Hugh Jackman: A lover and a dancer puts his dukes up

Hugh Jackman plays a boxer in his new movie, Real Steel. Gill Pringle hears how he's always been a physical kind of guy

When I first heard this movie was about robot boxing, I thought for a moment it was a fetish film," teases Hugh Jackman whose image is so wholesome that any deviant behaviour would shock his fans to the core.

But this is a Disney film we're discussing today. Real Steel is set in a near future where boxing robots have become a popular sport.

"When Steven Spielberg calls, you pay attention although it was the father-son relationship that really sold it for me. The idea that people who have made mistakes, who have regrets, can get a second chance," says the actor best known for his razor-clawed Wolverine in the X-Men series.

"But I've got to be honest – and this is not Fatherhood 101, this is bad fathering – I was reading the script just as my son was struggling to get to sleep, and called out, 'Dad, would you come in my room and read to me.' So I took the script in and he goes, 'Ah, not your boring scripts.' But he agreed to listen to a page and then asked for more. It's the first script he's ever enjoyed. He made me read it to him every night for the next 10 days, so I knew I was on to something," recalls the actor who is extraordinarily devoted to his children, Oscar, 11, and Ava, six.

"Also, I'm a big sports fan, so the robot-boxing idea fascinated me," says Jackman, who stars as a washed-up boxer whose sport has been taken over by 8ft tall steel robots.

It's an interesting premise, though Jackman personally doubts that human sports will ever become obsolete. "There's something very primal about fighting that has always been around and I think always will be. In my country, we've got rugby. There's always been some form of legalised violence, which is probably a necessity. If we don't do that, everyone would just be killing each other in the streets. I'm speaking as a man. I feel there's something about boxing, even when we're watching it, where we become primal. I've read Joseph Campbell's books. He was very interested in the topic, and thought it was a big mistake to try and get rid of it. Talking about all the moms trying to stop their kids from playing dangerous sports, he said that's the worst thing you can do because it's always been there. It's part of the DNA.

"My dad, he's English, was an army boxing champion, so I grew up hearing a lot about the sport, and then as my brother and I started beating the crap out of each other, you're hearing a lot less about boxing. But it was always taught to me as a very honourable kind of sport, not just a bloodthirsty kind of thing," says Jackman, 42, who trained for Real Steel with Sugar Ray Leonard. "Sugar Ray talked to me a lot about the loneliness of a boxer," he says. "Even if you're the champ how, in the pursuit of that goal, you can let other things slip by in life and not realise how important they are until later. He was very open about that."

Born in Sydney, the youngest in a family of five, Jackman was raised by his accountant father. While he and his siblings have since reconciled with their mother – who left the family when he was just eight years old – the young Jackman expressed his early loss by becoming something of a trouble-maker at school. "I rarely started any fights. I can't say I was out looking for a fight or bullied but I had a short fuse. But I played rugby so I got to fight a lot," says this gentle giant, who, at 6ft 2", towers over most co-stars.

Suggest that he could legally take someone's head off and he laughs. "Pretty much. I can remember often getting that Wolverine feeling of just losing it on the rugby field. Then, five minutes later, after trying to mow everybody down, you're exhausted and you're over it. It sort of worked.

"But I was way more a lover than a fighter," smiles the actor, who has long been acknowledged as the guy who puts the X-factor in the X-Men.

It wasn't until he reached adulthood that he was able to make sense of why his mother would leave. "The fact that they couldn't love each other was weird to me, growing up. As a kid, it's difficult to fathom. But once you've had a relationship that's gone bad, you slowly begin to understand it. One thing I loved so much about my Dad was that I never once heard him say a bad word about my mother and the temptation to do so must have been enormous," he says.

A life-long fan of musicals, Jackman has performed numerous times on Broadway. He won a Tony for his 2003-2004 portrayal of the Australian performer Peter Allen in the hit musical The Boy from Oz, and he also performed in Carousel. Today he's in rehearsal for a 10-week run of his own Broadway song-and-dance show, backed by an 18-piece orchestra, before he begins shooting Tom Hooper's big-screen version of Les Misérables, playing Jean Valjean to Russell Crowe's Inspector Javert in an all-star cast.

The way Jackman tells it, he was never shy about his love of musicals, even at school. "I went to an all-boys school and the musical was with the local girl's high school so everyone wanted to be at the musical. Not only was it cool, it was essential to be in a high-school musical."

Never once did he feel like he needed to justify such girlish pursuits to the rugby crowd, he says. "I think the world has changed, thankfully. If you look at a certain weird 20-30 year period in dance, Australia was probably worst than anywhere else, where men used to stand on the side with their beer in the night clubs, and the girls danced with their handbags in the middle of the circle... so that's changed a little bit. I look up to Gene Kelly and all those greats. If you go to other places in the world, for instance Argentina, and you go into those clubs, the greatest dancers are often 70-year-old men. They're the ones with the hot chicks because they can tango. They can really dance. It's a cultural thing."

Jackman originally planned on following his father into accountancy. Instead, he went on to study journalism before surprising his family by enrolling in drama at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. On graduation he was offered a starring role in the TV prison drama Correlli, where his co-star was his future wife, Deborra-Lee Furness; they've been happily married now for 15 years.

Nor does he regret the time spent studying accountancy. He only recently stopped doing his own tax returns. "I don't do them now only because I'm lucky enough to be able to pay someone to do them for me. Even accountants don't like doing taxes. But I am really good with numbers, ridiculously so. My wife calls me the most corporate actor around."

Having long made New York his home, he maintains close ties with his fellow ex-pats in Hollywood, and doesn't hesitate when asked who is his closest Australian actor friend. "My wife, of course!

"After that," he adds, "it's probably Nicole [Kidman]. We're very good friends. I'm also close with Naomi Watts and Eric Bana. But Eric never really left Australia, like the rest of us. He made the choice to work less but to travel overseas for work, sometimes alone, and then come back."

When Jackman and I met at a Beverly Hills hotel, the news channels had just flashed the Rupert Murdoch pie-throwing incident before a British select committee enquiring about hacking activities at News Corp. A long-time friend of the media mogul and his wife, Wendi Deng, Jackman recently featured in the Deng-produced movie Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. He and Nicole Kidman are also god-parents to the Murdochs' two young children.

Visibly upset by the pie attack, he said, "No one deserves that, right?"

Courageously defending his friendship with Murdoch at a time when others have jumped ship, he comments: "My family and I are very good friends with Rupert and his family. I support him as a friend and I think he's answering every question he's got. I know him to be a very honest man and I support him as a friend. I know that this is one of the hardest times of his life."

Jackman goes on to recall his own time as a journalism student. "I remember fully my ethics in journalism class, which is one of the reasons I went into acting," he laughs. "It's a very, very fine line. There is probably not any great journalist out there who hasn't crossed it at some point, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly, and it's difficult. I understand the position you're in. Often, you're asked to ask me questions where your editor has said, 'Don't come in the office without asking him about blah, blah, blah.' I understand the pressure. In journalism, we now have laws and if you break the law, you pay the price and if you don't, then that's the art – how close to the line can you get."

'Real Steel' opens on 14 October

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