'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Hugh Jackman ('The Front Runner')

THR-Hugh-Jackman-Photographed by Sami Drasin-H-2018
Sami Drasin

"My life has gone places, Scott, that I never, ever thought possible," says Hugh Jackman, the hugely popular Australian actor-singer-dancer, as we sit down at his publicists' New York office to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "There are so many things that are way beyond coincidence. I feel there has been some guiding hand. I don't have the same belief in God that I had when I was 14 or 15, but I do still have this feeling of a path. There is some kind of path, and if you listen to the right signals, you end up in the right place."

Jackman's path has been unlike any other. He shot to international fame as the mutant superhero Wolverine in the 2000 comic book film adaptation X-Men, returning to the character eight more times over the next 17 years, with all nine installments opening atop the box office. (No actor has played the same superhero character in more films or over as long a time span.) He has been hugely prolific outside of that franchise, as well — in Hollywood films (including seven other box-office toppers, 2001’s Swordfish, 2004’s Van Helsing, 2006’s Happy Feet and The Prestige, 2011’s Real Steel, 2013’s Prisoners and 2015’s Chappie, and one best picture Oscar nominee, 2012’s Les Miserables) and Broadway theater both musical and dramatic.

Jackman also hosted the Tonys (in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2014) and the Oscars (in 2009). He has won a Golden Globe, a Tony, a special Tony and an Emmy for his hosting of the Tonys, and garnered Oscar and Grammy nominations. He was the main voice on a soundtrack, 2017’s The Greatest Showman, that topped the album charts in the U.S. for two weeks and was an even bigger hit in the U.K., where it was the year’s best-selling album of any sort and the album with the longest run atop the charts in a half-century. Jackman recently announced a world tour, as part of which he will be singing songs with which he is closely associated in stadiums and arenas all over the globe. And he is coming off some of the best notices of his career for his portrayal of the former presidential candidate Gary Hart in Jason Reitman's The Front Runner.

In other words, a serious case could be made that Jackman is his generation's, well, greatest showman.

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 25:09], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, the directors of the National Geographic documentary feature Science Fair, which follows high school students on their quest to compete and win at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, JJ Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Carol Burnett.

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Jackman was born in Sydney to a PriceWaterhouse accountant and a homemaker. His mother left the family when he was just 8, which, he acknowledges, was "traumatic for everybody" and "shaped a lot of who I am." He had a "religious upbringing," attending revival meetings and the like — and even contemplating becoming a minister when he grew up — but "went off the rails a little bit" and instead wound up performing. His initial desire was to pursue dance, but at age 11 his brother called him a "sissy" for doing so (the brother apologized seven years later, at which point Jackman resumed dancing), so he focused on acting. "I always did it as a hobby," he says. "It took me a long time to actually have the courage to say, 'I want to do it for a living.'"

Indeed, when Jackman went off to university, he majored in journalism, imagining a future in radio. It was only during his senior year that he shifted to drama, quite by accident, and then got hooked at a subsequent one-year acting course. "I had the bug badly," he says, noting that he then did three years of drama school — after agonizing over whether to instead accept a high-profile paying gig on the soap opera Neighbors. Instead, he landed his first major gig in October 1994, shortly after he graduated from drama school, when, at 26, he was cast as a mentally challenged prisoner on the show Corelli, beating out a lot of bigger names — and co-starring opposite his future wife, Debora-Lee Furness. From that, Jackman went on to star in three theatrical musicals in three years, most notably Oklahoma! at the National Theatre in London, which brought him to the attention of the agent Patrick Whitesell (then at CAA, now a co-chief of WME), with whom he signed and who began promoting him for Hollywood opportunities.

At the turn of the century, the comic book superhero movie phenomenon had not yet begun, but it was still exciting for Jackman when Whitesell informed him that there was some interest in him for the role of Wolverine in the first X-Men movie since Dougray Scott, who was originally cast, had a scheduling conflict with another movie. "My dream was to be either in the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company," Jackman reflects, "and I'm at the National Theatre. I'm 28. And the show's a hit show. That was pretty much the summation of my dream, so everything else was a bonus." After his initial meeting for the part, Jackman heard nothing, but when, months later, he and his wife went to Los Angeles to start the process of adopting their son, Whitesell, having learned that Scott had fallen through once again, got Jackman in for a reading, and this time he landed it.

