The walls of Hugh Jackman’s office are covered with posters for grand old Hollywood musicals, but on a recent afternoon the devoted song-and-dance man was in less graceful mode. Fists raised and teeth bared, he was practicing a number from swinging in the ring, not “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“When I first started the role of Wolverine, back for the first ‘X-Men’ movie, I watched a lot of Mike Tyson videos in my trailer,” Jackman said as he shadow-boxed. “The way he just goes straight in. I kept saying to the writers, ‘Don’t give me long, choreographed fights for the sake of it. Don’t make the fights pretty.’ Like Tyson, if Wolverine wants to take your . . . head off, he’s going to do it.”
Just two months removed from the dapper, soft-shoe duty as the host of the Academy Awards, the Tony-winner has returned to his cinematic dark side. The ferocity of Wolverine, his haunted background and those famous claws have made him the most popular comic-book character created in the last 40 years. And, with the release of Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the Marvel Comics character is finally at the center of a fourth major film.
The first three appearances of Jackman in the Wolverine role were in “X-Men” films, a trilogy that pulled in more than $1 billion at theaters worldwide with each installment making more than the last. Jackman and Wolverine were clearly the fan-favorite and in this new feature, Wolverine’s previously murky past is explored with revelations about his family, his secret military career and the origin of those unbreakable shiny blades that pop from his hands.
A week ago, at his Seed Productions office on the Fox lot, Jackman was giddy about news that, according to one online survey, the advance tickets sales for “Wolverine” were more robust than those for last year’s “Iron Man,” a film that pulled in $98 million in its opening weekend in the U.S. “That is great news,” the 40-year-old Aussie said. “I can’t tell you how great. We’ve been through a lot. . . . “
“Wolverine” marks his first solo film franchise, but for the ragged Jackman it feels more like a finish line -- very few movies have endured as many last-minute crises as “Wolverine,” chief among them a major act of piracy that sent a stolen copy of the film pinging around the world.
“People were working like dogs to get the movie finished and then to have an unfinished version get out, well, it was just crushing at first,” Jackman said, shaking his head. “I’ve moved on about it. And I think people want to see it on a big screen, see it with 500 people and yell and scream and cheer and boo.”
Jackman is the youngest of six children and, after he turned 8, he and his siblings were raised by their father, an accountant in Sydney, while their mother lived in her native England. It was on the stage in Melbourne that the handsome Jackman found his life pursuit, landing roles such as cynical Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard” and the brawny Gaston in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
He wanted to make the transition to film but his path to his most famous role was an unlikely one. He and his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, came to the U.S. to adopt their first child, Ava, and, through a series of unexpected events, he ended up inheriting the role of Wolverine from Scottish actor Dougray Scott, who had to drop out because filming on “Mission: Impossible II” ran long.
“Where I would be without this role, I don’t know,” said Jackman, who speaks graciously of Scott, but, well, Ringo Starr never had a bad thing to say about Pete Best, either. “I knew nothing about the history of the character, but as I got into it, it was amazing.”
In Marvel Comics, Wolverine first appeared in 1974, the creation of Len Wein and John Romita, but many of his most intriguing shadings came a decade later with a solo print mini-series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. Much of the loner hero’s background was left as cryptic blank-spots until a 1991 run of stories called “Weapon X” and a 2001 series called “Origin.”
Jackman said he first began studying the comics while filming the 2000 film “X-Men,” despite director Bryan Singer’s ban on comics from the set to encourage reality-based film. (“I had to sneak them in my trailer,” Jackman said sheepishly.) Now as a student of the history and producer of the film, he had no doubt that the crux of the film should be a struggle not between good and evil but between one man and his own rage.
“The battle between animal and human, I broke that down to be the most essential thing to focus on with this character,” Jackman said. “We can all relate to that. Maybe not in the same extreme level, but we wrestle everyday with that argument between chaos and control and freedom and discipline.”
Along with ear-chewing boxer Tyson, Jackman studied Mel Gibson’s performances in the “Mad Max” films, a longtime compass point for Jackman, who aspires to match his fellow countryman’s ability to blend sinewy masculinity with flashes that reveal an inner compassion and wounded past. “He had an edge, but there was emotion to him, something decent inside,” Jackman said.
Jackman molded his body for the role, packing in calories -- 4,500 a day, all of them from fish, steamed chicken, tofu and the occasional steak -- and then doing explosive-impact weight-lifting. The 6-foot-1 star reached a bulky 215 pounds and then came the lean-down process to reduce his body fat and start filming at 200.
“Part of you gets really into it, the extreme nature of it,” Jackman said. “I had a picture in my head of the character looking more like Robert De Niro in ‘Cape Fear,’ I wanted him to be all veins and muscle . . . I wanted him to look dangerous.”
The trials for Jackman and “Wolverine” went far beyond the weight room. First, there were the rumors that director Gavin Hood had stumbled during filming and that old-pro Richard Donner had quietly stepped in for reshoots. Then, a few weeks before its release, a pirated copy hit the Internet and in under a week more than a million fans snatched it for viewing. Finally, the film’s premiere in Mexico this week was canceled in the wake of the swine flu crisis.
“Wolverine” producer Lauren Shuler Donner said some extra surprises had been added to the film to entice fans who already watched the pilfered version, but she said the real draw was seeing Jackman on the big screen.
“He has become this character and defined it,” Donner said. “He is so talented and so versatile in so many ways. That’s one reason he will never be typecast as Wolverine, it would be too hard to contain him.”
Perhaps, but despite opportunities such as “Swordfish,” “Van Helsing,” “Kate & Leopold” and “Australia,” the actor has not scored a major box-office hit with any live-action film in which he wasn’t slashing away with Wolverine’s claws.
Jackman is hopeful that he will be able to make two more Wolverine films and he is especially eager to explore the ninja tales that were such a popular part of the character’s 1980s publishing history.
Not surprisingly, he wants to make film musicals too, to show that other side of himself. “I’ve been looking to do a musical film for a long time and after things like ‘Moulin Rogue,’ ‘Chicago’ and ‘Hairspray’ I think there’s a real opportunity there,” Jackman said. “I’ve developed a script of ‘Carousel,’ a musical I just love. There’s a famous quote from Stephen Sondheim: ‘ “Carousel"is about life and death and “Oklahoma” is about a picnic.’ ”
Jackman, of course, hosted the Oscars earlier this year, and shared the stage with Anne Hathaway during one of the more memorable skits. “I thought she was brilliant and open and creative so I’ve been filling up her answering machine with messages about ‘Carousel.’ ”
That’s a song and dance for a different day. For now Jackman will be waiting and watching this weekend for the final judgment from fans. “I will be very keen to hear what they think when they see the movie,” he said. “I don’t have to go looking for it. They’ll tell me. They always do.”