Hugh Jackman: Matinee idol

To movie lovers, he's the all-action hero tipped as the next James Bond. But to Broadway fans, he's the song-and-dance man with a sensitive side. No wonder we're intrigued by Hugh Jackman, says Liz Hoggard
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The Independent Culture

It's junket day in New York. Universal Studios has flown in a handful of journalists to promote its spring blockbuster - the period vampire flick Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman. It's a typically soulless affair held in a swanky Park Avenue hotel. The film is not being previewed yet, but the trailer - all three seconds of it - looks ravishing and quite bonkers. Still, it's not a lot to go on, and I'm just beginning to feel sleep-deprived when I'm ushered in to meet the Australian actor - and whoosh, the energy in the room changes.

It's junket day in New York. Universal Studios has flown in a handful of journalists to promote its spring blockbuster - the period vampire flick Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman. It's a typically soulless affair held in a swanky Park Avenue hotel. The film is not being previewed yet, but the trailer - all three seconds of it - looks ravishing and quite bonkers. Still, it's not a lot to go on, and I'm just beginning to feel sleep-deprived when I'm ushered in to meet the Australian actor - and whoosh, the energy in the room changes.

Jackman, 34, is magnetic. Antipodean sex symbols, from Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe to Guy Pearce and Heath Ledger, may be two-a-penny these days, but Jackman is widely tipped as the new James Bond. Given his ability to handle both A-list action blockbusters and light romantic comedy, he could do it. As Wolverine, the solitary fighting machine with retractable claws, he won over hard-to-please X-Men fanatics in the 2000 screen version of the comic book story (though it was the sexy sideboards that the rest of us fell for). And he retained his dignity in the not-terribly-good rom-com Kate and Leopold (2001), with Meg Ryan, by earning a Golden Globe nomination. Oh, and he can do gay, too. He is currently playing the late Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen (one-time husband of Liza Minnelli) in the hit Broadway musical, The Boy From Oz. Jackman's performance - which sees him singing, dancing on a piano and camel-riding on stage eight times a week - has drawn ecstatic reviews.

My first impression is of a tall, beautiful man dressed in jeans and a moulded black top. His feet are bare and he is wolfing down an omelette for breakfast (performing on Broadway makes him a late riser). Jackman's manner is warm and unaffected, but you sense a fierce intelligence. He trained as a journalist before switching to acting, so he understands how the celebrity interview works, the need for a scoop at any price. You'd think it would make him wary, but if anything, he says, he has compassion for the poor hack. He is quite open that he and his wife, the Australian actress Deborra-Lee Furness, spent a long time trying to adopt their son, Oscar, who's now nearly four (they forged a close tie with his biological mother and even attended the birth). And he had no issue with playing a gay character in The Boy From Oz, despite potential backlash from his X-Men fans. "If I'm meeting people, I'm not thinking about their sexuality as a defining quality. To me it's the least interesting aspect of their personality."

Jackman is impatient for a time when we can move beyond labels. "We've adopted a son who is mixed race and, of course, it doesn't mean anything to us - but we do wonder what perception people will have of him. At the moment we live in New York. But what would it be like for him growing up in Australia where there aren't so many black people? We hope that eventually - in the same way that we're talking about sexuality - we'll become a melting pot of so many different types of people that it will be beyond definition."

By the sound of it, Van Helsing, co-starring Kate Beckinsale, is a love letter to Universal's back catalogue of horror films, including Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Stephen Sommers (director of 1999 blockbuster The Mummy) was brought in to construct a 19th-century gothic romance around the enigmatic figure of Dr Gabriel Van Helsing, the vampire hunter in Dracula. Heaven knows what the film will be like but visually it promises to be a high-camp fest - the cinematographer is the renowned Allen Daviau (of ET fame), while the choreographer is from Cirque du Soleil.

During filming in Prague (which doubles as 19th-century Transylvania), Jackman became fascinated by the new political landscape of the Czech Republic. "I know people who were there in 1989, and of course now they think it's terribly passé and horribly touristy, but for me it was very exciting. The first play I ever did was The Memorandum, this absurdist play by Vaclav Havel [then the country's President]. I wrote him a letter but I never sent it because he was leaving office the week we arrived. He was going to Havana, I think, to chill out with Fidel. But I spoke to Matt Damon, who met him when he was there, and he said he was a really cool guy who knew how to live."

Jackman's favourite scene in Van Helsing was shot in the 12th-century St Nicholas Church, with 300 ballroom-dancing extras. "It was a masquerade ball and you couldn't believe these costumes. The make-up woman called me over to put the finishing touches and she said, 'You know this organ was played by Mozart?' I was like, 'What?' And there are cans of Diet Coke all over it. She takes the cover off and I'm playing the keyboard. Only in Prague. Incredible that we were even allowed to shoot in this place because as anyone who knows film crews will tell you, you never let them shoot in your house."

Jackman brings a high seriousness to every role, not least The Boy from Oz . "I live like a nun," he laughs. Dinners after the show are banned, along with coffee and sugar. "The hard thing about theatre is that level of physical, emotional and spiritual energy you've got to put out every night. I say that, but last night I saw Christopher Plummer do three and a half hours of King Lear and I felt like a complete lightweight. He's extraordinary. I felt like crying in the first five minutes. It's the first time I've heard that play done perfectly." It's significant that Jackman spent his night off at the theatre. Growing up, his heroes were British actors such as Alan Bates, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. "When I was studying, the RSC, the National, that for me was the holy grail, not Hollywood."

