Hugh Jackman on His Surprising Hollywood BFFs and Mother's Abandonment
This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Hugh Jackman's image long has been that of a sunny-side up Australian -- a singing, dancing, easygoing actor, husband and father who can instantly transform from Academy Awards host (2009) to biceps-bulging heartthrob (Wolverine). But on this late-January morning, the movie star -- a first-time Oscar nominee for his role as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables -- drops surprise after surprise. First, he tells this reporter he is friends with self-help guru Tony Robbins, who helped Jackman, 44, prepare for Les Mis by finding ways to cope with fear and anxiety, which bedevils the performer more before the camera than a live audience (as in his acclaimed show Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway). Robbins suggested the strapping 6-foot-3 superstar name the secure and insecure sides of his personality. “Frank was the more confident, and Charles was the other,” says Jackman.
"I always thought strength came from getting rid of that fear," he adds. "And Tony said: 'Charles is your sensitivity. Charles makes you question. Charles makes you work harder. When you walk on set, thank Charles for everything.' " He pauses. "Tony really transformed my life."
Another unexpected friendship is with News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, who even asked Jackman to be his daughter Chloe's godfather shortly after her birth in 2003.
"I met him first in a family situation," says the actor of their decade-old connection. "[Murdoch's wife] Wendi and Nicole Kidman were very good friends. It was Nicole's birthday, and we all went to Soho House in New York, and we were in the pool. He was holding his daughter, and I was holding my son, and we became friends."
He says many people have the wrong impression of Murdoch: "He loves having friends and family around. A lot of people in his life are there for a long time. He looks after them and appreciates them. He's very caring and thoughtful and incredibly respectful of everybody around him."
Sitting at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, Jackman reveals himself to be a far more complex and far-ranging figure than many of his peers realize. As he gobbles down a breakfast of oatmeal, wheat toast and a five-egg omelet -- muscling up for his next movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which he returns as Wolverine for the sixth time -- he adds to this impression by discussing a turbulent past that still lingers with him.
Open and immensely likable, he describes being 8 years old when his mother, Grace, abandoned him and his four elder siblings, leaving them in Sydney with their father, Christopher. His mother's departure never was fully explained to him, and indeed Jackman only realized it was permanent when he was 13 and his father's attempt at a reconciliation failed.
"Dad went off to England to bring her back, but by this point she was married to someone else, with a kid," he says. "It was really complicated. So when Dad arrived back -- not three weeks later, as planned, but five days later -- I just knew. I was old enough to go, 'This is not happening.' "
With his mother an ocean away in her native England (both parents had immigrated to Australia in 1967), Jackman remembers being too frightened even to enter his house alone. "I was terrified because I was the first one home every day," he says. "I used to walk home from school and wait outside. I just wouldn't go in."
He recalls growing up in a deeply religious family, his parents having been converted to conservative Protestantism by Billy Graham, after which they strictly adhered to the Church of England's tenets; and he also recalls breaking away from their beliefs in his late teens. Today, he is not particularly religious and says he never prays, though he believes in some form of God and afterlife and meditates twice daily for 30 minutes. "It is about quieting that part of the brain and just seeing and being," he explains.
But meditation and his growing success, which has reached a climax this year with Les Mis, have only paved the way for a life that is centered just as much on Jackman's wife, actress Deborra-Lee Furness, 57, and their children, Oscar, 12, and Ava, 7, as on his work -- which might create conflicts in the wake of the career-transforming Les Mis.
"I told my agent [WME's Patrick Whitesell], 'After Days of Future Past, I need to be home [in New York's West Village],' " Jackman says -- particularly to support his son, who has certain learning disabilities like dyslexia.
All this leaves a question about whether he will return to X-Men once he completes the time-spanning sequel that starts shooting mid-April in Montreal, after Jackman wraps the crime drama Prisoners, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis. He hasn't ruled it out, but for now he says simply, "I need to be home."
In addition to his family, Jackman has surrounded himself with friends, including 11 high school buddies who accompanied him on a reunion trip to Japan four years ago and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus (whose micro-finance campaign Jackman actively supports).
Despite these friends and a seemingly idyllic life, Jackman admits rumors about his sexuality have taken a greater toll than previously acknowledged, especially on his wife. "Just recently, it bugs her," he says, blaming the Internet, which she frequents more than he does. (Jackman largely sticks to cricket sites and The Economist.) "She goes: 'It's big. It's everywhere!' "
His X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner shrugs off the gossip. "I have seen him with Deborra since the beginning of their trip to Hollywood, and I've been on five movie sets with him and have never seen him stray, have never seen him eye anyone. I met him when he did Oklahoma! [at London's Royal National Theatre in 1999]. He was genuine, hugely talented. He was in love with his wife that day and still is."
The actor took his first extended leave from their family (the children were adopted after Furness suffered two miscarriages) for Les Mis, which started shooting in March 2012 in England. Until then, he says they had never spent more than two weeks apart.
