Hugh Jackman talks Wolverine, ‘healthy ambition’ & marriage

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Hugh Jackman is one of those exceptional human beings whose personality is endlessly good-natured and gracious. Though he admits to having been an angry young man during his teens, he found a way to channel his darker sides into his work. He even admits to having a temper, although he only shows it when his children drive him to distraction on occasion. But when he plays Wolverine, as he does for the seventh time in the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, there is no need for Hugh to put on a happy face.

“Wolverine is very determined and visceral – it’s not just anger that drives him although he obviously uses anger to his advantage,” Jackman says. “I don’t get very angry while playing him; I get more annoyed in the months leading up to the start of filming and having to go on this insane diet and training regimen in order to put on 25lbs and bulk up. You’d be angry too if you were eating 6,000 calories a day and bench-pressing 350 lbs. (Smiles)”

Jackman returns to the big screen as Logan/Wolverine in X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer and co-starring Michael Fassbender as Eric Lehnsherr (the young Magneto) and James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier. The film is the highly anticipated follow-up to the 2011 film, X-Men: First Class, which first introduced audiences to the younger versions of the future X-Men selves. The star-studded cast includes Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage and Omar Sy.

The 45-year-old Jackman lives most of the year in New York with his wife and fellow Aussie, former actress Deborra-Lee Furness, and their two adopted children, Oscar, 13, and Ava, 8.

In person, Jackman is the most amiable man alive. Though he claims to “hate chicken” because of his usual high-protein diet of five chicken breast per day, Hugh still likes to get up at dawn each day to do 45-minute workout sessions that help him maintain his fabulous physique. For our chat in a downtown Toronto hotel, Hugh was wearing a bright blue linen shirt and black pants and looking slightly bleary-eyed.

Together: This will be your seventh time around as Wolverine. Is it time to hang up the steel claws?

Jackman: I have the feeling that there isn’t much more left to explore with Wolverine and that he’s had a good run. But it’s a character I’ve loved coming back to, and if there’s a good story left to be told, I’d be willing to step back into the role again. Some people might think that you get tired of playing the same character, but I honestly enjoy playing Wolverine more now than I first did because I feel I have a better understanding of what I need to do justice to the character and that’s been very satisfying to me.

Is it enjoyable to get to revisit your friendships with the other X-Men actors?

That’s one of the best feelings you can have as an actor when you get to work with people you’ve developed friendships with in the past. It feels like a wonderful reunion the first few weeks you’re back on the set with the other actors, and we had a very good time shooting this film. I’m immensely grateful to have the chance to be part of these films, and I will always remember that Wolverine was my first big role in America.

What can we expect from this latest installment of the X-Men?

The stakes are much higher now and probably as high as they can get. This is the greatest threat that all the X-Men are facing, and it’s a truly epic tale. What makes things more interesting is being able to combine both X-Men worlds, and audiences will be fascinated by that as well as by the overall scope of the story.

Does playing Wolverine take any toll on you psychologically?

No, I don’t go back to my hotel at night looking for a fight or anything like that. (Laughs) Prisoners, for example, was much more stressful for me because my character in that film was functioning at such a high level of tension and rage that it would wear me down. I’m very comfortable playing Wolverine although my body is pretty beaten up by the end of the shoot. That’s why I don’t know how long I can carry on in the role.

You’ve admitted to having accomplished a lot of your acting goals after playing in Les Miserables. What worlds do you have left to conquer?

Oh, quite a few I hope. I’m looking to push myself further in the coming years. I feel much more confident about my work now than I did ten or even five years ago, and I want to play many different kinds of characters. I’m ready to challenge myself in ways that I wasn’t prepared or willing to do before and that’s kind of exciting for me. My wife thinks I have a strange fixation on wanting to keep inventing some sort of new mountain to climb, and I have to keep assuring her that it’s just healthy ambition!

Where do you think your drive and ambition come from?

My father. When I look back and think about how he was able to look after my brothers and I after our mum left. It’s staggering to imagine how he dealt with having a very important job and then being able to have the energy and willingness to be there for us. Whatever strength of character and determination I have in life I get from Chris (Jackman calls his father by his first name).