Jackman brings a likeable, regular-guy quality to the screen. But there is also an erotic-naive quality which directors pick up on. In the Australian hit comedy Paperback Hero (1999) he plays a macho trucker who pens a romantic novel under the nom de plume Ruby. As the heroic mutant Wolverine, he hopelessly covets Famke Janssen's sassy Jean Grey. And f even the thriller Swordfish (2001) has Jackman as a geeky computer hacker in thrall to the dominatrix charms of Halle Berry. In one scene, Berry and John Travolta force him to hack into a state computer, gun to his head, while a call girl gives him a blow job. It's an ugly moment but Jackman makes it supremely sexy. Few Hollywood actors would go there, but like Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert Downey Jr, Jackman is not afraid to show the vulnerable side of male sexuality. "I can't vouch for what people see in me, but I try to make these characters human - whether it's a superhero like Wolverine or the warrior Van Helsing. The first task of the actor is to imply a little more beneath the skin, to make them interesting. I have no real interest in acting in anything that is just cool. I couldn't do that very well."

Rumour has it he had to fight to convince his Hollywood handlers that it was worth putting his movie career on hold for over a year to do a Broadway musical - particularly to play Peter Allen. Jackman admits his first try out was way too camp. "The director said, 'Hugh, because you're straight, you're thinking you have to put something in about Peter being gay, and it's not the way to go. You've got to think of him as like a little kid who wants everything. Women found him sexy, men found him sexy.' So that really helped. It's more about letting go of any idea of what being gay is, and just being comfortable in yourself. Peter was very brave when you think where he came from - back then in the 1960s, Tenterfield would have been the most macho, down-the-line farming town. And there he was tap-dancing on the front door of his grandfather's saddle-making shop."

Jackman himself was born in Sydney to English parents in 1968, the youngest of five. His mother returned to England with his sisters when he was eight, but he refuses to attach any blame: "It helps, in a way, dealing with the transience of this business." He went to an élite all-boys prep school where he did a lot of acting, but dropped dancing when his brothers made fun of him. "I watched Billy Elliot - that kid had more guts than I did." At college he switched from journalism to drama when he became disillusioned by the idea of what he calls "death knocks", or doorstep journalism. After graduating, he turned down a role in Neighbours to do an acting course in Perth. At the age of 26, he joined the cast of prison TV series Corelli, where he met his wife.

Today the Hollywood machine may be less than thrilled that he's hitched to an Australian actress eight years his senior, but back then Deborra-Lee Furness was the big star. In 1987 she cut a memorable figure in the Australian cult film Shame, as a leather-clad avenger on a motorbike, taking on a group of young rapists. Shame was a wake-up call to Australia about domestic violence and Furness toured the States lecturing about the film. So when Jackman joined the cast of Corelli, in which Furness starred, she was out of his league. "Everyone had a crush on her," he later confided. "She was just - aaaah! - electricity." At a drunken dinner party Furness asked him why he'd been avoiding her and revealed she had a crush on him. Nine years on, American Vogue quotes Furness's close friend Nicole Kidman saying, "The thing about them as a couple is that they are so generous to each other. It's my belief that he's very lucky to have her."

In 1997 Trevor Nunn visited Sydney and saw Jackman in a production of Sunset Boulevard. Nunn invited him to London to audition for his revival of Oklahoma! at the National Theatre. Virtually penniless, Jackman and Furness were put up by Herbert Ypma, author of the Hip Hotels books, and now a close friend. Jackman was cast as Curly, the lead, and his muscular performance won him an Olivier nomination - and a reputation as a sex symbol. The producer Harvey Weinstein reportedly saw the show and roared, "I want this guy in one of my movies!"

Once he made it to Hollywood there seemed to be no stopping him. In 2002 he was one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People, and in the same year he presented an Academy Award. Yet one senses he still hasn't quite been offered the film roles he deserves. I for one think he'd be wasted as Bond. There's no big career plan, he insists. For all the comparisons with the young Clint Eastwood (even Jackman says he drew on the Dirty Harry archetype for Wolverine), he prefers the role model of Frank Sinatra, who combined films with being a song-and-dance man. It amuses him that musicals are now cool, but he says he turned down Richard Gere's role in Chicago because he felt he wasn't old enough to do it justice.

It's a good time for Jackman, but he is aware that his wife's acting career has been sidelined. I mention that, for feminists of my generation, her role in Shame is still hugely influential, making her arguably the more interesting one in the couple, and he is thrilled. Recently Furness directed the film Standing Room Only in London (they retain a family home in Pimlico) with Jackman, Michael Gambon, Andy Serkis and Sophie Dahl. "Deb's an amazing actor but I think she'll be an even better director - she's just all those qualities that don't get used in acting. She jokingly calls London the Film Prevention Society. We shot outside the Ivy restaurant, and that road dissects two councils, Camden and Westminster, which have chalk-and-cheese rules. Between certain hours you can't have a camera on either side of the street. It was a nightmare. But she did it."

What Jackman does relish about London, though, is the lack of a Hollywood star system. "It's just a community of actors. I've met Judi Dench and even at the highest level you'll find the most artistically humble people. I find it so inspiring to be around them. What I love about England is that Oklahoma! was a hit, and I was the lead in it, but there was always that feeling of" - and here he assumes the perfect English accent - "'Good job. And when you've done another 10 like that, maybe we'll start to give you a table by the window.'"

Van Helsing is released on Friday