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.