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In Real Steel Hugh Jackman plays a dad on screen after being a real dad and experiencing its frustrations, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

The last time Hugh Jackman punched anyone was on the evening of Monday, September 19, 2011, in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a very public punch and it sent celebrated fighter Dolph Ziggler reeling. “Ziggler is an exaggerator, though,” Jackman says, “I didn’t break his jaw like he claimed,” he adds with a smile.

Sitting in a Sydney hotel room for our interview, Jackman is far from combative as he recounts the incident at the WWE wrestling event, Raw SuperShow, where Jackman was making an appearance to promote his latest film, Real Steel. “I’ve been pulling punches as an actor for 20 years, but Dolph said ‘The audience would boo you!’ Well,” says Jackman with a laugh, “you don’t expect an actor to get booed on purpose! So I hit him.”

Before he hit him, Jackman taunted Ziggler saying, “I am going to find the biggest underdog I can find, and I'm going to help him to come out here and have the upset of his life and humiliate you in a match!"

The only other times he punches anything “it’s usually something like a pillow” when he gets mad, which is not often. “I’m pretty even tempered, but kids really know how to push your buttons,” he says referring to his two adopted children, Oscar, 11, and Ava, 6.

"likeable, funny and engaging in person"

Whenever we’ve met over the years, Jackman has always appeared to be Mr Perfect: likeable, funny and engaging in person. We’ve crossed paths at a movie promotional party at a villa in the hills above Cannes, backstage after his extravagant performance as Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, and in the early days of his career, on the set of his second feature film, Paperback Hero, with co-star Claudia Karvan (written and directed by Antony J. Bowman, 1999). 

But he’s not perfect; for instance, he gets as frustrated as any dad.

Real Steel “was really good for me,” Jackman says. “It gave me a chance to say things to my on-screen son Max (played by Dakota Goyo) that I want to but wouldn’t say to my real son.” Max is not only street smart when it comes to boxing robots but wise beyond his years – and certainly more mature than his father Charlie. 

“I know people like Charlie,” says Jackman, “they’re terrible fathers. He’s given up on himself and just decided to shut down. That’s why he’s so unpleasant to Max – it’s a shield, he doesn’t want to get too close.” 

"I really liked the story; I tested it by replacing the boxing with ping pong – it stood up just as well"

Playing the struggling promoter of boxing robots, Charlie, in Real Steel is the first time Jackman has played a father on screen (other than as the voice of Memphis in Happy Feet). “I really liked the story; I tested it by replacing the boxing with ping pong – it stood up just as well. And I like the people involved.”

But selecting a film from those offered to him depends on “a gut feeling,” he says. Although he stays “in the ball park” with his physical training, he doesn’t work out like a body builder. 

He has twice happily fattened up for a role – once putting on 15 kilos – but both jobs fell through; “I didn’t mind the eating but losing it even before using it was a bit frustrating,” he confesses.

"his working career is much richer"

While most of his Australian fans see him only in his films, all in the action or thriller genres, his working career is much richer than that, he explains.

“I’m just heading back to New York to start a season of my one man show there – that’s a show I’ve been travelling around the US and Canada.” It will close on October 25, and Jackman plans to bring it Down Under after that.

Coming up after that will be filming on Les Miserables, playing Jean Valjean with Russell Crowe as his co-star Inspector Javert, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Mid-year in 2012, “after half a dozen postponements, we’ll finally start shooting the next Wolverine … based on the samurai stories in the Wolverine comic books, which we’ll make in Japan.” 

"producing as well as starring"

Jackman is again producing as well as starring in the film, which, he says, “will be amazing.”

As if we needed proof of his acting range, Jackman is also set to play iconic circus pioneer P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman on Earth, a musical celebrating the legendary showman.

He’s happily married to actress Debra Lee-Furness and has never inspired nasty gossip in the papers.

Asked if he would like to make a movie with his wife, Jackman, quick as a flash, says, “Hell yes. That’s how we met.” After graduating from a communications course majoring in journalism at UTS Sydney, he pursued drama at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. On graduation, he was offered a starring role in the ABC-TV prison drama Correlli, “where I met Debra.

"I’d love a chance to work with her again"

“She’s an incredibly exciting actress and I’d love a chance to work with her again.”

Jackman has two dozen award nominations to his credit, plus the 2010 Action Star gong at the People’s Choice Awards, a Saturn Best Actor award for X-Men, an Emmy for hosting the 2004 Tony Awards, an Australian Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor for his feature debut, Erskinville Kings – but so far, the only Oscar at home is his son. Does he aspire to win an Oscar?

“I would love to have an Oscar, but acting is not like sport. If you do it for just the money or just the awards, you won’t do well. That’s not the ultimate goal; what you aim for is doing the best work you can. But I’d really love to host the show again,” he says with a laugh.

[First published in the Sun Herald.]

Published October 5, 2011

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