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."