Oooooof! Hugh Jackman has just been punched, squarely, in the nuts. His body crumples inward, hands instinctively headed southward to cup his groin from further attack, and his eyes, which for a brief moment cross in pain, begin to water. As he struggles to catch his breath, gulping for air, his face contorted in grimace, he raises an outstretched palm to say no more, to surrender. No más. The great Aussie action hero has been vanquished, felled by something close to the wince-inducing blow that Jackman's Wolverine delivered to the crotch of an enemy mutant in the most memorable fight scene of X-Men 3. His attacker steps back and, devoid of all mercy, lets out a long and sustained giggle. Jackman wags his head quickly, as if to shake off the pain the way a wet dog shakes off water. "No more hitting Daddy in the penis," he finally croaks.
It's a clear, crisp Sunday afternoon in Jackman's hometown of Sydney, Australia, and Jackman – along with his wife Deborra-Lee Furness, his three-year-old daughter-slash-assailant Ava, and myself – is aboard a 48-foot sailboat cutting its way across the waters of Sydney Harbor. It's a leisurely family cruise, despite my presence (Jackman's thought process: If you've got to do an interview, arrange it so that the family gets out on the water). Jackman is loose and relaxed, dressed in a lightweight cotton blue hoodie, black Converse sneakers, and a straw hat, his face darkened with a faint scruff of beard. He is tall, lean, and unfailingly polite. The caustic edge many Australian men display – a good-natured chip on the shoulder that manifests itself in conversational jousting – is absent. Jackman's casual graciousness seems more British, evoking more the native England of his parents than the rough-and-tumble ex-penal colony of his birth.
In between amusing his daughter, Jackman gives a starboard tour of the Sydney waterfront, pointing out an oddly extravagant house with a palm tree jutting through its roof ("I've been in that house. Inside, it's literally like you're in Tahiti. Kind of cheesy") as well as Nicole Kidman's expansive three-story villa. The Jackmans, he says, watched the New Year's Eve fireworks with Kidman, Jackman's co-star in the Baz Luhrmann-directed drama Australia, aboard a yacht that Sting rented for the night. With Kidman's husband Keith Urban on the guitar, "everyone got up and sang a song," Jackman says. "Then a friend who was staying with me got up and started singing 'Roxanne' a cappella," a decidedly ballsy move, it would seem, on Sting's boat. "But Sting said all right, and he got up, too." Next he points to a dazzlingly white stuccoed stone Victorian mansion planted on the coastline. "And that house, there? That's where we filmed the Darwin party scene," he says, talking about Australia.
Australia – and, by extension, Australia – has been a primary focus for Jackman since 2006, when the actor was tapped to replace countryman Russell Crowe in the leading man slot. (Crowe dropped out for financial reasons, grumbling, "I don't do charity work for major studios.") The World War II-era epic has Jackman playing a rough cowboy (or drover) who undertakes a massive cattle drive to save the ranch of a high-strung widow (that's Kidman). "He brings enormous Aussie charm to the role and this laid-back swagger, which I think hasn't been seen onscreen for a long time," gushes Kidman. "I think Baz brought something very different out of Hugh." The movie has become something of a national endeavor, not unlike the effort that went into Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, which put neighboring New Zealand on the map. But as with Australia itself, the scale of this countrywide production one-ups Jackson; Luhrmann not only filmed this down under Gone with the Wind in Australia, he filled the marquee with an entirely Aussie cast and crew and paired up with Tourism Australia so the film could be used as bait for international visitors. Then there's the title: in Australia anyway, definitely a risk. "There's some anxiety that goes with it," Jackman admits. "It better be good, right? Australians aren't going to go, 'Oh, I didn't like that,' if they didn't. No, they'll be angry. But Baz has earned the title."
And Jackman, it's fair to say, has earned the role. Or any role, for that matter, since in his 10-year film career he has played nearly every kind: the darkly obsessed magician locked in a battle to the death with Christian Bale in The Prestige; his Tony Award-winning run as the flamboyant, ultragay entertainer Peter Allen in the Broadway musical The Boy from Oz; the voice of a penguin in the animated Happy Feet; and the woolly, adamantium-clawed comic-book mutant Wolverine in the X-Men movies – an unlikely choice, as the comic books pegged the character at 5-foot-3, but special effects do work wonders.
That kind of range is the definition of the job, but Jackman, who turns 40 in October, extends his brand of Method acting to his body as well (Happy Feet excluded). Hence the nine straight months of daily yoga he practiced to pull off the lotus position for 2006's The Fountain, plus the additional three months' practice it required to be able to do it underwater – all for a movie barely anyone paid to see. (Yeah, he's heard of body doubles. Stuntmen, too. Not interested.) Or the total body transformation he achieved to play Wolverine, a feat so admired that Jackman's trainer, Vancouver-based Steve Ramsbottom, touts a "Wolverine Workout." The former gym-phobe ("I never understood why people went to the gym; I thought it was just ridiculous," Jackman says) undertook a grueling, boot camp-style routine – up to two hours of weightlifting, five days a week, screaming along with Metallica and Godsmack – at the end of which he was benching 315 pounds and sporting that comic-book-hero silhouette. Ditto for Australia, for which the naturally lean actor needed to pack on the thick muscle of an outback cattle drover.