He had heard the long-in-the-works musical might be coming to the screen from Whitesell, who loved it from his youth. "Patrick has seen every version of Les Mis," says Jackman. "It was the only video they owned. And his family -- six boys -- used to watch it every year. He said, 'That's it! We're going to get this!' "
After an informal chat with director Tom Hooper, who hadn't committed to the project at that point, Jackman offered to do a proper audition when Hooper signed on. Following an hours-long interview that landed him the role, he embarked on seven weeks of rehearsal before the shoot began, living in Spring Cottage, a storied residence on the grounds of England's Cliveden House, the very place where call girl Christine Keeler began a scandalous affair with British Secretary of War John Profumo in 1961.
Jackman turned to Robbins for guidance. "I said: 'I want some help. I got this job, and sometimes in front of the camera I can't feel as relaxed as onstage' " -- though he says he has grown more comfortable with film over the past couple of years. "He said it's not about denying the character within you who feels nervous. That fear serves you to work hard. It's not about going, 'F--- you, I wish you weren't here, get out.' It's about embracing that. He goes: 'Man, you're playing Jean Valjean. You should be scared!' "
Jackman pushed himself to the limits for the role. After weeks on a crash diet, before he began shooting the movie's opening sequence -- where he is seen waist-deep in frigid water, hauling cables attached to a great ship -- he gave up fluids altogether.
"I didn't have anything to drink until late in the day when we did the opening scene with Russell Crowe," he says, explaining the dehydration gave his skin a gaunt, haggard look that makes his initial appearance as Valjean so shocking. "You lose up to 10 pounds of water weight, mainly from the exterior of the body. But it was really brutal. About 20 hours in, a headache came. Then I wanted to drink water out of the ocean! I see the scene now, and I look really thin, really sunken."
Admits Hooper: "I was worried. I thought, 'This is probably the kind of thing I should discourage.' I said, 'Have a sip of water.' But he was very determined. He'd obviously consulted doctors, but I do remember he eventually got very cold, really cold."
Throughout, his star "never said a sharp word. I don't know how he remains so calm. He really is an extraordinary man."
Jackman wasn't always like this, especially during the years when he grappled with his mother's absence.
"To be in Australia at that point, with my father working hard, I think Mom just felt incredibly isolated," he says. She did not have an easy transition with the relocation from England. "Fairly soon, she had difficulties. She was in the hospital a long time after I was born. She had very bad postpartum depression. I'm guessing it lasted years because I remember she used to go off for little periods. I think she was feeling trapped."
When her own mother fell ill, she went back to the U.K., leaving the children with their father, an accountant and Cambridge graduate. Jackman remembers him praying that his wife would return, but she never did.
Christopher's commitment to work -- an ethos Jackman has inherited -- did not help: "My father could only come to one [school sports] game a year because he had five kids, and on Saturday he had to shop. If my father was there, it would be 50 percent greater. Having his approval is something that still drives me."
His father's devoutness also influenced him: "I was involved with so many things in the church. It was my social group. It was where I met girls. It was sort of my life out of school. Then around 16 or 17, I started questioning. 'How come all these nonbelievers are going to hell?' "
His beliefs evolved when he attended Sydney's University of Technology and focused on journalism before stumbling upon acting through a drama course he had to take in order to graduate. Later, he continued his acting studies at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, learning about meditation at the nearby School of Practical Philosophy. "That really started to change my life," he says.
Upon graduation, he landed his first professional job on Correlli, a prison-set TV series starring Furness, who at first held off the 26-year-old Jackman's romantic advances.
"I was single when I met her, and she was single," he recalls of his future wife, also the product of a single-parent household, whose father had died in a car accident when she was a child. "I was happy being single. I was out of a difficult relationship I'd had through drama school, and it was tumultuous and hard. I'd been living off 120 bucks a week as a student until I was 26. Then, when I met Deb, it was 10 times better than my single life. She was very beautiful. She was unbelievably fun -- this energy, this spirit -- irrepressible. And she had a confidence in herself. I had a massive crush on her instantly."
He adds: "She was sort of the opposite of me. I was very 'Even Steven,' and she was thrilling to me. I was always really attracted to that -- though at one point, as it was getting really serious, it terrified me."
They married in 1996, and Furness put her career on hold as Jackman's exploded. Now, he says: "It feels like she needs to get back into it. She needs to act again."
His own career took off with stage roles in Australia including Trevor Nunn's production of Sunset Blvd., followed by Oklahoma! in London, which drew the X-Men producers' notice.
