Jackman claws his way to top

The Baltimore Sun

Hugh Jackman has achieved legendary success on stages in his native Australia as well as America and England, playing everyone from Curly the singing cowboy in Oklahoma! to gay entertainer Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz. On screen, he's taken a shot at everything from sleazes and sorcerers to lady-killers and superheroes. A pillar of the smash X-Men series as the team's angry, furry young man - the steel-taloned Wolverine - he's breaking off into his own Wolverine series. And in Australia, he holds down the leading-man position in a rare contemporary attempt at a sweeping national melodrama.

At age 40, you feel he hasn't yet found his defining role or, better yet, may not want one. What's certain is that moviemakers who need a fellow hungering to fill out larger-than-life (or just full-of-life) roles - parts that aren't just romantic in a hearts-and-flowers way, but romantic in their spirit of awe and wonder - should get on the horn to Jackman. He even has a romantic height: 6 foot 3 inches. And unlike celebrated predecessors such as John Wayne or Laurence Olivier (both of whom took years to break through in the movies and fully inhabit heroic parts), nothing about playing virtuous protagonists has ever fazed or embarrassed him.

Australia, because when you shoot for eight months, it's the kind of acting that requires keeping a center to the character."

Jackman had to rely on his wits and those of director Baz Luhrmann to suggest juicy tensions under the rugged surface of the Drover. "He's written as a quite archetypal character," Jackman says. "His name is the Drover, and here you'd call him 'the Cowboy' or even 'the Man with No Name,' " referring to the character Clint Eastwood made famous in Sergio Leone's "spaghetti Western" trilogy. (It's a resonant reference: In his earliest incarnations of Wolverine, Jackman gives off a hint of Eastwood at his most feral.) "The Drover is a symbol of machismo, and for a long time you don't really understand what goes on beyond the tough exterior."

For Jackman, peeling off the opacity was part of the challenge and the enjoyment he took from the project. "I find the less chance you have in the story to explain what you're all about, the more you have to know the mental history of what's happening to the character inside." Jackman spent time hanging out, riding with and, most of all, observing the cowboys of Australia's Northern Territory, who make use of modern devices and conveniences but still share the hands-on ranching-and-droving culture depicted in the film (which is set in 1939).

For 11 or 12 months, he trained to ride in the manner of a real stockman. He knew from the start he couldn't play the Drover and make extensive use of a riding or stunt double, "because the Drover is defined by what he does and the landscape he's in."

The process Jackman used to find just who the Drover was is the same he's employed for characters throughout his career: a marriage of the "outside-in" school of Olivier and the "inside-out" school of Marlon Brando.

"Australia has uniquely benefited from English tradition and has also been incredibly influenced by American style and culture," he says. Jackman thinks the freedom to pick and choose among a cultural "smorgasbord" has allowed him to develop his own attitude and methods. "You try to find the triggers you need to inhabit a character, and then, when you're confident you've found the triggers to change into that other character, you don't have the burden to live a part. And if that weren't the case, you'd very quickly get divorced - although my wife likes to say that because she married an actor, she gets to have an affair with a new man every three months."

He says the process he uses for Wolverine isn't any different. "When you have the power to do fantastical things, you have to be even more rooted to reality and to the complexity of the character. The beauty of Wolverine is that what he takes with him from his life's extreme experiences is already laid out in the comic books, which are not nearly as two-dimensional as some of them are." As a producer on X-Men Origins: Wolverine (due to open here May 1), he had the chance to hire socially conscious South African director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Renditi on), who has spoken about the series in terms of the character's existential angst (what really distinguishes a mutant from a human? Just three steel talons on each hand?), while convincing Jackman he understood the contours of "an epic journey." (David Benioff, who wrote Troy, did the script.)

But Jackman thinks none of that counts unless audiences enjoy themselves - which happens partly because they sense the actors are enjoying themselves. He recently heard Ed Harris talk about how much he loved Paul Newman, because whatever part he inhabited, "he conveyed the confidence that he knew what he was doing, and you saw from the sparkle in his eyes that he was having fun. When I play Wolverine, I want you to relate to his emotions and his pain, but I also want you to have the sense that the fellow playing Wolverine is having fun with it."

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