At a time when Hollywood is trying to broaden the list of stars who can open big-budget films, 20th Century Fox is betting heavily on Hugh Jackman. He stars alongside Nicole Kidman in Australia, a Baz Luhrmann–directed film that is not only the biggest movie ever shot in Jackman’s native country but also the most ambitious period romance since Titanic.
Jackman plays a cattle driver pursuing a privileged widow who needs him to move cattle across the wide-open acreage of Australia’s north country. At stake is a ranch left to her after the abrupt death of her husband. Though steeped in Aussie history—from the disastrous World War I battles that decimated the country’s youth to the forced relocation of half-caste aboriginals to a Japanese attack in World War II—Australia is the type of old-fashioned epic studios rarely produce anymore.
Not that Jackman is any stranger to blockbusters. He returns in May with X-Men Origins: Wolverine as the growling, steel-taloned title character in a prequel that will be one of the summer’s major releases and, Jackman hopes, the start of a new franchise in which he calls the shots as producer.
Jackman is already the showbiz equivalent of the five-tool baseball player. He plays drama, comedy and action like Will Smith, George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio, and he has turned in a Tony Award-winning performance as the singing and dancing gay Australian showman Peter Allen, in The Boy From Oz. Though Jackman failed when he produced CBS’s musical TV series Viva Laughlin, he’s producing a remake of Carousel and will likely next star on Broadway in Houdini, a high-profile musical written by Spy magazine founder Kurt Andersen and scored by Danny Elfman, the Oingo Boingo frontman turned composer for Tim Burton films.
“Hugh is a true musical star on Broadway, but what Nicole needed was a real man tall enough to sweep her up in his arms, throw her on the bed and ravish her,” said Luhrmann. “I can’t think of another actor, ever, as versatile.”
The 40-year-old Sydney-born Jackman is the youngest of five children of Chris Jackman and Grace Watson. When Jackman was eight, his mother abruptly returned to England, leaving the children to be raised by their dad, an accountant for Price Waterhouse. A jock who studied journalism in college, Jackman didn’t realize his song-and-dance gifts until his 20s. He used $3,500 left to him in his grandmother’s will to enroll in the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth.
Jackman soon began working in local film and TV roles. Cast as a tough prisoner in the Aussie TV series Correlli, Jackman fell for his on-screen love interest, Deborra-Lee Furness. They married in 1996 and have adopted two children, Oscar and Ava.
Jackman became a major player at the age of 30 with his first Hollywood role, Wolverine in X-Men. When X-Men became one of the first superhero films to reach blockbuster status, Jackman followed with two sequels and starring roles in Swordfish, Kate & Leopold, Van Helsing, The Fountain and The Prestige.
Playboy sent Michael Fleming, who most recently interviewed Matthew McConaughey, to catch up with Jackman. Fleming reports, “Over thick steaks in a favorite Jackman haunt that overlooks surfers hanging 10 at Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Jackman revealed himself to be a terrific storyteller, as accommodating as people say he is on movie sets. Locals claim Jackman is already the most popular homegrown movie star, but if Australia and Wolverine score, he’s positioned to become something Hollywood finds in short supply: a real leading man.”
JACKMAN: Nowhere is that more prevalent than in Australia. In England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales it’s cool to go to a rugby or soccer match and just sing out. Not in Australia. I remember wondering, Why are we so inhibited? Why, when all the girls are in the middle of the dance floor, are all the blokes standing there, holding their beer and, maybe, rocking a little bit.
PLAYBOY: How much of a ribbing did you take when you began dancing?
JACKMAN: When I was 12, after a school concert a teacher said, “Hugh, you’ve actually got some dancing ability. You should get some lessons.” I came home and told my dad, who said, “Sure, no problem.” My brother overheard and said, “Oh, you bloody poof.” I never went. He apologized to me later when we went to see a show together. He said, “Oh man, all those years I could have been cleaning up with women.” But I was a total chickenshit. I was the jock. It makes me incredibly sad. To this day I don’t consider myself a dancer because I missed those vital years. My brother, at the age of 33, gave up being a sports journalist to do musical theater.
PLAYBOY: Have Dancing With the Stars and American Idol made the world safe for singing and dancing?