Shuler Donner and director Bryan Singer were looking to cast Wolverine, the stout, stubborn, enigmatic main character of their Marvel Comics adaptation. Shuler Donner admits the director at first was unconvinced. "Hugh was a lot taller than the character, and Bryan wasn't sure if he was the right guy," she says. "So I said, 'Let me send him up to you in Toronto,' " where the film already was underway. "And Hugh went up, and Anna Paquin was there already, and they did a scene together, and after Bryan yelled 'Cut!' one of the crewmembers said, 'Wow! That's Wolverine.' "
When Singer and Shuler Donner asked for a multipicture commitment, Jackman was delighted. He didn't realize that the fewer films he signed on for, the more leverage he would have if the producers wanted him back. "Here's my naivete," he laughs. "I was like, 'Fantastic!' My agent goes: 'No. You'll learn.' I said, 'They're going to guarantee me three jobs, and you've got it down to two?' I was so stupid. By the third, X-Men: The Last Stand, I understood."
The X-Men franchise has become a pillar of 20th Century Fox's movie slate, pulling in a robust $1.8 billion worldwide and bringing Jackman a reported $20 million for The Wolverine (his second spinoff as that character), which wrapped in late 2012. He is not committed to any more outings in the series following Days of Future Past.
Even that film came out of the blue.
"I first heard about it around October or November ," he notes. "I was literally finishing The Wolverine and dreaming about lasagna, and about three weeks before the end, they told me." The role was large and reunited him with many of the original cast. "There was no way I was not going to be part of that." He says he still has not read a finished screenplay, however, and has seen only a synopsis of about eight pages.
Outside these films, Jackman's work has spanned a dizzying array that has complicated his onscreen persona, occasionally making it hard to determine who the real Jackman is -- from the romantic comedy Kate & Leopold (2001) to Darren Aronofsky's philosophical drama The Fountain (2006) to Baz Luhrmann's epic Australia (2008). And then there's Movie 43, the much-maligned recent sketch-comedy flop by Peter Farrelly and other directors, in which he has a small scene as a man with testicles attached to his throat. Jackman committed to it four years ago, he says, and appears unperturbed by the reception: "I read a script for a short which really made me laugh, and then I heard Kate [Winslet] wanted to do it too, and I was sold."
Some of the projects he has turned down are as fascinating as those he has accepted. He rejected the Richard Gere role in Chicago because he felt he was too young; pulled out of the Ryan Gosling starrer Drive, which he had developed, because he was unsure about working with Nicolas Winding Refn, then a relatively untested director; and declined to be considered for James Bond around the time of the first X-Men. "I thought it would box me in too much," he says. "My natural instinct is to keep as many doors open as possible."
Doing so has brought him a Golden Globe as well as the Oscar nomination for Les Mis, not to mention acclaim for hosting the Academy Awards when he was asked to do so, intriguingly, by Steven Spielberg -- despite having dragged the director onstage during a Las Vegas production of The Boy From Oz.
"He was mortified," smiles Jackman, finishing the last bite of his enormous omelet, "and, of course, it's the worst thing to do to anybody, and I'm shocked that he still speaks to me."
Now he is contemplating his future. He is preparing for the next X-Men, which involves a very different regimen from the one for Les Mis -- including consuming vats of food for eight hours straight, then going without any for 16 hours. "Your body learns to burn fat in that 16 hours," says Jackman, his physique at its finest beneath his casual blue T-shirt. "And I sleep better."
He has reunited and rebuilt a relationship with his mother, though he says they never had a particular rift despite the pain caused by their time apart and the limits imposed by ultra-expensive international phone calls.
"For a lot of years, I thought, 'Oh, I must be suppressing something,' " he observes. "When I was around my mid-20s, I was probably guessing that I had repressed anger, so I would bring it up. Mom was fine to talk about anything. But instinctively, as I grew up, and as I was in relationships where I had my heart broken, and I broke other people's hearts, you realize people have breaking points. Mom, at the time, was not well. And she made decisions that, on some level, she regrets."
Now she visits him in New York, and Jackman also remains close to his father, 76, who still lives in Australia. Beyond work and family, he has little time for anything else. He does not watch much television other than sports, because "I'm terrified of getting hooked" -- which happened when he started watching The West Wing after collaborating with Aaron Sorkin on Houdini for the stage. (Sorkin pulled out of the play early in February.)
He has shut down a production company he established with his former assistant, John Palermo. "I just realized I didn't want to be a producer when I grow up; it's not my skill set," he says.
He also is immersed in Yunus' endeavors, which began following an early encounter with him just after he came across the economist's work.
"I was reading two books at the same time," he remembers. "One was Paul Newman's In Pursuit of the Common Good and the idea of creating a social business. The other was [Yunus'] Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, and I thought, 'This is a true philosopher.' And when I met him, he kind of put the charge on me: He said, 'That's how you use your profile.' "
Raising his star profile is the thing that matters to him least, he insists. "I have no real natural instinct for the star world. I don't really put a lot of currency in stardom. I have this weird feeling that the more you direct your attention into solving that issue, the worse an actor you become."
And yet he admits, while his ambition to be a star has quieted, it hasn't entirely disappeared. "I saw a play in Sydney," he recalls, "and in the notes they had this quote from Bono that said: 'What kind of hole exists in the heart of a person when they need to have 70,000 people scream, "I love you," in order to feel fulfilled?' But there is a part of me that wants to please, to be all things to all people."
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