"Hugh's amazing because he has such athleticism," says Kidman. "He could barely ride at the beginning of the film, but by the end he was a great horseman. He will make Aussie stockmen proud."
"For a year and a half I've been pretty strict on my eating," Jackman says. "The biggest change was that I was eating every three hours." He adopted the diet of an Australian bodybuilding champ who "wakes up at four in the morning, has egg whites on dry toast, then goes back to bed so he gets some food in him before he trains at 6 am."
"That was your chicken breast by the bed," Deb chimes in, from her sunlit perch at the stern of the boat. "It's just gross."
"It's pretty fine eating," Jackman says. "I got used to it. And my energy level went through the roof."
Chicken breast on the nightstand: Jackman doesn't do things half-assed. Not that he would put it that way. He is so modest he won't even take credit for being modest, chalking it up to national character. "I love the way in America people go, 'I'm good at making coffee. I'm going to make you some great coffee,'?" he says. "Here you'd say, 'Let me make you a cup of coffee,' and if someone says it's great, you go, 'Aw, I just fluked it. Usually it's crap, what I make, but I just got lucky today.'?"
He offers a variation on that theme when asked about his versatility as a performer. It's an Aussie thing, he explains. "Look at the business here in Australia," he says. "With a population of just 20 million, you can't be too fussy. You have to be able to do everything. Russell Crowe did musicals when he started in indie theater. That may be some of the reason Australian actors have done well. There's more versatility to what they can do. Plus, we have a saying here: Have a go. We don't like people who play things safe. It's not enough just to be successful. You have to take a bit of risk."
Have a go, you mug: it's as good a summation as any for Jackman's life thus far. But it's slightly misleading at the same time, because while Jackman may sometimes leap without looking, once he leaps his commitment is fervent, and possibly even (see the underwater yoga) obsessive. Don't believe him for a second when he says he just fluked it.
Jackman is the youngest of five children of Chris Jackman, an English-born accountant, and Grace Watson, who abandoned the family and moved back home to England when Hugh was eight. It was by all accounts a searing split for the young Hugh, who was suddenly a latchkey kid, left to the roughshod care of his older siblings while his father worked until 6:30 or 7 at night. Though his youth was comfortable – "I was raised in a white, leafy, Connecticut-type suburb north of Sydney with the WASPy sort of private schools," he says – it wasn't, at least to him, normal. Normalcy was what he craved, which may be why his earliest ambition was to be an accountant like his dad. "I wanted to do his job," he says. "He had a calm power about him when he was at work. He had a secretary."
As with most Australians, a sharp yearning to travel eventually set in. "Part of that is our isolation," Jackman says. Australia might be a big country, but it can feel like a small island, tucked far away from the rest of the world. If we were to turn this boat due east, we'd cover lots of blue – 7,000 miles of it – before landfall in South America.
"I used to spend nights looking at atlases," Jackman says. "I decided I wanted to be a chef on a plane. Because I'd been on a plane, and there was food onboard, so I presumed there was a chef back there. I thought that would be the ideal job." When he realized the grim reality of airline cuisine, he switched his ambitions to the ministry. "My dad was religious," he says. "He was converted by Billy Graham, and he used to take me to things like that." The teenage Jackman found something appealing about those itinerant preachers: maybe their power to spellbind a crowd, their wizardly ability to draw emotions from people, the invocatory force of their voices. "For two or three years I thought I might want to be a minister or something," he says. An accountant, a minister: Jackman was a good son, toeing the family line, headed straight for mild normalcy.
But then something happened to Hugh Jackman out in the outback. He was 19 and building homes for Aborigines as part of a Lutheran mission in Areyonga. "Throw a dart in the middle of Australia, and there it is," he says. "Very arid, very dry. Red rocks and red dust." He met a general store owner who lamented that he hadn't had a vacation in half a decade. Jackman told him to take off; he'd manage the store, have a go. And he did, for a month. "The locals loved it because I'm sure they were nicking so much stuff, and I had no idea," he says. But Jackman discovered a weird, unexpected serenity out in the faraway. "Suddenly all the things that matter to a young man, like ambition and idealism, started to melt away. All the things you thought mattered to you just go. It's the land, that feeling of being part of something natural. It feels right." By this time Jackman was in college, halfheartedly intending a career in radio journalism. He deeply considered staying in Areyonga for good, but his father urged him back to college. "But it was just to finish it off so I'd get the piece of paper," he says. "Not that I had my sights set on acting then, but there was enough quiet in my head, I suppose, for me to get an inkling of who I was."
