Wolver­ine when the orig­i­nal choice, Dougray Scott, was un­avail­able, and he has stepped into parts va­cated by Brad Pitt ( The Foun­tain) and Rus­sell Crowe ( Aus­tralia).

More telling are the roles Jack­man al­most played. He got as far as his cos­tume fit­ting for the pro­fes­sor se­duced by Nazism in Good, but then fund­ing fell through (it was later filmed with Viggo Mortensen). And he was once the lead in Drive, back when Neil Mar­shall was at­tached as di­rec­tor. Ei­ther of these parts would have de­manded a moral am­bi­gu­ity rarely seen among the roles on Jack­man’s CV.

He’s self-dep­re­cat­ing about the luvvie side of him­self; the way he tells it, he had to be dis­cour­aged from giv­ing Wolver­ine jazz hands. “It takes ev­ery ounce of power in my body when I’m play­ing him just to keep still and find that in­te­rior, brood­ing as­pect. (Di­rec­tor) Bryan Singer used to yell at me: ‘Stop mov­ing! Just stand there and say your lines!’” But when I sug­gest that The Pres­tige worked so well be­cause it played his glossi­ness against Bale’s method in­ten­sity, he seems offended.

There’s an awk­ward pause, and I ask whether this isn’t how he sees him­self. “Not re­ally,” he shrugs. “I know I’m not known as method. By na­ture, I’m not a brooder. What I con­tinue to use is a mix­ture of the English school, which is tra­di­tion­ally out­side-in, and the more Amer­i­can way of work­ing from the in­side out.”

It’s odd, given Jack­man’s love of mu­si­cals, that he hasn’t ap­peared on-screen in one yet, but that will change next spring when he be­gins shoot­ing Les Mis­er­ables, di­rected by Tom Hooper ( The King’s Speech) and co-star­ring Rus­sell Crowe and Anne Hath­away. Then it’s on to the much-de­layed sec­ond Wolver­ine movie. A start date has come and gone sev­eral times this year: it was go­ing to be shot in Ja­pan, but the earthquake hit; then Dar­ren Aronof­sky dropped out as di­rec­tor. De­spite the set­backs, Jack­man re­mains con­fi­dent the pic­ture will com­pen­sate for the short­com­ings of its pre­de­ces­sor.

“I think we’ve got the chance to nail the char­ac­ter this time, to do the hole-in-one. We haven’t man­aged that yet. On the last movie, we com­pli­cated it with too many other char­ac­ters. And there’ll be more women this time, which is good. The last one was so mas­cu­line!

“The new film will go more into the char­ac­ter. I don’t think we’ve ever seen his rage ex­pressed prop­erly. We’re let­ting go with this one of the whole ‘Who am I? Where did I come from? Oh no, I’ve lost my mem­ory’ thing. I feel like that’s sent us all to sleep. ‘Yeah, what­ever pal. We’re bored! Fine, you were a sushi chef, what­ever it was, can we just get on with the story now?’” – Guardian News & Me­dia 2011 n Real­Steel is be­ing screened at cine­mas na­tion­aw­ide.

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