Jackman was 31 when the first Wolverine film came out and proved a blockbuster. "It just kept exceeding expectations," he remembers, "and everything changed. I can count on one hand the amount of times I've auditioned from then. Offers just started coming in." Among his next parts were Kate & Leopold for James Mangold ("Working with Jim was a huge turning-point for me") and Swordfish, both released in 2001. He turned down the part eventually played by Richard Gere in Chicago (2002), a decision he now second-guesses, but he did insist on returning to musical theater in another way, even at a time when many advised him it could stunt the momentum of his film career.

In 2003, Jackman made his Broadway debut in The Boy From Oz, based on the life of singer-songwriter Peter Allen, and it quickly became the hottest ticket on Broadway. He gave 364 performances, was nominated for a Tony and then hosted the Tonys on the night he won. Now Broadway royalty, he has since returned to the Great White Way in two plays and a special concert. The New York Times called him "the most adored performer on Broadway" and wrote: "Mr. Jackman is a glorious dinosaur among live entertainers of the 21st century: an honest-to-gosh old-fashioned matinee idol who connects to his audiences without a hint of contempt for them or for himself." As for the widespread rumors that he is gay, which his singing and dancing have probably fueled, he says with a chuckle, "I really don't care about it. I think sometimes people like to gossip, and maybe they think, 'Everything seems to be too good in his life.'"

The Boy From Oz turned out to be a shot of adrenaline for Jackman's film career. "All of a sudden it started to open up," he says, noting that it led to his casting in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, Woody Allen's Scoop and Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, all of which came out in 2006; and, a few years later, to Steven Spielberg urging the Academy to ask him to host the Oscars, which he did in 2009. "I think it just shook people up so much," he says of The Boy From Oz. "I mean, to be fair to the business, nothing outside of Wolverine had really hit for me, right? So I can understand why those making the commercial decisions go, 'Well, unless it's like a Wolverine kind of role, I don't know if he's your guy.'"

The ensuing decade was filled with many more Wolverine movies, and Jackman is honest enough to admit, "There was a period there where we were doing big commercial movies that were not great." He elaborates: "I was unhappy with where we got to on The Wolverine. I realize I've very rarely said that because I don't want to be disparaging to all those people who gave up a year of their life to work on it, but I knew there was a more human character study about this, and that's what I always wanted to get to." While Jackman and his collaborators worked to get there, he continued to appear in other films, some of which were regarded as failures, such as Baz Luhrmann's Australia (2008), and others of which were triumphs, especially Tom Hooper's Les Miserables (2012), in which his live-singing performance as Jean Valjean, a role he had always dreamed of playing, landed him a best actor Oscar nom.

Jackman closed out his Wolverine chapter on a high with 2017's Logan, the best-reviewed film of the franchise "by far," he emphasizes. By that point, the actor had grown to genuinely love the character. "I didn't grow up reading a comic book ever," he says. "I didn't come from that world. My love for Wolverine didn't come from the comic books. The more I got to know him, I was like, 'This is a brilliant character. This is like Greek tragedy. This is Shakespearean. This is getting down to the essence of the push and pull within each of us between the controlled and the chaos. And there is something there that should speak to people who have never read a comic book in their life.'" As for walking away from the part, Jackman says, "I just knew that it was time to move on. And by the way, this a great part — that's someone not one but five other people should play and will play over the years. It's like Bond. It's a great part."

Hearteningly, his first post-Wolverine year — during which he turned 50 — proved to be one of the best of his career. Jackman and director Michael Gracey struggled for years to make the P.T. Barnum-biopic The Greatest Showman, an original musical, and ultimately did so for $84 million, a steep amount that seemed irrecoverable after the film's slow start at the box office. But, defying all Hollywood rules, receipts actually grew from week to week, largely thanks to strong word-of-mouth and a soundtrack that was growing into a chart-topper of its own, and it wound up grossing an astounding $435 million worldwide. And then came The Front Runner, the first film in which he was ever asked to play a real, living person. Prior to reading the script, Jackman "knew nothing" about Hart, but studied all about him and then spent time with him, embracing "the challenge of playing someone who's very different from me." The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August; played the Toronto, London and Chicago film festivals thereafter; and was released by Sony on Nov. 6. While it struggled commercially, it resulted in some of the best notices of his career, and confirms that Jackman's range truly knows no bounds.