After enrolling in a college drama class ("Everyone knew the teacher, and it was easy"), the former aspiring minister discovered acting. It didn't come as a bolt of lightning, or a burning bush, but rather a sense of challenge – the former class president and rugby player felt "like the dunce of the class, vulnerable and overwhelmed" – that, eventually, came to feel like destiny. "I decided to give it a crack," he says. He was working the front desk at a Sydney gym when Annie Semler, wife of Academy Award-winning Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, came in for a sales tour, during which she suddenly stopped and leveled an uncomfortably intense stare at Jackman. He presumed he'd just squandered the sale. "You're going to be a big star," Semler announced, with a spooky certainty. "Don't worry, it's all going to happen so fast. Listen to me, I'm a white witch."
"At the time I was thinking, Please just give me your credit card," Jackman says.
But the white witch was right. Jackman landed an agent the next day. Two weeks later he was offered a role on an Aussie soap opera. It was a plum gig, with the allure of easy money and quick fame, but to Jackman it felt too safe. He turned it down, choosing instead to hunker down for another three years of acting school. "I'd learned just enough to know how little I knew," he says.
The risk paid off. Aside from a few clunky efforts and one near miss (the Jackman-produced CBS show Viva Laughlin tanked last year after two episodes; he was passed over to play James Bond), Jackman's career arc has shot steadily upward, even as his range has veered steadily outward. "I have gone to the theater for 60-some years," famed screenwriter William Goldman wrote in Variety about Jackman's performance in the Broadway show The Boy from Oz. "I was there for Brando in '47 Streetcar. But nothing prepared me for Hugh Jackman."
Now he's headlining the biggest production to ever come out of his native country, shouldering his homeland's history and character in all its celluloid glory. Quite a go.
There's one way Jackman's not your typical Aussie. "I don't drink much," he admits. Which is his way of saying he's still a bit hungover from a weeklong guys' trip to Japan that ended just a few days earlier. The sail cruise finished, we're sitting at a table at a harborside cafe while Deb scores some coffee for us all. "I was just about to say I wanted to have an assassin," he says, "because it was right about now, this time in the afternoon, when we started drinking." He went with 11 childhood friends, inspired by the father of one who said that he'd "gone to Japan on a hot tub tour" in his 40s.
Ava is clinging to her father; she wants more tickling, and Jackman complies. He's an easy mark that way, even mid-interview. "Very hard thing to organize, with 11 40-year-old guys with their lives and wives and families and jobs. It was sort of unbelievable that we were actually there. It took me a while to get my fitness on the drinking front. There were some very fit boys on that front."
Owing to Australia's other leading men, Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson, we've come to expect a certain bad-boy mystique from Aussie actors: a penchant for fistfights, busted-up marriages, arrest records, crazy-wild binges. Jackman is the antithesis to all that. If it's perhaps too facile to see, in his devotion to family, the glint of the motherless boy who wanted only normalcy in life, it's also impossible to ignore. He at least hews to that conventional notion of normalcy: the doting father and husband, the man for the job. "I think he's from another planet," says John Palermo, Jackman's longtime friend and production partner. "You can compare him, professionally, to Kelly and Astaire and McQueen, but he doesn't have the temper or drama their lives had. He's a happily married actor who spends honest time with his children." Ask Jackman about the biggest risk he has ever taken, and the answer comes instantaneously: "Marriage, the whole family life. It's not so much a risk as a surrender, kind of like, okay, I'm jumping into the rapids."
He met Deb, an actress and director eight years his senior, on the set of Correlli, an Australian TV series they both appeared in; they were married in 1996 and, after she suffered two miscarriages, adopted their son Oscar in 2000 and Ava in 2005. Talking about them is when Jackman seems most genuinely enthusiastic; the movies are nice and all, and the karaoke with Keith Urban on Sting's yacht, that's cool, but this is when he leans in hard, this is when his eyes focus. "What you learn being married to someone is better than any classroom or anything you can study, or any job," he says. "If I didn't have Deb, I don't know if I would've kept acting. With the risks, having someone's unconditional love means you can really fall on your ass and be completely loved, even if the rest of the world chucks tomatoes at you.
"And the same with kids," he says. "Everything is exposed with kids. There's no artifice, because they see you for exactly what you are. You can't pretend. Actors can fool people about the kind of person they are. You can wear whatever mask you want to put on. But it doesn't work with kids, you know? If your career is more important than them, you're going to have hell. You see things get out of whack, out of balance, because they just mirror it back to you. To feel at the end of the day that you haven't done everything you could for your kids – none of it's worth it.
"It's going to sound like I'm coming back to my work now," he says, "but when the head of the studio saw Australia, he said, 'Mate, when your grandkids ask your kids what you did, this is the movie they'll put in.' But, see? Everything is related to the kids now. Frightening how in love with them you are. It's hard to go away, hard to do things like this. You have those little flashes of them jumping into a road and you stop breathing."
But that, Jackman knows, is the risk you take. You have a go, mate. Then you throw everything you've got into it, do whatever it takes to push through to the end. Even if it means getting punched in the nuts every now and again.