JACKMAN: I’ve seen only a few episodes of Dancing With the Stars, but it looks great. Still, I don’t see a lot of guys lining up, so it hasn’t made a dent. I love watching American Idol because I’m an actor who fell into singing, and it terrifies me and puts me totally on the contestants’ side. Singing has always had a pull for macho guys because of the rebellious rock-and-roller. But you go to Cuba or Argentina and watch the way men dance. It’s incredibly heterosexual, and everybody does it. You see short, older, fatter guys with the hottest women because they’re such great dancers. The incredibly stupid part is, guys who dance in clubs pick up more girls. How cool did Christopher Walken look dancing in that Fatboy Slim video? When Lady Di went to America for the first time at the height of her fame and they asked what she wanted to do the most, she said, “I want to dance with John Travolta.” If that wasn’t a signal for every red-blooded male out there.….
PLAYBOY: When you’re singing and dancing onstage, what kinds of things go wrong?
JACKMAN: Something happened in one of the first performances of The Boy From Oz. Peter Allen was famous for dancing on top of the piano. He treated it like the vault in gymnastics—jumped all over it. I’d dive across the top of this long grand piano, finishing in a position where I’d be like lying across it, going ta-dah! We’d been doing it for a month, and one night as I slid across, I knew I was going too fast. It was the slipperiest surface ever, and I went straight on the floor, literally front and center. I got up, laughing hysterically. The audience loved it. I stopped the band and said, in character, “Okay, I don’t know what they’re mixing with the cleaning fluid. Jason, get out here!” Jason was from the stage crew, and he was terrified. I said, “Jason, mate, you’re cute, but listen, I almost broke a bone. What did you clean this with?” He said, “I cleaned it with water,” and I said, “Bullshit, show me.” I made him take off his little tool belt and take a run at it. He went right off the piano, and the audience went nuts. That was the beginning for me, as Peter Allen, of breaking the fourth wall with the audience. I built it into the show and pulled Sarah Jessica Parker, Sean Combs, Eric Clapton and Steven Spielberg up onstage.
PLAYBOY: Are you always able to cover the mistakes?
JACKMAN: No. In London I did Oklahoma! It has a dream ballet in which the girl falls asleep dreaming of dancing, and I had a dance number with a ballerina. I was terrified of it. On the first night, Mary Rodgers and all the people from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization were there. This girl was an unbelievable dancer, and I was lifting her all around. At the end of the number is this very complicated lift in which I twist her and she finishes like a swan, up on my shoulder. I was so pumped with adrenaline that I lifted her straight over my back and she landed hard. She was wearing a tutu, and her legs were in the air—not a good look for even the most graceful ballerina. Of course, my mike was on, and I went, “Oh shit, sorry,” and that boomed out.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you wet your pants once during a musical number?
JACKMAN: Oh God, yeah. When I was Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, I started getting headaches every day. I went to a specialist who said, “Mate, you’re dehydrated. Drink two liters of water.” I drank three. I’d just gone to the bathroom, but waiting in the wings, I was like, Bloody hell, I need to go again. I thought, I’ll be all right. The number featured Belle and me; I chased her around the stage, lifting her up, dragging her, singing the whole time. Then I realized, No way. I was sucking in air, trying to sing and dance. I picked her up, and I realized I peed my pants a little. The very last note is a big-time F-sharp, front and center. You have to release certain muscles to hit it, the same ones that allow you to hold on when you have to go to the bathroom. I thought, Shit, if I sing this note, I’m going to pee my pants; if I don’t, I’m going to be humiliated. The actor in me took over.
PLAYBOY: How noticeable was it?
JACKMAN: I was singing, thinking, Wow, I’m peeing my pants. When I finished, I immediately turned upstage, looked down and couldn’t see anything. I thought, These red tights must be waterproof. I was laughing as if I had gotten away with it. But the audience was looking at me funny. It had seeped through, and my pants were completely wet. The audience could see it.
PLAYBOY: Twentieth Century Fox had a rough summer in 2008, and it desperately needs a hit. Australia and next summer’s Wolverine will in large part determine if the studio regains its mojo. Has fellow Aussie and studio head Rupert Murdoch made you feel the pressure?
JACKMAN: Rupert and I see each other a fair bit, and he always asks me how it is. I love that about him. Twentieth Century Fox is one part of his massive business, but he’s still that kid who wants the inside skinny. Australia is a risky proposition, but it’s important to him beyond the numbers.
JACKMAN: Movies like this are not made very often. The last successful one was Titanic. There hasn’t been anything as massive in the old-school-epic genre, but for Rupert the stakes are higher. He’s a proud Australian who has a movie called Australia. He has a cattle farm he goes to all the time.