In director Baz Luhrmann’s new rollicking epic, “Australia,” Hugh Jackman is the Drover, a cowboy more comfortable on a horse than in society. The swaggering rebel with a heart of gold is first seen on screen starting a bar fight over a snub of his friend, an aboriginal man. It’s as if Rhett Butler were back but fighting for the North this time. ¶ That same dashing energy is evident in the actor. There are the obvious charms, of course: the green eyes, easy smile, the chiseled muscles on a 6-foot-2 frame. But it’s the combination of strength and sensitivity that makes the 40-year-old actor truly endearing. Sitting in a genteel Beverly Hills hotel suite, he tells wild, careening stories about riding with a pack of stampeding horses and then talks with emotion about a film that hopes to aid in healing an old wound in his country.
Then there’s his devotion to his family. When he and his wife, actress Deborra-Lee Furness, started dating, they agreed to never spend more than two weeks apart. Twelve years and two kids later, they’ve honored their pact. That just ups the dreamboat quotient.
With all that, his earnest humility is a welcome trait, and a natural byproduct of his upbringing Down Under. Jackman had just landed in Los Angeles when People magazine named him its Sexiest Man Alive; he says his inbox was immediately filled with mocking notes from his friends back home. One left a message ranting, “This is worse than the Florida 2000 recount. This is rigged. Give it back!” It’s hard to get a big head after that.
In fact, teasing almost stunted his career before it began. Acting had been a fun hobby as a child, but when he was 12 years old, a teacher told him he was a good dancer and that he should train seriously. One of his brothers taunted him, saying he’d be a sissy if he took dance classes. “So I didn’t go,” he says. Six years later, his father took the boys to see the musical “42nd Street.” At intermission, his brother apologized for being such a jerk years before. “He said, ‘Hugh, you should be up there doing that stuff,’ ” Jackman recalls. “It made me tear up at the time -- it was a beautiful thing to say -- and I actually went straightaway and did dance classes from then.”
They’ve come in handy. Jackman has had an impressive stage career, winning acclaim for performances in musicals such as “Carousel,” “Oklahoma!” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Fabulous in gold lame, he won a 2004 Tony Award for his role as Peter Allen in “The Boy From Oz.”
And his screen presence is undeniable, as any Wolverine fan can attest. Jackman had started working as an actor in Australia right out of drama school, but it would be as the brooding, misunderstood mutant in the three “X-Men” films that he would mark his Stateside breakthrough. (He is presently finishing up “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” shot in Sydney.) Roles in films such as “Someone Like You” and “Kate & Leopold” showed off his romantic nature. “Australia” allowed the actor to explore both his hard and soft sides.
A sprawling story set on the eve of World War II, “Australia” tells the tale of Lady Sarah (Nicole Kidman), a British aristocrat who needs the Drover to help save her ranch in the Northern Territory of Australia. Although they despise each other at first sight, they come to admire each other (and then some) in the course of their travails.
In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Jackman is seen washing up after a hard day of riding. He lathers and rinses off his oiled and tanned upper body. The scene is lovingly captured in slow motion, and then the camera pans to the astonished eyes of the uptight Lady Sarah. It’s a nice reversal of the ogling man, as well as a campy recognition of his sex appeal. But initially, Jackman was worried that the audience wouldn’t get the wink and instead think he was a jerk.
“What Baz said in response to that was, ‘Hugh, this movie has to be bold in all the styles we play,’ ” Jackman relates. In other words, don’t hold back. So he didn’t. Members of the crew extended the joke by showing up on set shirtless and oiled up as well. “Every one of them was taking the piss out of me,” Jackman says, laughing. (Translation: yet more teasing.)
The film does boldly pay homage to a raft of stylish, stylized films, such as “The African Queen” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” “Gone With the Wind” is also referenced, in the sweeping love story with Kidman’s character.
Unlike that last film, with its glorification of the Confederacy, this story aims to be on the right side of history. “Australia’s” action and romance surround the true story of the Stolen Generations of indigenous and mixed-race children, who were taken from their homes by the Australian government and placed into institutions and missions, to “civilize” them. The practice continued until the early 1970s, and only this year did the Australian government apologize to the victims. The tragedy is embodied by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a mixed-race boy whom the Drover and Lady Sarah come to care for as their own.
Jackman, who went to a prestigious boy’s academy in Sydney, had learned nothing about the Stolen Generations until he reached college. “I almost didn’t believe it at first; I was like, this is too radical,” he says of the government’s treatment of the country’s Aborigines. “And then the more I read, the more outraged I was that I didn’t know about it before.”
Luhrmann told the actor that the most gratifying reaction has been at screenings for predominantly indigenous audiences in the Northern Territory. The film has been greeted with cheering, tears and hugs, and a sense of relief “not dissimilar to what you’ve gone through here with the election,” Jackman points out. “The strongest part of the film for me is that line, ‘Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.’ ”
But, Jackman adds, “Baz said if we made a very didactic and earnest story about the Stolen Generations, we’ll have about three people watching the movie.” Hence the romance, the drama, the Japanese bombing of Darwin (an actual although little-known event) and a treacherous cattle drive through the desert.
“It was the most challenging role because not only were there all these genres, but how to make them mix together, and ultimately how to make people still go on for the ride in the story and feel something at the end,” Jackman says.
He was aided by costars he called a dream. Kidman is a good friend of Jackman’s wife, but in working with her he found “there’s a kind of danger about Nicole, in the best sense of the word,” he says. “No matter how much you know her, there’s always something a little unpredictable that keeps you on your toes.” And he was blown away by Walters, who was 11 at the time of filming and in his first acting role. “You spend a lifetime craftwise as an actor, getting used to doing your thing and learning how to ignore the camera, using it but getting beyond that. Brandon just instinctively has that. It’s magical. He may be one of the most transcendent actors I’ve ever worked with.”
Jackman threw himself into the physical aspects of the role just as he’s thrown himself into his career -- facing his fear and going all out. Seeking to truly embody the character, he spent a year learning to ride like a real stockman. One of his many stunts found him surrounded by 200 wild horses that the Drover was bringing into the corral. His riding instructor, Craig Emerton, told him that once they began galloping, all Jackman could do was go along for the ride. “He said, ‘This will be a point in time when you can pull with all your might and nothing will stop this horse,’ ” Jackman recalls. Then they were off, “faster than the Kentucky Derby. And I just sort of let go and we were flying.”