He wasn’t the most giving man, emotionally, although that was his nature more than anything else, and he also probably needed to be as quietly strong as he could in order to handle the stress. I come close to losing my temper with my own kids for a lot less trouble than my brothers and I caused in the house. My father had to basically look after five kids on his own for several years (until he remarried – ED).

When I think about all that, it’s given me an even greater sense of admiration and respect for my father. I could never have coped the way he did, and every day I spend with my wife Deb at home makes me feel very grateful that I have a beautiful and caring wife with whom I can share the parenting duties. I’m a much better father simply because I have Deb alongside me.

So many marriages, especially celebrity marriages, seem to break down over time. Are you surprised at how well your marriage has evolved over the years?

I think when you have a good feeling about someone and then everything that happens after that meets or even exceeds what you expected, then you never look back. We have this very beautiful and natural way of being together that has made it very easy for us to be together and enjoy our lives together. I can’t imagine my life without Deb. I would never have come this far either emotionally or creatively.

Your wife was already a big star when you got a part and started working together (in 1995) on the Australian TV series Corelli. What was your first meeting like?

We met in the car that was driving us to set that day. We lived nearby and so she was already sitting in the front seat, with her sunglasses on and looking very, very good, when the car came by my place to pick me up. At one point she turned around and got up on her knees, pulled down her sunglasses, and said, “Hi, I’m Deborra-Lee. Nice to meet you.” I remember thinking how cool that was. I loved the way she did that. I loved the sunglasses, all that.

So it was love at first sight?

(Laughs) We were very attracted to each other from the start. It was a situation where it seemed so ridiculous and clichéd and embarrassing and infantile, the whole thing where this was my first big acting job and here I am falling in love with the leading lady.

A year later we were married and later we made the move to New York when I was getting offers to work in the U.S. and it’s been an incredible adventure for us and our children.

Has it been hard to insulate your children from the kind of fame and fortune that you enjoy as an actor?

I’ve tried to teach my children to have respect for people and to be aware that the privileges they enjoy and security they have is something they should be very grateful for. I’ve been very lucky as an actor to have enjoyed the kind of success that I’ve had and that our family has been blessed to have material security and not have to worry about paying bills. My kids have been taught to appreciate those things and they understand the importance of studying hard and learning to stand on their own feet.

You seem to be eternally good-natured. Do you ever get down on yourself?

I can’t say I’ve ever been depressed. I did go through one week of stage fright in the middle of performing The Boy from Oz (his one-man show about the life of Aussie singer-dancer Peter Allen) in 2004 where it crept up on me one night. My voice had cracked on one note and then the next night it really cracked. And for the next week I was very anxious whenever that moment in the show would arrive and I cracked every night on the same note and it became more and more terrifying.

I was resigned that I was going to have to go to therapy about it, but then, all of a sudden, on the very last show, I remembered the 101 principle of acting: “It’s not about you!”

I was singing a song about Judy Garland and all of a sudden I was freed up, and I felt my breath returning and all that anxiety began to disappear. I was literally on stage crying. It was the most inappropriate moment to cry, but it was like this release of fear. It was one week of my life, but about as bad as it could have gotten.

Does marriage signify something more important to you than what people who don’t have strong faith or principles might believe?

I can’t speak for other people. Marriage is a leap of faith you take, but it’s also an incredible experience because you’re going to learn so much more about yourself and about life by being with one person and sharing your life that way. And having kids extends that process because you need to be so open and honest with your children. They see who you really are, and so you learn to enjoy being completely natural and at ease with them. Your children force you to be absolutely real and present.

What do you enjoy most about being a father?

I love making pancakes for them on Sundays. When I’m at home, I love taking my kids to school for lunch, I love meeting them for lunch sometimes, and I also love being able to pick them up after school.

I also help them with their homework, things like that. We play monopoly, football – it’s so much fun for me to be able to have that kind of closeness to my kids. Even though kids can be hard work at times, there’s nothing more beautiful than being part of their lives and seeing that they’re happy.